Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Movie Review

Movie Review: Julian Fellowes's Separate Lies: Precisely

In the movies, thoroughly imagined works of naturalism are as rare as truly devastating-consolatory works of tragedy. A superficially naturalistic handling is so common, however, that romance, comedy, and melodrama are more often than not discussed in terms appropriate to naturalism. People commonly talk about the heroes of romance as if they, too, were people, when, in truth, a romance hero's solely meaningful motivation is to champion good against evil. Although such evil is often cloaked in a contemporary issue, it needn't be, and almost never is, naturalistically depicted. The structure and aims of romance thus make that genre readily translatable from context to context (country, period, topic).

By contrast, a naturalistic story is rooted in its specific, material context and reaches for a far more modest and scrupulously craftsmanlike end: What would these recognizable characters plausibly do in this situation that they have believably got themselves into? Other genres can be handled naturalistically, and naturalism can incorporate elements of other genres, but when a work is as palpably built up from acute observation as Julian Fellowes's Separate Lies (or John Curran's We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004) or Bo Goldman and Alan Parker's Shoot the Moon (1982)), you're responding to what naturalism brings to narrative. You can feel your brain being called to attend to every word, gesture, interaction, object, setting, for the significance they carry in themselves.

Fellowes has updated Nigel Balchin's 1950 novel A Way Through the Wood: James Manning (Tom Wilkinson), a successful London solicitor, suspects that Bill Bule (Rupert Everett), a nobleman who lives near Manning's country getaway, is the unknown person who struck the husband of Manning's housekeeper Maggie (Linda Bassett) with his Land Rover. It's a bit sticky because at the time of the accident Bule would have been en route to a party given by Manning's wife Anne (Emily Watson). But James, man of principle, gets Bule to admit his responsibility over lunch and then presses him to turn himself into the police. (Principle does not, however, suggest to James that he need visit the fatally wounded man in the hospital; Anne has to drag him.) James adopts an unbending moral stance when he tells Anne about his lunch with Bule, but in this conversation with his wife he finds out details about the accident that he would rather not have known. High-minded as James is—a "boy scout," in Bule's words—he immediately reverses course and wants to cover the incident up. But it's too late: he has stirred up Anne's moral sensibilities, though in a less straightforward way than he envisioned, and the cracks in their marriage become fissures.

Separate Lies is, first of all, a completely convincing portrait of a functioning comfortless marriage. Anne has always felt she can't measure up to James's expectations, and we can see, as Anne herself can, that she is not particularly accomplished at running his households. She might fare better but James's supervision undermines her confidence, and then when she inevitably falls short he steps in and "manages" her as if she were an employee. (One much less efficient than his secretary.) Anne may in some social sense be raised in importance by having a powerful husband who can afford choice property, but her spirit is lowered by his nitpicking. In addition, James doesn't particularly want to socialize after working all day all week, which too often puts Anne in the position of having no one but her hypercritical husband for company.

Though Anne is the one who gets James, Bule, and herself in all the trouble, and is unfaithful besides, she's the only one of the three who has a plain and natural desire to tell the truth. She's isn't "practical," in the sense of being inured to moral compromise; she isn't concerned about picking and choosing among the consequences of her actions. James is the one who at first insists on doing the right thing, until doing so means unpleasant consequences for himself. Even Bule, so morally lax he's nearly horizontal—literally, in Everett's amusingly marble-mouthed performance—doesn't try to hide his base motives nearly as much as James ends up doing. James is the wronged party, innocent of injurious behavior, and yet all the hypocrisy ends up on his side. There's nothing objectively wrong with James and yet it's nearly impossible to warm to him, which offers a much cleaner experience of identification with character than is usual. (There's no complacency in Fellowes's writing of the character or in Wilkinson's amazing performance.) Finally, the trouble resolves itself not through James's maneuvering but through a remarkable act of generosity in recompense for Anne's much-evidenced compassion. As Maggie, Bassett is flawless in her few, key scenes leading up to this turn. (Bassett also delivers one of the movie's most memorable replies, to James—"There's a Londoner talking!"—which underlines the importance of context here.)

Structurally, with James uncovering more of the mystery than he can assimilate happily, Separate Lies bears a resemblance to Oedipus Rex, though when James learns the truth he is not pressed forward through agony to universal revelation to anything like the same degree. Fellowes keeps everything on a human scale. And though the crux of the story and the depiction of the upper-class country set bears some resemblance to both F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, the movie doesn't set its fallible characters up as representatives of some larger spiritual problem. Anne, for her part, is not like Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan, who is measured against the protagonist's impossible, romantic ideal. Nor is she like Waugh's Brenda Last, or later Virginia Troy in the Sword of Honour Trilogy, women who allegorically represent the spiritual blindness of the men they marry and betray. (Virginia, pregnant and broke and hoping to snag her Catholic ex-husband in London in late 1943, complains to him, "I've had a dreary war so far. I almost wish I'd stayed in America. It all seemed such fun at first, but it didn't last.")

On the contrary, Emily Watson's strength as Anne is her ordinariness, both in her moral slips and her need to confess them. Anne is not a great embattled heroine but a woman whose husband expects something out of the ordinary that just isn't in her. The movie doesn't justify her romantic escapades on this basis, or ask us to share her ecstasies, but neither does it villainize her. Watson inspiredly gives Anne both childlike docility and childlike secretiveness; her pug-nosed prettiness is somehow incomplete. Then, as the character comes more and more into the open, Watson gives you a sense of some instinctive interplay between instability and stability in Anne. It's always much clearer what she's moving away from than what she's moving towards; she doesn't understand what she's doing herself, any more than her husband does. The writing, and Watson's performance, are so pointed and precise they achieve a small miracle: Anne is believable as a character because her motives elude you, as the motives of the confounding people you meet in life elude you. By the end, however, it appears that the interconnected disasters she set off, plus one she's not responsible for, have surprisingly helped her grow up.

Wilkinson has the more understandable character. James is a highly civilized and rational man—that's why he criticizes Anne, because he wants her to do better. Like many another overeducated fool, he imagines that life can be brought up to the mark by application of principles and relentless monitoring. At the same time, although James believes he's reacting to what other people have set in motion, it all seems to land in his lap. He thus suffers in confusion, because he can't grasp the problem, though all his habits of problem-solving would be useless even if he could. (They are, in fact, central to the problem.) Is there anything more difficult than negotiating with yourself to want something less that you want a lot?

Wilkinson shows enormous power as James, but it's scaled to a high-priced corporate attorney. Again, the precision, the refusal to overstate the magnitude of the characters and situations, is immaculate without being fussy or limiting. This is full-bodied acting without the self-important excess of an actor overreaching for the tragic. Wilkinson does have the saturnine bulk of actors such as Albert Finney and Danny Aiello, particularly when he's drunk and bitter, but the heaviness of spirit is all James's. Wilkinson effects as translucent a representation of turbid emotions as you could ask for. And though he is not showing off, his range is stunning. In that brief, glowering drunk scene, for instance, you hear reverberations of the legendary male voices of the English theater. And at the other end of the scale, when Anne hopefully says that not all cancer victims die, and James replies out of his newly reduced expectations, "Yes, they do," Wilkinson's morbidity is so wittily understated the entire audience laughed out loud.

This is Fellowes's directorial debut, and it's hard to believe this textured, supple drama is the work of the man who wrote the scripts for Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001) and Mira Nair's Vanity Fair (2004). Vanity Fair, which turns Thackeray's irony into feminist romance, is among the worst botches of literary genre in movie history. As for Gosford Park, the murder mystery it's built around trivializes its pretensions to being a masters-and-servants epic (the weak, anachronistic theatrical in-jokes about the American actor researching his role in a Charlie Chan picture don't help), and its view of those relationships is dismally narrow. The difference among Maggie's relationships with the three main characters in Separate Lies shows what's missing from Gosford Park—the sense that while rigid class lines may separate the English upper classes and their servants, they nonetheless live on terms of intimacy and there is, of course, a wide range of responses within that system. The fundamentally humorless, melodramatic-socialist view of class in Gosford Park is like English country life glimpsed through an iron curtain. (By shaping the miserable revelation of abuse and exploitation to the contrivances of a detective story, Fellowes's script misses the wallop of the mistress-and-servant relationship handled naturalistically by the Goncourts in Germinie Lacerteux.)

There are certain gaps in the storytelling in Separate Lies. It isn't necessarily clear, for example, why Anne married James in the first place, though we see enough to base speculation on (and naturalism is the one genre in which it can make sense to talk about the characters' lives outside what we're told and shown as if they were people). You could also say that James's final transition to acceptance, while not implausible, isn't generated by any action that we see. But these are nothings compared to Fellowes's accomplishment. The material is strictly commonplace—the makings of an episode of a TV detective series—which is always a pitfall for recreations of middle-class life. But Fellowes is so committed to the artistic means of naturalism, and so judicious, that his work is absorbing in a way that movies of broader scope almost never are.

A bit of catnip: Rupert Everett is highly entertaining here despite whatever it is he paid to have done to his face. Click here for before-and-after photos.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Movie Review

Movie Review: Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani: One False Step

Tony Takitani (Issei Ogata) is a successful illustrator prized for his minutely accurate renderings of machinery. He lives a highly controlled life, so involved in his work—a form of artistic practice that seems to provide some of the psychological benefits of occupational therapy—that he doesn't really notice he's lonely. (He sees his father, a jazz trombonist who survived imprisonment in China during World War II, every few years.) One day Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), a polite, well-dressed young woman, comes to pick up finished work for a client, and Tony, taken with her sense of style, starts dating her. Tony proposes marriage, which she accepts after he talks her into jilting her fiancé.

But there's trouble ahead: on their first date Tony compliments Eiko on the way she inhabits her clothes, and she tells him that she loves clothes because they seem to fill an emptiness inside. The story that follows is a trim (75 minutes) allegorical romance of temptation. Tony has composed a tranquil but somehow not fully satisfying life for himself; he chooses Eiko to complete that life despite the fact that she herself tells him of the void that will eventually make their marriage impossible. Heedlessly drawn to Eiko nevertheless, Tony takes a step onto spiritually hollow ground and falls through, and keeps on falling. That's what this kind of ironic protagonist does, from Adam on down through the susceptible men played by Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel (1930), Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944), Pierre Blanchar in La Symphonie pastorale (1946), Laurence Olivier in Carrie (1952), Masayuki Mori in Ugetsu (1953), Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972), and Woody Harrelson in Palmetto (1998). (These fallen characters land near, on, or over the border between irony and tragedy.)

At the same time, Tony Takitani is an unusual allegory about a man who loses his head for a woman because Tony doesn't lose it in the usual way—Eiko's allure for him is aesthetic rather than sexual. Tony, who spends his days hunched over detailed drawings of inanimate objects, sometimes wearing a surgeon's mask as he airbrushes, represents the urge to shape your life, to make it into an unsurprising, graceful thing. The narrative is constructed to show that when such a character exposes himself to wider experience, his carefulness will prove to have left him totally unprepared for the messiness he encounters, in this case Eiko's compulsive urges and his own unresolvable reactions to them. And his equilibrium can't be restored, even after the cause of all the messiness is gone.

Though the story ends in anguished bafflement, director Jun Ichikawa, who also adapted Haruki Murakami's book, exerts as even an aesthetic control over this production as Tony does over his drawings—nothing is permitted to mess it up. The story is related to us by a narrator rather than in dialogue; at times the narration passes from the narrator to the characters for a short phrase and then back, and while this technique is smooth it makes you aware of how thoroughly planned the movie is. Many of the transitions between narrated scenes are accomplished by wipes from right to left, as if the narrator were turning pages in a book, i.e., something already written, not happening in front of your eyes. In addition, the palette is muted so that everything has a grayish cast. It might be called "elegant" gray rather than "drab" gray, but it underlines the general containment of the movie.

As for Eiko's clothes, which are central to the narrative, they're gorgeous but we're not meant to be tempted by them. (This movie couldn't be farther from a clothes-horse picture like George Cukor's The Women (1939), with its centerpiece Technicolor fashion show.) In the sequence that establishes Eiko's shopping mania, the camera is often at ankle level as she traipses from one high-end boutique to another, which conveys her compulsiveness more than the physical qualities that she treasures the clothing for. (This also keeps the movie from scolding about materialism, which is a plus.) After Eiko is gone, leaving Tony alone with her wardrobe, the camera scans down a line of jackets but only a few square inches of fabric come into focus at a time. It's the blurred vision of regret rather than of longing, and altogether Ichikawa's visual approach—with the lulling wipes from scene to scene and interpolated shots of water and sky—keeps things very cool.

Some people may complain that this puts a damper on the emotions, while others, projecting onto the material more than Ichikawa's handling asks them to, may be stirred intensely. I think both reactions would be beside the point. Being asked to "like" the characters and to feel what they feel is not the only way, or necessarily the most interesting way, that narrative artists engage us. Tony Takitani is an allegory, which as a genre does not express psychology or emotion in the straightforwardly representational way that naturalism does. Allegory functions fully by presenting an intricately structured idea about psychology; Tony represents an aspect of personality and the narrative dramatizes an idea about that aspect. In this scheme Eiko is not Tony's wife so much as a personification of the kind of temptation capable of seducing the qualities of character that Tony for his part personifies. (Among allegorical works, this abstract-functional role for the seductress is nowhere clearer than in Tannhäuser, in which the protagonist loses the devout Christian maiden because of his dalliance with Venus, the pagan goddess of love, in the flesh.)

All the same, it would have been possible to respect the allegory and still make it more extroverted. This could have been done by building up the contrasting characters of Tony's father (also played by Ogata) and Hisako (also played by Miyazawa), a young woman Tony hires to wear Eiko's clothes after she's gone, to suggest more pointedly what Tony has excluded from his experience. It could also have been done, alternatively or at the same time, by playing into the irony and making it funny. Tony is, after all, a fool, for not grasping Eiko's character and even more so for not knowing himself better. The crack-up of a control freak is often taken to have something inherently comic in it (e.g., Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940), Jeff Daniels in Something Wild (1986), Julianne Moore in Laws of Attraction (2004), etc.) because it's the means by which the protagonist is called, despite himself, to take part in the ongoing regeneration of human society. It's comic unless you regret the passing of the life the uptight protagonist gives up. In this sense Tony's story is decidedly not comic—not once he misses the opportunity to connect with Hisako.

Ichikawa has chosen to keep Tony what he is at the start, someone who can't learn from his experience and move forward. But it doesn't follow from this choice that we should be sad just because Tony is. One of the wonderful qualities of allegory is a certain objectivity about the material. In this regard it was a fundamental mistake for Trevor Nunn to play for pathos the expulsion of Malvolio from the happy company at the end of his adaptation of Twelfth Night (1996); the allegory requires he go. The intricacy and complexity come, rather, when Olivia sends after Malvolio, also as the allegory requires. At the end of Tony Takitani, when the protagonist is sobbing on the couch with his head turned away from us, it would not be an out-and-out mistake, but it would be literal-minded, you might even say arbitrary, to expect us to sorrow along with him. We can understand the depicted emotion, but are we supposed to be wishing Eiko back, or Tony's lonely life before her? As the movie's use of narration and its visual program make clear, Ichikawa does maintain a degree of objectivity. He does not, however, take advantage of this objectivity to give the allegory a more complex resonance.

Although the allegory feels deliberately restricted to a narrow, bleak range, Ichikawa does not treat it as a heavy form. His work here tells a tale, but his style has more of the qualities of lyric. Finally, however, there's something a mite too delicate about the depiction of Tony enclosed in his misery. Ichikawa is far too fastidious to go in for spell-it-out histrionics, and his work is not as numbing as the work of other super-refined masters of desolation. In other words, he's not the Woody Allen of Interiors (1978) or the Michelangelo Antonioni of Eclipse (1962) and Red Desert (1964). All the same, Tony Takitani does similarly lack variety of tone and incident. In its way, this fancy funk of a movie is as consciously designed and as limited an "object" as Tony's life before Eiko; it's as beautiful, but also as slight, as Eiko herself.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Movie Quote of the Day:
“We're on a blind date with destiny -- and it looks like she's ordered the lobster."
~ Mystery Men

Song of the Day:
The White Stripes, "Seven Nation Army"

Happy Birthday:
Angela Lansbury
John Mayer
Eugene O'Neill
Tim Robbins
Noah Webster
Oscar Wilde
Fifty-seven percent of American women think they have sensitive skin. The NYT tells them, "Face it, Princess, your skin is probably quite common."

[M]ost women who think they have sensitive skin really do not. And for the small minority - an estimated 2 percent of women - who have what doctors describe as "sensitive skin syndrome," even some of the niche products are too harsh.

"Everybody thinks they have sensitive skin," said Rose Motta, a skin care specialist at the Clarins counter at Saks. "The idea of having sensitive skin is a kind of status symbol that means they think their skin is unique or especially delicate."
Products marketed for sensitive skin are a $900 million business.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Lyric of the Day:
"I love you; is that okay?"
Natasha Bedingfield, "These Words"

Happy Birthday:
Nancy Kerrigan
Jerry Rice
Paul Simon
Margaret Thatcher
My first wish-I-had-TimesSelect moment! David Brooks' column on Harriet Miers in today's NYT would be big news, if only anybody could read it. Lexis comes through:

I don't know if by mere quotation I can fully convey the relentless march of vapid abstractions that mark Miers's prose. Nearly every idea is vague and depersonalized. Nearly every debatable point is elided. ...she presents no arguments or ideas, except the repetition of the bromide that bad things can be eliminated if people of good will come together to eliminate bad things.
In other news, Miers might be a suck-up, but maybe not the first?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Movie Review

The Constant Gardener and Lord of War: No Evidence

Spoilers Ahead: Proceed With Caution

The Constant Gardener

The Constant Gardener, adapted from the literary thriller by John le Carré, is the most idiotic and irritating political melodrama since Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004). Although a straightforwardly crusading effort, The Constant Gardener is no more to be taken seriously than the Harrison Ford suspense blockbuster The Fugitive (1993), in which the wife of a similarly mild-mannered protagonist is also murdered for reasons having to do with the testing of new product by a pharmaceutical company. By figuring out who killed their wives, both the constant gardener and the fugitive turn into traditional truth-seeking romance heroes.

The Fugitive is an uncomplicated, if lumbering, melodrama in which the hero's best friend and colleague (Jeroen Krabbé) is unmasked as the man who has suppressed negative trial results in order to bring a problematic drug to market and then framed the hero for his wife's murder to prevent exposure. It's a dopey premise: apparently the villain thinks he'll get richer faster by rushing past bad results, but at the expense, surely, of exposing the company and himself to potentially ruinous liability. In any case, the moviemakers did not imagine they were making an important statement about pharmaceutical companies and so had the good sense to include lots of action high points and to build up the role of the U.S. marshal chasing the hero so that in the role Tommy Lee Jones could entertain even those bored by the story.

By contrast, The Constant Gardener is intended as an impassioned indictment of the testing of drugs on poor Africans—in order to receive any medical attention at all they have to "consent" to treatment with unproven drugs, some of which have lethal side-effects. The pharmaceutical companies aren't working alone, however, but in collusion with the diplomatic wing of the British government and the enforcement power of the Kenyan government. The key to the political inflation of the melodrama is the fact that the wife is not just an unfortunate bystander, as in The Fugitive, she's an activist working to expose the nefarious doings of all parties.

John Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a diplomat who is quaintly obsessive about gardening, meets his wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) in London when he gives a speech in the stead of his higher-up and she stands and delivers a rambling, cliché-filled rant against the current Iraq war. Tessa's grandstanding is of a kind I've witnessed countless times in my bicoastal academic career—the party may see herself as Joan of Arc but it's hard to imagine what she thinks she's accomplishing. Tessa is somewhat abashed afterwards, but then later, once she has married Quayle and followed him to his post in Kenya, she purposely asks embarrassing questions of one of the conspirators at a cocktail party and it's clear the movie considers her heroic. Tessa is, in fact, the model after which Quayle, awakened by her murder, remakes himself into a hero, and the allegorical structure of the movie is designed to tell those concerned about the state of the world to lift their gazes above their own little gardens, to stop quailing and being diplomatic and to speak up, anywhere, everywhere. Whether or not doing so could conceivably have any effect, I presume.

The movie can't be considered a guidebook on how to expose drug companies' bad behavior because for the most part all Tessa does is speak up. She does write a report as well but then, like the kind of fool the melodrama requires her to be, she doesn't publish it but seduces one dirty guy into sending it on to one of the top guys in the conspiracy. (How valuable can her report have been if she didn't even figure out who was involved in the evildoing? We can't judge because the movie doesn't risk boring us with its contents.) Tessa does not form an organization, and you have to wonder, Why should a businessman or politician respond to what every overheated person says to him at a cocktail party or in a "report"? They would in this instance, of course, if they had the privilege we have of seeing the holy light of truth shining off Tessa. But they're benighted and so Quayle takes up Tessa's sword against them and becomes a man, not in realistically contemporary terms but in the venerable terms of chivalric romance.

Romance has its allure, of course, and this is certainly seasoned entertainment, with the bouquet of civilized moral rot that le Carré took over from Graham Greene. But the ambitions overfreight the story and the actors practically grunt with the effort of making it all at once judiciously novelistic, overripely sexy, throbbingly romantic, and morally exalted. The political ambitions of le Carré and director Fernando Meirelles are quite insistent, but the story feels like a story, not like the truth—it's both far-fetched and predictable. For instance, governments and corporations in The Constant Gardener operate with nightmarishly perfect synchronization. They not only hold together a coalition to work out the hitches in a potential blockbuster drug on the "expendable" population of sub-Saharan Africa, but when Quayle starts investigating his wife's murder they track him down no matter where he goes in five countries on two continents, even using a fake passport. They know, they see, they arrive. (And he, with his own convenient foolishness to match his late wife's, enters his German hotel room even though he hears a TV set playing that he hadn't left on.) The paranoia isn't even stimulating as it was in The Bourne Supremacy, for example, because the makers don't think of themselves as paranoid. The sex and action are bait for the politics; you are not really supposed to be having fun at this movie.

The Constant Gardener at least has the advantage of Meirelles's distinctive temperament. He has a photographer's eye but throws spectacularly "grabbed" shots on the screen in jaggedly rhythmed series and at times gets this art-house entertainment beyond the museum-quality pictorialness of David Lean's or Anthony Minghella's big-literary projects. In this 15 September 2005 CNN.com article, Meirelles says that he and his longtime cinematographer César Charlone never storyboard their scenes, preferring to shoot them on the go with a small, handheld camera. Meirelles gets the virtue of this method just right: "The camera is never in the perfect position, and I think this is what keeps this feeling of reality. The frame is not perfect." Meirelles and Charlone's imagery shows the world through the eyes of men so agitated by what they're seeing that they couldn't find words for all that the images mean to them and yet you get it—a direct jolt of visual expressiveness from their retinas to your brain.

It's a style peculiarly suited to Meirelles's international breakthrough City of God (2002) in which the seductiveness of criminality for the teeming hordes of poor children in Rio de Janeiro practically unseats your reason. How can you live in a world in which this goes on, decade after decade after decade? The formal exhilaration of Meirelles's imagery gives you some perspective on these structureless lives tending inevitably downward, and because photography provides a way out of poverty and crime for the young hero (as it does for the kids in the documentary Born Into Brothels (2004)), the movie suggests the power of vision.

Finally, however, City of God is more like a Warner Brothers gangster movie such as The Public Enemy (1931) that show you hoods headily rushing down the slide to hell than it is like the full-grained neorealism of Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine (1946). City of God is even more brutally matter-of-fact about the pleasures of sociopathic self-assertion than a Cagney picture, and it has a destabilizing aesthetic excitement that the American gangster movies of the '30s lack, and none of the unconvincing piety of Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), for instance. But Meirelles is almost too excited—his script can't quite account for the thrill he's transmitting to us with his depiction of these deplorable situations. (Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990) has a similar disconnect.) The events in City of God have been shaped on the outside but not on the inside.

Meirelles's style is a robust but crude expressionism, which in The Constant Gardener is best suited to the scenes set, and shot, in Kibera, the Kenyan slum that Tessa visits with a native doctor. (She peculiarly insists on giving birth in the hospital that serves the slumdwellers, as if to say, "If it's good enough for the locals it's good enough for me," though the moviemakers clearly think it isn't good enough for anybody.) Unfortunately, in the rest of The Constant Gardener Meirelles's style is noticeable in less meaningful ways. For instance, he shoots the preparation of a banquet meal the way another director might shoot a mortar attack and Tessa and Quayle's initial sex scene could function as a parody of certain perfume ads. The sequencing of remarkable shots is intentionally nerve-jangling, but it can also be "lush." Although certain stretches of metallically discolored mud are the site of two murders, the way they're filmed makes you want to ask your travel agent about them.

The Issues

Generally I prefer to discuss a movie in aesthetic terms—narrative structure, acting styles, visuals—i.e., the area of a critic's competence. It feels sort of ridiculous to set my soapbox down next to le Carré's and Meirelles's and try to shout them down, but I'd like to explain that while their reliance on narrative formulas reduces le Carré's intended political message to pulp, the message itself is flawed.

The problem with what we see going on in the African clinics in The Constant Gardener is the lack of consent by the test subjects, but objections to the pharmaceuticals arise from their profits. In his 24 December 2000 Sunday Times (London) commentary upon the publication of le Carré's book, Andrew Sullivan wrote, "The fact that Big Pharma doesn't give away the products of its research for free, or without profit, is [taken by its critics to be] the ultimate sign of its evil. And the profit motive, according le Carré, has all but corrupted the very basic principles of medical practice across the globe." (One irony, according to Ronald Bailey's defense of the pharmaceutical industry in the April 2001 issue of ReasonOnline: in 1999 drug companies spent $13.9 billion on advertising and promotion, half of which was for drug samples that doctors gave to patients for free. In this article from the 16 December 2004 San Diego Union-Tribune Doug Bandow puts samples as 2/3 of marketing expenses.)

As one character says in the movie, the drug companies never do anything except for profit, which is indisputable, but what the critics of the industry don't understand is that if the drug companies ignore profits, by permitting generic copies of their drugs before the expiration of their patents, or by selling their drugs at cost, they will not be able to finance the research and development necessary to produce the drugs that they're supposed to be giving away. As the Tax Court laid out the economics in its opinion in Eli Lilly & Co. v. Comm'r, 84 T.C. 996, 1160-61 (1985), "Pharmaceutical companies rely for their long-range survival on the research and development of new chemical products as well as on the maintenance and upgrading of their existing patents. The time and cost of inventing and developing new drugs and testing them in order to receive FDA approval to market them is a complex, risky, and expensive process. A pharmaceutical company must fund that process through the revenues of its successfully marketed products." And we want a constant flow of new drugs, which tend to be better than older ones. According to Bandow in this 8 May 2003 Policy Analysis (No. 475), Columbia University economist Frank Lichtenberg concluded in National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 8147 (March 2001) "that replacing 1,000 prescriptions for older drugs with 1,000 prescriptions for newer drugs would increase drug costs by $18,000 but slash hospital costs by at least $44,000."

In his review in the 17 September 2005 New Republic Online, that eternal numbnuts Stanley Kauffmann connects the dots: he reports that before the release of The Constant Gardener a pharmaceutical industry representative sent movie reviewers an e-mail saying, among other things, that "from 1998 to 2003, the pharmaceutical industry donated $4.1 billion … to improve global health," to which Kauffmann retorts, "The email says nothing about the prices of drugs that made those billions available." Kauffmann is perhaps one of the "many people" who, in Bandow's words, "appear to believe that pharmaceuticals fall from the sky rather like manna from heaven. In their view, employees of the evil drug companies got up before anyone else and grabbed the manna, and then sold it at outrageous prices."

The underlying issue is one of intellectual property, which, in relevant part, operates in the pharmaceutical industry just as it operates in the arts. Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The resulting patent rights and copyrights exist not primarily to make money for inventors and artists but to provide them with a financial incentive to come up with their works in the first place, explicitly for the benefit of society generally. In the case of patents, inventors get an exclusive right to the financial rewards of their patented subject for a limited time (20 years in the case of pharmaceuticals) as a trade-off for publishing the technology embodied in their inventions.

Invention is, however, a hit-or-miss prospect. Doug Bandow writes in Policy Analysis, "Of every 5,000 to 10,000 substances reviewed [by pharmaceutical companies' research & development organizations], only about 250 make it to the animal-testing stage. Around 5 of them go on to human clinical trials. Only one, on average, makes it into the market. Even at that point, only 3 of 10 new drugs actually make money." This academic study from the Journal of Health Economics 22 (2003) estimates the cost of developing a new drug as $802 million (in year 2000 dollars; $403 million is out-of-pocket expenditures, the remainder opportunity costs).

Understanding what reimbursement includes requires a basic grasp of business organizations. People tend to speak of "corporations" anthropomorphically, as if they acted for their own interest. The directors and management make the decisions but within limits set by the corporation's by-laws as well as federal and state statutes, regulations, and, perhaps most importantly, fiduciary duties that require them to act in the interest of the shareholders, who are, of course, the owners of the corporation. Pharmaceutical companies thus have to compete in the capital markets for investors' money; if the profits they return on those investments are not competitive, investors will take their money out of the pharmaceutical companies. If the company's revenue and profits decline, past a certain point it will make better sense to liquidate the company than to continue operating it.

The way the directors and management of drug companies make money for the shareholders is by developing and commercially exploiting drug compounds and processes, and the period of patent protection is essential to their success. Profits in the pharmaceutical industry are high (Ronald Bailey puts them at 9% as against 5% typical of many other American industries), but higher-risk investments always earn supernormal returns or the money would flow to less risky ventures. And drug companies do face greater risk: if you open a shoemaking business you can be fairly certain that your factory will produce shoes; if you launch a pharmaceutical R&D organization, however, you have no assurance at all that it will produce a marketable compound, and even if it does the risk of class-action tort suits seeking damages for deleterious side effects never goes away.

To judge from the informational shorts shown in theaters explaining how piracy of movies will lead to the collapse of production and loss of jobs, moviemakers understand the importance of intellectual property when it's a matter of their own corporate profits and jobs. As for le Carré, while he's not a corporation, he is essentially a sole proprietor who owns and exploits for profit the copyrighted material that he produces. Probably le Carré could not afford to go on writing books if he had forgone the handsome profits made by selling this copyrighted material. Of course, if he were independently wealthy or had married an heiress or something, then he might, if he chose, continue to write even though he made no profits from it. This is the difference between le Carré and a pharmaceutical corporation, which cannot be operated for love or charity. Pharmaceutical companies do not exist in nature; if they can't be run profitably they will cease to exist and we'll all be worse off. (Here's by how much: as Ronald Bailey reports, "Between 1960 and 1997, life expectancy at birth for Americans rose from 69.7 years to 76.5 years. 'Increased drug approvals and health expenditure per person jointly explain just about 100 percent of the observed long-run longevity increase,' writes [Frank] Lichtenberg.")

If drug companies are forcing "consent" among third-world clinical-trial subjects as is shown in The Constant Gardener that's deplorable and they should stop it. (Expropriation of their patents and profits, of course, is not a punishment fitted to this crime.) But as Meirelles says in this 1 September 2005 interview with FilmForce, "This plot is based on something that happened in Nigeria actually…. [T]hey were testing a drug for diabetes, and after four months, people who were taking the pills couldn't walk, so now there are a couple of lawyers suing this company." So, on the one hand, the drug companies are not getting away with it, not because of le Carré's raging potboiler but because of tort liability. On the other hand, we would need more information about what they are allegedly doing. To ensure the accuracy of trial results, some patients must be given placebo, and probably a certain amount of them would have been cured by the real drug. In addition, some trial patients may suffer from debilitating side effects. These aren't good things, but they have to be analyzed in context: Apart from the lack of consent, how is this situation different from clinical trials in America or Europe? What alternative is there for sick people in these impoverished countries? How many people do benefit from the trials? Why are trials outsourced to other countries in the first place?

Among the reasons for the latter, as Sonia Shah reports in the 30 August 2005 online version of The Nation, is the reluctance of first-world citizens to volunteer for drug trials. She writes, "On average, every American buys more than ten prescription drugs every year…. [Yet l]ess than one in twenty Americans take part in experimental trials, with half the American public maligning test subjects as 'guinea pigs,' according to a June 2004 Harris Poll. The logical outcome of this 'all gain, no pain' attitude toward modern drugs is for drug companies to shift the burden of experimentation away from Western consumers…." The fact that life is cheap, as it is put, in sub-Saharan Africa is the cause, not the result, of pharmaceutical companies bringing their clinical testing there. (By implication, the makers of The Constant Gardener, unlike the drug companies, do not see African lives as less valuable, but we'll have to take their word for it: there is only one African character who is as much as peripheral to the story and the English villains have more dimensions than he does.)

The Constant Gardener does not assess the situation reasonably or make the slightest attempt to understand it from a balanced point of view. Still Le Carré has warned, as Kauffmann quotes, "[B]y comparison with the reality, my story [i]s as tame as a holiday postcard," and, as quoted in this 2 March 2001 Kaiser Foundation Daily HIV/AIDS Report, the actions of drug companies are "far more awful than anything [he's] written about." This is classic conman speak. Why on earth would he omit the most damning information he knew of? Would you write about the Nazi treatment of the Jews and leave out the extermination camps?

Lord of War

Le Carré confined these inane remarks to publicity for the book; writer-director Andrew Niccol incorporates similar sleight-of-tongue into his new movie Lord of War itself. At the end of Lord of War the protagonist Yuri Orlov (Nicolas Cage), an international gun trafficker, is busted and then mysteriously let off the hook thanks to his dark, but unspecified, connections with the U.S. military. Unspecified connections—in other words, Niccol can hint at deep entanglements without providing any evidence whatsoever.

Yuri then goes on to claim in voice-over narration that the current President Bush is the biggest arms dealer in the world, and not only is no evidence provided, it's entirely irrelevant to the narrative, which has been an attempt at ironic romance about a man who gives in to temptation and loses his soul. But among artistic types, hating George Bush is enough to set you up as a political theorist, an intellectual, someone with something important to say. (Le Carré's stint in the British Foreign Service during the Cold War at least gave him a basis in actual experience for his earlier spy books.) It's certainly good enough for Niccol to use as a finish, giving Lord of War the most arbitrary, "provocative," all-talk ending since Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (without having given us the pleasure of watching Martha Raye.)

The movie has even bigger problems as entertainment. It supposedly sets out Yuri's story with novelistic detail—he's a Ukrainian immigrant to the U.S. from a family of four none of whom is fully able to take root in the new culture. They've settled in the Brooklyn of the 1980s, plagued by the gangsterism of their fellow immigrants, which sets Yuri to imagining how he can play the same game on a bigger scale. But the movie doesn't have the richness of incident, the cultural texture, the personal motivations of The Godfather, Part II (1974), which explains how the mafia arose in our Italian-immigrant ghettos. And Cage, way off form, and probably miscast, doesn't seem like a Ukrainian or a Brooklynite or a criminal. He's more deeply sleepy than even his Valley Boy persona would require; his body language and his voice in the start-to-finish voice-over never suggest the kind of drive that would push Yuri beyond the bounds of morality, at the cost of everything but some acorn-sized diamonds. This is a story along the lines of Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), but Cage never musters the energy for it. He compares his first gun sale to sex, but this is not a sexy performance, not even when he's literally having sex, and he doesn't come across as driven by lust, by greed, for money or power, by much of anything. Cage plays a man who brings a world of crime and death out of himself and yet in this movie he is what I never thought he could be—a dead wire. (The movie sorely lacks the show-off gusto he wasted on The Rock (1996).)

Lord of War could certainly use Cage at his zaniest because nothing is convincing at the literal level; apart from Cage's performance it's a very stylized depiction of its subject. (Stylized but not comic: the sole touch of wit comes when the paint on the body of an airplane Yuri is trying to pass off as his private ride smears on takeoff.) For instance, Yuri is supposedly one of the biggest arms merchants in the world, but he doesn't seem to have an organization. (He has fewer people working for him than a single-lot used-car dealer.) Yuri does it all himself—so there he is in the post-Soviet munitions warehouses snapping up AK-47s and tanks and helicopters, and there he is in the plane or on the cargo ship making deliveries and foiling the authorities. In other words, Yuri acts with superhuman effectiveness in an unrealistically vast theater, yet Cage's damp performance and Niccol's evident belief that he's showing us how these things really come about keep the brash comic-book approach from having any punch.

The comic-book romance elements include Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke), a globe-trotting superagent who is Yuri's white-knight double (and who, poor guy, has to deliver the lectures telling us what anyone could figure out for himself), and André Baptiste, Sr. (Eamonn Walker), one of Yuri's best customers (modeled on Charles Taylor, former warlord of Liberia) who is Yuri's black-knight double and who makes explicit the corruption eating Yuri from within. (Walker is the only performer who shows any authority with the material.) In addition, there are no fewer than four characters who represent the soul Yuri is sadly betraying in himself (his father, his brother, his wife, and his son), which is at least three characters too many. Yuri is written as an ironic protagonist whose justifications we're meant to see through easily; there's a wealth of comic possibility, especially since he's the self-revealing narrator, in the manner of Michael Caine as Alfie. Instead, Niccol squeezes his cartoonish irony for pathos, as if retelling Superman from the dark side but softening it to make us lament, "Poor Lex Luthor. Poor, lost Lex Luthor."

A specialist in combining slick high-tech concepts with fogeyish worrywarting (S1m0ne (2002), The Truman Show (1998), Gattaca (1997)), Niccol apparently doesn't realize that his underlying point in Lord of War is uncontroversial—gun traffickers put guns in the hands of people who do bad things with them. It's also overkill because, as Jack Valentine's pursuit of him makes plain, Yuri sells arms in contravention of law. (In other words, Niccol didn't need to make the movie to keep us from running out and selling guns to African dictators.) At the same time, Niccol shows too much for the good of this point. When Yuri sells guns to some heinous African militia that intends to massacre refugees, the sale takes place just over the hill from the refugee camp so we will know what's coming—we see militia members whack a small boy and his mother with machetes. Which establishes both that they shouldn't be sold guns but also that guns aren't the source of the problem. If one has no choice but to be massacred, wouldn't guns be preferable?

The Constant Gardener and Lord of War don't begin to give the situations that they fictionalize their due, though The Constant Gardener is infinitely more skillful than Lord of War, which is both a mess and dull. Le Carré is a bigger cultural player than Niccol, of course, but there appears to be no difference for him between reality and a melodramatically compressed version of reality. Both le Carré and Niccol slight the issues but nonetheless pride themselves for their political "passion," which in the form it's given in these movies is even more recreational, even more useless, than Tessa Quayle's "speaking up."

For a real-life version of the left-wing heroic romance of fighting the pharmaceutical companies in Africa, see this 1 May 2001 Salon.com article about my fellow Yale Law School graduate, and friend, Amy Kapczynski.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.