Sunday, July 30, 2006

Movie Review: The Break-Up and Friends With Money: Men and Women Without Qualities

Peyton Reed's The Break-Up

The Break-Up begins at a baseball game where Gary (Vince Vaughn), a motor-mouth Cubs fan, hits on Brooke (Jennifer Aniston), a woman on a date with another guy whom he notices because she's sitting between him and the hot dog vendor. Gary is overbearing but Brooke couldn't ask for a guy to fasten more attention on her. So his hopped-up patter works, as we see in a series of still photos under the credits showing the progression of their relationship as they party, meet each other's friends, join a couples' bowling team, and move in together. When the movie proper starts, they've been together two years and have reached the point where she thinks that he takes her for granted and he thinks that all she does is nag him.

They're both right, and if that isn't bad enough, when Brooke says she's done with the relationship, hoping to shock Gary into listening to her, and he takes her at her word, they begin to fight like overgrown children. Neither one can afford the mortgage loan payments on their condo alone, so they both stay and mark out their territory, squabble, try to make each other jealous, etc. It's reminiscent of a screwball divorce comedy—e.g., The Awful Truth (1937), in which Cary Grant and Irene Dunne each tries, successfully, to break up the other's new engagement—but without charm or flair or elegance. Yet while The Break-Up is as grating as spending time with bickering couples is in life (and, as a friend has to tell Brooke and Gary, it is very grating), the movie doesn't have the veracity of naturalism.

The movie could conceivably work if it viewed Brooke and Gary's immaturity from an ironic remove. This is especially true if Brooke's manipulation and Gary's defensive hostility are supposed to be funny. Brooke's confidante Addie (Joey Lauren Adams) periodically suggests such a perspective, but the moviemakers don't realize that it damns the bulk of their material. The Break-Up wouldn't have to be as antically depraved as The War of the Roses (1989), just somewhat more impersonal. Instead, it combines a naked desire to please the audience with a try-anything approach of the kind that made Wedding Crashers such a desperate stab at entertainment. The material involving Brooke's closeted gay brother, for instance, is embarrassing and the material involving the art gallery where she works (for Judy Davis and with Justin Long) excruciating.

Instead, it's plain we're supposed to like Brooke and Gary and wish the best for them—no matter how stupidly they behave. It was thus a disastrous decision to flash the functioning years of their relationship in a montage of stills. We need to see what the relationship is based on if we're going to have any investment in the way it falls apart. Instead, the movie relies entirely on the audience's feelings for the stars.

As for the stars, Vaughn has the better role to the extent that Gary takes less of the infantile initiative and reacts more. Vaughn is in the enviable position of merely having to convey that Gary's feelings aren't what they appear to be. As he showed in last year's Be Cool, Vaughn is an ace at multiple roles within a single character. In Be Cool, Vaughn's Raji is a junior music exec posing as a white-boy-gangsta, i.e., a buffoon, but a conniving and even murderous one. Raji is a joke and he half knows it, which only gives his ludicrous lack of cool an unpredictable volatility. Vaughn makes Raji jumpy with the anxiety of someone trapped in a part that isn't working. You can see the eyes shifting behind the mask and Vaughn suggests these layers while playing the comedy at full tilt. As Raji, Vaughn manages to give essentially concentric performances, a prodigious act that went largely unnoticed.

I doubt there's another actor with comparable range who has gone as unrewarded as Vaughn. In Return to Paradise (1998), which features his most mature lead performance, he does the redeemed Bogart cynic with greater texture than Bogart himself (who was, after all, a creature of the studio factory system, with its limitations on form and substance). Vaughn is both more romantic and more believably self-protecting than the unflappable, tough-guy hero of Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have Not (1944).

With his height, his broad, handsome face, and his watchful eyes, Vaughn has the makings of a great screen actor. And there are moments even in The Break-Up, particularly in a scene toward the end after Gary has blown off Brooke's conciliatory gesture and tries to talk to her, when his face is magnetizing. You witness the adolescent male feeling empathy for the first time and being spooked while understanding right away how important it is.

Aniston's range as an actress is much narrower than Vaughn's. She specializes in the tiny nuances of an utterly normal girl responding to a world she encounters one nut at a time. In essence, Aniston is always "saying," "Why is this happening to someone like me?!" which is what makes her right for TV sit-com. Her expressions are always appropriate, but never more than that. There's no excess to her, no richness. Aniston is a low-carb comedienne, efficient but hardly one to set off cravings.

Brooke doesn't react in The Break-Up, however, she provokes. Gary is the one who reacts, to Brooke's semi-articulated demands and idiotic ploys, which suggests, among other things, that the movie has been cast backwards (even more so than 50 First Dates). The further problem is that while Brooke may be right about Gary, she engages in junior-high-level stratagems to get him back. That doesn't make her a romantic heroine, it makes her an ironic protagonist, someone whose faults we might possibly identify with, except that Aniston's persona isn't expansive enough to identify with if the character she's playing isn't openly likable.

Nicole Holofcener's Friends With Money

That's what makes Aniston the dent in Nicole Holofcener's Friends With Money. She plays Olivia, a former teacher who lost her sense of vocation as the result of a two-month fling with a married man that she can't get over. So she's working as a house cleaner, a job she can perform while smoking pot all day. In one sense, Olivia is too "nice," e.g., she's can't stick to her price when a rich guy haggles over her hourly rate, and when she takes a guy she's dating to work with her she not only can't refuse to give him the cut he insists on, she doesn't stop dating him afterwards. At the same time, however, she's parasitic, amoral: she goes through her client's drawers, in one case using a vibrator that she finds, and she's not above stealing an expensive cosmetic cream that she likes but can't afford.

The movie sets the openly lost singleton Olivia at the low end of a gamut of female friends who are all married and rich (Christine: Catherine Keener), richer (Jane: Frances McDormand), and richest (Franny: Joan Cusack), but not necessarily happy. At the end of the movie, Olivia gets what her friends have, without looking for it or deserving it especially, and this should be some kind of crowning irony, but Aniston gives us so little sense of what Olivia could be that it's hard to know how to react.

There are actresses who could draw you in to the confusions of a woman like Olivia. At least one of them—Catherine Keener—is in the movie; Aniston's Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow and the Laura Dern of Citizen Ruth (1996) are others. By contrast, Aniston just seems genuinely stoned. She's game for playing an unkempt woman who is also morally unattractive, and even for the deadpan irony that doesn't make use of her needlepoint reactions (Olivia isn't centered, or sober, enough for that). But Aniston, an honest hard worker, plays a mess like Olivia about as convincingly as Madonna could play Courtney Love. I'm sure there are many advantages to being a level-headed businesswoman-star, but they tend not to show up onscreen.

At the same time, it's good to see that Holofcener isn't bloodying her nails on her characters here. In her last feature, Lovely and Amazing (2002), a mother goes in for liposuction and nearly dies from complications, while one daughter, a married, unsuccessful doodad sculptress, is arrested for having sex with an underaged boy, and the other, an insecure actress, has her face mauled by a stray dog. Critics bizarrely saw Holofcener as sympathizing with women with "issues"; the irony struck me as much more punitive.

Holofcener is an interesting figure because she globally deromanticizes women's stories in an unusually brisk and direct way. The emblematic Holofcener moment is the one in her first feature Walking and Talking (1996) in which porcelain beauty Anne Heche cuts a fart while trying on a wedding gown. Holofcener's outlook is fundamentally that of the ironist, who exaggerates and distorts to bring out the inner reality that surfaces hide and that people (especially moviegoers) prefer to ignore.

Thus, in this 6 April 2006 interview with Salon, the 46-year-old Holofcener says that McDormand's Jane is so unpleasantly shocked by middle age, "Because when we're kids we think it's going to look much fancier, much shinier, than this." Irony is an aesthetic reaction both to unrealistically high expectations of life, as this comment indicates, and to romanticized art: Holofcener also says that she's "so sick of seeing Hollywood actresses look like dolls" and that in movies she wants "to see women who look normal, and who dress normally." She has to struggle to make costume designers understand; she wants stains on the characters' pants, "Because that's real."

This last comment indicates, however, that even a born ironist like Holofcener may not entirely understand her gift. She puts stains on the characters' pants to make things look worse than we expect "reality" to look in a movie. If she thinks she's just trying to present a realistic view of women's lives, then she must also think that hangmen's nooses just grow from tree limbs. Her artistic approach is to overcompensate for other artists' prettified fantasies, whether she knows it or not. The inflictions she universally visits on the female characters of Lovely and Amazing are too horrible-funny to be real.

It's one thing to take women down from pedestals, which are so limiting anyway (in part because they require women to act as if they were incapable of farting), and another thing to stomp on their faces when they're on the ground. At times, Holofcener appears to dislike her female characters as much as Nora Ephron does, but because her movies, unlike Ephron's, are inexpensive independent productions she's not forced to fake nice about it. In Lovely and Amazing, Holofcener could be seen as Ephron's id, taking vengeance on women.

Herself included—Holofcener is no hypocrite. As she says to Salon, "I'm up there. I'm as repellent as everybody else. But somehow I can forgive myself, because I think, well, I know I'm repellent." But even though Holofcener says in this 2002 interview that she based Lovely and Amazing on her own family (albeit "very loosely"; she filmed many of the scenes in the house she grew up in), her comic imagination is so harsh, especially in that movie (with its gallows-trapdoor of a title), that she doesn't have enough invested in the characters even for irony. If the ironic protagonists' suffering is not deserved (and even the severest critics of female vanity would probably not agree that cosmetic surgery merits even a brush with death), then the movie probably needs a fiercer, tighter, or higher style than Holofcener has yet achieved. It may be the very sneaky-softness of her handling that led people to mistake her attitude in Lovely and Amazing for sympathy.

Holofcener does show a lighter spirit in Friends With Money. As she says to Salon, "As I get older, more mature, I learn to forgive myself my human foibles." Perhaps for that reason, however, the picture never comes together. She has gained in authority as a writer—the movie culminates without a dramatic climax at a charity fundraiser and you can make out an intended design—but apart from McDormand's outbursts, the material isn't memorable.

Keener's role as a woman married to her writing partner, whose emotional detachment she realizes she can't deal with, does not convey to the recreational viewer the complexity that Holofcener says to Salon she intended ("But she's in there, ruining this marriage along with him."). Plus, it's wrong for Keener's talent—more whiny than bitchy. And Cusack's role is barely formulated. Since the stories are thus mostly underdeveloped and/or miscast, the design is never achieved.

Holofcener may have enough authority now to have laid down her scourge, but it's hard to distinguish the more tentative approach to narrative in Friends With Money from an identity crisis. Maybe that's why McDormand's material has by far the most bite. Jane's preoccupations are clearly more pressing to Holofcener than Olivia's slow spiral, but she didn't structure the script around them (which does not prevent McDormand from making a stronger impression than the star of the movie, just as she did in North Country). It's as if Holofcener had lost interest in plaguing a loser like Olivia, but not the habit. And a half-hearted ironist is a swamped boat. There are sharp moments in Friends With Money, but the prickings dissipate surprisingly fast.

The Break-Up isn't even as engaging as Friends With Money, but it too has a few appealing actors doing inventive things. Vincent D'Onofrio turns the tedious role of Gary's hard-working older brother into something like an individual, and Jon Favreau gets laughs like a veteran with twice his experience in his scene assuring Gary that he isn't going to have Brooke's new boyfriend killed, wink wink. But finally Friends With Money is far more of a disappointment because it might have been better; The Break-Up is merely forgettable.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Movie Review: Jack Black in Nacho Libre: Or Is It Merely the Mock?

Having watched Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and even Jim Carrey sink into the slough of family comedy, I'm grateful for the total irony of movies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), A Dirty Shame (2004), the new Nacho Libre and Strangers With Candy, and, fingers-crossed, the upcoming Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. The "heroes" of these movies are physically unprepossessing and morally no better than they oughta be, yet they weather the same crises and enjoy the same triumphs as straight romantic heroes. The movies aim blissfully low (Nacho Libre includes some of the most deftly incidental fart jokes and the funniest wedgie in movie history) and yet have the much-noted brain-tickling ambiguity of the mock heroic: Are we laughing because the protagonists fall short of the heroic-romantic ideal or is the ideal itself the object of the parody because of how far it is from our daily experience? Or both?

Anchorman, Strangers With Candy, and Nacho Libre are conceptual comedies but lack the high style of the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty (2003), the literary-satiric qualities of Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and About Schmidt, or the cinematic self-consciousness of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). The writers, directors, and stars of these put-ons know what they're doing, but their movies also have an unupholstered Three-Stooges accessibility because they wrap their dirt-level comic instincts around the concepts. (The marvelous Intolerable Cruelty did the reverse and missed with both lowbrow and highbrow audiences.)

The paradox of Anchorman, Napoleon Dynamite, Strangers With Candy, and Nacho Libre is that they ask you to identify with slobby protagonists but not in a slobby way. They don't pimp their emotions to pay for the slapstick, as family comedy does. They couldn't be called high comedy and yet they're drier than any romantic comedy out there. And they don't bait us with irony and then switch to romance, in the manner of Be Cool (2005), Wedding Crashers (2005), The Ice Harvest (2005), and Find Me Guilty (2006). Rather, the regression is intentional and controlled—mature, crafted puerility. They're what Jerry Lewis movies would have been without the schmaltz—geysers of character comedy whistling hot out of the blowhole.

Though Nacho Libre didn't make me laugh as hard as Anchorman or Napoleon Dynamite, its star Jack Black does have some romantic assets that make his buffoonery striking in a different way from Will Ferrell's or Jon Heder's. The ungainly Ferrell and the gawky Heder use their characters' unawareness of their limitations as they enter arenas for which they're completely unsuited (think of Ferrell as Ron Burgundy doing biceps curls to show off his "guns") to create an inverted form of heroism. They bypass the old slapstick masochism of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd as juveniles failing at sports and almost make you envy their obliviousness. The "magic" is to add insensitivity to the clumsiness and not get "cute" about it.

At 5' 7½" Jack Black is even dumpier than Ferrell but no less creative in defying his bulk. In addition, he has eyes that at times seem to be unscrewing themselves from their sockets and eyebrows so expressive he can practically spell his name with them. (I always remember Black's eyes as being bigger than they are.) Ferrell and Heder come across as total fools, but I have known a lot of women who would find Black attractive. So when he does similarly foolish stuff, e.g., emphatic rock 'n' roll gestures to show what a large, uncageable spirit he is, it inevitably has some of the spazzy but gentle drama of the Harold Lloyd juvenile doing his jig and handshake to make friends in The Freshman (1925) because you expect he could grow out of being that kind of fool.

This might work straight if Black didn't push it; unfortunately, his previous starring roles have required him to do just that. The title of Shallow Hal (2001) indicates the problem with that movie: sniffy feminist piety undermines the very scurrility the movie exploits for entertainment. (That title clucks its tongue and the movie can be explained only as an act of penance by the Farrelly Brothers.) The School of Rock was marginally more sophisticated in that we were clearly meant to laugh at the rants of Black's grade school teacher—both because of the content in itself and the inappropriateness of directing them at grade-school children. Ultimately, however, his "radicalism" helps build his students' self-esteem and the movie becomes drearily uplifting.

In Nacho Libre, the deadpan goofiness of director Jared Hess brings out the best in Black. Instead of being cast as a gleam-eyed, self-centered adolescent who becomes "human," as in Shallow Hal and The School of Rock, Black's Ignacio, a friar who is the male Cinderella in a Mexican monastic orphanage, is absurdly soulful from the start. He wants to do his best for the orphans, but can only serve them inedible slop because the monks don't give him enough money for fresh ingredients. He's a committed man of God but has doubts about his vows when the beautiful Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera) joins the monastery.

Ignacio also harbors a secret passion for lucha libre, a Mexican form of championship wrestling, which he goes into on the sly to earn grocery money for the orphans. Sadly, Encarnación thinks wrestling is evil, and Ignacio and his tag-team partner, Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez), aren't very talented, anyway. Not even God appears to be on Ignacio's side when he loses his shot at a championship bout against the title-holding meanie (a Keystone bully who humiliates him in front of the orphans when he asks for an autograph for them). So Ignacio withdraws for a spiritual retreat into the desert, across the street from Esqueleto's neighborhood.

In other words, the sincerity works in Nacho Libre because it's inseparable from the irony. Ignacio is so darn virtuous it has to be parody, and Black and the moviemakers use every opportunity to synthesize unintentional camp. In his other vehicles, Black has mixed comedy-star strutting and straight acting in a way I found effortful. (In this respect, Mickey Rooney would be the mark Black fell short of.) Counterintuitively, the hermetic seal on Nacho Libre lightens Black's style. He gets laughs by speaking in a corny movie-Mexican accent, "casually" flexing his glutes to impress Encarnación, breaking out in a "jazzy" styling of the song he's written about her, and moves on to the next gag without overkill. (Hess, who is as good as anyone now working in comedy at varying the speed, always makes the pace serve the jokes and makes everyone look as good as possible.)

The movie also makes Ignacio's sidekick Esqueleto too strange to sentimentalize. Ignacio meets Esqueleto, a feral ghetto starveling, when he kicks Ignacio's ass for the bag of day-old nachos Ignacio gathers for the orphans' meals. Esqueleto seems like a real contender against Ignacio, but in the ring he shrieks like an adolescent she-beast as he's pounded into the canvas. And even when he cleans up, after he and Ignacio earn one loser's purse after another, Jiménez still presents a series of uninfectious smiles to the camera. All teeth and Adam's apple, Jiménez is like a Don Knotts who isn't trying to be endearing.

Hess, who co-wrote the script with his wife Jerusha Hess (they also co-wrote, and Jared directed, Napoleon Dynamite) and Mike White (who wrote The School of Rock), has the visual sense to provide the enclosed atmosphere for this wall-to-wall shagginess. It's not quite as good as Napoleon Dynamite in part because the plot is too central. In Napoleon Dynamite you didn't see Napoleon's triumph at the talent competition coming. Nacho Libre is a more conventional parody; like Anchorman and Strangers With Candy, it openly lampoons and yet follows the plot of a sentimental heroic romance. (Though line for line, Strangers With Candy has the nimblest and most surprising writing—as well as the most stunningly base—of any of these movies.)

But like all these recent works of unrelenting burlesque, Nacho Libre creates its own cartoon idiom, just as the majority of silent slapstick shorts, and such features as Harold Lloyd's Why Worry? (1923), the W.C. Fields pictures Million Dollar Legs (1932), It's a Gift (1934), and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor (1963), Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Robert Zemeckis's Used Cars (1980), and Carl Gottlieb's Caveman (1981) did before them, and maybe a little more so. Nacho Libre is all it needs to be—ridiculous from beginning to end.
Movie Review: Danny Leiner's The Great New Wonderful: Afterlife

SPOILER ALERT

Set in Manhattan just before the first anniversary, The Great New Wonderful traces the impact of September 11th on the lives of people not directly affected by the attacks. We watch as hairline fractures slowly become compound under the unspecifiable stress.

The script by Sam Catlin hops back and forth among five stories: Sandie (Jim Gaffigan), a low-level white-collar worker who knew a group of people killed that day resists the ambiguously elliptical grief counseling of Dr. Trabulous (Tony Shalhoub); Emme (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a gourmet pastry chef, goes after a birthday-cake commission that could put her in the big leagues; David (Tom McCarthy) and Allison (Judy Greer) struggle to conserve the heat of their marriage while dealing with their grade schooler's increasingly violent behavior; Judie (Olympia Dukakis), who has long accepted the numbing routine of her marriage, reconnects with a high school classmate and thinks she's on the verge of an adventure; and Avi (Naseeruddin Shah) and Satish (Sharat Saxena), two Hindu-American bodyguards, try to keep their equilibrium as Satish turns moody and Avi frivolous.

The characters cover the span from working-class immigrants to a glamorous young entrepreneur poised on the brink of money and celebrity—people who toil to maintain their stake in what can be an unforgiving metropolis even absent trauma. The movie thus offers a middle-class panorama suggestive of epic ambitions. There are two pitfalls to this kind of material: summarizing the subject too neatly or treating it too diffusely. The ideal is Robert Altman's Nashville in which the 24 characters involved in the country-music scene converge at a grassroots presidential campaign rally: each story is both grittily believable and dramatically suggestive, and they all add up to a satiric, yet expansive vision of that corner of the country.

The Great New Wonderful, with its unfinished title that seems to ask, "What are we going to make of the world that came into being that day?" never knits up, but four of the strands have the specificity of first-rate naturalistic short-story writing and are completely convincing. The capper is the interaction between Sandie and the grief counselor, which is daringly deadpan-bizarre vaudeville unlike anything else I've seen in response to September 11th.

The Avi-Satish story is the least keyed-up but enjoyable because of Shah's undyingly chipper readings. Avi is an optimist and a constant talker, as if he were a life coach to himself and his friend. Satish has become taciturn but this only causes Avi to point out the more how good things are. He's so glad to be alive, however, that he loses track of some things that matter, fidelity to his wife, for instance. (Just because the woman at the grocery store's ass is perfection doesn't mean he has to sample it.) Dramatically this episode is the least compelling but it's fully realized in its modest terms.

Judie's story has more punch in part because of the queasiness of seeing a settled, elderly woman do something we all did when younger—mistake friendly interest for sexual interest—but also because it contains Leiner's best moviemaking. He deftly establishes the set rhythms of Judie's daily life: her husband watches TV, eats, and goes out onto the balcony for a smoke while she makes collages of pictures cut from magazines. (Dukakis's out-of-place, Old-World eyes show the banked frustration of a woman who has no one to talk to. As in Moonstruck, she's great at suggesting untapped intimacy.) Then when Judie has had her hopes dashed, we get the same shots of her husband's routine but so brutally fast the audience burst out laughing. I've never seen that kind of disappointment handled so purely cinematically, so alarmingly and yet amusingly, and in such a short amount of screen time. It may be on a modest scale but it's gem-grade filmmaking.

David and Allison's travails with Charlie (Bill Donner), their obese little goblin of a son, introduces a grotesque note to the naturalism. In one scene, Charlie's summer-school principal (Stephen Colbert) repeats a racial epithet the boy has used and Allison has to ask what it means. The story thus takes what many parents must go through—watching the unexpected developments of their children and wondering, "Where did that come from?"—and pushes it a little farther. You know Leiner is trying for a far-out comic effect because of the casting of Colbert, whose character says to David and Allison what they've been thinking but can't abide to hear spoken. When we see them alone again in their apartment, fucking like they used to, we don't know if what we're seeing is the result of a legal or a criminal solution, a flashback, or just a fantasy of an alternative, no-longer-possible life. There's something deliciously guilty about it, however, and I don't even have kids.

Emme's story is not grotesque but it is tinged with horror, as if you arrived at the end of your day and realized that you weren't dead but you were in hell. Gyllenhaal's Emme has a heart-shaped face and carries herself with an alluring slinkiness—she's the contemporary feline ideal of the young female urbanite on the make. She's also extremely brittle, managing three younger assistants while building a business that demands grueling self-promotion. She has the air and the control for it, but you can also see the toll it's taking in her eyes. In preparation for the birthday-cake pitch, Emme engineers a meeting with the city's top pastry chef, Safarah Polsky (Edie Falco), who, she's heard, is presenting an opalescent ganache. What's interesting in their exchange is that the two women are both velvety competitors and yet openly admit what a ridiculous game it is.

The presentation itself is an astonishingly prickly sequence. The potential client is a blandly spoiled teenaged girl with no culture—Emme's attempt to appeal to her by pitching cakes named after Shakespeare's heroines is a miss. And she's too rich for good manners—she takes a cell phone call during the pitch but tells Emme to keep talking. (In other words, Emme may feel like an artist but is regularly treated like a servant.) The customer's always right, however, so Emme waits, barely, until afterwards to unclench her tension, by not only firing but insulting one of her assistants for a gaffe he compounded by continuing to explain himself after someone else had already bailed him out. (The real dig is not calling him a "faggot" but a "cliché." What could be worse in a business that requires you to outdo opalescent ganache?) The final irony comes seconds later. It's an amazing sequence because you feel as unsure about what's happening as the characters—the nervy game they have to play gets to you as it has obviously gotten to them.

Without whining, Catlin gives you a whiff of the poisonous air in the upper stratosphere of consumption (the indifference of the consumers and the sycophancy and desperation of the purveyors). And he does it without seeking to make you "like" Emme. (It's not objectionable to be asked to watch, or even identify with, a character who isn't likable, just to be expected to like one who isn't.) This enables Gyllenhaal to bring the most objective approach to character since Jane Fonda's breakthrough performances in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) and Klute (1971). Gyllenhaal is more seductive than Fonda was, which only makes Emme's frankly ungiving expression that much more unnerving. You feel Emme will eventually get whatever she goes after and scarcely enjoy herself at all.

Gyllenhaal, who slips into character with greater ease than any other young American actress now in the movies, presents Emme as is, without judgment. I was completely convinced Emme could succeed on her terms, and I realized I was identifying with her and pulling back from her at the same time. She isn't like Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, a high-style bitch you can fantasize about being because you don't really feel the cost to her. Emme is the kind of bitch you could plausibly become if you had the necessary qualities to scratch your way to the top and focused on it in just the wrong way. You see it when Emme asks for a security guard's name after he refuses her entrance to a star's dressing room: this is Miranda Priestly on the uphill slope, but created with full-textured naturalism rather than cartoon strokes. (Gyllenhaal is so good it's easy to forget the reflexive anti-American comments she made while promoting the film, comments which, among other things, cannot be said to interpret the film satisfactorily.)

The Emme story is naturalism so completely embodied that you may feel some borders between yourself and the characters dissolve. The therapy sessions between Sandie and Dr. Trabulous, on the other hand, could not be mistaken for naturalism. Sandie doesn't think he needs to talk to anyone, and he certainly thinks the doctor must be joking when he says he can tell Sandie wants to hit him over the head with his chair. As Sandie, Gaffigan comes across as uncomplicated, even doughy—though his ordinariness contains an unmistakable spark of comic impersonation. You can feel it's a set-up for the detonation that the mysterious doctor keeps trying to set off.

You'll probably be as baffled as Sandie by what comes out of Dr. Trabulous's mouth. Shalhoub is hilariously peculiar and yet you can see why his poker-faced comments would provoke Sandie, the man who thinks he's had no reaction to the local and international disaster, or even to the subsequent breakup of his relationship. The genius of the episode is that Shalhoub's grief counselor is bigger than weird, he's numinous, but we're not sure what direction he's pushing Sandie in. The doctor thus embodies the unpredictability of the grief that September 11th caused and Catlin and Leiner are secure in their ability to shape it comically and still have it register as grief.

From Emme to Sandie and Dr. Trabulous, The Great New Wonderful has a wide span of styles and yet it doesn't feel as if it has mapped out everything in between. It cannot be called a success as a summary of New Yorkers' reactions to September 11th. There's an internal contradiction between the five self-contained stories and the whole story that Catlin and Leiner never resolve—they've attempted to inscribe an epic across the head of five pins.

So it's not up to the standard of Nashville, but its authorial precision and small-scale clarity compare favorably to Paul Thomas Anderson's smeary Altmanesque frescoes Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999). And it's altogether a bolt from the blue considering that Leiner's previous features were the sporadically entertaining but basically inept Dude, Where's My Car? (2000) and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). It isn't just that the choice of material, the moviemaking, and the direction of actors are better here; the comedy is funnier, too. Sandie's sessions with Dr. Trabulous are even nuttier, and certainly more redolent, than Kumar's scene with the med school admissions officer. This isn't a direction I would have expected Leiner to move in, so I don't know what to expect next. For the first time, however, I care.

Friday, July 21, 2006

DVD Review

Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky: Actor! Actor!

In Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976), Nicky (John Cassavetes), some sort of mob flunky, has stolen money from his boss; his partner in the crime has been killed and when the movie opens Nicky is lying low in a hotel room with ulcer pains, incoherent with fear. He summons Mikey (Peter Falk), a friend since childhood who got him the job with the gangster they both work for, and Mikey shows up like a dutiful sidekick.

But the high-strung Nicky is impossible to take care of. He calls Mikey to the rescue but then won't open the door for him. He complains about his stomach but doesn't want Mikey to go fetch something for it. After Mikey finally dislodges him from the hotel room so they can leave town, Nicky keeps changing plans—he wants to go to the movies, he wants to visit his mother's grave, he stops in a black bar and picks a racial fight, he insists on getting laid. Nicky, facing the consequences of his theft, is cracking up, but you also sense that unpredictability gives him a feeling of control, of being alive. Plus, it throws Mikey off and Nicky doubts Mikey's intentions—with reason. Nicky may be paranoid but it certainly doesn't mean that people aren't out to hurt him.

The script Elaine May wrote for herself to direct turns into an even bleaker variation on the betrayal of the monstrous friend in The Third Man (1949). Here Mikey has betrayed Nicky before he shows up at the hotel. (This hardly counts as a spoiler because we're told as much in the next sequence.) Nicky is a narcissist and a show-off, but he's also full of self-pity, and so sentimental as he reminisces about childhood that Mikey starts to feel bad about fingering him. But then Nicky, who's been keeping a perversely glimmering eye on Mikey, takes him up to the apartment of his own mistress Nellie (Carol Grace), assuring Mikey that they'll both get a piece. Nicky knows, however, that Nellie will turn Mikey down and he'll thus have the nasty pleasure of humiliating both pal and girlfriend in one shot. (He also lies about it to both of them afterwards.) This offense causes Mikey to pour out his resentments: Nicky has made him look foolish to the bosses, Nicky returns his calls only when he's in trouble. Soon Mikey is riding shotgun with the hitman, to make sure Nicky pays the price.

As a director, Elaine May selects material she can hand over to the actors, and Mikey and Nicky belongs to Falk and Cassavetes, if anyone. They were long-time pals and associates when they made this, and the vibe is not too different from Cassavetes's own picture Husbands (1970), in which they co-starred with Ben Gazzara. Cassavetes establishes character with subdued but intense physical means—the changing, malignant gleam in his eye and that handsome-evil smile. Falk, likewise a serious character actor, is more layered—despite the rumpled clothes and provisional gestures, the seemingly unfocused gaze and gravelly stammer, he's a man who knows what he knows. (No episode of Columbo was complete until Falk had let the killer see how much he had misjudged the book by its beat-up cover.)

When Cassavetes and Falk work together, they concert their highly recognizable styles, and Cassavetes challenges Falk: catch whatever I throw at you while staying on your beam. There's almost an acrobatic quality about it and it's especially appropriate here because of the tension between Mikey and Nicky. At the same time, however, it added to my feeling that Mikey and Nicky aren't fully characters but occasions for the kind of acting the two buddies enjoy. My tolerance for this is perhaps low. Moments such as the one in which Nicky refuses to eat the Gelusil that Mikey gives him don't make sense textually and so it doesn't help to have the actors drawing it out, to see what they can get out of each other.

Cassavetes was the writer-director who, more than anyone, taught American moviemakers that improvisation by the actors can give a movie the flash of live performance, of discovery, and the heat of commitment. (The two mobsters here are played by Sanford Meisner and William Hickey, two of the more famous acting teachers in Manhattan, which gives you an idea of where the movie's head is.) At the same time, Cassavetes the director was somewhat like Gertrude Stein the experimental writer—the first person to practice innovations is not necessarily the one who practices them most satisfactorily. Kudos to Cassavetes for his daringly extended scenes in which the actors seem to be fermenting their characters while we watch, but I've never wanted to see any of his movies a second time any more than I've wanted to read The Making of Americans a second time.

May certainly channeled Cassavetes while directing Mikey and Nicky: she famously let the camera roll on and on, like the Mississippi, waiting for the actors to produce miracles, until she had shot over a million feet of film. I can understand how working in this way represents a logical stretch for May, who came up in improvisational comedy, but it's possible to stretch a talent out of shape.

Mikey and Nicky is the only script May directed that isn't obviously structured as comedy or irony. Mikey's betrayal of Nicky is small-scale tragic naturalism: a worm turning—into a viper—and biting his "friend's" heel. May is as clear-eyed about men as she was in The Heartbreak Kid (these two men with, appropriately, boys' nicknames). And she doesn't sentimentalize their smallness, as Paddy Chayefsky did in Marty (1955). She has, however, given too much of the development over to the actors, who cannot give it a more shapely sense of irony (that's really beyond them, to the extent that irony is principally a textual matter.) With nothing releasing the potential comedy in the material (apart, perhaps, from Ned Beatty as the hitman bitching about the other jobs he could have taken), May leaves no imprint on the material.

I felt this very early on, when Nicky doesn't tell Mikey where he is but directs him to a telephone booth across the street from the hotel and then (in an act reportedly not in the script) throws a liquor bottle out the window at him. So Mikey not only finds out where Nicky is, but in a way that could draw even more attention. It makes no sense, but the erraticness doesn't seem attributable to the characters. It's Cassavetes surprising Falk and May, not Nicky surprising Mikey.

Like Cassavetes, May sticks to the script and lets the actors improvise their performance of it. Too many of the loosely agglomerated scenes don't have the rhythms of live encounters, however. They swell and fade with the actors' bursts of "inspiration," which may come when another key point remains in the scene as written. As the actors work their way up to it, you may wonder what the characters are waiting for—why they don't get on with it.

And Cassavetes's improvisational one-upmanship is especially likely to make the content of the exchanges too strong too fast, often before the scene is over, with the result that characters put up with behavior that they simply wouldn't abide in life. This is especially clear in the scenes in Nellie's apartment. And in the racial bar scene it also feels as if May and Cassavetes are testing their art-house audience's sensitivities more than Nicky is trying to accomplish whatever it is he thinks he'll accomplish by losing a fight. In his "theater" of operations, there's always something stridently exhibitionistic in Cassavetes, which is arguably the worst side of American experimental filmmaking (right up through Vincent Gallo).

Cassavetes and Falk are willing to look bad, but they don't seem believably ordinary (as Ned Beatty, for instance, does); they're much too impressive for that. I do find Cassavetes's sneer fascinating, however. It compacts self-loathing, conmanship, and a loathing for everyone on whom his conmanship works. And you may also feel that with the freedom May has given him, Cassavetes comes as close to exposing himself as he ever did. Here is the grandstanding "great artist," the showman-pioneer being told he's a user and a prick, and Cassavetes—the moviemaker who wants truth no matter what it is—seems to revel in it. There's something foully acidic about Nicky but there's not much dramatic shape to his last night on earth. If only Cassavetes had had an actor's discipline to go with his energy and creativity.

Mikey should probably be the central figure, but it's hard for Falk to hold our attention opposite the more flamboyant actor playing the more flamboyant part. (Cassavetes is tricky—he doesn't have to move much to come across as flamboyant.) For whatever reason, the moment when Mikey can't resist telling Nicky that he knows what Nicky has been saying about him doesn't have enough impact. This is when Mikey's betrayal should have its satisfaction—pissing on the dead man's grave while he's still alive and watching. And there could also be something horrible about it, a realization of how small the longed-for gratification is, something that expands the dimensions. Instead, the scene remains mostly informational: Mikey provides evidence for what we have felt all along, that Nicky is not a good friend.

The problems with the movie don't arise solely from the interaction of the director and actors. The script takes place in a single night, but instead of letting us read between the lines, May has packed them with exposition so that the deserted nighttime streets of Philadelphia start to resound like a stage. And though the three women (Nicky's angry wife Jan (Joyce Van Patten) and Mikey's docile wife Annie (Rose Arrick), in addition to Nellie) have only brief screen time, May still tries to cover every base. Jan's scene is particularly lumpy. When Nicky shows up in the middle of the night she tells him to go away, then lets him in; she recriminates him, then kisses him passionately and asks him if he needs money. May has Van Patten express everything a bitter, soon-to-be-ex-wife would feel, and while her emotions might be believable if spread out over days or weeks, they're ludicrous following each other in quick succession.

May seems to be out of her element in every conceivable way. This may explain the odd technical glitches, such as the three times you see technicians to the side or at the back of shots. (The original cinematographer Victor J. Kemper quit before the end of the movie.) There are some beautiful images, highly evocative of the nighttown locations, but sometimes they're jarringly intercut with shots that are conventionally lighted and framed. Considering the gross overextension of the shoot and the indulgence of the actors, however, it makes perfect sense that the movie feels like the result of a game of 52 pick-up rather than the realization of a design.
Movie Review

The Devil Wears Prada: Apologies All Around

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;

And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.

Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

—Matthew 4:8-10
SPOILER ALERT

Would The Devil Wears Prada be as popular with a title that more accurately described it, say, The Girl Who Was Just Too Nice to Work at a Fashion Magazine? Be forewarned: The movie promises more hell than it delivers.

Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), an earnest, frumpy Northwestern journalism major, gets a job as second assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the editor-in-chief of Runway magazine, the arbiter of taste in international fashion. Andy doesn't care about clothes or Runway, and is an apparently beastly size 6, but Miranda takes a chance on her because Andy is intelligent and the last two stick-thin drones were "disappointments." Adapted from Lauren Weisberger's fictional write-up of her months slaving for Anna Wintour at Vogue, the story isn't a novel but a romance of temptation, as the title suggests. Miranda may be the high priestess of high fashion, but with respect to Andy, author of "worthy" college-newspaper articles, she's Satan offering a splendorous but superficial world, the only world Miranda imagines anybody truly wants (but one in which betrayal is the norm).

The romance of temptation, in which the protagonist's soul undergoes a symbolic test, has been a durable genre, high and low, from the Book of Job through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Faust on down to The Devil's Advocate (1997). If, however, the heroine is going to be as immune to temptation as Andy is, like Job and Jesus before her, then the spiritual dimension better be staggering, as it is in Job and the Gospels, because the narrative will have no suspense.

Not only is the spiritual dimension far from important in The Devil Wears Prada, it's incoherent. Andy is such a good girl, so resourceful and determined, that she overcomes her antipathy to the job and starts dressing up and living the part of assistant. If she changes on the inside we don't see it, and yet the movie treats her like a cutthroat sell-out.

This is what we do see: Andy hands out thousands of dollars' worth of designer accessories and cosmetics to her friends over dinner and then when she gets a call from Miranda they play keep-away with her cell phone and are shocked when she calls them "assholes." Andy misses her boyfriend's birthday party only because Miranda orders her to work late. Afterwards, she passes up an opportunity to have a drink with the editor of New York, and possibly further her dream career as a journalist, in order to rush home and give b.f. a Magnolia Bakery cupcake with a candle in it. He goes to bed barely speaking to her. Later, a friend sees Andy receive an unsolicited peck on the cheek from some guy on the make and scolds her, saying she doesn't know the person Andy has become. These friends could function in the concept only if they represented allegorical virtues that Andy transgresses; failing that they come off as prigs. (And none of them speaks those magic words: "I'll pay your rent while you look for a worthier job."

At work, Andy is promoted over Emily (Emily Blunt), Miranda's bitchy first assistant, and is tapped to accompany the boss to Paris for fashion week. It's entirely a merit-based promotion, and yet Andy tries to turn it down because of how much the trip means to Emily, and still feels guilty after Miranda insists, though Emily is physically incapacitated at the time anyway. (Andy is also unfailingly, and admirably, pleasant to the wretched Emily.) The movie seems to concur when the other characters treat Andy as if she connived to get the trip.

So Andy starts out whining and ends up apologizing. She also, naturally, quits Runway, leaving Miranda in the lurch, which is actually the only thing she does in the movie for which she owes anybody an apology. She supposedly redeems herself with a job on a newspaper that covers things like labor disputes. (At which point Miranda acts not as tempter but as fairy godmother.)

The Devil Wears Prada is as much of a drag as All About Eve would be if the Eve character were as harmless and devoted to the star to whom she's a personal assistant as she claims to be. Oh, and if the dialogue didn't crackle. Much of the supposed wit here consists of "gay" one-liners at Andy's expense given to Emily and Runway's fashion editor Nigel (Stanley Tucci). Andy herself tells Nigel how tired they become—the scriptwriter should have listened to herself.

Because Andy is such a very good girl, The Devil Wears Prada is not structurally a work of irony, so Streep's showy, semi-satirical turn as the quirkily demanding boss isn't set in a fitting context. Streep does give some memorable line readings, particularly the tiny bell tinkle in the way she dismisses people by saying, "That's all." Giving Miranda a quiet manner and voice is inspired; we have to refocus our antennae to pick up how withering a slight purse of the lips can be. Streep has enormous theatrical skill but in the past she has tried too hard in comedy. In She Devil (1989) and Death Becomes Her (1992), she wasn't lazy but didn't waste any subtlety on us, as if the very idea of Streep playing for laughs would slay us. She's calmer and much more economical here, as she is in A Prairie Home Companion, in which Robert Altman softens her even more by giving her less control over when she'll be heard in a scene. Together, these are the most singing of Streep's performances, and I don't think she's ever been more gorgeous.

Maybe the movie would have worked better for me if Miranda had been the lead role. She could be a lampoon character and still have more scope if the movie were more like SoapDish (1991), starring Sally Field as the soap opera headliner clinging to stardom, or The Belles of St. Trinians (1954), starring Alastair Sim in drag as the headmistress of a girl's school trying to make ends meet. (He also plays "her" own shady brother.) It's paltry to ask us to resent Miranda, who is a fictional boss, after all; that just hardwires the whining into the movie's structure.

Instead, the script wobbles between broad satire and "human" touches. For instance, it tries to give Miranda dimension by showing her without makeup sighing over her latest failed marriage and saying that the inevitable bad press is so unfair to her twin girls (who otherwise seem about as vulnerable as Thing 1 and Thing 2). If they wanted us to respond to Miranda as a realistic character, they would have done well to show us how much oil it takes to put a placid surface on those turbulent waters. Sadly, the single most interesting aspect of the plot—how Miranda manages to keep her feet during a personnel earthquake at Runway's parent company—isn't in the movie. And Hollywood not being as confident as it was when it made Funny Face (1957), featuring Kay Thompson in a take-off on Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, The Devil Wears Prada doesn't even show us how Miranda's aesthetic decisions shape style (as in the "Think Pink" number in the earlier movie).

Yes, there's a heart-of-darkness element to working for a powerful, high-profile boss in a glamour industry, precisely because a million girls would kill for the job, as Andy is repeatedly told. Any time underlings become fungible, and the person in power is not publicly accountable, the results aren't pleasant. But Swimming With Sharks (1995), starring Frank Whaley as the assistant to Hollywood talent agent Kevin Spacey, understands temptation romance in a way The Devil Wears Prada doesn't. In that movie, success is a bad outcome because it makes the assistant like the person he fears and loathes. Hathaway's Andy is made over on the outside only; she knows she's not like Miranda even when Miranda tells her she is. By contrast, Whaley undergoes a frightening transformation from a shiny-bright hopeful to a hotshot with a black hole for an aura talking big to his buddies. (Swimming With Sharks also counters the canard, mindlessly repeated by Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, that if a male boss did what Miranda does he would be praised rather than blamed. The movie is so dumb it doesn't realize that that would be no excuse even if it were true.)

And yet Anne Hathaway is surprisingly good as Andy, and actually carries this clumsily conceived wreck. She's not conventionally pretty, certainly not in the early scenes, but she glamorizes beautifully. I especially like the Rococo silhouette her sloping shoulders give her. Even better, Hathaway makes Andy recognizably the same girl throughout, dressed up or down—a bit gosling-eyed and gawky, but reasonably centered and down-to-earth. She's believably nice without being yucky and has a few wonderful moments of comic teasing involving a Marc Jacobs bag and then a high-end lacy bra.

The Devil Wears Prada is especially disappointing coming from director David Frankel whose first feature, Miami Rhapsody (1995) starring Sarah Jessica Parker, is arguably the finest American comedy with a sole female protagonist. I'm not sure how The Devil Wears Prada could be better without a radical overhaul, but perhaps its success will open doors for Frankel to do more distinctive work in the future.