Sunday, October 30, 2011

De Niro's Project

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2005)

So I’ll admit it, I’m unnaturally obsessed with Robert De Niro. I think I’ve written at least five times over the years about his career, most recently just a few months ago when I briefly reviewed Meet the Fockers. My thoughts at that time were perhaps excessively coloured by his then-recent Saturday Night Live appearance, which was pretty dire. But now Hide and Seek has me thinking about him all over again.

Why Do It?

Most reviews of Hide and Seek ponder on the same question: Why did De Niro do it? Bizarrely, he said in a recent interview that he wanted to work with director John Polson because he liked the performances in Polson’s previous film, Swimfan. But he’s never been particularly articulate in explaining himself. And I found myself thinking about Peter Sellers, and how by all accounts he stunned the makers of the 1967 would-be Bond spoof Casino Royale by deciding to play it straight. Tired of funny accents and make-up, he wanted to be like Cary Grant (or the simplified popular conception of Grant), to dazzle by being his suave self. But there was nothing Grant-like there – there was only a dull void (which, years later, Sellers finally understood and tapped into with Being There). The recent HBO movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers depicts this episode fairly successfully, although that film as a whole is far too choppy and hyperactive to be particularly illuminating.

It seems more and more that De Niro is drawn to a similar project, to rely on an inner essence, to function through nuanced but understated old-fashioned presence, rather than to make the great nervy leaps of earlier in his career. Note that he’s also recently sold himself to an American Express ad campaign, which is all about him as craggy New York icon. If you think about it a certain way, it’s as grand an experiment as anything he’s ever carried out. And since it’s brought him by far the greatest commercial success of his entire career, it can’t be counted a total failure. But it does feel that the experiment has gone on far too long, and that the run of easy entertainments could be alternated with more idiosyncratic work (a pattern evident in Al Pacino’s recent career). Maybe it’s for that reason that he recently accepted a small role in the independent film The Bridge of San Luis Rey, although early reviews suggest that project didn’t amount to very much.

Hide and Seek

If many critics are as preoccupied as I am by this, it’s only because of the magnitude of what De Niro accomplished early on. It’s hard to overestimate the accomplishment of his great run with Martin Scorsese. Not that the work didn’t have a distinctly mannered quality – the legend of his immersion in his characters was always a bit overstated. Whatever people may have thought they were responding to, it looks distinctly stylized now, but it’s a stylization rooted in a real understanding of neurosis and suppressed violence and intertwining light and dark, and apparently in some authentic personal demons. Of course, now we see the mechanism more clearly because everyone impersonates it (not least of all the man himself in the Analyze This movies). De Niro’s performances stand up nevertheless. But maybe he simply couldn’t absorb the demands of such extreme work indefinitely. The King of Comedy was his fifth film with Scorsese within ten years, and now we see with hindsight that it never got any better than that for him.

This year he’s directing for only the second time. Maybe that will prove itself a productive avenue for him. As for Hide and Seek, well, it could be worse. De Niro plays a psychologist who moves his young daughter from Manhattan to upstate New York after his wife kills herself. It’s meant to help the girl get over the trauma, but instead she acquires an “imaginary friend” called Charlie and gets rapidly creepier, parading around like Wednesday Addams. This is yet another of those “meta” movies, like Identity and Open Your Eyes and The Machinist and countless others, where you’re eventually forced to reinterpret much of what’s gone before as having been a dream or a parallel world or a fantasy in a damaged brain. God. I’m tired of that genre. I will admit that I didn’t foresee the revelation here, although that tells you more about how dumb I am than about the movie’s skill. When it comes, it’s revealed in an unusually maladroit fashion, and from then on it’s all standard stuff.

The set-up has distinct similarities to The Shining, which of course doesn’t work to Hide and Seek’s advantage one bit. The movie’s main quality is a low-key rustic contemplativeness, although maybe there I’m being too kind to what in fact is merely an overwhelming lack of rigour. But De Niro is quietly effective as the withdrawn, low-key father. At one point he accepts a bag of preserves from a neighbour and comments on the contents. It’s as normal a thing as he’s ever done, and for that reason struck me as utterly surreal.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Given what I said about The King of Comedy, it’s interesting how Sean Penn’s performance in Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon carries echoes of De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin. Penn’s character, set in 1974, initially seems like a tragi-comic misfit - he tries to make it as an office furniture salesman and to reunite with his estranged wife, and his ineffectiveness is mostly amusing, but always with an ominous edge. Some scenes – like his ill-fated attempt to get a business development loan – could seem almost like direct transcriptions of De Niro’s oblivious hounding of Jerry Lewis. As events turn against him, he becomes unhinged, leading to his cooking up the scheme of the film’s title.

The film has some interesting elements – Penn’s sense of social justice, focusing on a mixed bag of issues from racial prejudice to excessive retail mark-ups, is fascinatingly original - but it always feels rather insular and distant, failing to imbue its precision with much passion. It’s much more intelligent and ambitious than Hide and Seek, but the sad truth is that even though it’s ten minutes shorter than that film, it feels considerably longer. The main attraction, of course, is Penn, who is as resourceful as ever. But the role is inherently a minor one for him. And then recently I’ve seen him in the trailer for Sydney Pollack’s forthcoming film The Interpreter, in which he plays a cop protecting Nicole Kidman as a UN employee caught up in some kind of peril. In the trailer Penn looks solid and dependable, but it’s clearly not a project of the kind he usually does. He’s the closest thing we have now to what De Niro used to be, he’s in his mid-40’s, and he has his Oscar. Should we fear for his artistic future?

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