(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)
A few notes on three recent films, all broadly belonging to the comedy category:
Dear Frankie, directed by Shona Auerbach, is about a Scottish single mother of a deaf nine-year-old; his father was a louse they left behind somewhere, but the boy thinks he’s at sea, and writes letters to a post office box from which he receives responses penned by the mother. Eventually, events dictate either that she breaks the pretense or that the father somehow appears, so she enlists a stranger to play the part for the day. Of course, all three find their fictionalized structure utterly beguiling, although the film doesn’t resolve itself quite as neatly as you initially expect. It’s also not as sentimental as it might be, it’s not at all funny (although it’s apparently intended to be so in a wistful kind of way) and the basic storyline doesn’t amount to much incident when stretched over the course of a full-length film, so it seems at times that this is the epitome of a movie about next to nothing. It has a couple of saving virtues though. The first is the scrupulous depiction of life in a dead-end milieu at the wrong end of the economic spectrum – a place with such limited horizons that a character can sit on the hill overlooking the dismal looking port and say it’s her favourite sight in the whole world. Second is the performance by Emily Mortimer as the mother – it’s very delicate work, full of small details, and evidencing a superb emotional mobility that contrasts nicely with her slightly gawky features; the film allows her some personal development, but not enough that it becomes mawkish, and this restraint shows up in other ways as well. So the film is fine to watch, but it lacks that streak of wildness or daring that sometimes lifts modest material into the realms of the transcendental.
Melinda and Melinda
Woody Allen’s latest film is his best in a while, and it’s truly disappointing how little that amounts to. It starts with two playwrights bickering over dinner about the relative merits of comedy and tragedy; when a dining companion throws in a sample plotline, each takes it in a different direction to illustrate his thesis, and the film depicts these two directions in parallel plotlines that wrap around each other. In each case, a distraught woman named Melinda, played by Radha Mitchell, unexpectedly turns up at a dinner party, and things go on from there. The tragic story co-stars Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller; the comic tale has Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet. As usual, Allen’s ability to attract a fine cast provides his film a major boost.
The problems with Melinda and Melinda are easy enough to set out. The initial thesis is trite – the opposition between the two extremes is unsophisticated, sounding like something Allen might have mulled over at the dawn of his career. In any event, the comic story is only very marginally funnier than the tragic one. Nowadays Allen’s notion of funny is characterized merely by a generalized whininess, and the dialogue has become horrendously lazy – Ferrell, playing an actor, is allowed to repeat four times a lame bit about how his innovative approach to a particular character involved affecting a limp. Conversely, the approach to tragedy is heavily dependent on grim, extended monologues, delivered while staring off into the middle distance.
The movie is entertaining enough scene by scene, and it avoids the sheer clunkiness of several recent Allen movies. It looks handsome too, although Allen’s home territory seems to be shrinking further, down to just a few Manhattan blocks; and of course the characters’ primary occupations and preoccupations never change either. Nowadays Allen seems to set merely incremental challenges for himself, perhaps still thinking of how Ingmar Bergman and his other heroes worked consistently within a superficially narrow aesthetic. But it is hard to deny that his films feel rushed and under-considered. Still, if all others move away, I will be there to the end. And his next film was shot in the UK, which at least gives us the prospect of something fresh (if only because it will be amusing to see how he pulls off his customary trick of making the British actors sound like Allen himself).
Up And Down
Part of the problem with Allen is that he shows no interest in politics, or in the environment, or in social evolution (after 35 years, it struck many critics as notable that a key role in Melinda and Melinda is played by black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor). Not that he ever was, but when he seemed to be alone in mining a particular and relevant emotional territory, it didn’t matter. Nowadays you might wonder why we should care about a director who seems to care so little about us.
The utter decline of the US is lampooned effectively enough by the likes of Jon Stewart and in any amount of online commentary, but we have not seen much effective satire from American cinema lately. For that we must go to other countries, where contemporary fault lines are perhaps debated with less sanctimonious hypocrisy. For an example, see the new Czech film Up And Down, directed by Jan Hrebek, which concentrates in particular on the stresses of the country’s transition to a multicultural society. In the primary plotline, a slightly dim witted security guard tries to cast off his history as a militant soccer hooligan; his wife longs unsuccessfully for a baby, eventually buying a dark-skinned child accidentally acquired by a couple of refugee smugglers. The guard overcomes his initial revulsion and bonds with the child, even standing up to his racist peers, but in the end bad luck, or perhaps inevitable societal gravity, pulls him back down.
The film has several other plotlines exploring related themes – the fragility of progressive liberal intentions when faced with eruptions of violence; the reluctance of the older generation to accept the changing attitudes of the younger; the intertwining of the personal and the political; the visceral appeal of mass brutishness; the way a volatile society generates winners and losers (it also has a cameo appearance by Vaclav Havel, which may be too clear a signal of its ambition). None of this is completely resolved, and the film is not as subtle as it might be, but it doesn’t overplay its cynicism and doesn’t let sheer structure and narrative overwhelm its sensitivity to character; compared to something like, say, Mexico’s Amores Perros, it’s clear that the tone here is more in sorrow than in anger. By virtue of its origins, it has by far the lowest profile of the three films dealt with here, but by any conceivable measure it’s worth twice the other two put together. Not least of all – it’s the funniest.