Sunday, December 2, 2012

Men in Trouble

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2007)
Mike Binder’s Reign over Me is a big shambling mass of 9/11 survivor guilt, mixed in with multiple brands of new age male neurosis and sloppy fantasy; it’s always watchable but never completely persuasive. Don Cheadle plays Johnson, a dentist, coasting along with his wife and two daughters. He runs into his old college roommate Charlie, played by Adam Sandler, a man who dropped from sight after his wife and three girls were killed on one of the planes. Charlie’s so out of it that he doesn’t even recognize his former best friend (or claims not to at least – the character’s psychological state varies a bit depending on the demands of individual scenes); he spends his time in a regressive (although well-financed) state of adolescent self-absorption, playing video games, collecting vinyl and jamming in a band, watching movies and riding around town on a motor scooter. Johnson gets through to him and rapidly starts spending more and more of his time in “Charlie world,” which creates friction at home. But Charlie is plainly unstable – sometimes he explodes in anger and his heart is emptier than he can bear. Johnson must lead him back, if he can only coax Charlie to confront his pain.

Earthly Tragedy

The film presents a rich, enveloping vision of New York, and seems most comfortable when it’s just about guys hanging out together. Binder confines Jada Pinkett Smith, as Johnson’s wife, to the role of brittle ball buster, but throws in alternate diversions that seem like the stuff of late night dreams – Saffron Burrows as a woman obsessed with the dentist, and Liv Tyler as a gentle psychiatrist. Burrows’ character seems almost as screwed up as Sandler’s, but Binder doesn’t take much care with her, creating the distinct impression that grand, dramatic suffering is a male enclave (there’s barely a person in the film who’s not hurting in one way or another though). Johnson’s languishing too of course, and Charlie motivates him to be more assertive to his condescending partners, and in the end to better focus on things at home.

Like Binder’s last release The Upside of Anger (which had Joan Allen as a mother of four daughters, also going off the deep end after her husband abandons her), Reign over Me has epic ambition, but sometimes faltering execution – both films feel at times as if the director merely shoots anything that passes through his head. That does give them a distinctive, sometimes affecting contour – the new film feels like honest testimony of some kind, even if its broader applicability seems inherently questionable. Sandler is fairly effective, but his character seems unmoored to any earthly tragedy, let alone 9/11: he’s a creation of the Id, a variation on the holy fool, spawning from the popular culture with which he crams his existence.

I Think I Love My Wife

In search for alternate points of entry into the battered modern male psyche, Chris Rock reaches back into Eric Rohmer’s movie from the early 70’s, Love in the Afternoon (also known as Chloe in the Afternoon). Now called I Think I Love my Wife, in its bare bones it’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation, as restlessly married businessman Rock runs into the sexy ex-girlfriend of an old buddy, and starts to hang out with her way more than he should, imperiling both his home and work life, even though nothing actually happens. Kerry Washington’s Nicki is an outstandingly plausible piece of sheer trouble, investing the film with an energy it otherwise lacks.

Which isn’t to say it’s without interest. Sporting a nerdy moustache, Rock inhabits an unprepossessing put-upon mode, and seems to be severely rationing his film’s outright laughs; even when he includes (say) a broad (distinctly un-Rohmer like) set piece involving a Viagra overdose, there’s a rather desperate, pinched quality to things which well suits the basic premise. This doesn’t go anywhere unfortunately – the relationship with his wife is underdeveloped (never giving him an inch, she belongs in a club with the Jada Pinkett Smith character), and the very premise (revolving around Rock’s habits of taking lunch at 2 in the afternoon) doesn’t work as well in the contemporary corporate world as it did in more genteel 70’s France. Still, it’s an interesting enough project. By the way, the firm where Rock works is called Pupkin and Langford, an apparent nod to the two protagonists of Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy. Perhaps his character’s unfulfilled compulsive fantasizing has some broad kinship with De Niro’s Pupkin, but the reference doesn’t really do Rock’s film any favours. And what film could possibly synthesize both Rohmer and Scorsese as guiding spirits?

The Host

The Host is an entertaining monster movie from South Korea. An arrogantly careless American scientist orders that vast amounts of unwanted formaldehyde be poured down the sink, and four years later the local river has spawned a mutant giant carnivorous fish that leaps out of the water, scoops up the locals, and plunges back into the depths. A dysfunctional family comes together when the monster carries a young girl away; then she calls them on a cell – she’s still alive, and they have to get to her. The trouble is, they’ve been quarantined for a suspected virus carried by the beast – they bust out, and have the whole city after them.

I’m not sure the film is quite as scintillating as some of the more rapturous reviews suggest, but it’s never dull and never merely functional. The conception of the mutant is gleefully absurd, but the intrigue over the virus is distinctly reminiscent of pre-Iraq WMD talk; America takes a restrained but firm drubbing here. The family dynamics are worked out with unusual care, and director Bong Joon-ho’s use of comedy and excess is quite audacious at times. It has the narrative craziness typical of the genre, but also some unexpected tragedy. Overall The Host is satisfyingly intelligent viewing that never gets stuffy or pretentious about its genre, with an unusually genial authorial voice.

The Lookout is the directorial debut of noted screenwriter Scott Frank, who wrote Out of Sight and Get Shorty. This too is a somewhat old-fashioned thriller, notable for its scrupulous internal logic and for its immersion in its protagonist’s psychology. He’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, again intriguingly vulnerable as a former golden boy rendered mentally fallible by a tragic accident; he relies on a series of notes and cues to get through his day, attending a skills training centre by day and janitoring at a rural bank by night. His weakness, and frustration at his diminished prospects, makes him an easy mark for a gang that’s been eyeing up the vault.

It’s a deliberately placed movie – even the higher-octane closing stretch is quite low-key by contemporary standards – and it’s intriguing for how the character must battle himself almost as much as the violent adversaries (several critics have cited Memento, although The Lookout is quite a bit less involved and taxing). It’s hard to be effusive about Frank’s film – it feels as if, first time out, he wanted to lay a modest bet, bring home a small but well-played pot, and save the real effort for next time. Even the title feels kind of modest, if you know what I mean.

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