Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Unlucky Stars

Watching miscast actors give poor performances is just miserable, because there's nothing you can do for them except watch them wriggle. The experience is particularly dolorous when the performers are estimably better than the current script or picture is allowing them to be, and it's worst of all when they are the kind of honest, committed joes who don't just sleepwalk through a bad movie or an ill-fitting vehicle or a poorly written part, but who instead keep trying to redeem the experience. If they're lucky, like Jodie Foster was in Inside Man, the rest of the film hums along with such confidence and panache, making such roomy allowances for experiment and unexpected silliness, that the failure to bring a character into focus doesn't register all that much. (Plus, having beheld Foster's embattled, nostril-flaring resolve one too many times on screen, I found her loose, daring miscalculations in Inside Man almost a pleasure in themselves.) The early fall, however, has brimmed with less fortunate actors, wrangling in vain with major roles in movies that aren't good enough to compensate for them or to distract our attention. You might have thought that the miscasting and careless directing of actors couldn't get any worse than it did in The Black Dahlia, and—well, maybe you're still right. But these three movies, all of them worse than the addled but unnerving Dahlia, give Brian De Palma and casting directors Lucy Boulting and Johanna Ray a dismal run for their money:

Director: Allen Coulter
(Mis)Casting Director: Joanna Colbert
This flat-footed procedural offers a marginal Hollywood malfeasance as some kind of plangently tragic conundrum. The question of who killed George Reeves (Ben Affleck), the star of TV's Superman, gets sieved and re-sieved through the dully interlocking stories of his failure to score better parts, his affair with a studio boss' wife (Diane Lane), and his later relationship with a piranha who doesn't care about him (Robin Tunney). Plus, he has the bad luck to be posthumously investigated by a swaggering, irritating, hotheaded detective, instead of by someone that a movie audience might actually want to spend two hours with. Sadly, there is no ironic resonance in the fact that Adrien Brody has barely less contempt for his part as the detective than Reeves had for his padded-suit Man of Steel. Brody constantly winks that he's way too cool for this shoddily written role, perhaps too cool for the industry as a whole—though he sure looks awfully sincere whenever he spouts one of the script's limping banalities about the loneliness of fame or the distorting power of the newsmedia. Presumably, Brody is only too happy to let Affleck hoard all the big press, which reached a sort of dadaist climax when he won the Best Actor award at Venice in September. I can only assume that Catherine Deneuve and her fellow jurors were bribed (money? gelato? weed?) into seeing something remarkable in Affleck's sad spectacle. The "takes one to know one" thesis behind this casting might sound nervy on paper, but however well the sullied inadequacy of Affleck's career and abilities are meant to rhyme with those of Reeves, we still have his minuscule range, stolid physicality, and inveterate self-regard to contend with. Hollywoodland never makes a case that Reeves' death is worth probing, or even mourning; as on Superman, his humanity is utterly stifled by lousy production values and unrewarding stunts. D–

The Science of Sleep
Director: Michel Gondry
(Mis)Casting Director: Julie Navarro
This antic, inventively disheveled, but egregiously overconceptualized movie wins some points for ultimately defying the goopy winsomeness that keeps threatening to take it over. For a long, long time, the mismatch between the giddy, colorful, through-the-looking-glass romanticism of Gondry's visuals and the flat, ashy mundanity of the central love story feels like a galling error. Ultimately, the film justifies our skepticism in a scene of wormy, exhausted anger that's unlike almost anything else in the movie, but the backloading of the film's intelligence isn't sufficient reward for having made it through 100 minutes of capricious indulgence. Gondry, who also wrote the script, has immersed us too heavily, too often, and with such mismanaged abruptness in the arrested-adolescent projections of his protagonist that I, for one, was too exhausted to make the leap into the film's climactic revelations. Plus, to fill the role of a restive, pouting, sexually repressed manchild, Gondry and Navarro have tapped, of all people, Gael García Bernal, whose handsome charisma, confident comportment, and lithe accessibility to both the audience and his fellow actors all make him woefully wrong for this Pee Wee Herman/Chuck & Buck type. Granted, The Science of Sleep would lack much force of irony or discovery had it typecast the part with more overt maladjustment, but García Bernal looks itchy and effortful throughout. Neither he nor Charlotte Gainsbourg looks remotely at peace inside the clamorous, surrealist set-design. In fact, everyone looks uncertain as to how their writer-director is going to pull all of this chaos and whimsy and distant, thrumming sadness into something architecturally sound and emotionally lucid. Few people could or would make a film like this, but the question remains open whether anyone should—especially with a reigning global sex-symbol toiling so far afield from any of his tonal, psychological, technical, or linguistic comfort zones. C

All the King's Men
Director: Steven Zaillian
(Mis)Casting Director: Avy Kaufman
By its very example, All the King's Men formulates an even more stinging indictment of Hollywood than Hollywoodland does in two hours of direct address. King's Men plays as a veritable autopsy of itself; to watch the movie is to watch it go wrong, to observe the tempting gleam of the film that might have been grow ever dimmer. James Horner's score is so hammering and colossal from the outset that you can foresee how overstated and mechanical the whole damned beast is going to be. One is tempted, retroactively, to cede even more of the success of Zaillian's previous features—Searching for Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action—to the subtle, rookie-friendly wisdom of the late Conrad Hall. Sadly, in his stead, cinematographer Pawel Edelman inappropriately mimics the same palette of deep black, burnished golds, and scattered patches of white that made The Pianist both elegant and harrowing, but this look is all wrong for New Orleans, and not nearly complex enough to keep pace with the dense, multi-character plot. Not that Zaillian's script has preserved the plot all that well, either—entire subplots, like the fate of Willie Stark's son, are telegraphed and semaphored without ever reaching their destinations. But the real tragedy of All the King's Men is that its entire cast of luminaries, splashed all over the most self-canonizing preview trailer since Cinderella Man, fall so collectively and humiliatingly on their faces. Jude Law trots out his rendition of the cynical bystander as long as he possibly can; James Gandolfini is amateurish and flat, failing despite his physical heft to plausibly intimidate Sean Penn; Penn himself gives great, deranged stump speeches but falls back repeatedly on old tics in all his other scenes; Mark Ruffalo is milky and hesitant; Patricia Clarkson mines her role for bitter comedy as a way to stand apart from Mercedes McCambridge's long shadow, which fully eclipses her anyway. Worst in show, I'm sorry to say, is Kate Winslet, who doesn't seem to know this admittedly unknowable woman at all, who squats under a succession of terrible wigs, who loses a whole monologue beneath a needlessly overlaid voiceover by Jude Law, and who is lensed again and again through butter-colored scrims and in pools of french vanilla. Having failed to learn her David Gale lesson about staying well away from Southern political dramas, Winslet has only this as a silver lining: Gwyneth Paltrow starred in Hush, Halle Berry in Swordfish, Charlize Theron in The Italian Job, and Reese Witherspoon in Just Like Heaven in the same years they all won their Oscars. The Little Children camp may as well start crossing their fingers. C–

(Image © 2006 Columbia Pictures)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three potential big-hitters, three disappointments, then, I guess.

9:06 AM, October 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such a brilliant concept: (mis)casting directors.

Thanks for another wowza post.

10:01 AM, October 05, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I actually thought Bernal handled the stretch remarkably well --and the discomfort worked for the character..

I understand being exhausted by it. I did want Gondry to pull back several times and it reminded me of Human Nature more than the control of Eternal Sunshine but I also obviously found it more rewarding than you did.

10:07 AM, October 05, 2006  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Oh! I see that you're reading The Master. I love that book so much. (I love this post, too, but I've actually *read* the book, whereas I'm taking your word for it on these films.)

10:18 PM, October 05, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@N: Admittedly, there were moments when I thought the discomfort worked for the character. I like that Gael seems ready to improvise and to follow the whims of very different directors, and it made me think that he might eventually be very good at these sorts of parts. I just didn't think he was very good in this one.

@Dr. S: I actually haven't opened it yet; I just checked it out after an especially ardent endorsement from a colleague. But knowing that you like it, too, will definitely fast-track it!

9:39 AM, October 06, 2006  
Blogger J.J. said...

I disagree. Affleck's perf is no prize-winner, but it demonstrates that he is not just an overripe matinee idol destined to squirm in the gossip rags. He is capable of a Mitchum-esque performance, in that he can create and embody a character while not seeming to *act* at all. He *performs*.

Brody's just riffing on the Sam Spade schtick. And he does it well. I don't think he was scoffing at the movie at all.

10:40 AM, October 06, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@J.J.: I still think Affleck's Good Will Hunting performance, helpfully freed of having to carry the movie, authenticated that "Mitchum-esque" potential you describe as well as anything he's done since, to include the Hollywoodland turn. I actually found his performance choices uncomfortably legible and deliberate as George Reeves (a smile here, a shrug here, a disconsolate pause there), in contrast to some of his more relaxed, lived-in performances. It's interesting how the same performance can "read" so differently to different viewers.

I certainly see the "riffing" argument re: Brody. Maybe you see him winking at/within the character, where I saw him winking at/above the movie? My problem was that nothing else in Hollywoodland winks, except an excitingly trashy turn from Robin Tunney. Everything felt so painfully puffed-up and lugubrious to me that Brody's approach kept jarring with the vehicle—only further detaching his storyline from Affleck's, and thus exacerbating the script's serious difficulties in stitching those two frameworks together. (Why, indeed, do we need the Brody storyline at all?)

10:52 AM, October 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow... All the King's Men and The Black Dahlia get better nods from Nick than Hollywoodland? We watched different movies, is all I can say.

Hollywoodland poorly written with lousy production values? Hmmm. It had less than a quarter of the budget of the other two flicks. Even so, it LOOKED better to me than either of those and its acting, script AND direction outclassed the other two, in my opinion.

I don't actually watch movies demanding a reason to "care" about their characters. Not in any traditional sense of the word "care," at any rate. But I think that might explain why Half Nelson and Sherrbaby, two horrible films (the first mawkish and predictable beyond belief and the latter a parody template of a Sundance redemption film) get higher marks than Hollywoodland here.

Nick, man, what's going on!

12:22 PM, October 06, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Anonymous: The All the King's Men grade might well be a little generous. The film only taps into any sense of formal or thematic urgency a few times—maybe just when Willie Stark understands how he's being used as a dupe (and lashes out anon at this system of machination), and later when Willie, Jack, and the Judge have their three-way confrontation. The rest is mostly a hash of, at best, overdone proficiency and, at worst, and much more often, sloppy editing, poor, structure and Same Old News. Still, I could see why someone would make this movie—and a better, tighter, more sincere incarnation of that movie peeped out every now and then.

By contrast, Hollywoodland never, to me, recommends any formal or thematic value; it steeps almost entirely in clichés (about Hollywood, about fame, about media and cover-ups, about Not Being Able To Know What Really Happened). As I say above, the Brody "storyline," if that's really an apt enough word for 50% of the movie, seems utterly gratuitous (partly because it proceeds so precisely according to expectations, and without disclosing anything interesting in the gap between Reeves' life and Simo's meditations on it). It's hard to come to any agreement on production values except to say that I thought the lighting effects were very simplistic and often inconsistent. The scene where Brody interviews Kathleen Robertson behind her house was almost unwatchably ugly. Good scripts, meanwhile, don't cost anything, so there is no excuse for the nonsense about Brody's wrecked home life, the contrivances-played-straight like Simo and Leonore running into each other at the crime scene (and exchanging dialogue recognizable fromm dozens of other movies).

The Black Dahlia, as I hope I communicate in my review, is a perfect emblem of why my "grading" system is a serviceable but extremely limited way to chalk up a movie. Dahlia has a host of things wrong with it (ill-coordinated, unsuccessfully realized, boringly recycled from other movies), but De Palma's enormous and occasionally inventive directorial investment becomes a point of fascination in its own right, and the scenes that "work" are quite stunning, maybe even more so because of their surrounding context of borderline incoherence.

6:20 PM, October 06, 2006  
Blogger findfinishfreedom said...

D clunkers, huh? but how are the soundtracks? you know my theory: the lower the rating, the catchier the score. A D is for hmm-mmm Damn good soundtrack, i hope ;-)

9:12 PM, October 09, 2006  

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