Monday, January 26, 2009

Groundhog Day

On the DVD commentary for Groundhog Day (1993), director Harold Ramis rather grumpily allows as how Bill Murray said it was probably the best work he or Ramis would ever do.

No kidding. Groundhog Day outshines Murray’s and Ramis’ other movies like the sun outshines the North Star. And that’s not the half of it: This deceptively modest little rom-com is one of the best movies anyone made in the second half of the 20th century.

Ramis, who wrote the script for Animal House, still specializes in that antiauthoritarian, frat-boy/stoner brand of baby boomer comedy that was invented by him and his pals at the National Lampoon. Movies like Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters have a kind of tossed-off, anything-goes vibe that’s appealing. But they’re allergic to emotion, and they can be tiresomely manic and boyishe, like watching a hyperactive kid as he gets all wound up.

On the other extreme, Murray can be too still in the movies. For about two decades starting in the late ‘70s, he played the coolly ironic, often conniving eye of the storm in kinetic boomer comedies. But the more fans warmed up to his work, the cooler he seemed to grow. In time, the bemused distance he projected from nearly everything else infected his acting as well. Casual to the point of contempt, he began to let his deadpan smirk congeal into a mask.

During the height of his popularity, a lot of Murray’s movies were written and/or directed by Ramis. But no other was like Groundhog Day, the seventh movie they made together. (It was also the last, since they clashed over how philosophical the movie should be. Murray wanted to go more serious; Ramis insisted on sticking to comedy.)

The very funny and elegantly simple script is the story of an arrogant, emotionally walled-off TV weatherman, Phil Connors (Murray). Phil goes to podunk Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog Day, along with his long-suffering cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott) and his new producer, Rita (Andie McDowell). They’re supposed to cover the ritual emergence of the weather-predicting rodent and then go home to Pittsburgh, but a blizzard snows them in overnight.

When he wakes up, Phil finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. What’s worse, only he remembers the other Groundhog Days. Everyone else keeps living each new day as if it were the first.

But sometime in the past few years, Groundhog Day has slipped into a seat beside other American classics--movies like The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life–about people who learn to appreciate what they have only after they’re pulled out of their lives and into an alternate reality.

A nicely edited cascade of scenes shows Phil waking up to his situation, going through a range of emotions based on Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross’ five stages of grief and cooking up inventive ways to pass the endlessly looping time. Eventually, though we don’t know whether it’s been months or years, he’s climbs out of his own head and connects with other people.

His motivation is Rita, the moral center of the film. McDowell is good without being pious, radiating a skeptical intelligence and a palpable warmth that help keep the movie grounded. At first, Phil just wants to trick Rita into bed, but after spending countless days with her, he falls in love. And once he can see her generosity and warmth, he can start to emulate it, becoming a better man.

Both Murray’s snark and the sensitivity that lurks way, way below his smarmy surface are used here to perfection, for once. Phil is fun to watch when he’s being gleefully nasty, plunging daggers into people who barely know they’ve been nicked. He’s even more interesting when he starts to feel vulnerable. And when he finally delivers a couple of romantic speeches, his hard-won vulnerability makes them more affecting than they would have been from an easier mark.

The soundtrack makes witty and memorable use of a Sonny and Cher song, the Pennyslvania Polka, a bluesy theme song cowritten by Ramis and sung by Delbert McClinton, and old standards like “You Don’t Know Me.” The dialogue is memorable too, full of the kind of snappy lines you don’t hear much in movies these days. (“Don’t you have some kind of line you keep open for emergencies, or celebrities?” Phil demands, when he first realizes he’s trapped in Punxsutawney. “I’m both! I’m a celebrity in an emergency.”)

Screenwriter Danny Rubin is a Buddhist, and he wrote Phil’s journey as a metaphor for reincarnation. But Rubin and Ramis, who reworked the script before shooting it, slip in the movie’s messages and meditations unobtrusively, leaving you to discover them for yourself.

This lovely little story illustrates a message so basic it’s central to all the world’s great religions, not to mention the concept of secular humanism: Being a mensch is its own reward, since being good to your neighbors makes you part of the neighborhood, and we all want to be part of a community. And that makes Groundhog Day a good fable for this Irony Age.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Last Chance Harvey

By Elise Nakhnikian

The story arc in Last Chance Harvey is as old as the setting sun, but it’s a pretty sunset, thanks to the grace and skill of its actors and their evident delight in one other.

Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) and Kate Walker (Emma Thompson) make an odd-looking couple at first in this middle-aged romance. He’s considerably older (Hoffman’s 71 to Thompson’s 48), and she’s nearly a head taller in heels. More importantly, he’s a brash American on a spectacular losing streak, while she’s a briskly cheerful, self-effacing Englishwoman whose life seems all too stable.

But those facts are given their due – which is to say they’re acknowledged head-on, then dismissed. And as soon as Hoffman and Thompson start talking, it’s a delight to watch their believable, beleaguered characters slowly wake up to the notion that they might actually have a chance at happiness together.

Hoffman and Thompson wanted to act together again after their collaboration in Stranger Than Fiction, which Thompson described to MoviesOnline as “one of those rare discoveries that you make sometimes in our profession. You could just work with someone and there seems to be no obstacle, no solving, no edges to rub off, no nothing. It seems to happen with a very peculiar intimate ease.”

Writer/director Joel Hopkins, whose Jump Tomorrow was another formulaic love story galvanized by a marvelous cast, allowed his actors to improvise in rehearsals and adapted the script accordingly. As a result, Hoffman says, the characters are “close to ourselves” – Harvey, for instance, is a frustrated jazz pianist turned advertising jingle writer because, before he became an actor, Hoffman was a would-be jazz pianist who wasn’t good enough to make the grade.

When we first meet Harvey, he’s struggling to keep his job. In London for the wedding of a daughter he’s been estranged from for years, he’s also struggling to find his place among strangers while her mother (an astringently excellent Kathy Baker) and stepfather (James Brolin, aptly cast as a self-satisfied silver fox) beam from the center table. Harvey’s unease makes him clumsy, and Hoffman does some nicely deft slapstick, sometimes literally scrambling to keep his footing in a world where things just keep falling apart.

Kate, in contrast, is self-contained to a fault. A classy yet earthy Englishwoman, she calls the writing workshop she goes to a “clawss” but gets a kick out of the geriatric student there who writes violent porn. She’s a good soul and a good sport whose broad smile and devoted friends signal that she knows how to have fun. But she’s settled into a deadening routine, grown “comfortable with disappointment,” resigned to a life with too many obligations and not enough companionship.

As Hopkins cuts between the two to introduce us to them before they meet cute in an airport lounge, we can’t guess at the playfulness and ease they’ll bring out in each other, but Harvey senses it from the start. Praising Kate’s habit of speaking the truth, he really listens to her. She warms under his admiring gaze, soon dropping her guard and revealing the charm we glimpsed beneath her reserve.

Hoffman says Hopkins and cinematographer John de Borman set out to make London look like Paris in this film. If so, they succeeded. Hopkins, who grew up in London and whose parents were both architects, sends Hoffman and Thompson wandering through gorgeous locations. Their all-day, all-night courtship encompasses a golden sunset on the Thames, a silvery dawn in a beautiful plaza, and a lively rockabilly band encountered on the street.

This is a love story about and for grown-ups. The stars are refreshingly Botox-free, looking like better but attainable versions of the average baby boomer. The self-confidence Hoffman has developed with age makes him looser and more attractive, but those lips that still keep twitching before curling into a smile are so thin they’ve nearly disappeared, while Thompson has a bit of a tummy and lines around her eyes that make her look tired when she’s not flashing that 100-watt smile.

Hoffman and actress Liane Balaban also make the relationship between Harvey and his grown daughter feel painfully real. When Harvey toasts his daughter, he teeters on the same cliff edge Ann Hathaway’s Kym falls over with her self-pitying wedding toast in Rachel Getting Married. Harvey winds up on his feet, but it’s a harrowing journey.

Not even Hoffman can salvage his end of the obligatory missed meeting that throws an artificial roadblock in the way of Harvey’s and Kate’s relationship, though. (What, he couldn’t call?) And the marvelous Eileen Atkins is wasted as Kate’s overbearing mother, in a stereotyped, would-be comic role that involves way too many calls to her daughter’s cell phone and an unhealthy obsession with a Polish neighbor.

But then you’re back with Harvey and Kate and all is forgiven. Watching these two charming, touchingly vulnerable veterans fall in love with each other, we fall a little in love with them ourselves.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Revolutionary Road

By Elise Nakhnikian

Like AMC’s Mad Men, Revolutionary Road is set in Eisenhower-era Manhattan and the surrounding suburbs, where bright young men and beautiful women work hard to project glamorous insouciance, sucking on cigarettes and knocking back martinis as if their lives depended on it. But while the TV series puts fully realized characters on that tightrope, making us feel the thrill when they pull off the balancing act and the terror when they look into the abyss below, the movie puts everything in air quotes.

The problem is not that every detail of director Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel is so meticulously planned – from the immaculately costumed, beautifully lit herd of commuters flowing into Grand Central Station behind Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) to the painfully chipper chatter of his realtor, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates). The problem is that it feels so premeditated. The filmmakers have drained the juice and heat out of Yates’ lacerating prose, as surely they leached bright colors from their tastefully muted “retro” palette.

The self-deceiving Frank and his desperately unhappy wife April (Kate Winslet) are starting the slow slide into middle age, just beginning to lose their long-held conviction that they are somehow special, though they don’t know quite why. Then April has a brainstorm: They’ll climb out of their comfortable rut and head to Paris, where she’ll support the family while Frank takes some time off to “find himself.”

April is galvanized by the idea, regaining lost vigor. Frank likes it too for a while, using their plans to prove to himself and their friends that he really is destined for greatness. But the dirty secret he hides even from himself is that he actually likes his conformist life, even takes pride in the job he affects to scorn. Before long, Frank and April are waging an undeclared war, as he looks for a way out of the plan she clings to like a lifeline.

The novel gives us enough of the couple’s back stories and thoughts so we know what they’re feeling even when they’re not sure themselves. But the movie strips that away, leaving us to watch with increasing detachment as Frank, April, and their friends and coworkers do things that seem quaint, even absurd.

April in particular suffers as a result, demoted from a kind of protofeminist tragic heroine to a baffling neurotic. One moment she’s unable to stand the sight of her husband; the next she’s as solicitous as a Stepford wife. Without knowing what’s making her act that way, you’re apt to think Frank’s right when he tells her she needs psychotherapy.

Winslet and DiCaprio do their considerable best to bring April and Frank alive, even risking looking like bad actors to showcase their characters’ insincerity. DiCaprio, who proved in The Departed (2006) that he could finally pull off a grownup role, reverts to callow insecurity here, letting us see Frank strain as he tries to act sophisticated and “manly.” And Winslet, who won a Golden Globe award for this part, constantly recalibrates her expressive face to cue us into April’s turmoil, while using a theatrically mellifluous speaking voice to show us the effort she makes to control it.

But the filmmakers undercut that effort. The wide-aperture, blurred-background close-ups they favor may reveal every shift in their actors’ mobile faces, but they’re shooting from a cool, Olympian distance. Yates pulls you into his story with the sharp specificity of its details and observations, but Mendes and screenwriter Justin Haythe emphasize generics over specifics, often leaving us in the dark about what motivates the characters. Instead, they highlight the tragic arc of their tale, scoring it with an intrusively ominous soundtrack.

Like Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), Revolutionary Road flatters its audience by dressing up conventional wisdom as hard truths, constantly finding new ways to make the point that the “hopeless emptiness” of comfortably middle-class suburban life kills the soul.

That observation may have landed with the force of fresh insight when Yates wrote about it in 1961, but it hardly qualifies as news these days. In fact, with most women scrambling to pay their own bills and Manhattan’s suburbs becoming an increasingly diverse refuge for people who can’t afford to live in the city, the life of a stay-at-home mom in a sweet little house in Connecticut is beginning to look more like an enviable option than a stifling norm.

Of course, the past is never dead -- it’s not even past, as Faulkner famously remarked. But to give the past its due, you have to reanimate the ghosts who lived there. Otherwise, you’ve just got a set, not a story.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Wrestler

By Elise Nakhnikian

Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie, The Wrestler, appeals to the part of us that gawks at car wrecks. Only this one’s a bumper car pileup, patently fake and not much fun to watch.

There’s been a lot of talk about an Oscar for Mickey Rourke’s performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. A 50-something professional wrestler reduced to working tiny crowds in third-tier venues, Randy’s trying to get back into the limelight, coaxing his failing body into a rematch with an arch-rival from his glory days in the 1980s.

Rourke ruled in the ‘80s too. In movies like Diner, Body Heat, The Pope of Greenwich Village, and Rumble Fish, he played a soft-voiced, sideways-smiling tough guy with a heart of gold, the kind of man every girl wanted to date and every boy wanted to be – or be friends with. For a while, he looked almost like the next Brando: not as much range, maybe, but a similar mix of innate coolness and emotional accessibility.

Then he started turning down interesting stuff like Pulp Fiction for forgettable dreck like Wild Orchid, turned in some bizarrely mannered performances, and dropped out of acting to go pro as a boxer. He also trashed his delicate good looks, bulking up his body and making his face so puffy, presumably from steroids, that he became almost unrecognizable. (Come to think of it, that was pretty Brando-ish too.)

In the last decade or so he’s made a comeback, getting great reviews and progressively bigger parts. The Wrestler is his first leading role in years, and with so much of the focus on the similarities between Randy and Rourke it could easily been another case of stunt casting, like so many of his throwaway roles of the ‘90s. But Rourke injects his character with generous amounts of his old charm and charisma. Randy is a self-saboteur, the kind of guy who breaks the hearts of everyone he tries to get close to, yet you can’t help but like him.

What looked like a fascination on Aronofsky’s part with charismatic down and outers in Requiem for a Dream is beginning to look more like an infatuation. The camera in The Wrestler ogles Randy admiringly even when, after seeking out Stephanie, the daughter he’s been estranged from for years (Evan Rachel Wood with a severe black dye job), he lets her down again. She sobs, swearing that she never wants to see him again, and we zoom in to see how sorry he feels – for himself.

Sure, I can empathize with a screw-up who can’t help alienating the people he most wants to be close to. But when a father makes a dinner date with a daughter he hasn’t seen in years and then forgets to show up, is he really the one you want to feel bad for?

A couple years ago, Sherrybaby told the story of another well-meaning but dysfunctional parent through the eyes of both parent and child. Wood is an excellent actress, but she couldn’t make Stephanie’s feelings as real to me as Sherrybaby made the excitement and trepidation of Sherry’s six-year-old -- and caring about what happened to that little girl gave me a bigger stake in that story.

Former Onion editor Robert D. Siegel’s script makes it clear that Randy acts more like a kid than an adult and lets us see the pain he causes to his daughter and his aging stripper girlfriend, Cassidy (Marissa Tomei). But the power of POV overrides all that.

When Aronofsky finds something he likes, he can be like a kid with a new video game, playing it over and over again. In The Fountain, it was those interminable shots of Hugh Jackman floating around space in a snow globe-looking spaceship. In Requiem for a Dream, it was a montage that translated the rush of getting high into a series of dramatic jump cuts and sound effects. 

His favorite new thing in The Wrestler is the handheld camera that trots behind Rourke like one of the actor's faithful dogs, framing scene after scene with part of Randy’s steroid-broadened back and dark-rooted blond mane and making sure we see everything through Randy's eyes, often almost literally. That means he's essentially forgiven every time he hurts somebody, since we see the transgressions from his point of view and know that he just forgot or did his best or whatever. Aronofsky's interested in the price Randy pays for his own mistakes, not the pain he doles out to other people.

A lot of this movie's appeal boils down to cheap thrills. Tomei, who’s too young and far too lushly gorgeous to play over-the-hill, seems to be there mostly to titillate us, since she does a lot of the pole dancing and lap dancing that appear to be part of every young (or youngish) actress’ repertoire these days.

We also get our noses rubbed into a lot of brutal fake fights, since the filmmakers seem to think we all thirst for the sight of large men grinding each other’s backs into barbed wire or shooting each other with staple guns.

Of course, this is a Serious Movie, so they try to have it both ways, criticizing our imagined bloodlust even as they cater to it. But are we really supposed to buy Cassidy’s analogy between Randy (“the sacrificial Ram”) and Jesus Christ?

Personally, I preferred Nacho Libre.