Friday, May 22, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

“I started with the notion of doing a character-based con movie, where the payoff at the end was an emotional one,” said writer-director Rian Johnson at a recent screening of The Brothers Bloom in New York. “The biggest challenge was making you care about the characters.”

It’s a nice idea, but the strain shows. Too slow in spots for a caper and too shallow in its too-frequent philosophizing for a deep-dish art house film, The Brothers Bloom tries so hard to be so many things that it feels like nothing at all. For all its self-consciously artful construction, it breaks up and floats away the moment it’s over, like a dandelion gone to seed in a strong gust of wind.

A story about telling stories, as the script keeps reminding us, Bloom is about two brothers who split a name between them. Orphaned as kids, they learn early on how to take care of each other and game everyone else. Stephen (a raffish Mark Ruffalo) is the mastermind, whose notebooks contain the plans for years’ worth of elaborate cons. Bloom (a broody Adrien Brody) is the younger brother who goes along to get along. He hates playing parts in his brother’s scripts, but he’s too depressed to make a life for himself.

When we first see the brothers, they’re kids who have already assumed the anachronistic uniforms they maintain throughout the movie: black-and-white clothes and black bowler hats. These early sequences, which feature amateurish child actors mouthing dialogue that’s meant to be witty and world-weary, reminded me of Brick (2005), Johnson’s first feature, a cult favorite that plays like a teenage Bugsy Malone.

Like Brick, Bloom loads up on stylistic quirks like a kid piling on Mom’s jewelry, invoking the look and feel of a lot of classic film genres. Its best moments are sheer nonsense or non sequiturs, like a Hunter Thompson-esque bit where a shambling, vaguely menacing character played by Robbie Coltrane shoots huge holes through his own front door when the brothers knock, then opens what’s left as if nothing had happened. (“I’ve been drinkin’,” he says, by way of apology.)

Johnson may have tried to make his characters likeable, but he made each such a collection of oddities that the burden rests even more squarely than usual on the actors to bring them to life. Ruffalo comes the closest, looking genuinely pained, amused, or concerned as needed while pulling off a raffish elegance. His bemused style of cool rhymes with the tough-tootsie pizzazz of his wordless sidekick, Bang Bang (the mesmerizing Rinko Kikuchi, who played a very different kind of silent girl in Babel.)

But Brody, who plays the main character, is more of a black hole than a star. His dour, one-note performance weighs down this picaresque movie like the lead on a fishhook.

As Bloom’s love interest, the beautiful, rich, and improbably cloistered Penelope, Rachel Weisz makes an inarticulate ditz seem lovable, sexy, and oddly courageous, but even she can’t strike any sparks with Brody’s sad-sack Bloom. One of Penelope’s many quirks is that she gets sexually excited by lightning, and she gets a lot more worked up by a summer storm than she ever does by Bloom.

A lot of thought and talent clearly went into making this forgettable film. Production designer Jim Clay, who also worked on Brick, found and dressed some extravagantly showy settings, most of them in old European cities like Belgrade and Prague that amplify the script’s feel of a past-haunted present. The cinematography is beautiful too, featuring lots of saturated blues, greens and grays.

But Johnson keeps poking holes in his own balloon. The shallow-dish philosophizing draws too much attention to itself: It’s clear he wants to say something about living an authentic life, but what exactly? The only genuinely thought-provoking and insightful comment – “a photograph is like a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know” – is a ripoff, an uncredited Diane Arbus quote.

The soundtrack doesn’t quite jibe either. Two familiar and lovely songs from the ‘70s – one by Bob Dylan and another by Cat Stevens – stick out from a mostly undistinguished folk-rocky soundtrack by Johnson’s cousin, Nathan Johnson, who also scored Brick. (“We’ve been making movies together since we were ten,” Johnson said at the New York screening, conjuring an image of a brothers Bloom-style collaboration.)

What stayed with me longest are the deadpan visual jokes that play out now and then in the distance, tasty little bits silhouetted against the adolescent hijinks at the center of the screen. But they seemed to belong to another story altogether, as if the ghost of Buster Keaton were filming a genuinely inventive comedy on the set of this strenuous misfire.

Monday, May 18, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

Like Mike (Steve Zahn), its socially impaired main character, Management wants us to fall in love with its good intentions and all-too-evident sincerity despite its many – and sometimes downright disturbing – flaws. It also wants to be a madcap comedy. And it wants to be taken seriously as a relationship story, with Mike and Sue (Jennifer Aniston), the buttoned-up businesswoman he falls for, changing and growing to become true soulmates.

Some filmmakers could combine that many different colors into a work of art, but writer/director Stephen Belber just winds up with a lumpy, brownish mass that’s about as appealing as the “corporate art” Sue sells to hotels and office buildings.

This is Belber’s first attempt at comedy, and maybe it should be his last. He seems to do better with straight drama, like his three-character play Tape, which director Richard Linklater turned into a taut little movie (Belber wrote the screenplay), or The Laramie Project, the play turned TV movie about the murder of Matthew Shepard, for which he was part of a team of writers.

Here, he’s aiming to make one of those movies where a guy falls for a girl (or vice versa) who’s just not that into him and then pursues her until she falls for him too. We’ve all seen that movie a thousand times, probably because most of us like to fantasize either about landing The One That Got Away or being pursued with that kind of single-minded devotion. But Management pushes the premise too far, making it more creepy than romantic.

Mike’s not a lover: He’s a stalker with the emotional IQ of a two-year-old. It’s hard to imagine a competent adult falling for him. But this appears to be a male fantasy based on the premise that someone who looks like Jennifer Aniston could really be a mass of self-sabotaging neuroses in need of nothing more than someone who will be "sweet" to her. Under her fa├žade of brisk efficiency, we soon learn, Sue is depressed and utterly lacking in self-confidence.

Even their meet-cute moment – which is echoed in a final clinch that feels as uncomfortable and implausible as everything else in this faintly unsettling movie – is just uncomfortable: One of them grabs the other one’s buttocks and holds on for dear life.

The rest of their early encounters feel just as desperate. Mike, the painfully geeky night manager at his parents’ cheesy motel, falls for Sue when he sees her checking in. He comes to her room at night with a bottle of wine, pretending it’s a standard gift for the guests “from management” – and asking her to share it with him. For some unfathomable reason, his exquisitely awkward come-on works, earning him a quickie in the laundry room. She’s convinced that’s the last they’ll see of each other, but he keeps pursuing her even after she leaves, sending letters, leaving voice mail messages, and showing up unannounced.

In a haiku Sue writes later, she says Mike “keeps showing up like UPS,” but he’s more like a lost puppy. Gazing up at her with bright, expectant eyes, he doesn’t seem to have a thought in his head except that he wants her to love and take care of him.

Their story alternates with a truncated and somewhat maudlin subplot involving the death of Mike’s mother (a very healthy-looking Margo Martindale) and its effect on Mike and his father. The always indelible Fred Ward is reduced to playing Mike’s sadsack dad (no wonder he looks depressed) in a handful of underwritten scenes.

Then there’s Al (a charismatic James Liao, who appears to have a gift for comedy), the friendly Chinese-American guy Mike conveniently runs into when he follows Sue to the town where she just moved in with an ex-boyfriend. Al gets Mike a job and a place to stay and becomes his instant BFF. And a good thing too, since Lord knows Mike needs help.

Sue is appropriately wary of this manchild’s obsessive attention, even getting angry with him sometimes. Yet she keeps giving in – even letting him spend the night in her house when he shows up on her doorstep with no money or ticket home.

Watching the pursued slowly succumb to the pursuer’s charms is supposed to be the appeal of movies like this, but I just kept worrying about Sue’s mental health. I felt pretty sure that Mike wasn’t going to hurt her, but how could she know? How low must her self-esteem be for her to take him seriously as a romantic prospect? And why, oh why, when she sends him home after his first unannounced visit, does she tell him he can’t see her again – for his sake? “I’m not good with people,” she says sadly. Oy vey.

Sue’s reunion with her borderline psychotic ex (Woody Harrelson, who seems to enjoy going all Gary Busey on us) is supposed to confirm how right Mike is for her. Instead, when she winds up in the final clinch with Mike, clasping his butt cheeks in that too-long embrace, all I could think was: Poor girl! I wonder how long this one will last.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Next Day Air

By Elise Nakhnikian

Next Day Air is a heist comedy about men acting tough – with an emphasis on the acting.

Leo (Donald Faison, Scrubs’ goofily endearing Dr. Turk), a weed-addled delivery man for the Fed Ex-like Next Day Air, kicks the plot into gear by delivering several bricks of coke to the wrong South Philly apartment. The box lands in the laps of Guch (Wood Harris) and his sidekick Brody (Mike Epps), a pair of inept small-time crooks who have just botched a robbery.

Seeing the drugs as their chance at financial salvation, Guch and Brody arrange to sell them to Brody’s cousin and his sidekick. Meanwhile, the deadly dealer who sent the bricks flies in with a sidekick of his own to hook up with his South Philly connection, Jesus (Cisco Reyes), and reclaim the drugs.

This is the first feature for screenwriter Blair Cobbs and director Benny Boom, who made his bones shooting music videos for hip-hop artists. Tired of “urban” (i.e. black and Latino) comedies without any smarts or edge, they wanted to make an urban version of a Guy Ritchie/Quentin Tarantino-type movie.

I wish he'd aimed a little higher, since those two have been so widely imitated by now that even their own movies can feel derivative. Still, here’s always room for a smart, stylish crime caper that gets inside the minds of its characters — especially if it’s funny to boot. And Boom and Cobbs get close to their goal, delivering the smarts, the humor, and a Grade-A cast.

Faison’s innocent stoner and his cynical workmate Eric, who’s played by the always wonderful Mos Def, don’t get as much screen time as you might expect, if you’ve seen the trailer, but they make the most of what they get. Mos Def is especially distinctive as a world-weary ex-con whose easy charm helps him scam people just enough to get by – and gets him out of a very tense yet funny stickup.

Wood Harris, whose calculating Avon Barksdale was the cold, hard center of The Wire’s first season, shows a very different side here, playing a whole set of subtly comic variations on blustering incompetence. And Yasmin Deliz is a delight as Jesus’s take-no-prisoners girlfriend, Chita, the funniest tough-talking beauty to hit the screen since Rosie Perez.

The dialogue is good – sometimes very good—and the filmmakers amp up the energy with a Latin-flavored soundtrack and frequent cuts to flashbacks shot in high-contrast video. But they also switch the whole tone of the movie at times, and that’s not done so deftly.

Most of the time, we’re in a world of comically exaggerated criminality where everyone’s on the make and no one’s getting hurt, the kind of place where Guch’s gun jams when he tries to shoot a guard after a botched bank robbery and Leo’s truck is aswarm with people trying to steal his boxes the moment he stops to buy some weed.

These criminals work hard at being hard. Jesus practices talking trash in front of his mirror, pulling out a series of ever bigger guns until he’s satisfied that he looks scary enough. He may remind you of Travis Bickel in front of a mirror in Taxi Driver, but this dress rehearsal is funny rather than frightening because Jesus isn’t fired up by paranoia or zealotry. He just wants to make some easy money.

So does just about everyone else. Leo, who tosses around his “handle with care” express delivery boxes as if they were Frisbees, is the closest thing we get to a responsible working man. But then, it’s the women who really get things done here. We get a glimpse of the fierceness of the women in Leo’s boss (Debbie Allen) and an eyeful in Chita, who insists on going along when Jesus looks for the drugs — so she can protect him.

Making Jesus’s glossy, long-legged girlfriend the most fearless of this movie’s tough guys is one of several recurring bits – like Brody’s habit of botching jobs because he mishears Guch’s orders – that Next Day Air tosses into the pot to add a little flavor.

But just as it all starts coming together, the filmmakers throw us off by throwing in some violence so realistic it’s hard to watch. The ending is the worst offender, a protracted bloodbath that drags the movie to a near-halt, spelling out a don’t-try-this-at-home moral about not risking your life for cash – and then switching tones one last time to undermine its own message.

If only they’d stuck to character-based humor and kept the violence stylized or off-camera, the filmmakers might have created a minor cult classic. Instead, they’ve cooked up an entertaining but uneven diversion for people who don’t mind a little graphic violence.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sullivan’s Travels

By Elise Nakhnikian

For better and for worse, Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is rooted in its time. It captures the flavor of life in the Great Depression -- without being the least bit depressing itself. It also includes some scenes with African-Americans that make me cringe. But in spite its flaws, I love it for its sly humor, its wisdom about human nature, and its running commentary on what makes us love the movies.

Sullivan’s Travels was one of the first movies directed by Preston Sturges, who was the first Hollywood screenwriter to direct his own scripts. The early 40s were this golden boy’s golden age: In just two years, he cranked out three classic American comedies, this one, The Lady Eve, and The Palm Beach Story.

Talking pictures were still relatively new when Sturges arrived on the scene. He decided great dialogue was the key to making them work, and boy, could he write dialogue. When director John Sullivan (Joel McCrea) argues with his studio bosses at the beginning of Sullivan’s Travels, their exchange makes you laugh – not because it’s jokey but because of what it reveals about their characters, starting with Sullivan’s limousine-liberal determination to tell “real” stories about poor people.

The studio turns him down, saying he doesn’t know enough about the subject. So Sullivan decides to hit the road as a tramp – suited up in a costume from the wardrobe department — to gain some “real life” experience. That leads to a series of often comic misadventures and a lesson in the value of entertainment.

Sturges definitely keeps us entertained, starting with the sweetly acerbic romance between Sullivan and a cool Veronica Lake, as The Girl (“How does the girl fit into the picture?” a cop asks Sullivan after the two are arrested. “There's always a girl in the picture,” Sullivan responds. “What's the matter, don't you go to the movies?”)

There’s also plenty of physical humor, wonderful faces to look at, and vivid minor characters to savor, most of them played by great character actors (and Sturges staples) like Eric Blore and William Demarest.

And there’s all that invigorating talk. It’s glorious stuff, that talk, and it’s democratically doled out. The central message of the movie is delivered by one of Sullivan’s butlers, in a gem of a speech that starts with: “The poor know all about poverty, and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” The dialogue never sounds forced or overwritten, either – except when it’s supposed to, as in Sullivan’s preachy speeches about “this cockeyed caravan.”

But Sturges is after more than mere entertainment, despite his movie’s ostensible message. By wrapping his comedy around a reminder of the travails of those “forgotten men,” he tells a story that’s more complicated, and ultimately deeper, than any Sullivan ever dreamed of.

Every so often, Sturges shifts gears too suddenly or revs his engine too hard. A stint Sullivan serves on a chain gang and a paternalistic bit in an African-American church might have been lifted from one of Sullivan’s message movies, and I find a bit of slapstick whose punch line is a black man in whiteface uncomfortable to watch.

But those moments stand out because the rest of the movie unspools so effortlessly. Often shooting on location, Sturges works the struggles of poor people into the background of his picaresque story, making his point best when he says the least about it. One long, wordless sequence in which Sullivan and The Girl walk through a shantytown is a stunner.

Like a favorite uncle, Sturges is onto your foibles and can laugh them all off. Sullivan’s Travels tells us a lot about a particular place and time, but it also has plenty to say about life here and now.

Sturges’ barbs about Sullivan’s pompous aspirations still feel pointed, since the same earnest paternalism infects Hollywood today. And his affectionately ironic take on human nature and American hokum fit right in too – as do the bits of self-reflexive business he works into this movie about making movies.