Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Good Grief

 Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart can't touch bottom in Rabbit Hole.

Rabbit Hole. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell.
              Grief has an odor. It sticks to its victims with tenacious power, and it can be unbearable even for those with the best intentions to help. Those afflicted by sudden, unfathomable loss—like those finding envy-making success—are often surprised to find some relatives and old friends drifting away. The resulting loneliness is often at its worst in those times long after, when we wonder why we—or they—aren’t “over it by now.”
             Though grief is as inevitable a part of life as love, it doesn’t tend to get many Hollywood movies. All of which makes John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Rabbit Hole a welcome anomaly—a modern weepie that doesn’t involve a chronic disease or lovelorn vampires. It’s the best movie of its kind since Sarah Polley explored similarly heavy themes in Away From Her (2008).
            Abair’s story concerns Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), an affluent Westchester couple still reeling from the death of their four year old son. It’s eight months on now, but they are nowhere near “get over it” territory. Becca, still unable to comprehend her loss, spends her time at home baking pies and planting shrubs with angry energy. Howie, who feels himself becoming an afterthought in her life, is getting restive in their loveless marriage. He’s still more exasperated when, for solace, Becca seeks out the only one who can understand: not her husband, but Jason (James Teller), the remorseful teenager at the wheel of the car that killed their boy.
            No doubt there’s wisdom and power in Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning play. The character of Becca, who will stomach neither the pat consolations of religious faith nor the squeamishness of her friends, is the other face of grief—not just depressed, but ready to lash out with unthinking cruelty at those around her. Between her and her mother (Dianne Wiest) there’s not only a gulf of age and experience, but a whiff of class friction that only magnifies their mutual disapproval. All their scenes, and those between Kidman and Teller, are telling and truthful.
            Of course, one can always quibble. In comparison with what seems like a tailor-made star turn for Kidman, the script seems less interested in Eckhart’s character, who is mostly just left as a watchful bystander or an unloved schlump drifting toward infidelity. Kidman is indeed terrific, and amply deserves her Oscar nomination. Yet she’s almost too ethereally beautiful a presence to seem real here—a compulsive baker of cakes and pies who, after eight miserable months confronted with a kitchen full of snacks, never gained a pound or picked up a zit.
            But by the end such objections dwindle. John Cameron Mitchell—best known for directing and starring as the unwilling transsexual hero(ine) in Hedwig and the Angry Inch—again shows a sure hand dealing with themes of loss and anger. He is sure not to lack for subjects in times like these.

Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Consonants of the King

George VI (Colin Firth) has a problem in  The King's Speech

The King’s Speech. Written by David Seidler. Directed by Tom Hooper.
            There are almost as many reasons not to see The King’s Speech as there were British monarchs in the 20th century. To the timorous, predictable casting of regulars like Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter as royals, one can’t help but yawn. The King’s Speech may also be the textbook example of a movie straining to sell a dubious historical premise—namely, that King George IV’s lifelong struggle with his stammer had something to do with saving Britain from the Nazis. Can a nation with a leader as eloquent as Winston Churchill really be said to have been wanting in rhetorical assets? Everybody remembers that Churchill said something about “finest hours” and  “so much owed by so many to so few.” Truth be told, nobody remembers anything George VI said in five long years of war.
            Then again, one doesn’t actually have to see the movie to have those objections. That done, I can report that The King’s Speech does a terrific job of making trivial history seem significant. Indeed, it’s more convincing than many other movies about things that actually mattered. For that at least, it deserves some kind of credit.
            The script by David Seidler (Tucker: the Man and His Dream) is one big reason why. George VI (Firth), as our grandparents knew, came to the throne by accident, after the shocking abdication of his older brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). The latter had fallen in love with an American named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), who was thought  unfit to be Queen because she was divorced. Faced with the choice between love and pomp, Edward chose love—leaving his shy, stammering brother “Bertie” with the mess.
            Stuttering, especially in a celebrity, is an interior struggle cruelly played out in public. Seidler hinges his story on the unlikely friendship between the frustrated King and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a provincial and certifiable eccentric from the wrong side (Perth) of the wrong continent (Australia). Rush plays Logue as the anti-Henry Higgins—someone who believes the mechanics of speech have more to do with emotions and intimacy than the movements of fleshy bits. By any other name, he’s a shrink, which is what His Majesty needs but precisely what he fears. Watching Logue/Rush make his assault on the King’s precious formalities is one of the film’s great pleasures.
            Good as Rush is, he’s not likely to get as much attention as Colin Firth. Having built a career on playing a good-looking stiffs, Firth now has the rich opportunity—and apparently the talent—to amass accolades in deconstructing that image. He made a good start as a closeted gay professor in Tom Ford’s A Single Man. In The King’s Speech, however, he takes it all to a new level, presenting Bertie alternately as a stout, self-deprecating adult, strong enough to carry a nation on his shoulders, and as a churlish, insecure child, longing to be seen instead of just gawked at. You don’t have to be convinced that his struggle was fundamentally that important (I’m still not) to grant that Firth has done something quite rare here: he’s made inherited privilege and casual snobbery seem appealing. In its subtleties, its vulnerabilities that snap in and out of view with mercurial quickness, it may be the performance of the year.
            Interestingly, though Seidler’s script bleeds for Bertie, it doesn’t have much sympathy for poor Edward, who sacrificed so much for love. Indeed, Pearce plays him as the worst kind of coward, bullying his afflicted brother while giving up his manhood to a vulgarian in a skirt. (There’s an impolite term for his condition that involves a feline with a whip.) In this, the film seems strikingly ungracious—that good old British “carry on” spirit is rightly inadequate for Bertie, who needs a sympathetic ear, but good enough for Edward, who should really just snap out of his dependence on that American bitch. After all, there are limits! Seidler and director Tom Hooper have no patience for Edward’s plight, but weren’t his pitiful dependence and Bertie’s stammer really aspects of the same problem?
            In fact, neither of the two monarchs had any real power. Toward the end of the film we hear that someone who did, Sir Winston (Timothy Spall), also struggled with his speech. Did screenwriter Seidler, after he wrote that scene, look up and wonder why he wasn’t telling that story—about how one of the most inspiring and significant speakers of his era overcame his impediment? Or do the personal struggles of mere politicians always count less than the tears of a king?

Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro

Thursday, January 13, 2011

True Gruff

  Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld hit the trail in True Grit

By Nicholas Nicastro 
True Grit. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy and the original True Grit all reached the screen in the same year, 1969. While the X-rated Midnight Cowboy was (strictly speaking) not a true oater, like Butch Cassidy it approached classic Western themes with thoroughly modern sensibility that made them feel both antiquated and tragic. As the crooked sheriff said to Newman and Redford, “You’re nothin’ but a couple of two-bit outlaws, and your times is over!” And it does seem as if the frontier at the movies did close soon after, seventy-six eventful years after historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the real frontier era closed in 1893.

Henry Hathaway’s True Grit, by contrast, was one of the last triumphs of the traditional Western. Forming a neat bookend to John Wayne’s career, his performance as the hard-fightin’, hard-drinkin’ Federal marshal Rooster Cogburn earned him his only Oscar. The story, about a spunky, hard-nosed teenage girl named Mattie (Kim Darby) who hires Rooster to track down her father’s murderer, is more joyous than tragic, seeming to exclaim “how ‘bout it for the little lady!” every time Mattie shows her own “true grit”. The implication, of course, is that if the girls were this formidable in ye old West, imagine how tough the guys were.

The Coen Brothers (Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men) version of True Grit is remarkable insofar as it is follows in the same wagon ruts of the Hathaway version, yet is utterly unlike it in tone. John Wayne played Rooster as pretty much as John Wayne. Falling short of iconic status, Jeff Bridges can’t help but seem diminished by comparison, but also more authentic, as if this is the first time we’ve met the character as novelist Charles Portis intended him. Wayne’s Rooster was an old warhorse; the disheveled Bridges looks and sounds like he’s been stepped on by a horse. He’s Rooster Cogburn for a post-Deadwood world.

[skip the final sentence of the next paragraph to avoid a possible SPOILER]
Hathaway’s version unfolded in a park-like setting that might as well have been a national forest. The Coens set it in a ragged, wintry landscape we might associate with Cormac McCarthy. Where Kim Darby’s exploits as Mattie evoked joyful cheers from Wayne’s Cogburn (he positively exults, “Darn it, she reminds me of me!”), Bridges just seems to stare at this Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) through bleary eyes, wondering why she’s wasting so much energy. There was a bit of the bob-haired proto-feminist in Darby’s Mattie, and with it the promise of a bright future. The know-it-all Steinfeld version seems more insufferable than suffragette—an impression the Coens ram home in a codicil showing the adult Mattie living out her days as an acid-tongued old maid.

The Coens shouldn’t be faulted for taking a more autumnal approach. Audiences have moved on since ’69—the idea that girls can be tough in action movies is not radical anymore but has actually reached the point of cliché. Take out the pleasure of that surprise, and there’s not much left but an “odd couple” story with six-guns. What the Coens inject in its place is a sense of historical futility that is more Butch & Sundance than the Duke. I reckon there are less romantic sunsets for a hero to ride into than that.

Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro