Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reality Seeps In

I’m no longer in my early twenties, and I feel as if movies are attempting to make me feel my age. It’s not necessarily that I am outside the ideal 18-25 age bracket for blockbusters (I very much am) but that I can no longer watch films without some sort of specific reality seeping in. The issue is, why does this disrupt my feelings not through the escapist fantasies, but in the more ground-level offerings presented to movie fans this season?

And that’s unfortunate, because during awards season, the films released tend to touch on topics that are familiar to my world, elements of story that have a certain truth, metaphorical or not. But is it possible they’re, in a way, lying to ourselves? I felt like that during David O. Russell’s “The Silver Linings Playbook,” in which we meet two self-destructive individuals knee-deep in therapy, medicated to prevent mood-swings that still almost seem inevitable.

Considering Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are fairly limited actors (Cooper in particular has been gifted with dead eyes), I was surprised at how familiar their characters were, in sometimes troubling ways. Sitting at a table obnoxiously rattling off prescriptions, launching into shit fits that consume everyone around them, and generally behaving erratically, the two are a portrait of mental imbalance that strikes the right tone, considering the narrative of the film mostly keeps them out of Worst-Case-Scenario territory people like this generally live in. Both are especially susceptible to emotional bouts of doubt and anger, given that she’s a suffering widow, and he’s recovering from the deceit of his wife’s infidelity.

Being a big Hollywood movie, there remained choice elements that still felt preposterous, but I accepted them. I accepted the alleged age difference between these two characters -- I’d guess it’s meant to be a decade, which is plausible, though I’m guessing in reality it’s somewhere near fifteen years, considering Lawrence is in her early twenties and Cooper is likely late thirties. I even went with the improbability that the two most mentally-damaged people in town are also the best-looking, and that the man could conceivably be People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive©. As long as there’s emotional truth behind the characters and a plausible reality established by the filmmaker, then there can be a tenuous acceptance of the Hollywood nature of the endeavor.

Unfortunately, there’s that third act, where this genre-approved romantic comedy has to tie itself into a bun. And these characters had grown on me that I had realized I had seen them before. I had seen them come together and find common ground. I had also seen these people create havoc together, fight endlessly, and generally cause harm to others. Russell’s gamble is that you can also buy that these two could heal each other, that they could fix each others’ wounds and generally walk off into the sunset. But if you know these people in real life, and you see them get together, you know the only future is in late-night fights, frantic phone calls and police-tape. I felt as if Russell, who knows comedic dysfunction based in his work in “Flirting With Disaster” and “The Fighter” (which makes light of some certain mental imbalances), had established that these two people could find salvation. But their situations (she’s placed herself in a high stress dance competition, he lives with his impulsive, undiagnosed OCD father) seemed ill-fitting for where they were within the film. She was headstrong and sexually liberated. He had control and trust issues, and a notoriously short fuse. Guys, this just isn’t going to work, no matter what David O. Russell and a best-selling novel say. 

I’ve always had issue with the class concerns of Judd Apatow as well, but they never quite came to the forefront as they did in “This Is Forty.” The characters of Pete and Debbie from “Knocked Up” have moved on to their life of suburbia, where he runs a record company and she labors over a small boutique store while they raise two mostly sweet little girls who nonetheless fight like monsters (Apatow, their actual father, likely edited this film after a huffy argument with the two of them). But Apatow, a TV vet who has struggled to get material on the air, shows exactly where his sympathies lie with his troubling reading of the music industry.

Pete’s record company is flailing, and his Hail Mary strategy is to reunite Graham Parker and The Rumor, an actual act that likely less that 1% of this film’s actual audience will recognize. Of course Pete doesn’t realize that this is commercial suicide, because this music-loving record executive is so tone deaf he thinks his young daughters will respond positively when he turns off Nicki Minaj and replaces her with Temple of the Dog. After a much-touted Parker concert yields limited interest, a depressed Pete goes backstage to greet Parker, who genially tells him the show went well anyway, and that he’s just made a stack of cash selling a song to “Glee” (not likely). As he and random guest Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day walk off into the distance to celebrate their commercial success, Pete is left to tabulate the weak numbers.

It’s amusing that Apatow feels the music industry operates like this, as he empathizes with the music execs and curses (and envies) the successful artists who can sell a single song independently in the modern age. The reality certainly seems reversed -- a music industry beset by piracy, and a Top 40 world forever fractured, forcing artists to agree to middling deals with streaming sites, where a thousand plays of their hit song will get bands a cool ten cents to split amongst them. If the music industry is a Titanic, the execs are controlling the ship, and ensuring that they retain the majority of lifeboats. There are VERY few scenarios where the artist who only moves 600 digital copies of their latest online walks away laughing as their record company screams poverty. But that’s where Apatow’s head is right now: sympathy for the management, cursing the freedom of the artist.

Of course, the mostly-plotless “This Is Forty” attempts some forward momentum when Pete attempts to hide that the couple is behind on their mortgage payments, and have stretched themselves thin financially. Pete obviously has no clue how to run a record company, while Debbie has to deal with an employee skimming thousands off the profits in her store (is it slut-shamed Megan Fox, or dowdy truth-teller Charlyne Yi? Oh, Judd, you master of suspense!). In addition to this, there are economic realities at play -- Pete’s been lending thousands of dollars to his broke father, who in turn correctly informs them that the house where they live is simply too big (he says this with no knowledge of their finances, but it’s impossible to ignore their excess).

Except the film is loaded with wasteful spending by both characters that ignores they’re headed towards a fiscal cliff. The couple decide to remake their life, which involves getting rid of fatty foods of any kind, the majority of which goes not to a shelter or to a neighbor, but straight into the trash. It also involves more quality time with each other, which involves the two taking an unannounced vacation to one of the most gorgeous hotel/spas you could imagine, ordering room service by the truckful in a scene IMMEDIATELY following a moment when a character is worried about finances. And after a movie-length debate about what they need to do about their failing businesses and home payments, Pete has a massive, wasteful birthday party with professional catering and “Happy Birthday” sung by a rock star. Because it doesn’t really matter, I will spoil that by the end of the film, the solution about their declining funds is simply to love each other just a bit more. Not move into a smaller house. Not eliminate extravagancies. And not stop pretending that Graham fucking Parker is going to sell out clubs.

“The Impossible” brought back memories of when I had first read about the horrific tsunami that claimed the mainland of Thailand. For most people, their feelings were immediately with the people of Thailand, the thousands of lives lost and the savage nature of the disaster itself. I can’t think of a single person who said, Oh no, what if there were white people there as well? Fortunately, we have “The Impossible” to present us with that conundrum instead. The film finds Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the leader of a British clan vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami hits, viciously separating them. Director J.A. Bayona previously helmed “The Orphanage,” and you can tell some of his boo-tactics remain during the harrowing disaster scenes, horrific moments cued by a string-heavy score that suggests a supernatural force has taken over the mainland.

“The Impossible” has been advertised as what it is: a true story about survival (which is to say it isn’t about much). But this also emphasizes what we find out early on -- they’ve all survived, it’s simply a matter of reuniting them. To do this, these white interlopers have to withstand the harsh conditions, most of which leave the corpses of locals at their feet, which they must tastefully step over. All the while, I could not divorce the film from the true story, recognizing that while these loaded white people underwent a traumatic experience, there remain thousands dead, and even more loved ones in painful grief. To vacation somewhere and become victim to an awful tragedy is terrible. But to the thousands of residents in Thailand, they could not have predicted this would arrive at their doorstep. That reality seemed far more upsetting than the ordeal in which these characters had participated.

And then, the final credits inform us that it WASN’T a reality. We see the photos of the actual surviving family, and they seem to be Spanish. Which is doubly fascinating, considering “The Impossible” has a Spanish director and a Spanish screenwriter (and, likely, a Spanish crew). The reality in which this film exists is where one family lived to tell its story, but thousands died and left their arguably more important narratives buried in their watery graves. And then that family got to be whitewashed. As their private plane (!) takes off at the film’s close, they look out the window. The film’s reality is, I can’t believe we survived this. The actual reality is, “Thank God we got out of that hellhole. Good luck suffering, natives!”

Ironically, the only film that spoke to me about a familiar reality was a picture that just got released to complete audience rejection and critical apathy. Following the sprawling, elegiac “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” director Andrew Dominik instead directed the tight, caustically funny “Killing Them Softly.” In this film, which received a rare ‘F’ Cinemascore from audiences, a couple of idiotic mooks (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) knock off a high-stakes card game held by organized crime kingpins, bringing down the heat in the form of sly dog Coogan (Brad Pit). As the designated mob enforcer working with a nameless corporate stooge played by Richard Jenkins, the two of them in the service of unseen benefactors, Coogan breaks down the ins and outs of the situation with comic ease, understanding exactly what happened that night and who were the culprits.

But it’s 2008, and as the country is turning towards the hope of soon-to-be President Obama, Coogan positions political pragmaticism as his accepted dogma. Which is to say, it isn’t that the guilty need to suffer, it’s that there need to be fall guys that serve the narrative of cause and effect. America is a business, he argues, with the implication being that he’s serving a machine, greasing the wheels more accurately by hitting up targets to the left and right of the two rootless drug-addled morons who just walked away with dirty petty cash. Dominik isn’t subtle about these themes, which is a turn-off to those who prefer their sledgehammer honesty to be sunnier and more optimistic -- happy horseshit is still horseshit. “Killing Them Softly” has curious, clever music cues, but the soundtrack is mostly occupied by the televised political speeches of the era, emphasizing that those in power are peddling straight bullshit in an attempt to convince others to toe the line.

The treat of “Killing Them Softly,” which was advertised as a go-for-broke actioner it most certainly isn’t (which is thematically appropriate, in a way), is that it’s often enormously perceptive. In two extended scenes, Coogan’s old pal Mickey (James Gandolfini) comes to town to provide services. But in his older age (despite Gandolfini being two years older than Pitt (curse you, Brad Pitt)) Mickey has compromised his principles in order to provide for himself. Of course, being a sickened, diseased degenerate who subsides on coke, scotch and sodomizing prostitutes, his interests are strictly prurient, but Coogan is more concerned with the job and its ramifications. What’s interesting is that Coogan retains his movie-star stoicism as Mickey rattles on about the ugliness in his life, but there’s also a wincing sadness that starts to weaken Coogan’s eyes. He’s a plainspoken, curt type with sharp sarcasm, but his voice softens considerably when he asks Mickey to drink just a little bit slower.

It’s only when Mickey responds to Coogan’s light requests with belligerency that Coogan snaps back into professionalism, reminding him that they all serve someone else. The coolly practical Coogan is about recompense, and his compassion drops out as soon as Mickey’s behavior makes it clear he might be responsible for the money train halting before it arrives. “Killing Them Softly” feels toxic at points, but appropriately so, one of the smarter films in recent years to realize “politics” reside not in “politics” but in the darker desires we all understand, whether that be our vices, or the need to get ahead, even if it means jeopardizing the lives of others. I hated this truth, but it was one of the year’s only cinematic truths to me nonetheless.

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