Jeff, Who Lives at Home

By , April 30, 2012 2:37 pm

2 “Cyrus + 1 “Signs” = 3 “Jeff, Who Lives at Home”

Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass, seem to want American comedy to be more Gervaisian.  Not Gervaisian, as in shock-the-black-tie-establishment, but more David Brent.  In the wake of Steve Carrell’s send-off last year, most critics sided with Gervais’ Brent as the “better” manager of The Office, mostly because he was so hard to watch.  Brent lacked any redeeming qualities, and was openly offensive at all turns.  The American Office, they said, softened Brent into Michael Scott to be more palatable for American audiences.

No doubt, this is true—but this doesn’t make Brent better.  Based on his lack skills and sheer offensiveness, who Brent got to be manager remains a mystery.  In fact, how he stayed manager is a mystery.  It may be telling that the British The Office ended after two seasons, as if it new it couldn’t keep the conceit aloft any longer.

In contrast, NBC’s version lasted eight season with Michael Scott, giving him the space to evolve as a fuller character.  Early in the second season, the show answered the “how?” question in an episode where Michael Scott lands a big account after a drunken night at Chili’s.  Over time, Michael never developed into a good boss, but clearly he’s an example of the “Peter Principle,” which states that employees will be promoted to a level just above their competence.  His awkward stemmed not from a post-frat pathological need to be liked (as with Brent), but from deep reservoirs of sadness.  The quintessential Michael Scott moment—and maybe the best statement on modern ennui in American comedy—is in the B.J. Novak-written, Harold Ramis-directed episode “Safety Training,” where Michael tries to deliver a lesson about the dangers of depression in office life (after Darryl laughs off this “danger” during a warehouse safety training session), but ends up having to be talked down from building.

The Duplass brothers traffic in the kind of comedy that’s not fit for mass American consumption.  Last year’s “Cyrus,” for example, featured a rather Oedipal Jonah Hill clinging to MILFy mom Marisa Tomei, to the consternation of John C. Reilly, playing one of the those sad-sack and dateless John C. Reilly middle aged guys.  Much of “Cyrus” was hard to watch because you simply can’t believe someone would have that lack of self-awareness.  Like David Brent, it requires a special force of nature to plow through life like this.  The horror of Cyrus and Brent characters is that they are like black holes that suck you into their gravity because they won’t change, so you end up playing by their rules.

“Jeff, Who Lives at Home” ups the ante:  two mostly-estranged brothers with no self-awareness, who in the course of one day, swing into each other’s orbit.  Ed Helms plays a stereo selling douche who lives in an apartment with his wife Judy Greer, but would rather buy a Porsche than take her to a nice restaurant or save for a down payment on a house.  His brother Jeff smokes weed in his mom’s (Susan Sarandon) basement.  She sends him out to get glue for a broken blind, and the story spins on Jeff’s obsession with fate.  To explain this fully is give away the story, but in short, Jeff sees everything as a sign—in fact, his favorite movie is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs.”  This is a ridiculous notion, as everybody who remembers the philosophy of that movie (the most wildly improbably plot points can be explained later by wildly improbable twists in the script).

Segel’s Jeff comes from the Rogen/Apatow school of sweet slackers, and Helms is the kind of guy who proves his manhood by taking clients to lunch at Hooter’s.  He’s an ass—so much that you can’t really understand how he married a sweet girl like Judy Greer anyway.  And that’s the problem with the Gervais/Duplass school of comedy.  Yes, it’s challenging.  Yes, it’s not sanitized for the mass prime time audience.  But when people are so awful that you can’t explain how they got to where they are, you can’t explain the rest of the character either.  The entire thing falls apart, except by the power of the script to explain things away.  They’re the comedic equivalent of the aliens in “Signs”—suspenseful, yes, but the reason Judy Greer married this guy must be the same reason water-allergic aliens came to a planet that’s 80% water.

21 Jump Street

1½  “Starsky and Hutch” + 1 Mark Wahlberg = 2½ 21 Jump Street

The revelation is Channing Tatum, who proves himself a winning comedic presence opposite Jonah Hill, who spends much of the movie playing Jonah Hill.  It’s early in Tatum’s career, yet he’s discovered the winning formula:  Call it the Wahlberg/Pitt Inverted Matrix of Leading Man Looks.  When you’re as beefy hot as Mark Wahlberg, Brad Pitt, or Channing Tatum, casting directors see you as leading man material.  They see a pin-up both teenage girls, on dates with boyfriends who also admire muscles, and their mothers, the same age as Thelma and Louise, will flock to theaters for.

The problem is that guys who know how good-looking they are have a hard time playing earnest without looking smug.  The leading man corrective is to be overly serious, and thus, boring.  Think Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” and “Meet Joe Black.”  Mark Wahlberg’s dull misfires:  “The Perfect Storm,” “Planet of the Apes,” and “The Truth About Charlie,” for starters.  Both Pitt’s and Wahlberg’s careers turned when they let their freak flags fly.  “I Heart Huckabees” is a little seen film, but marks a major shift in the Wahlberg canon:  His unhinged firefighter Tommy Corn stole the movie.  Wahlberg didn’t stifle his intensity into a Hollywood template; rather, he played a parody of the brooding leading man.  Since then, Wahlberg has played leading men, but it seems that experience in comedy has freed him.  He earned his first Oscar nomination for “The Departed” in a role that’s basically comic relief from the earnestness of Leonardo DiCaprio—he dominates every scene by messing with other actors, rather than trying to match them.  He’s infused more charisma into his screen persona—imagine the “AND YOU!  AND YOU!  AND YOU!” scene from “The Fighter” performed by early 2000s Wahlberg.  We knew his was a freak the moment Dirk Diggler let Roller Girl keep her skates on—after a lull, he’s transformed.

The same is easier seen in Brad Pitt.  Good Pitt is Dark and Freaky Pitt:  “True Romance,” “Se7ev,” “Twelve Monkeys,” “Fight Club,” and others.  Starting with Tyler Durden and continuing with the incomprehensible Irish boxer in “Snatch” Pitt showed real comedic chops:  The “Ocean’s” films, “Burn After Reading,” even “Inglourious Basterds,” in its way.  As he’s gotten older, his embrace of the freak has evolved into a kind of past-prime dignity:  Jesse James, “The Tree of Life,” and especially “Moneyball.”  Perhaps it’s instructive that both Wahlberg and Pitt have played lieutenants to George Clooney (“Three Kings” and “Ocean’s”).

This is not to say that Channing Tatum is the next Brad Pitt or Mark Wahlberg.  But “21 Jump Street” does suggest that he—or at least his agent—gets it.  They threatened to typecast him in action movies (“G.I. Joe” The Rise of the Cobra” and “Public Enemies”)  The problem, again, is that leading man looks restrain the man.  Tatum tried to develop “range” by jumping into the Nicolas Sparks weeper “Dear John,” where, yes, he played a solider on leave who falls in love with Amanda Seyfried.  But look to pre-star Tatum:  Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss,” with Tatum as the unhinged best friend of Ryan Phillippe who can’t deal with post-Iraq PTSD.  It’s the kind of role Jeremy Renner now owns, but in the very least, you can see the space where Tatum could plant his freak flag.

Comedy seems to have unshackled Tatum from his leading man looks and soldier-boy frame.  Part of being the leading man is being liked, but when the actor doesn’t have the easy grace of old Hollywood or George Clooney, he tries too hard to be “likable,” which comes off as dull or earnest.  Audiences sense this:  We’d rather have charismatic authenticity.  For Channing Tatum,” 21 Jump Street” lets him play a parody of his typecast.  He’s the dumbass jock, and by channeling his inner Stifler, he gets laughs at the outset.  The genius of his performance is that, when the plot unbelievable twists him and Jonah Hill into high school buddies a few years later, Tatum is genuinely mystified by the pussification of it all.  Fighting and being dumb and not trying are suddenly not cool.  WTF?!?!

The rest of the movie is too-meta, too-knowing over-cleverness (Ice Cube is the police captain of 21 Jump Street, with a training montage set to “Fuck da Police”).  In the very least, though, Channing Tatum handles physical comedy (several scenes sliding over or jumping into cars) and turns the dumb jock into a lovable lunkhead.  This could be the beginning of a new actor, or in the very least, it creates the possibility that Soderbergh-directed “Magic Mike” is closer to “Boogie Nights” than “Showgirls.”

X-Men: First Class

By , April 29, 2012 8:04 pm

The first “X-Men” film, directed and co-written by Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”), framed the mythology of “mutants” as the Civil Rights movement; militant Magneto is the Malcolm X figure, with Professor Xavier as Dr. King.  Singer recruited two titans of the Shakespearian stage, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, to embody the adult roles, which leant the film a certain gravity.  Singer’s ambition was to explore these lines of thought in a pop-psychology way, resulting in a blockbuster that the savvy filmgoer didn’t have to defend as a “guilty” pleasure.

The second “X-Men” was similarly ambitious, updating the theme to how nativist Americans see minorities: In “X2”, the mutants are ostracized because they’re different—not just different, mind you, but threatening because they aren’t understood. They’re a problem, so say the senators, and they must be dealt with by legislation like the Mutant Registration Act.  The next two “X-Men” films abandoned ambition entirely, so it’s exciting to see a director with ideas (Matthew Vaughn, “Kick-Ass,” “Layer Cake”) back at the helm.  This explains the odd framing of the X-Men’s origins around Kennedy voiceovers of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender ably impersonate younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, whose relationship fractures violently in only the way tight bonds can.  The film returns to its civil rights roots, with long debates about the nature of difference and assimilation.  The Cuban Missile Crisis might seem a tad overwrought for blockbuster material, but the script draws lines from the Holocaust to the rise of America to the confrontation with communism.  The world doesn’t reboot after the Fuhrer and the Emperor surrendered.  Magneto’s mistrust makes sense in context of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and perhaps Xavier’s rhetoric seems naïve, especially on the brink of destruction.  Unfortunately, Kevin Bacon can’t carry the weight of all this on his shoulders, but consider the franchise rebooted.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

It was a sad spectacle to see Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp go from such impressive and elegant blockbuster storytelling with the first “Pirates” to such incomprehensible nonsense as the last three “Pirates.” Unless you’re a hyperattentive twelve year old boy, you can’t figure out what’s going on.  The fix isn’t hiring Rob Marshall to helm the fourth in the series. Let’s say you liked “Chicago.”  I didn’t, mostly because it embodies the worst of the Modern Musical. But, what in “Memoirs of a Geisha” or “Nine” made someone say: Put this guy in charge of a Big, Stupid Pirate Movie!

Well, the stunts are nicely choreographed.  This time, Johnny Depp’s outrageously fey Jack Sparrow is on some sort of quest for the Fountain of Youth. Which is a plot never employed by desperate filmmakers. Since Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom are…busy(?) or “focusing on projects with more artistic merit,” we get a pretty feisty looking Penelope Cruz as an alternate. That might be to the audience’s gain, and we also have Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush and Keith Richards trying to chew the scenery right out of Depp’s hungry mouth. That’s the reason this franchise is still around, right?

Cruz has never quite become a star in America, partly because she’s typecast as the eye candy.  Pedro Almodovar understands how to turn Cruz’ woman-on-the-verge screen presence into comedy, and Woody Allen turned her into a threat.  Hollywood, and that includes Rob Marshall, would rather put dopey lines in her mouth and show some cleavage.  Ian McShane is promising, but he mostly spouts catchphrases and unleashes special effects against Jack Sparrow’s whimsy.  In the end, “Pirates” has way too much plot and too little character.  Nobody cares about this pseudo-myth—nobody cares why Captain Jack is trying to rescue this chick, just that they get together and say funny things.  Just do that again.

 

Thor

What the hell happened to Kenneth Branagh?  I mean, this guy was the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier—heck, you could argue that as a director, as a visionary of Shakespeare, his first films bested Olivier.  The man made the only uncut, thoroughly kick-ass four-and-a-half hour Hamlet produced by a major studio.  Though mocked at the time, Branagh’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar may be the most deserved winner in the history of the category:  In the words of Boston Review critic and Harvard Law professor Alan Stone, Branagh’s “prodigious accomplishment” was in “interpreting in detailed stage directions every scene in a way that invites our understanding.”  In other words, Branagh made sense of the world’s most confounding work of art.  His Much Ado About Nothing with then-wife Emma Thompson featured cinema’s most artful and spirited verbal sparring since Burton and Taylor.  Branagh’s debut was no less impressive:  In his Henry V, Branagh created a specific counterpoint to Olivier’s jingoistic, post-World War II Churchillian ideal, embodying Henry W. L. Godshalk’s notion that Henry’s refusal to accept responsibility for mass death in the name of the crown makes him both the perfect Christian king and Machiavellian manipulator.

How do you get from creating “nothing less than a monument to the highest art of the Western canon” to directing “Thor”?  Here’s my theory:  We all have a limited store of genius, so the process of creating Hamlet sapped Branagh of his remaining artistic strength while its success created an extraordinary hubris.  The result is a director who thinks he can turn Love’s Labour’s Lost (probably in the bottom five on the Shakespeare Power Rankings) into a 30’s-style musical with Alicia Silverstone and Mathew Lillard.  And that was it.  Rather than making sense of Shakespeare’s texts, Branagh now seems to think that “pushing the envelope” is artistic posture appropriate to his talents.  This is how you cast Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind and turn As You Like It into a dark war movie for HBO.

So what’s the former great man’s idea for Thor?  Thor is Henry V.  Yep, Henry…The…Fifth.  Branagh deserves our respect, so let’s hear him out:

“I think Henry V was an interesting example because, as a young man he was reckless and he kept bad company. People thought he’d make a terrible leader. His father was angry at him but he turned out to be a terrific leader. But he had to earn that privilege, earn that place by losing a lot of friends, losing power, losing family and making sacrifices. They’re both stories of how you find yourself. A rite of passage. Both are a good identity story and very relatable.”

If you’re thinking, “My goodness, this sounds like a high school freshman’s C+ essay that he half-plagiarized from SparkNotes,” then you and I are on the same page.  Without diving too far into the Marvel myth, I’m not sure if Branagh means Loki to be the Earl of Cambridge and Jane Foster to be Catherine of Valois, but that’s not how it comes off.  It may be that Branagh has entered his post-war Orson Welles phase, where the man who made film into high art got paid for turning Macbeth into a voodoo-influenced violent b-movie.  Imagine Hollywood throwing millions in special effects at Orson Welles to direct a ‘roided out Othello, and that’s the kind of insane and depressing spectacle we’ve got here.

The special effects lack the irony of the Fortinbras’ CGI army in Hamlet, and Hemsworth seems more capable of leading a Gold’s Gym than protecting humankind from Asgard.  His instantaneous transformation into a hero lacks context or sense, and Natalie Portman plays Jane Foster like a low-rent Queen Amadala.  Anthony Hopkins can’t lift this material from the muck if he doesn’t care to try.

Undefeated

The Undefeated

Village Voice film critic Melissa Anderson mostly echoes my opinion of “The Blind Side,” which “peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys (sic) are virtuous saviors, coming the rescue of African-American who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them.”  The movie, adapted from Michael Lewis’ novel, canonizes the Tuohy family, the wealthy suburbanites who adopt “Big Mike” Oher, son of an inner-city crack addict with a gift for protecting the quarterback.  The movie perverts Michael Lewis’ novel—which is about the moral complexity of the Touhy’s motivations for doing this good deed—into propaganda for a particular brand of pious suburban conservatism.

As Anderson says, the movie isn’t about Big Mike, the personality-free cipher for the Tuohy’s goodwill.  It’s about Leigh Anne Tuohy, the sassy rich White woman who brings Big Mike into their McMansion.  In this way, “The Blind Side” gives the game away: Big Mike says virtually nothing and so rarely shows his neighborhood that the movie actively demonstrates how little the Tuohys understand him or his world.  Rather, it exploits this blank-slate Minority to demonstrate the moral superiority of gated communities—as Tuohy herself says, “We’re not changing his life.  He’s changing mine.”  According to “The Blind Side,” fixing inner-city poverty simply requires “family values,” as if the inner-city lacks churches, and “attitude,” as if the poor lack the desire to no longer be poor.  Because the movie is Leigh Anne’s, the intended audience isn’t inner-city youth, it’s well-off suburban White people who are normally accused of being racist by people like Melissa Anderson.

To be fair, “racism” is a loaded word that distracts from the real issue.  In a democracy, if you care about the poor, the question is whether your politics help the poor.  Taking in a Black kid who’s good at football only glosses over the Tuohy’s larger worldview, which is enforced by the brand of politics they practice.  One of the central jokes of the movie—central enough that they put it in the press clips—is that “coming out” as a Democrat is like coming out as a lesbian.   This is not to say that voting Republican precludes you from caring about the poor, only that this particular kind of gated-community conservatism completely blinds you to the realities of the inner-city.  It never occurs to David Tuohy that his fast food empire is one reason kids like Big Mike are obese.  In their neighborhood, why does Leigh Anne carry a gun, other than being paranoid of the minority boogie man?  Or support the NRA, which has made it far easier for drug dealers in neighborhood’s like Big Mike’s to own assault rifles?  Higher taxes to rebuild the city infrastructure?  Socialism!

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to oppose regulation of fast food, guns, and public services, but the Tuohy family of this movie don’t grapple with any of them.  Rather, it makes a show of their concern for this one kid while being completely ignorant to the social consequences of their wealth-based politics and class-based Christianity.  The Tuohys embody the hypocrisy of Ayn Rand-worshipping conservatives who call themselves Christians.

 

Sandra Bullock won perhaps the least deserving Best Actress Oscar for this breathtakingly clueless scene where Mrs. Tuohy’s goes to Michael’s crack addict mother’s public housing.   Apparently, sassy White suburb ladies can intimidate a gang of drug dealers by saying “I’m in a prayer group with the DA, I’m a member of the NRA, and I’m always packing.”  My goodness, where to start?  This is precisely the kind of fake-tough gated community conservatism that comes from a total misunderstanding of Black urban poverty.  As “The Blind Side” explains it, to solve urban poverty, we need to move Black youth into good Christian schools in the suburbs and teach them all good manners and “hard work,” probably through football.  But doesn’t the specialness of Michael’s situation demonstrate exactly why private school vouchers are a wasteful and inefficient way to fight poverty?  Unless, of course, people like the Tuohys and schools like Briarcrest are read to adopt the urban poor by the hundreds.

Ultimately, “The Blind Side” unintentionally exposes the cowardice of this kind of Christian witness:  rather than go into poor areas and model the faith for many, the Tuohys use their money to pull one kid out to assimilate him.  Yes, the Tuohys do good, but the film so celebrates their willingness to embrace a Black teen that it demonstrates the wealthy suburban White fear of Black teens.  It’s a form of Stephen Colbert’s “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” argument:  Your politics can’t be cruel towards impoverished urban minorities if you aren’t repulsed by the one or two “nice” Black people you know.  They just, you know, need to be more like us.  With money and stuff.

It seems like Anderson sees “The Blind Side” in “Undefeated,” the Academy Award winning documentary about white coach Bill Courtney, who guides the impoverished urban school Manassas High to the state playoffs. Anderson asks, “Have you had enough of even true stories about white people rescuing black communities?”  Well, yes, if they engage in the soft bigotry of “The Blind Side.”  But Anderson’s hatred of this type of movie seems to hit her from the blind side:  “Undefeated” defeats the self-congratulatory fantasies Hollywood peddles about race relations in urban America.

Bill Courtney, a successful White business owner in northern Memphis, coaches a group of Black inner city kids at a troubled high school to the state playoffs.  You expect, at best, a white-person-saves-minorities-and-learns-about-life story, with all the condescending soft bigotry that goes with it (in the fiction version, expect Morgan Freeman to play the Manassas principal).  At worst, the set-up gives off a whiff of plantation mentality, as in the uncomfortable sight of rich White football coaches and richer White donors shoveling money into SEC football programs while the 90% black teams go unpaid except for scholarships.  And at the very worst, you expect a documentary version of “The Blind Side.”

Instead of cherry-picking a few talented kids out of the ghetto, Coach Bill goes inside the neighborhood.  Yes, it’s a neighborhood of guns, crime, poverty, drugs, and violence, but Coach Bill doesn’t act scared, nor does he act like they’re changing my life more than I’m changing theirs!  Rather, Coach Bill opens the film by turning the sports movie cliché on its head:  Football doesn’t build character, he says—if you believe that, you’ll never understand how to build a team.  Rather, football reveals character.

The rest of the film documents how Coach Bill manages the players—football, really, is beside the point.  Basically, in a culture of violence, Coach Bill teaches kids turn to the other cheek.  For example, Chavis, returning from 15 months in juvenile detention, gets into a stupid argument with his friend about being made fun of.  Bill goes to Chavis’ house, talks him through the consequences of letting it get to him, and coaxes him back to practice.

In the most emotional moment of the film, a rich White man calls Coach Bill to offer to pay for all of Money’s college expenses.  We never meet the man, nor does make a show of his charity.  Rather, he makes a call and Coach Bill delivers the news, no questions asked.  If this were “The Blind Side,” the man would have invited Money to Bible study to take his picture in front of an oversized check.

The lesson of “Undefeated” isn’t that poor Black people need to be saved by rich White people.  The message is that, to defeat urban poverty, we need good people of all colors and creeds to go there and model the faith.  It’s not enough to throw money at the problem—that’s message liberals and conservatives can get behind.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

1 “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” + 1 “Iron Man 2”

= 2 “Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows”

“Sherlock Holmes” is entertaining enough if you don’t care about coherence.  In fact, the movie is a form of cinematic nihilism.  Not in the Tarantino ultra-violent way, but it’s sheer disregard of plot and character suggests an indifference to social order.  Robert Downey Jr. rips off one liners in every scene, playing Sherlock was an arrogant genius trapped in a world of “Batman and Robin” caliber dialogue.  A sample:

Evil Nemesis Are you sure you want to play this game? 

Witty Hero: I’m afraid you’d lose.

He’s beta male BFF, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), is getting married, drastically reducing the possibility of shenanigans they can get into.  So, Holmes drags the couple into his case, “the most important one of my career,” through a series of rather well-planned contrivances.

Here’s where the nihilism kicks in.  The movie asks us to believe that Holmes anticipates a rooftop fight on a train, after he’s stowed himself aboard in Mr. and Mrs. Watson’s luggage, where at just the right moment, he tosses the wife off a bridge safely to the water below.  Yes, I know, it’s an action movie.  And I don’t care if the movie plays loose with the laws of physics.  But I do ask for a modicum of believability in character.

Guy Ritchie understands exactly what he’s doing.  The film is basically a string of set pieces threaded together by Ritchie’s super-slo-mo and micro-focus on spinning bullets sequences.  We’ve seen all this before.  Ritchie thinks, though, that his quick-edited, time-bending sequences cleverly show how far ahead of the game Holmes is.  We watch a sequence up to the brink of conclusion (including a set piece involving a balcony and a chess board!), then Ritchie’s smash cuts to inside Holmes’ and his nemesis’ (Jared Harris, playing some sort of indecipherable white collar criminal) heads, imagining the complex game play of the fight sequences until we…surprise!…discover that Holmes is one step ahead! 

The sheer number of impossibilities is, well, par for the course.  But Ritchie’s style draws such attention to them—in fact, that’s whole point—that we can’t possibly maintain the illusion.  Basically, Ritchie asks us to watch the magician perform the trick right up to the big reveal, then explains how it’s done in minute detail, then finishes the trick.  It’s insulting.

Margin Call

2 “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” + 2 “Boiler Room” = 4 Margin Call

“Margin Call” is “Wall Street” for the derivatives age.  Where Oliver Stone’s movie was about Big Themes:  hubris, father-son issues, GREED!, “Margin Call” is a technocratic film.  Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s accomplishment is to delve into the belly of the beast to show us how the sausage is digested.  His story spans from the top to the bottom of an investment bank, documenting how the complexity of derivatives confused the very people selling them.  He improves on another good Wall Street movie, “Boiler Room,” which updated the Greed is Good ethos to the post-frat culture of the 90s.

“Margin Call”’s banks are populated by nerds—architects and physicists drawn to the money that far surpasses what R&D and universities can provide.  Hence, the complication.  By bundling shoddy mortgages into securities and those securities into securities, they obscured the negative value of the products, then flipped them to their own customers.  All the suits upstairs understood is that these things made lots of money.

Chandor opens the movie with Eric (Stanley Tucci), the former architect, getting downsized just as he’s on the brink of being downsized.  He tosses a flashdrive to Peter (Zachary Quinto), the analyst important from physics, and Seth (Penn Badgley) the aspiring tycoon, who discover that the entire securities operation is a scam.   The rest of the film is a workplace drama scaling the layers of accountability, from Kevin Spacey, swimming with the sharks as head of sales, to Paul Bettany, the division head, to Simon Baker, the prodigy promoted over lifers, to Demi Moore, the layer of accountability between operations and global CEO Jeremy Irons, who ultimately has to manage the crisis.

In the end, the film avoids the Stone-ian moralizing by simply showing you process.  There’s a difference between changing careers for the money and Gordon Gekko evangelizing about greed, or even Ben Affleck sliding the keys to his sports car down a mahogany table.  Still, these guys pay the price, and yes, the nature of their business is to put other people’s money at risk for their own profit, knowing full well they’ll survive in the end.  “Margin Call” restrains itself rather than broadcast obvious judgments.

Win Win

2 “The Station Agent” + 2 “Vision Quest” = 4 Win-Win

More astounding than any of Hollywood’s special effects, this year gave us Coach Paul Giamatti and Manager Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  These make no sense, until you find out that Hoffman was cast by his “Capote” director to be the foil in a boardroom drama and Giamatti, in “Win Win,” is a broke lawyer who embroils himself in an ethical boondoggle.  Giamati is Mike Flaherty, who shares an office with a broken boiler with Stephen (Jeffrey Tambor), and who’s having acute money troubles.  Jackie (Amy Ryan) is the tough-as-nails mother of the family he can’t bear to disappoint.  Mike is taking guardianship cases and coaching high school wrestling to make ends meet, but it’s gotten so bad he starts entertaining schemes to make a few extra hundred a month.  Eventually, he tells a judge he’ll take guardianship over Leo (Burt Young), and elderly client who pays well to keep him in his home.  Mike pockets the money and moves him to the home, fully intending to lie to the judge at the hearing a few months down the road.

All the while, Mike’s wrestling team is populated by pasty wimps who can’t fill out their singlets, and his recently divorced, slightly-off BFF Terry (Bobby Canavale) wants to help coach.  Not to give away too much plot, but the thing with Leo gets complicated, and Mike ends up housing Kyle, a runaway wrestling prodigy who’s to the New Jersey 125 lbs weight class what Megatron is to the Autobots.

Kyle is played by Alex Shafer, an virtually unknown young actor who is actually a wrestling prodigy.  Amateur wrestling fans will recognize that the kid knows what he’s doing, and Giamatti has ably learned the language and technique of the sport.  That we expected, along with Amy Ryan’s no-shit mom routine.  Unexpected is the quiet intensity and understated rage of Shafer.  This is the standard brooding genius, the kid who unleashes the hell inside him onto the field/court/mat.  Still, Shafer never lets Kyle simply be misunderstood, but rather the kid who pins his anger inside.  You see him wrestle with himself, and occasional gives glimpses of what he’s holding back.  This gives the movie an edge that keeps it from turning into an after-school special.

Project Nim

2 The Bronx is Burning + 2 Peter Singer = 4 “Project Nim”

James Marsh, director of “Man on Wire,” about a Frenchman who tightrope walked between the twin towers, finds another small pocket of weirdness in 1970s New York.  The LaFarge family, some upscale free spirits in the upper west side of Manhattan, embarked on an experiment: raising a chimp as a human.  Or, as Columiba Professor Herbert Terrace, the father, explains, “It was the 70s.”

It goes badly, of course.  Like all chimps, Nim is violent and aggressive at times, with moments of extraordinary gentleness and sweetness—basically, a Marlon Brando character.  Nim learns some sign language and takes on characteristics of a human child—potty training, and is even breast fed by the mother.  But over time he becomes too much for the family, and Professor Herbert pretty much disappears from the family.

The temptation is to impose our idea of humanity on the chimp:  He becomes angry with the mother who abandons him, and develops fondness for a rescuer.  We normally associate these emotions with humanity, but we recognize that Nim certainly isn’t human—that’s the folly of the experiment.  So, the question becomes:  Are these emotions we recognize as human actually animalistic?  Or did Nim’s exposure to the human world humanize him in some way?

Perhaps the film says more about academia than anything else.  A noxious blend of bohemianism and intellect made Project Nim sound like a good idea, enabled by the relative amorality of New York in the 1970’s.  I have a lot of sympathy for the spirit, especially in a time of corrosive uniformity and McDonaldization of, well, everything.  But the trade-off of bohemian intellectualism is a tendency toward callous indifference toward the moral code that holds society together.  In other words, perhaps the biggest question is why no one in the city government moved to put an end to chimp raising in a brownstone?

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