March 20, 2006

Winter Passing

Reflecting back, Winter Passing is easily the best film of 2006 so far. I can't recall exactly what the competition is, but that really only cements my point. It's an unsatisfying film, I won't argue about that. Not much really happens. A lot of plot threads and revelations are thrown out there to hang; the characters don't really pursue them so much as let themselves be informed by them. In any mainstream movie, 90 percent of the footage would have been left on the cutting room floor. The plot, about selling the old love letters between two famous authors, is simply a MacGuffin to shatter the stagnancy of these people's quiet and depressing lives.
We see the film through the eyes of Reese Holdin. She is vaguely aware that her mother, one of the aforementioned famous writers, has passed away recently. Lots of people ask her if she's okay. She snaps back "I'm fine" like it's a reflex. A stage actress, her current show is on the verge of closing. Her cat is dying of leukaemia. She uses a potent combination of alcohol, cigarettes, and cocaine to feed her numbness, then slams desk drawers on her palms in a struggle to feel something real. As circumstances slowly force her to confront the fact that there is literally nothing holding her to New York City, she takes the book publisher's money and hops on a bus home.
The man who answers the door introduces himself as simply Corbit, and nobody else calls him anything different. Reese's father Don — the other famous writer — walked down stairs one morning to find him asleep on the couch, and he's been living there ever since. A quiet and constrained man, he is a casual devotee to Christian rock and karate. When Reese introduces herself as the reclusive author's daughter, he asks to see a valid driver's license or passport.
The woman who cooks the food, does the laundry and generally enables Don's downward spiral is Shelley. A former student of Don's, he took her in during a personal crisis and they've fulfilled a mutual need ever since. Reese treats her with unfair cruelty. To Reese's credit, Shelley treats her like a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is her parent's life.
Don, now living in the decrepit garage, takes his daughter's self-destructive approach to life to fresh and devastating extremes. Had we not already met Corbit and Shelley, it would be all too easy to dismiss Don as merely a prolific writer who has stayed alive several decades too long and is working to rectify the situation. He is often impenetrable, and occasionally immobile — there is a particularly pitiful scene at the dinner table where he becomes so paralysed by his depression that he no loses the will to even hold his fork.
In a character-driven movie, the performances need to be top rate — and they are. As our protagonist, Reese is our emotional point-of-view. As a character, Reese does a lot of things that could turn an audience against her. When faced with her cat's disease, she opts to take the little creature by taxi to the Hudson River, pet her a few times, then zip her up in a duffel bag and throw her in to drown. It's a truly despicable act, but Zooey Deschanel's stand out performance forces us to feel pity for a girl too wounded by life to even cry. Later when Reese congratulates herself on giving Shelley a particularly vile verbal thrashing, Deschanel allows us to enjoy that Reese is smiling at all. And the scenes further on when she is finally allowed to open up and express herself, she knocks it out of the park. The pain in her voice and face when Reese confronts Don about her mother's death is heartbreaking; when Corbit's big moment arrives, her encouraging smile could melt icebergs.
For Will Ferrell, this film might be looked back upon as a turning point. He's played characters like Corbit before, but this is the first performance he has laced with real pain and uncertainty. Signature Ferrell scenes like one in which he verbally assaults one of Don's fans are enriched by the quieter scenes that no exaggerated body language or goofy expression could have gotten him through. Corbit is the first Ferrell creation deep enough and complex enough to believably exist in the real world. Ferrell is such an utterly unique personality that his possibilities as a dramatic actor are particularly exciting.
In a film where describing the characters as eccentric would be putting it mildly, Amelia Warner is admirable for resisting any quirks or tics to make Shelley stand out. Shelley never really becomes the dramatic focus, serving mostly as a point of conflict and conversation between Reese and Don. The character is never really fleshed out by the screenplay, so Warner's great feat is making us believe Shelley at her word.
As Don, Ed Harris crafts a character that is an antithesis to Bernard from The Squid and the Whale. Where Bernard is domineering, argumentative, it requires a good deal of effort to get Don to say anything at all. While Bernard left a trail of careless and unavoidable monuments to his own focused self-absorption, Don drops easy-to-miss little breadcrumbs that show exactly how much he cares. Reese provides plenty of arguments for Don being a Bernard. If he ever was, he used his decades of decline to learn something about life — and people.
At the end of the film, we leave the characters almost exactly as we met them. But everything in between happens so achingly, so desperately, and so affectionately that I would gladly pay another nine bucks to walk another 98 minutes in these characters' shoes. On a scale this microscopic, small moments of connection carry the impact of moving mountains. A motley crew deeply troubled strangers heal each other in tiny but profound ways. Adam Rapp has created characters that, for all of their problems and failings, I grew to love and missed leaving. ()


March 17, 2006

Thank You for Smoking

I've wrote often about my adverse reaction to dark comedies in general. So imagine my surprise at just how enjoyable Thank You for Smoking truly was. A delight that my fellow audience members were equally vocal about on their way out the door.
The film follows Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a P.R. flack for Big Tobacco. He's good at spin. Really good. So good that when he goes on an Oprah-esque talk show about the dire consequences of smoking, he leaves shaking Cancer Boy's hand. The performance attracts the admiration of his higher-ups in the Tobacco industry (including a gruff J.K. Simmons and an utterly tweaked Robert Duvall) and the ire of the ultra-liberal Senator Finistirre from Vermont (cut-throat for William H. Macy).
His travels bring him in contact with horny reporters, flaked out Hollywood deal brokers, and a cancer-riddled Marlboro Man. Tagging for most of the journey is Naylor's young son, who admires everything about him ¡ even the less than admirable parts.
A big part of what makes this film stand out is its cheerful nonchalance about matters of utter moral depravity. It would have been easy to make a movie about a guilt-riddled Naylor or a Naylor that's a true and utter prick. Besides defending an industry that (as he proudly declares at one point) kills many multiples more than alcohol abuse and fire arms combined, Naylor's a pretty likable guy. He's a little too good looking, a little too slick to be taken seriously. But it's undeniable that he's good at what he does.
The movie doesn't hold back much in its scathing sarcasm of the tobacco industry, but it doesn't give the militant anti-smoking lobby a free pass either. The way Naylor outmanoeuvres his opponents (who on a personal level are far less likable than he is) is sometimes a marvel to behold. The screenplay by Jason Reitman mines the hypocrisy of both extremes for every ounce of humour. The diverse cast — of which I have only sampled — is uniformly effective, offering new surprises at every turn.
Unlike The Weather Man, Thank You for Smoking doesn't keep the audience at arm's length. The humour is crisp and inviting. The characters might not be nice, but they're at the very least not exasperating. And when Naylor finally turns a corner at the end, it's not the result of some broad transformation in political ideals. He simply examines his options and makes the right decision for him. I wish more satires could have this film's spark and desire to please. ()