Thursday, March 19, 2009

Munchausen Weekend

The Reader / Revolutionary Road

I saw both of these a while back and kept meaning to find the time to say something, but never really felt compelled to make the leap from thought to deed until earlier today. While sitting in the tire shop I noticed that this week's Time had Kate Winslet on the cover, with the caption "Best Actress" emblazoned over her ¾ turn profile. Now, certainly, she is a gorgeous woman, and I don't begrudge nay magazine the right to put a gorgeous woman on the cover - but I finally have to come out of the closet a mite sheepishly to admit that I just don’t "get" the mystique of Kate Winslet.

First of all, I had managed to avoid her for the entirety of the previous decade. You see, there was this little movie called Titanic, and I don't let things like that go. I mean, sure, she was young, but still. It's a bit like forgiving Nixon just because he's dead. (I did see her in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I had managed to forget she was in until about now.) But until a friend induced me to watch Heavenly Creatures a few years back I lived in blissful ignorance of what the former Titanic star had been up to. I admit, I even came around to Leonardo DeCaprio before her - much against my own best judgment, he wasn't bad in The Departed. I loved that movie. He didn’t' ruin it, despite his babyface making it hard for me to believe him as being a rugged cop dude. But still - the dude from Titanic was actually bearable in a movie. That was a big concession for me.

So - here we are. Two Kate Winslet movies, two weeks apart in the theater. Considering how many people love her, and how much they do, I took it as the opportunity to catch up on a cultural phenomenon which had obviously left me in the lurch.

First: Revolutionary Road. Why they felt the need to make a movie out of a fifty-year old, little-remembered book about, oooh, the evils of suburbia, at this late date, I'll never know. I mean, seriously: the moment you see the movie's setting you can play out every dramatic beat for the following two hours in your head. What is the agenda here? The message wasn't particularly new a decade ago when they made American Beauty - oh wait, the same guy directed that and this? Wow.

There are two options: either this was supposed to be a "topical" film, addressing the present through the lens of the past, a la Goodnight and Good Luck and Frost / Nixon; or, the filmmakers believe in the strength of the material to surpass topicality, and that the story is therefore strong enough to stand on its own merits without any contemporary subtext. The film fails on both counts, because the story is some seriously weak sauce, and the idea that this at all speaks to the contemporary state of American life - even if you consider the film was made, what, two years ago by now? - is still pretty poor justification for breaking out such a hoary old chestnut. I have never read any Richard Yates but this film does not compel me to do so - Cheever did it better, with far more empathy. Since the ending of the film was pretty much a foregone conclusion from the beginning of the first reel - SPOILER ALERT: they never make it to Paris! - the sensation was not unlike that of watching insects slowly dying under a magnifying glass in the hot sun. You know they're going to twist up into little shriveled corpses, and quite honestly, having to sit in a room with these people for two hours makes me long for the smell of burning ant flesh.

Because, my God, if this is the caliber of acting her fans have come to expect from Kate Winslet . . . well, goodness. There was not one single moment of this film where I was not aware I! Was! Watching! Actors! Acting! Perhaps Mendes was going for the whole Douglas Sirk high-pitched, stately melodrama thing - but then, you've got people supposedly breaking down into fits of emotional convulsion, complete with chair throwing and botched abortions. I suppose you could call Mendes an actor's director, if by that you mean that he always gives his actors plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. Every time there was any kind of intense emotional scene - and boy, does this movie have plenty of them, screaming catharsis with clockwork regularity - I expected the director to step out from behind the camera, make the "T" sign with his forearms and yell, "Scene!" There wasn't an inch of honest emotion in this entire smarmy contrived movie - I believed Night Owl's grotesque "NOOOOO!" on the Arctic plateau about as much as I believed a damn word anyone said in this movie. It's probably not a good sign that I was laughing throughout the huge climactic argument, the one that had the chair throwing. Ladies and Gentleman, I've had chairs thrown at me, and trust me, the shot isn't usually so well composed.

(Probably bad taste to be sniggering throughout the heavy dissolution-of-marriage scene, but hey, there's this movie called Scenes From A Marriage by Ingmar Bergman. It's five hours long (in its original TV cut) and if you ever wanted to experience the death of a marriage there's nothing else like it. If you don't mind wanting to die afterwards, that is - just like real divorce. And also, if you thought Revolutionary Road was anything but revolutionary, there's a 1968 movie adaptation of Cheever's "The Swimmer" with Burt Lancaster you should catch. It's a great movie, regardless of the fact that it has two directors, and says twice what Revolutionary Road does with half the fuss.)

I was, however, pleasantly surprised by The Reader. Not so much by Ms. Winslet - her performance was adequate. More naturalistic, but it's still hard to act in old person makeup. The thing I liked best about this move was that I had been expecting something pretty abominable, from the reviews - some kind of "Nazi wins redemption through the power of the human heart" type thing. But thankfully, that's not at all the case. And again, thankfully, the main weight of the movie's dramatic crux doesn't fall on Winslet's shoulders, but Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is a good actor, and even though he only has a supporting role here, he nevertheless achieves a degree of emotional lucidity which communicates the film's rather prickly and unpleasant thematic core with admirable alacrity.

To wit: it's not about Nazi's finding redemption for horrible actions, or learning about humanity through the power of literacy, or any of that. It's about the emotional complicity of people who feel sympathy for monsters. When Ralph Fiennes' character (albeit the younger version, not played by Fiennes) realizes what his former lover had done, who she had been - he's repulsed. He's sickened. But he is also filled with self-loathing, because he still loves her on some level. How can he possibly feel the need to reconnect on a human level with someone guilty of such ghastly crimes? The fact that he obviously does feel that need says nothing about her. She becomes essentially a prop once her crimes are revealed. Try as she may she can't find even the least shred of absolution from her former lover, only the barest acknowledgment of her continued existence - the tapes, sent compulsively as an admission of . . . what? Guilt? Shame? There's no forgiveness, no emotional closure, just loose ends left by monstrous acts and the complicity - real or imagined - of the people left in the wake of atrocity.

So: hardly a perfect movie, but a good movie nonetheless, and one that has lingered in my thoughts through the succeeding weeks. I can't say, at a few week's distance, whether or not Winslet's performance was anything to write home about - trying to "act German", like acting through heavy makeup, appears to have been a trial. She was innocuous; she didn't draw excess attention to herself. She was suitably dramatic in the dramatic points and suitably sexy in the sexy points. I guess "was competent enough that she did not draw attention to herself" must be the current Oscar criteria.

I just saw Rachel Getting Married last night and I think it might be the best 2008 film I've seen yet - I can't decide whether or not I like it better than The Wrestler. That movie, as heartbreaking as it was, was basically Mickey Rourke through and through - without him, it's impossible to imagine the film. Sean Penn was OK, I guess, in Milk, but the grating Hollywood biopic narrative conventions made the movie pretty somnolent despite what appeared to be a good performance - but man, that script was so bog-standard it made my teeth ache. I guess we've achieved "progress" when the lives of gay civil rights leaders get the same boilerplate Hollywood condescending condensation as, say, any other notable person unlucky enough to have a two-hour self-important Hollywood "message" picture devoted to them.

Seriously, is it that hard to make a movie about someone's life? Rescue Dawn and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly were both technically "biopics" but they were both astoundingly good movies as well. Why was that? Hmmm, could it be that neither were really American films? (Yes, Rescue Dawn was made with American money, but it's Werner Herzog, for God's sake; and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly did have an American director but it was made with French money and a French cast.)

My point - what was my point? Oh yeah, Rachel Getting Married. Awesome film, but the thing that sets it apart from all the other films I mentioned was that it was really an ensemble piece. I didn't even know who Anne Hathaway was until a couple years ago, but that girl has chops - as an actor, she is effectively invisible, which is about the best compliment I think you can pay to a film actor. Her presence wasn't "riveting", because you didn't for a moment think she was acting - you didn't think anyone in that movie was acting, even the stunt-cast rock star. I even teared up at the (intentionally) cornball faux-Indian wedding scene. It doesn't feel like an American movie at all, it feels like something you'd see in France, you know - a movie that doesn't insult your intelligence, and doesn't mistake showboating hysterics and self-conscious scenery chewing for actual acting.

I haven't seen all the nominees but I have a hard time believing that any of them equaled Hathaway's performance. The only performance I saw that came anywhere close wasn't even nominated, Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky. So yeah, Kate Winslet - she sure is a presence onscreen, isn't she? She is there. On the screen. She moves her mouth and words come out. Oh, boy!

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