The Forbidden Room – Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson (2015)

Guy Maddin is one of the most indelible of contemporary filmmakers. When he emerged, seemingly sui generis, from Winnipeg a little over 25 years ago, he was definitely a cult figure, and when classified, was often lumped in with David Lynch as a visionary dedicated (perhaps too stridently) to the strange and dreamlike. Lynch’s strangeness can be associated with America – his corn-fed sincerity is mixed with a fascination with the hidden, perverse aspects of America’s self-regard, an interest revealed in his tendency to mix hokum with shock, notably in Blue Velvet, but also in Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and, of course, Twin Peaks. Maddin can equally be associated with Canada, but his connection to his homeland is revealed less by the subject of his films than by their form, which makes use of a deadpan absurdity that will be familiar to fans of Canadian comedy as practiced by SCTV or The Kids in the Hall (although Maddin goes far beyond the norm in his dedication to pursuing the lesser traveled byways of his psyche). Part of what has always made it hard to pin Maddin down is that his films have always had a meta-relation to cinema’s history and catalog of stylistic devices; that is to say, Maddin has always worked with certain techniques, and sought to achieve certain effects or visual styles, that have an indexical relationship to certain eras of cinema’s history (chiefly the silent period). Maddin has never been making replicas or parodies of such films, though, but neither has he been making pastiche, rummaging through cinema’s memory bank and grabbing devices or looks simply for novelty’s sake. No, what makes him much trickier (and marks him as a true artist) is that his films have some relationship to what they are parodying, but they are also wholly contemporary; unlike many contemporary films, which would deploy such a historical relationship ironically, though, Maddin’s films do not wink at the audience, nor do they pretend a sophistication against the naivete of the “originals.” Maddin is not unlike many other directors, many of them children of the various New Waves, who took filmic influences and made them their own, but unlike those other directors, he is not afraid to always push the boundary of what an audience will accept (his humor helps in this endeavor a lot). He is not afraid to be avant-garde, and thus tends to be more interested in the surface of a film than in depth. This is not to mean his films are shallow – I simply mean he is less interested in telling a story than in thinking about how and why we tell stories, and he is less interested in having the form serve the content than the other way around. When you think of a Maddin film, the first thing you think of is how they look – and though they all look different, we can still see, in our mind’s eye, an emblem of “how a Maddin film looks.”

Given that preamble, though, Maddin has changed, as any artist is liable to, over the years. His early films, in the intensity of their communication, felt more focused; the form and the content seemed more tightly woven. You will not, for instance, mistake Careful for the kind of mountain film the movie is obviously taking as its inspiration, but you do feel that the aesthetic world of that film is very meticulous, tight, and compressed. It is a film that lends itself easily to a “reading,” as the aesthetic of the film is consistent and unified, and relates very closely to the content (that is, “Maddin’s version of a mountain film narrative,” which we feel is commenting on various, perhaps latent, aspects of the genre). Many of Maddin’s earlier films have this feel. Around the turn of the millennium, Maddin’s style began to shift. The films became looser, often making use of visual stylizations that, while perhaps internally consistent throughout the film, felt less necessarily connected to the content (this is very true of his dancing version of Dracula, to my mind). The films began to feel more contemporary in affect, while they became a bit more willing to grab styles and visuals from many points in film history within the course of one film. His Coward’s Bend the Knee is an example of this, as it in some ways points back to silent film, like much of his work tends to do, but in a fairly non-specific way. It uses those techniques to do less work than they might previously have; instead, the film’s look seems more a way to unify what is, essentially, a perverse (auto)biopic. Part of this shift may have come about as Maddin became better known, and was called to rethink his work for a variety of formats – for instance, Coward’s Bend the Knee was originally conceived as an installation piece, with the film broken up into segments, each viewed through a Kinetoscope mock-up. All of this is to say that as Maddin has aged, his work has become more overtly personal, and he has perhaps felt less pressure to unify the form and content of his films, allowing them be more associational, poetic, and intuitive. Certainly many of his later films, The Forbidden Room among them, have a shaggy dog feel, a sense of brainstorming, barnstorming, a “lets get together and make a movie” improvisation that recalls the flavor of the Kuchar brothers in their heyday.

The Forbidden Room is Maddin’s shaggiest tale, and the widest ranging of his films in terms of styles and genres sampled. (I won’t even attempt to ennumerate the stylistic references, but they range from ’50s educational/exploitation films to French impressionism of the ’20s to silent jungle epics/exotica to the Surrealist avant-garde and onward). The film begins with a send-up of salacious “educational” films (a little less like the Kroger Babb variety and a little more like what you might have seen in school) called How to Take a Bath. The narrator (Maddin regular Louis Negin) stands jauntily in a hallway, his silky golden robe matching the wallpaper, and we get cutaways to the bather practicing his technique. Soon, the association with water takes over, and we find ourselves within the belly of our tale, a story of impending doom set on the submarine SS Plunger. There is a small crew, and a crazy captain who has isolated himself and “won’t be disturbed.” The crew is fretting over a cargo of explosive jelly they are carrying, which is threatening to explode because of decompression; things are so dire that they must resort to mining old flapjacks for the air bubbles trapped inside. While things look bad, the arrival of a stranger, the forester Cesare, seems to bring the possibility of resolution. The crew explores the submarine, with each chamber or room containing a story. Really, though, this is a vast understatement. The “story” of the submarine is a framing narrative on which to hang the rest of the tales, which multiply almost exponentially. Like Wojciech Has’s magnificent adaptation of Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript, this is a film about stories stacked within stories like nesting dolls. A tale will start, to be sidetracked by another story told by a character in the first, who in her story relates a dream, within which another tale begins… you get the drift. In The Forbidden Room, we have, hanging off the main submarine narrative, a story told by the forester about rescuing an “innocent” from a gang of bandits in the snowy climes of Bavaria, and another story about an amnesiac flower girl and the dread “jungle vampire, Aswang.” From these two branches sprout a thousand others (many thankfully including the wonderful Udo Kier!) featuring volcanoes, double crosses, blind mothers, talking bananas, and enough other material for hundreds of fever dreams. Most of the stories work themselves through, and we eventually end where we started, back at the tub, and the loop closes.

While perhaps his loosest film, The Forbidden Room is also Maddin’s funniest (well, too close with Cowards to call, maybe). I personally prefer his earlier, very dryly funny films as an aesthetic experience (Careful really is without peer, but even an unfunny, borderline boring film like Archangel I find incredibly strong overall), but his more recent work is just straight up enjoyable, fun with the added benefit of being a feast for the eyes. Unlike much of his earlier output, The Forbidden Room is thoroughly digital (thus co-director credit to Evan Johnson). While an impressive feat in terms of color and image composition, I must admit I did not like the melty, swirly “liquefy” effect that roams over the surface of the image consistently throughout the film. I guess it is supposed to suggest the porousness of dreams, or the instability of early film stock, but I found it distracting and too digital looking. I am unsure how familiar Maddin is to a wider audience; he seemed to have his finest hour during the release of 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World, which many hailed, but I found vastly overrated and his weakest work, an overly long Kids in the Hall sketch without heart and with a grating performance by the usually credible Mark McKinney. While I would hate to handicap it, if I had to recommend one, The Forbidden Room might be the entree to Maddin’s body of film for the unfamiliar. It has near-constant novelty, an unending stream of strangeness, it’s ravishing to look at, and features many familiar faces (Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, the aforementioned Mr. Kier). As long as you aren’t hung up on conventional narrative, realistic psychology (or realistic anything), or “meaning,” The Forbidden Room will deliver an unforgettable experience. Just don’t ask me what happened.

Three and a half stars out of five

 

The Visit – M. Night Shyamalan (2015)

Gather around, all ye children, and join me at the virtual bonfire, ones and zeroes crackling and sparking in the autumn breeze, as I recount another tale brought to us by Uncle Shyamalan. It is a tale of horrible, weird old people, and precocious young ones, stuck together in a rural farmhouse. It is a story that will leave no head unscratched, no heart unpoked, and no surprises experienced. Yes, if you deign to sit and listen, do be aware you will encounter that dread artifact of reviewerdom, the spoiler; yet rest assured, it will make no difference. Go, see this film regardless, as you will sit, a seeming amnesiac. I guarantee you will not feel a thing one way or the other. Yes, this is supposedly what Shyamalan was put on our dear earth to do: provide experiences that are so fragile they will be destroyed, like a crystalline cathedral, composed of dried hummingbird saliva, placed at the apex of a volcano at the onset of a typhoon, if one gives utterance to the “secret” they contain. The problem, as anyone who has sampled his concoctions will verify, is that Shyamalan’s so easily spoiled “secrets” are often self-evident, dumb, or mind-boggling in their tedium and contrivance. (They are mere shifts of the frame, not ontological earthquakes). His reputation having been built on The Sixth Sense, it has been all downhill from there; indeed, that hill only looks like a mountain from the bottom of the chasm he’s been mining ever since. Yes, I will admit I enjoyed The Village, although I swear I cannot remember if its twist had any artistic merit or not; indeed, I can’t remember much at all about that film, except the general contours of the plot (that is, the twist). And I have not sampled all of Mr. Shyamalan’s rather regularly proffered elixirs, but I can attest that Unbreakable, The Happening, and now The Visit all rank among the most profoundly mindless and artless films of my now rather less than brief existence. But is that a pan?

So what have we here? If you’ve seen the trailer, which looked more like a comedy than a thriller, you were perhaps intrigued as to how our director could knit such seemingly ludicrous moments into an afghan of terror. The short answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. No surprise there, but what does continually surprise me is that Shyamalan somehow manages to keep the movie on track, and moving forward, and gives the characters some depth, despite what could be called, at best, the “concept” that gives the movie its animating spark (or at least animated it some time ago in his adman’s brow). We have a pair of kids, charming if a bit overly verbose, who live with their single Wal-Mart employee Mom (Kathryn Hahn). Mom is estranged from her own parents over a never-to-be-revealed altercation, and the kids are estranged from their Dad over Dad’s own disappearing act. This family steeped in multi-generational trauma splits apart, amoeba-like, yet again, as Mom goes on a Caribbean cruise she really deserves with her new boyfriend, and the kids go to some unspecified New Englandish area to stay with their estranged grandparents. Said grandparents are now volunteer counselors at a mental hospital. (Hmm). The kids have never, ever seen them before, not even in photographs. (Hmmmmmmmm). Mom has prepped them, with her teasing tale, to expect some drama. So, the kids arrive, and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a little weird to say the least. Nana is a good cook, but seems a bit uneasy and fragile. Her hobbies include chasing the kids through the crawlspaces under the house, wandering the abode during the evening hours vomiting, along with moaning, skipping, running, and clawing, also after dark, and often stark naked. Pop Pop, the more communicative of the two, is often absent, out and about on the farm, but when the kids do track him down, he is frequently cleaning his shotgun with his mouth, getting dressed for parties that existed, if ever, decades ago, stacking his used Depends in a pyramid in the shed, or, in the finale, playing Yahtzee like a man possessed. The kids are also quite a pair, but a bit more contained. The older one, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), is the spearhead of this campaign of familial bonding, mostly because she wants to sort out what happened back in the day and get Nana to confess her love for Mom on camera. This is not just for posterity, but because Becca is also a budding documentarian, and so records the entire trip on one of two cameras. The other camera is often in the hands of her younger brother, an aspiring rapper named T-Diamond Stylus (Ed Oxenbould), also known as Tyler, who suffers from microbial phobial OCD (at key moments). Thus the conceit of the film – all the footage we see is part of this documentary, shot on one of the two cameras, almost always held by either Becca or Tyler. The kids spend most of the film trying to alternately bond with and investigate Nana and Pop Pop. What’s in the shed? Poop diapers. What’s at the bottom of the well? Water. What’s in the basement? Mold (or so we are told). A few times, Becca tries to get Nana to grace her with an interview, revealing on camera what went wrong with Mom, and it becomes crystal clear that Nana has firm limits, and wants her questions screened in advance. Result of not doing so? Nana starts to spaz, froth at the mouth, twist and shout. For a week the visit goes on, with Nana getting weirder as the days go by, Pop Pop getting more morose and distant (until Yahtzee, that is), and, once or twice, strangers popping in to say hi. Somehow Nana and Pop Pop are never around when the nice doctor from the asylum where they volunteer stops in, or the nice lady who Nana and Pop Pop counseled through her rehab, or that other guy who I can’t even remember why he was there. Nope, never around. What could be going on? Is Nana a werewolf? Is Pop Pop some strange cultist? A religious nut? Are they aliens, invaded by body snatchers? (Nana recounts, in lieu of interview, a story about beings from another world who keep people in a deep sleep underwater). Why is Nana seemingly homicidal? (She runs around with a butcher knife, but never commits herself). Why does Pop Pop seem so depressed and confused? According to Mom, it’s because they are old. Nana has Sundowners Syndrome (according to Pop Pop), and Pop Pop has early onset dementia. Or maybe schizophrenia. (Thanks for this great trip, Mom!). Finally, while Skyping their mother and begging her to come get them, they happen to flash the webcam at Nana and Pop Pop powwowing in the side yard, and all is revealed. Duh duh dunnn… “That’s not your grandmother and grandfather!” Nana and Pop Pop are impostors? Oh snap! Guess who recently escaped from the local mental asylum? Guess where the real Nana and Pop Pop are? (Serves those middle class busybodies right for volunteering at an asylum). Once the cat is out of the bag, the kids do their best to play it cool, but eventually Becca winds up locked in a bedroom with Nana, and soon enough locked in mortal combat with her. Tyler is held at bay for just long enough while Pop Pop rubs his dirty Depends in the young’un’s face (sending him into microbial phobial catatonia), but soon enough the kids have fake gramps down and are pulping his head with the fridge door. Mom shows up just as the kids escape, and in the denouement, the reunited family waxes sad over Dad’s abandonment, Mom reveals what happened back in the day (she hit her own mother!), and the kids are encouraged to let go of anger. T-Diamond raps us out.

What always amazes me about Shyamalan is that he can manage such an accumulation of details and then somehow ensure they add up to not one damned thing. As you can probably tell, the film does not work as a thriller. Okay, maybe we don’t care, as we have some very meaty tropes to chew over. There is family trauma and the relationships between the generations. There is the problem of aging, which, in an apparent long con to try to make the twist at the end work its magic, is treated quite seriously by the screenplay. (Uh, just take my word on that one). There is the topic of acting – on the train ride to the grandparents’ house, and upon the visit from the doctor, the kids are regaled with failed actors reciting Shakespeare. (That’s twice in 45 minutes!). There’s grandma’s nudity. There’s her story about aliens, and forced slumber. Shyamalan doesn’t know the difference between a red herring and a real one. And this is what, ultimately, is so frustrating about his work, and so fascinating too, for he is, almost uniquely among contemporary directors, a flummoxed and failed magician. He is not a hack. The camerawork in the film is often quite beautiful and impressionistic. The characters have life, wit, charm, and intelligence. (At least, the children do). The story is overabundant with symbolism. So we keep waiting for the magic to happen. We keep waiting for the threads to connect, even accidentally. We keep waiting for a second level to develop in his films, for the symbols to begin to resonate, for a subtext to emerge, or a supertext to descend. But it never does. Ever. Across all his films, meaning is relegated to plot. The “meaning” is the twist. Yes, in the case of The Visit, there is the boilerplate message of moving on and releasing anger at the end, but it has nothing to do with anything that preceded it. No matter how hard you try to connect the dots in his films, to find some deeper resonance, or even a hoary old hidden message, you end in exhaustion and, often, tears (of laughter). His films are close to conceptual art – or better, stage magic – as practiced by a precocious 13 year old. He comes up with what he considers an amazing concept, the perfect “gotcha” (“What if you woke up as a bedbug and nobody said anything!”) and then extrapolates backwards, sewing distractions along the way. He is obviously intelligent, and talented, so why is his oeuvre so consistently samey? In a way, the thing he resembles most is a contemporary practitioner of the Grand Guignol; his is a theater not of meaning, but of effects. The Grand Guignol, however, was, if not art in the way we normally think of it, at least connected to the world it emerged from (that is, it was often working out, in its nightmare mirror, the fresh anxieties of modernity). Shyamalan does not have that. He is, seemingly, an amateur lacking self-awareness. Strangely, he brings to mind, with his campy theatrics that split the difference between horrible and funny, the films of John Waters (another poo lover, incidentally), the difference being that Waters knows exactly what he is doing, his anti-aesthetic being a political and artistic weapon. Waters is a showman, and knows the point of his tricks. Shyamalan is the only director I can think of whose work is bat-shit bonkers and deeply tedious at the same time. In this way, he is beyond (or is it beneath?) aesthetic evaluation.

Two stars out of five

Mistress America – Noah Baumbach (2015)

It is less than six months since While We’re Young graced our nation’s screens, and already we have another offering from Mr. Baumbach? Incroyable! This time around Baumbach has re-teamed with his real life teammate, and Francis Ha collaborator, the indomitable Greta Gerwig. Like that film, Mistress America concentrates on Gerwig as a seemingly unflappable striver, besotted with more ambition than good sense, and focuses on her attempts to climb, if not every mountain, at least the social ladder of the Big Apple, such as it is in 2015 (that is, there’s a lot of horizontal clamoring from one social media platform to another). The mode of Francis Ha was a bit more down to earth, a bit more realistic, a bit more subdued in its portrayal of a woman trying to exceed herself – the performances were relatively toned down, the main character more vulnerable, the city more shaded in grey (indeed, Mistress America is the only case I can think of with a reverse bait and switch, as the trailer I saw earlier in the summer was in black and white, but the resulting feature in color). So, yes, if you are expecting Francis Ha Part Deux, you will be disappointed, but there are many moments of bleed over. A more useful comparison might be the more recent While We’re Young, however, as it allows us to sample Baumbach solo against Baumbach plus femme. And let me break it to you right up front – for the most part, Baumbach is better with Gerwig as a cowriter. One of the problems with While We’re Young (and, come to think of it, almost all of Baumbach’s films in the past 15 years) is that the female characters are underwritten and have little to do except act as sounding boards and useful narrative devices for the male characters. (Yes, there is Margot at her sister’s wedding, but the less we speak of her, the better, for both our own and Mr. Baumbach’s sake). With Gerwig on board, females move front and center – in Mistress America, it is the men who serve as backdrop and mirrors for the female characters. The plot concerns a neophyte New Yorker, Tracy (Lola Kirke), an 18 year old recently arrived at Barnard from suburban New Jersey. The first quarter of the film concerns her attempts to get her bearings at college, where she feels out of place and struggles to fit in (whatever that might mean). She strikes up a friendship with Tony (Matthew Shear), a similarly literary type who also shares her seeming middle-class roots; over screwdrivers, they swap stories which they hope to get into Columbia’s literary magazine. At first this alleviates her alienation, but she soon discovers, much to her chagrin, that Tony has a girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Feeling rootless once again, Tracy takes her mother’s advice, and contacts her soon to be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke immediately takes Tracy out for what is supposed to be a crazy, enchanting introductory night on the town, and by the end of the evening, Tracy is smitten, crushing on older, charming, “kooky” Brooke while Brooke relishes having a protege and an always interested ear. Soon Tracy is crashing at Brooke’s place in Times Square (which is zoned commercial – yowza!) and, while not ignoring her studies, is definitely more invested in living vicariously through Brooke than striking out on her own. Her early story rejected by the literary mag, Tracy makes use of Brooke as a character in a new composition, an act of self-assertion that will eventually come back to bite her. The rest of the movie revolves around Brooke’s attempt to get a fledgling restaurant (to be named Mom’s) off the ground, as the financing originally provided by her unseen Russian boyfriend falls through when he, apparently, breaks up with her (she returns to the edgy domicile one night to find the locks changed, but somehow seems to continue living there, after having to pathetically crash in Tracy’s dorm room for an evening). To secure the now absent financing, she is directed by a medium to travel to Greenwich, Connecticut, for a visit to a well-off frenemy who formerly stole Brooke’s even richer fiancé, along with a golden idea for graphic t-shirts. The second half of the movie portrays this road trip, with Tony and Nicolette along for the ride (as Tony provides the ride, and jealous, suspicious Nicolette won’t let Tony out of her sight). The quartet arrive just in time to crash an art discussion group slash pregnancy coffee klatch, and during a long, awkward afternoon, Brooke pitches her idea first to her former friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), and then to her more enthusiastic ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). Banter zings and pings off the walls, and the occupants of this modernist house on a green hill are joined by expectant lawyer waiting for a ride home Karen (Cindy Cheung) and intruding neighbor Harold (Dean Wareham, making the most of his return to official Baumbach supporting player status). The core group, observed and commented on by this peanut gallery, work over past animosities, try to reconcile old grievances, and make new plans for the future. Some hatchets will be buried, and others will be brandished; by the end of the evening, all will have turned against Tracy, as Nicolette reveals to the group the former’s unflattering “fictional” portrayal of Brooke, and Brooke will reveal that she and Tracy are no longer step-relations to be (as her father has called off the impending marriage to Tracy’s Mom, who apparently does not have it going on). In the denouement, Brooke returns without her restaurant money (as Dylan is willing to give it to her only if she does not start a restaurant, instead proposing, not so subtly, that she take on the role of his city lady in waiting), and Tracy gets into the literary society she yearned for. Tracy feels unsatisfied, though, and rather than sell out as a literary phony, she rejects the Columbians and files to start her own society of letters the next semester. She makes up with Brooke, who she once characterized as a failure, now recognizing her as a success in providing the zing, not to say the tang, to the unimaginative, bored rich who are her obvious inferiors.

The first half hour of the movie is, like Brooke, very striving. The cutting is so fast, and the dialogue piles up so quickly, that we could be forgiven for thinking we are still watching the trailer; we begin to wonder if the movie will ever take a breath, settle down, and recognize what the word expose is doing inside expository. It has the form of an ersatz screwball comedy, but without the laughs, or the debonair sheen of old Hollywood money. It is “witty,” but like much Baumbach, it is hard to detect if this is the real McCoy, or a simulacra of intelligent humor (we suspect the later, as we are rarely laughing). This reveals what is perhaps the key feature of Baumbach’s work, for good and for bad – the inability to discern if his characters are parodies, if he is a satirist and is using his characters as a means to splay open the unattractive guts of upwardly mobile wannabes, or if he is identifying with them, and takes their foibles and follies to be endearing, humanizing traits. Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I mean. Early in Brooke and Tracy’s whirlwind romance, they are in a bar having a drink (in Baumbach’s world, IDs never figure, apparently) and are approached by a woman who happened to have gone to high school with Brooke. At first it seems like it will be a pleasant reunion, but the woman soon takes Brooke to task for having tormented her back in the day by continually approaching her with a similarly too cool male pal, touching her skin, tasting it, and saying, “Mmm-hmm, bitter.” Brooke has no recall as to who the woman is until this jogs her memory, but her response to the woman’s request for an apology is, to say the least, no. (No luck with sympathy or recognition of grievance either). After a few rounds of yelling at each other, Brooke returns to her conversation with Tracy, dismissing the whole thing by rationalizing, “Everybody’s an asshole to someone else sometimes.” (A classic from the great American songbook, if I do recall). Tracy seems to pause over this for a second, then quickly accepts it and moves on, as does the movie. What are we, as the audience, to make of the exchange? The behavior is off-putting; we already understand that Brooke is not the type of person for deep reflection, but this introduces a negative aspect to what has been, up to this point, the key to her “charm.” Is Baumbach identifying with her – that is, can he imagine a world where no, not everyone is an asshole to someone at some time? (There is a difference between treating someone poorly with regrets and being purposefully and unapologetically cruel). Or is Baumbach satirizing the type of person so ensconced in her own cocoon of privilege, or so self-involved, that she is blind to another’s suffering? Baumbach does not portray the aggrieved as being unreasonable, and goes to pains, via the woman’s monologue, to elaborate the negative effect the teasing had on her. This would lead us to believe that Baumbach is in the later mode, satirizing blindness and narcissism, but the fact that this is pretty much a one-off, and that nothing ever builds from it, makes it seem as if it’s yet another quirky nugget, another facet of Brooke’s “charm” to be mined for warm laughs and cuteness. I won’t say it leaves a sour taste, but it does recall the flavor of his earlier films where being mean, being funny, and being close and intimate are all pretty much the same thing.

Thus the tone of the film never resolves, even as the plot does, and we are left wondering if we should actually care about these characters (as it certainly doesn’t come naturally) or if we should laugh at their lack of insight and general self-satisfaction. The problem is further amplified by the fact that, while many of the characters do lack insight and are self-satisfied insofar as nothing will deter them from their generally static natures, they are vulnerable. If there is one great theme to Baumbach’s work, and one that he elaborates with some nuance, it is masked insecurity – which, at the other end of his dialectic, becomes a preoccupation with intellectual, artistic, or social status, and with characters who are, or fear they are, legends in their own minds. In his films from earlier in the millennium, this masking might take the form of cruelty and meanness, whereas lately its form (pace Gerwig) has been charm, klutziness, and befuddlement. In both modes, though, it expresses itself through a preoccupation with a kind of arrested development, which is why his first film, Kicking and Screaming, about post-collegiate angst and anomie, somehow remains the genetic blueprint for all further films. It certainly helps explain why he rarely makes a movie about anyone over the age of 30. He is quite effective at portraying the limitations, which go hand in hand with the expectations, of our current age, and the frustration that smart, creative people feel in a world of constant exhibitionism when their talents are recognized by few and often left unrewarded. But what is he saying about this problem? It is hard to tell. We end Mistress America with Tracy’s recognition still waiting in the wings, as she is too young and unresolved to feel herself a failure (although the prospect preoccupies her, which is part of her interest in Brooke). Brooke ends up not speaking for herself (yet another movie with voice-over, yippee!), but is proclaimed fabulous by Tracy as a kind of diamond in the rough, an occult tchotchke whose powers those lessers she encounters, who lack her moxie and verve, make use of as a kind of talisman. But it is also quite possible that Tracy and Brooke are an army of two, clueless and static, legends in their own minds because they are unable to adapt to the world as it is, or, even more mundanely, simply two people who can’t accept that they might not be as great as they’d like to think they are. In this way, Baumbach is our leading expositor of the fear of mediocrity. Or is he? Perhaps he thinks that Brooke has it all figured out in her continual thrashing about. Like Woody Allen, a filmmaker he resembles in passing (the banter in the second half of the film is very Allen-like, and often very funny), one senses that it is Baumbach’s self-doubt that drives his representations. Unlike Allen, though, Baumbach seems to be hedging his bets, and playing it coy – “I’m not all that,” he seems to say, “unless you’d like to think I am!” Both Allen and Baumbach make films driven by a kind of autobiographical impetus, but Allen has always been firmly in the mode of self-abnegation (or at least self-deprecation). Baumbach is too, on the surface, but with a bitterness that makes one feel he is insincere about it; he’s going through the motions, but secretly he’d be happy to discover that he’s great, the hero of his own story, the genius who everyone loves and lavishes praise on despite his (not so?) hidden churlishness. Is he, in this way, the great reflexive filmmaker of his generation? I’m sure he’d like to think so – but it is this very characteristic that leaves his films feeling light, fluffy, and unsatisfying, even as they feel heavy and leaden in their misanthropic undertones.

Three stars out of five

Infinitely Polar Bear – Maya Forbes (2015)

Yes, indeed, another indie film that nobody asked for, on a topic that has some liberal cache, amped further up by the casting choices. This is practically a genre in and of itself anymore: the “social issue” film that is also a family portrait, which takes on a “tough” topic in an insistently upbeat manner, and generally resolves itself in anodyne fashion. We could mistake it for fluff, mere Hollywood fake sunshine, but the salty language of the kids and their “unconventional” interactions with Dad round it out, giving it supposed grit and indie cred. I didn’t expect much more; I arrived hoping simply for some cute kids (which were mostly delivered) and for an interesting performance from Mark Ruffalo (which was less delivered on). The chemistry between Mom and Dad (Zoe Saldana and Mr. Ruffalo) is pretty much non-existent, which, while helping the majority of the film, as Mom and Dad are separating and growing distant, does little to shore up any backstory of how in the hell Mom and Dad got together in the first place. Oh yes, it was the ’60s, and Mom mistook Dad’s bipolar behavior for a lighter unconventionality, which was apparently in bloom during the hippy heyday along with peace, love, and dope. It certainly helps to explain why the film is set in the 1970s. Otherwise, what could the reason be? An aversion to cell phones as plot devices? A desire to watch all the characters chain smoke unabashedly? The inauthentic double gift of a time that was both let it all hang out weird as well as stodgy and conservative, as needed by the dictates of the script? (The narrative makes a lame stab at a framing device, in which we understand that the film is a recollection of the now grown children, but it never follows through on this). As a portrait of someone afflicted with bipolar disorder, it is definitely the Cole Porter version – Auntie Mame seems more unbalanced. As a family portrait, it is not very compelling, as we don’t have enough backstory or conflict to care, and the kids, while cute, are not terribly charming or sympathetic (ditto for Ruffalo. Saldana doesn’t even have a chance). It is also quite static. We start the film with Dad easing back into life after a stint in the hospital, with Mom carrying the burden of working. Dad, even without bipolar, comes from blue blood old money now gone to seed, so is not terribly equipped to work even in ideal circumstances. Mom, having an onerous, no-pay library job, decides to apply to Columbia, get her MBA, and then come back and support the family. Dad and kids, living in Boston, stay put, and the main meat of the film (ham hock though it be) is the portrayal of Dad going from a doddering father with less responsibility to a doddering father with more responsibility. Mom is gone for over a year, visiting on some weekends, and holds out a romantic reunion with Dad as a carrot to keep him motivated. Unsurprisingly, when the MBA arrives, Mom is not interested in Dad anymore, but Dad seems okay with the fact, or at least accepting, after he and Mom hug it out, crying together over a grill in the park. Mom will take a job in New York, Dad will keep the kids in Boston, and the future will grind on as it was, although with more money. The kids, resistant to Dad’s unconventional ways early on, still resist, and still scream obscenities, but now at least acknowledge that they love him while flipping him the bird. Or something like that. (I am making the film sound more dramatic than it is). Yes, this is looking to be my shortest review ever. Nothing happens in this film that you wouldn’t expect, and nothing happens that would be out of place on your average weekly TV drama. The sets look like leftovers from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Ruffalo wears Lacoste polos all film long and smokes like an affected movie Nazi. His father is played, briefly, by Keir Dullea, the whitest man alive. If any of this sounds exciting, or moving, please, do go and light your world on fire with this film’s torpid placidity. If you like cute kids swearing, you might be mildly satisfied. Plenty of crappy, wanna-be upbeat pseudo Polyphonic Spree music can be heard. Also, the title makes close to no sense.

Two stars out of five

Trainwreck – Judd Apatow (2015)

It would be far too easy to pan Trainwreck by claiming that the film lives up to its title, in the same way many of the film’s raves have run the opposite, and equally lame and easy rhetorical gambit (as in “Trainwreck is anything but.” Good night, Philadelphia). It is a very disappointing failure, however, and a spectacular loss of nerve on the part of Amy Schumer (although not so much for Mr. Apatow). If you admire the Amy Schumer who courts discomfort in the service of exploring the ambivalences of the modern female subject position, the Amy we are all familiar with from her Comedy Central show and her stand-up routines, prepare yourself. Trainwreck does feature a facsimile of that Amy Schumer, but it does so, sadly, only to destroy and bury her under the twisted, piled-up wreckage of the contemporary romantic comedy. (Okay, I went there). The film betrays its audience not simply by being conventional, but by being downright conservative, in the sense that it proposes a set of problems that it is only interested in resolving with fake-outs and lies. Trainwreck is a selling out of Ms. Schumer’s previous worldview, and talents, on a spectacular level. I am not the biggest Amy Schumer fan by any means, so please don’t mistake my upset as a disappointment with a personal dimension. Or even a political one. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to laugh at a comedy. It is the disappointment of someone who would like to see a narrative unfold that takes itself seriously. Yes, the film provides more comedy than something like Spy, and yes, there is some truth to the proceedings, and to the portrayal of this self-proclaimed “broken” woman. So the stakes are higher, as at least this viewer expects a comedy about an unhappy, alcoholic prisoner of fear to be honest, and hopefully acidly funny as well – because otherwise, why bother? Instead, we are subjected to non-stop cynicism and subsequent cleansing bromides passed off as truth. By avoiding honestly exploring and resolving, if not solving, the problems raised, the film reveals itself as deeply disparaging of reality. By flinching, Ms. Schumer makes a joke not just of herself, but of the real people who suffer as her character does, in a similarly relentless and cynical reality, and have not the magical ability to write their own happy ending.

The Amy of our film is a combination of the brutally honest and self-deprecating Amy we know from stand-up, combined with the satirical and mocking “Amy” of her Comedy Central show, who is often used as a device to reveal the stupidity, sexism, and embedded misogyny of our culture. She is a hard drinking career woman who works for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff (a parody of FHM and its brethren) and spends her free time having meaningless sex with as many men as she can. We know, or come to understand, that behind this facade lies a deeply unhappy sad sack with low self-esteem and no expectations, who hides her true reality behind her outrageous “humor.” Where do the problems come from? From a broken home, and from Dad (Colin Quinn, doing a horrible job of playing 70), who we see at the beginning of the movie lecturing his daughters on the foolishness of monogamy by way of breaking the news of divorce. Amy’s younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) somehow escapes the nightmare, growing up to live a conventional life as a seemingly contented and loving housewife and step-mother (a relationship that Amy openly mocks). When she’s not having one-night stands, Amy is dating Steven (John Cena), a lovable and loyal, if somewhat dim jock who, upon realizing Amy’s polyamorous ways, breaks it off, calls her mean, and exits for good, obviously hurt. This breakup does apparently give Amy some pause, and so when she is assigned an interview with prominent sports doctor Aaron (Bill Hader) by her Kim Gordon-meets-a-pumpkin editor/boss (Tilda Swinton, the film’s finest hour), she is primed to find within him a possible long-term partner, even if she at first treats him like one of her one and dones. The rest of the narrative is comprised of a battle between the better angels of Amy’s nature (her sister, her intended, LeBron James) and the worse ones (herself, her Dad, her boss) as she vacillates between trying to shoehorn Aaron into the category of “not meant to be” and believing that indeed she does want to stop identifying as a whore, find Mr. Right, and hopefully a happy ending, after all. When she proves too much for even God’s gift to self-actualization to handle, she breaks. After quickly dumping the booze and drugs, tidying up her apartment so it resembles a Hallmark movie bedroom Della Reese would not be ashamed to inhabit, she rushes to Madison Square Garden (although there is no crisis, and hence no tension to the climax) and regales Aaron in a cheerleader outfit, dancing along with those other “community builders” her previously self-hating small mind had rejected as sexist mascots of male fantasy. The film ends with our couple in full missionary under the backboard, Amy apparently cured of her self-hatred, alcoholism, and funnybone by her loving man.

Based on that synopsis, I guess it probably seems like there is not much cause for alarm, or consternation, as what we have is simply an unambitious romantic comedy that happens to star Amy Schumer. The problem is less in the grand scheme than in the details, however. Much of the proceedings come off as Schumer wanting to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to have an edge, but also be nice. She wants to explore the psychological reality of her self-destructive character, while also keeping things Golightly light and leaving room for wish fulfillment. So we get plenty of awkward turns, such as playing Kim’s family for laughs as a bunch of lumpy, un-hip, unattractive fools, who dare to be nice and have feelings for each other, then later in the film making us feel guilty for laughing at them earlier (which we didn’t anyway) as it is really Amy who is the fool for being afraid of the conventional and for judging others. Likewise, we are supposed to laugh at the stupid homophobic stories promulgated by S’Nuff (as, duh, this is satire), while finding Kim’s coffee klatch friends’ mild homophobia worthy of eye-rolling and condescension (as we are now taking a moment to impart a serious message). As the film swings back and forth between purported edginess and dullness, or self-hatred and therapy, or comedy and drama, or reality and fantasy (pick your dialectic), we begin to feel the laughs are on us, either for finding the offensive funny, or for taking the real stuff seriously, and we begin to understand that a resolution will not come through synthesis or catharsis, but will be bestowed by authorial fiat. And this is where the real problem lies. Amy Schumer wants her comedy to mean something, to tell some sort of truth – and that is fine. But truth often hurts, and real problems cannot be solved by recourse to 30 seconds of resolve followed by becoming exactly what you spent the previous half-hour mocking. Think about the potential of this comedy if it allowed itself to be truly black, and tackled such a self-destructive character with honesty; it might actually say something about our society, and about the forces that construct such pain and misery, forces which undermine people in real ways. Schumer has not the nerve for reality, though, and for me this is the most unforgivable sin. For a while, in the third quarter of the movie, there exists an uneasy tension, as Schumer’s drinking is no longer funny, or relateable, but indeed “real” in that it is a problem, and ugly. We begin to sense someone might suggest she is an alcoholic, or that one of the other characters might have a real talk with her about why she drinks (and smokes pot) to such an extent. When was the last time you saw the issue of how alcohol functions in our society portrayed in such a personal, realistic way on the big screen (comedy or not)? So it was very disheartening to see her behaviors (perhaps not quite addictions) dealt with in less than a minute. She simply takes the booze, and the drugs, and boxes them up, giving them to some more deserving soul (the homeless man who lives outside her building, ha ha). She lights a Glade candle, contemplates her new resolve, and then bounds off to the arena, to suit up and impress her man. It is not that she seeks to be conventional that offends, as the movie does not err in proposing that being conventional is the way to be “happy.” But what is such happiness? It is herein pitched purely as winning the battle with internal demons, plague of the weak-willed, which pull us out of conventional ways because we are too afraid to fail, or be rejected, rather than as also being a social phenomena that provides a safe role to play while allowing us to be this way or that for the benefit of others (that is, the film refuses to see convention as also a mechanism of external control). And along the way, the ending sells out the reality that informs Amy’s character – it sells out all of us who cannot muster such easy solutions, and willpower, and for whom Mr. Right is not the answer (because perhaps he never appears, or does not exist). It sells out those who truly struggle with alcohol, and drugs, and by way of succor gives a completely disingenuous (never mind, for many, equally unappealing) “solution.” “Find a true love. Build community. Love yourself. And do it dressed as a cheerleader!” Does no one else find this crass? Pathetic to the point of tears?

One and a half stars out of five

P.S. The half star is for Tilda Swinton, who is indeed amazing, and for an unexpected appearance by Norman Lloyd – yes, Norman Lloyd, who worked with Welles, and Hitchcock, and Ed Begley Jr. At 100, I’d expect this, sadly, to be his final film, but I hope he proves me wrong.

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl – Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2015)

It is the thickest part of the season of my discontent. On one side of me there lies a geriatric robot using himself, gallantly, as a human torpedo to keep the future safe for dragons on HBO. On the other side, there is the formerly formidable Vincent D’onofrio delivering a more compelling facsimile of Orson Welles than he did in Ed Wood. I, feeling unhappy that my blazon of filmic revelation had fallen temporarily silent, tried to thread the needle, and so ventured forth into the unknown night that is yet another tale of a chipmunk face, a cancer girl, and a detached black youth (tasked, as ever in Hollywoodland, with keeping it real). I entered hoping to laugh, to cry, or at least to fake it until I made it. I left unchanged, untouched, my memory of what transpired like a koan, written upside down in fine grain during a sandstorm. Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is ostensibly a serio-comic tearjerker, a product of the superbrain that guided eight episodes of Glee and one episode of The Carrie Diaries into port. I do not mean to slander Mr. Gomez-Rejon, for he has assuredly accomplished more in the way of putting images before the eyes of the public than have I. All the same, this film felt like a half-baked TV leftover, a drooper episode of Gilmore Girls written whilst on quaaludes. It aims neither high, nor low, but for the distinctly average; indeed, it feels as if written by a computer algorithm that churned through Rushmore and The Fault in Our Stars, averaging out the highs and lows, retaining the twee and sappy, and adding a black person. (Perhaps it is already ahead of the output of Wes Anderson in that department).

So what happens here? An “I’m charming because of my fake humility and fraudulent low self-esteem” narrator, the titular chipmunk-faced Me (Thomas Mann, also known as Greg, and not known as the creator of the Magic Mountain) is brow-beaten by his mother (Connie Britton) into spending time with a dying girl (Olivia Cooke, also known as Rachel) for what reason we cannot comprehend. (Mom is apparently a knee-jerk beeotch, dedicated to her son’s unhappiness). In requisite ironic deadpan fashion, Greg and Rachel trade lame jokes, and lame revelations, all the while slowly forming that dread connection known as friendship. Rachel has cancer. Greg makes insipid parodies of Hollywood films, with titles like Death in Tennis and Pooping Tom. He mimics Werner Herzog’s at this point played out monologue about the horrors of the jungle. He hangs out with Earl, who is his silent partner in auteurship and not a friend, but a “coworker.” As Rachel gets sicker, Greg and Earl pretend to be forced to regale her with their cinematic output (is there a connection here?). Soon, a hot girl that Greg likes discovers his secret life as a cineaste, and guilts him into making a movie explicitly for the dying girl. Greg, lame loafer that he is (I know, he is supposedly dragging his feet because he knows his tribute will kill her which, SPOILER, it does) hems, haws, and draws it all out until the last minute. As per usual given algorithmic averages, the film hinges on a scene where Rachel and Greg have a falling out, she wanting to be left alone to quit chemo and die, he wanting her to fight, fight to the end for his sake, all the while they both attempt to squeeze as much liquid out of their faces as they can. (They mostly fail). After this, Greg falls deeper into doldrums (if that is possible) and Rachel disappears from the scene, to be replaced, finally, by Earl (RJ Cyler) the only thing with life that we can see. (Perhaps the sequel will rightfully be titled Fuck Y’all – I’m Earl). The hot girl keeps hounding Greg to finish his movie before Rachel dies, and spurred on, I guess, by his continual demurrals, she asks him to the prom. He accepts, but fakes her out, at the last moment taking the limo curbside at the hospital, invading Rachel’s deathbed, and forcing her to go gently into that good night to the accompaniment of his last masterpiece (scored somehow, as is all of Greg’s life, by Eno). They make up in a way, she goes comatose, eyes wide open, during the credits, and Greg lumbers on into the future, probably making Hollywood films just like this one. (Earl, too cool and embarrassed to really be part of the movie, smokes another cigarette at her wake).

Yes, just like Greg, this movie is a hand lettered love note of insincerity. Greg pretends to have low self-esteem, to be humble and shy, but he is really, like Herzog in his jungle, a seething pit of self-regard, the reflecting mirror being the real death in front of him. Rachel, playing the role of witless helpmate, convinces Greg of his worth (that is, feeds his secretly monstrous ego) and encourages him to apply to Pitt. He gets accepted, and then, after he slips into his funk (triggered, no doubt, by having to make some real art that matters), gets unaccepted, as his grades slip into the funk along with him. His secretly controlling shrew of a mother goes apeshit (masking it brilliantly, just as Greg masks his truth) but no worries; dying girl spends her last moments on earth penning Penn a little death note asking them to take him back, explaining that his lack of effort was her fault, the price paid for friending the doomed. Yes, Greg’s career in sociopathy is capped by this new identity, as an auteur of fluff given weight by the departed soul of another (his film, an avant-garde homage to the dying girl’s pillows, mirrors the climax of Olivier Assayas’s portrait of another failed director salvaging a final project, 1996’s Irma Vep). The only one who sees through this charade (besides your truly, of course) is Earl, the existential hero of the film. (Cyler’s acting fits the reality of the script as no other performance does). Like the Eno score whose ambience gives the film what emotional weight it has, Earl at first seems like mere background, but gradually becomes the substantial center. No more than an observer, buffeted by the winds of chance, Earl acts when and where acting is needed: in the films du Greg; as witness to the narrative of faux suffering played out between Greg and Rachel; and, in a few key moments, as the bearer of reality’s burden (as when he fells Greg with a punch to the gut, an encounter which Greg, typically, describes as “getting into a fight”). Earl has no family other than an older brother who smokes blunts and sits on the porch with his pit bull; he has no motivation except to eat the food others proffer him; he has no anger, and no resentment, toward the pathetic role he has been dealt. Indeed, he silently revels in the naked absurdity of his position, forced to bear witness to the film’s (and by extension all of our) white lies. Earl could have rightfully popped a cap in everyone’s forehead, but he understands they, and we, are not worth the effort. He is merely biding his time, waiting for his own starring moment, which will be years from now, after all these caricatured cuttlefish munchers and pâté eaters have fallen into obscurity. (Is it coincidence that his is the only name enshrined in the title?) At that future moment, Earl will emerge as the true auteur, not of a script as woeful and drained of effort as this, but of the secret film that lies hidden within, the reality of which the likes of Greg, and our dear director, could not bother to imagine. Perhaps in his dying moments, Greg will realize that it was Earl all along – Earl who neutered Greg’s films while making them possible, Earl who pulled the strings to ensure Greg only got into Pitt, Earl who stood tall as the true moose that stomped Greg’s chipmunk face into the ground again and again. As Greg drops his snow globe to the floor in his basement apartment Xanadu, what name will play upon his lips? The name of Earl.

Two stars out of five

Dope – Rick Famuyiwa (2015)

Dope has garnered many comparisons to 1983’s Risky Business. The comparison is apt insofar as both films revolve around college-bound teens who, generally being straight shooters, want to live it up and taste some of the wilds of adulthood before heading off to school, and who get caught up in more excitement than they bargained for. Dope also has elements that throw back to Kid ‘n Play’s features from the early 1990s, as well as the Friday series of drug comedies. The film concerns Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a trio of nerds who are obsessed with the hip hop culture of the 1990s. They watch old tapes of Yo! MTV Raps, are ardent collectors and defenders of the era’s music, and they dress in homage to the decade (Malcolm sports a hi-top fade too). They are intelligent, good students, and misfits, as besides their obsession with the past and geeky ways, Diggy is a lesbian, and Jib is of indeterminate ethnicity in this largely African-American neighborhood. The three live in the Bottoms, a tough section of Inglewood, where they have to continually dodge thugs at school who want to steal their stuff (mostly shoes) and drug dealers on the street, who want to take their bikes. One day, Malcolm happens to talk to and somewhat befriend one of the dealers, who asks him to be a romantic courier to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) the neighborhood hottie who is studying for her GED so she can go to college. Malcolm of course develops a crush on Nakia, and offers to help her study for her GED, in the hopes that she’ll go with him to the prom. The drug dealer, Dom (A$ap Rocky), invites Malcolm and his crew to a party, and the three go, despite being under-aged and drug free, mostly to further Malcolm’s romantic designs on Nakia. The party, of course, is where the plot really picks up, as everything goes haywire – Dom is in the middle of a drug deal when gun-wielding robbers try to boost his weight, and in the midst of the mayhem, he secrets the large quantity of ecstasy into Malcolm’s backpack (unbeknownst to him). Discovering the drugs, and a handgun, the next day at school, Malcolm at first panics, then tries his best to get the drugs back to their intended source without getting killed, or arrested, in the meantime. After much hustling around and avoiding various rival drug dealers who also want to get their hands on the stash, Malcolm is directed to pay a visit to the big boss, who also happens to be the local magnate of a chain of payday loan storefronts and the man Malcolm is supposed to have his Harvard application interview with. This man, Councilman Blackmon (Rick Fox), is a pillar of the community, but runs a boys club that is a front for his drug dealing activities. Blackmon has no desire for the drugs, he simply wants the cash that Dom would have generated from them, so he tasks Malcolm with converting the drugs into money himself, as the best possible credential for his placement within the Ivy League. Being a nerd, Malcolm decides to make use of technology to aid him, rather than deal on the streets, and enlists the help of his “friend” Will (Blake Anderson), who helps them establish a listing on a dark web drug site and sell the drugs for Bitcoins. To cut to the chase, he gets it all done, avoids being killed or arrested, and, to an extent, wins the heart of the girl, all while various more and less serious hi-jinks ensue.

The film doesn’t have quite the atmosphere or “walk on the wild side” tension that Risky Business does, for a couple of reasons. One is that Risky Business is about a fish out of water, a preppie white kid entering a world of sex and larceny that is quite foreign to his everyday experience. Dope is about a black kid from a tough neighborhood who, although a straight arrow, is quite familiar with the world he is entering into – in a way, it is more about his ingenuity and ability to play a variety of roles, rather than about adapting to various shocking yet arousing situations. Formal elements make the stakes feel lower too. Malcolm’s drug dealing, thanks to the magic of technology, feels distant and light weight, far from the street or danger, and is accorded a quite small parcel of screen time. The website goes live, the drugs move, the end. There are one or two shots of the crew using the chemistry lab to cut the stuff up, but that’s about it in terms of the hands-on portrayal of dirty deed doings. There are also simply fewer moments of threat than in Risky Business. In that film, the adults are absent because of a vacation – in Dope, the adults are usually absent, due to economic necessity or social contingencies. Which gets us to the main difference between the two films: race (duh). The differences between Risky Business and Dope provide a portrait of the differences between white and black America. For Tom Cruise, one wrong move would bring down a carefully constructed edifice of expectation and responsibility, destroying a life that would have no reason, except for perverse inclination, to fail. For Malcolm, the stakes are lower – not for his own care for his future, but for society’s. His father is absent, his mother is working and barely present, and, given his neighborhood and skin color, nobody expects that much from him, so his dilemma takes on the form of a fork in the road of existence. One way leads to Harvard, the other to prison, but oftentimes the roads overlap and cross, and how Malcolm navigates this split matters for him personally more than it does for anyone else. The film does a good job of playing up this doubleness (also reflected in the multiple meanings of the title), and making it clear that life for Malcolm, a bright, charming kid with promise, matters much less to society than it should. There are times it lays bare this hypocrisy in a way that is almost didactic, as at the end, when Malcolm, his problems solved, writes (and performs for the camera) an admissions essay that explicitly addresses the double nature of expectation that America places on its youth, depending on the color of their skin. The end of the film also smartly leaves us in suspense as to Malcolm’s success – we see a large envelope arrive from Harvard, we see an ambivalent reaction shot from Malcolm, and the film ends. Did he get in or not? Malcolm’s essay makes the point that, if he were white, we wouldn’t have to ask this question. By not answering the question and satisfying the audience, Famuyiwa reinforces the point – nothing in Malcolm’s world is ever a given in the way it would be for a white man and, yes, even in our supposedly post-racial society, we all know that Malcolm can do all the right things and still lose out big time. What complicates this view is that he doesn’t do all the “right” things, because he can’t – he does what he has to, in a world where there are no right answers, and where doing the “right” thing will potentially penalize him as much as doing the “wrong” one. The portrayal of Councilman Blackmon is thus not cynical, but plays up how the mindless praise we as a society heap upon the “entrepreneurial spirit” is a lie; both the Councilman and Malcolm are doing what America has told them to do (that is, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps), but because they have done it within the world they have access to, and with the materials of that world, they have to, at the least, live a double existence that denies part of their identity. The true denial comes from a society that has attempted to put success out of reach for them a priori, by making the world they live in, and the paths out of it, all illegal. The film does a great job of showing this reality without being overtly political, and we feel for Malcolm and the way his life is twisted and confined by the lies we, who live in another world, tell ourselves about who we are. The proceedings, especially in the second half of the film, have the rushed, sketchy quality that much exposition has these days. The cast is fresh-faced and very appealing, though, and there is much that is funny and enjoyable about the movie, especially for anyone who remembers, and is perhaps nostalgic for, the 1990s. All the same, the second half plays out as expected, and by the end, is a bit rote and boring. We do need more films like this being made; films which do not play into the lies we like to tell ourselves, or which pretend that magical, shiny technology has somehow solved the problems of racial and economic justice that exist within our society. We need more films about what it is like to be black, or outside of any social guarantee. It is sad that such films are rare, and Dope serves as a reminder of how many films cravenly congratulate and coddle their audiences on having a politically correct attitude which amounts to having “solved” problems simply by refusing to acknowledge them.

Three stars out of five

Spy – Paul Feig (2015)

We live in a post-comedy era. Why wouldn’t we? We’re post everything else. Modern comedy is all meta; nothing but a funhouse full of indexes that point only toward each other. What this means in practice is that we get comedies made about what we find funny, or don’t, rather than comedies that actually are funny. Trying is so ten years ago. I will happily blame Will Ferrell, the comedic master of a no-style form of humor that references “funny” while delivering a parody of comedy. Being unfunny, lame, or simply badly done becomes the point of the joke, such that any scenario played “straight” (that is, acknowledging of its foolishness while carrying on with it sincerely) becomes comedy. In such a mode, any stupidity or crass conceit succeeds simply by being executed with a po face. In fact, add an out of left field reference to any fairly straight scene of rote dramaturgy, beat the presence of the oddball element to death (or have everyone ignore it), and you have the recipe for the secret sauce. Thus we veer in such films between strange clumps of exposition, where the only cue as to the parodic element of a topic is conveyed by the florid churlishness or stupidity with which it is expressed, and longueurs of profanity filled rants, as characters roll their eyes at having to restate the obvious, the obvious being the way they (and the other characters) fail to fit into expected stereotypes. Yes, we all know what would happen in this type of a situation, and regardless if what is expected happens or not, the characters pitch a fit at having to contemplate which side of the cartoon border they fall on (Tijuana on one side or the arid desert of Wylie E. Coyote on the other). Most often, a character will spit out some over-the-top profanity about how annoyed they are at having to remind the other characters what a stereotype like themselves should be able to expect from a stereotype like these others, and then we are supposed to laugh, either at the stupidity of living in a universe of stereotypes, or at the inclination that anyone could, in the realm of a representation, take their representations seriously enough to expect anything of them. All this adds up to a flat world where what is “funny” is basically playing off of or reinforcing, in sarcastic fashion, what we expect, and is thus “reflexive.” “You expected this, but ha, you got that” trades off with “you expected that, and fie on you, so take this.” The historical nexus of this type of comedy, albeit modulated by fewer profanities, arose, I would guess, in the mid-90s on SNL, the golden era of comedians laughing at their own inert material, playing out gossamer thin concepts until, at the 10 minute mark, you couldn’t believe it wasn’t 1 a.m. yet. Lameness, self-awareness, and baroque concepts were elevated, actual wit, inventiveness, and the visual (unless it be a one-note shock) were forgotten. This is the cinematic world we live in today, a world where we see so much material that is “funny” that we laugh as a conditioned response. We know funny when we see it, and we’ll laugh because we see it – all the better if everyone else around sees it and laughs too, confirming us in our good humor. The result is like Facebook (and much of our culture) – an echo chamber of lame toothlessness that we all “like,” and accept, because that is the nature of being on Facebook. To behave otherwise on Facebook is anti-Facebook. In a similar way, to remain unamused at a comedy is anti-social.

Getting around to the inevitable, Spy is very, very mediocre. I like Melissa McCarthy well enough; she is a solid actress, who, I must say, has not had good enough material yet to prove her mettle. Her elevation to exceptional status and cultural hero says more about the pathetic condition of women within the image factory than it says about her prowess as a performer. If she were really breaking any new ground, would she always be cast in comedies, and always comedies that revolve around how unexpectedly (normal, nice, intelligent, able, sexy, etc.) she is, given that she’s “real?” Anyone who thinks that this film is not primarily humor about being large, dowdy, and female needs to reexamine this film. Yes, we are no longer in the era of making fun of someone for being dowdy; we simply make fun of dowdy. As long as we make the stylish, thin people “mean” or “shallow,” and the large, dowdy, and normal-looking folks “decent,” and on the road to newly discovered self-esteem, it’s all good – we can proceed as usual. I am not offended by such things, I am simply bored senseless. Films like this seem to mistake casual observation for sharp parody. Spy films of this ilk have been self-parodies ever since Roger Moore (even the era of Connery was tongue in cheek) – Spy simply heightens some of the more ridiculous aspects of the genre, has every character comment on themselves, or the goings on, in a self-aware fashion, throws in a damned generous handful of non-sequiturs (truly Ferrell’s biggest contribution to the current style) and voila! Let them eat funny cake. It is all very lazy. For instance, in Spy, technology has become intensely useful and good, to the point that Melissa McCarthy, sitting at her terminal in D.C., has more information about what is about to happen to Jude Law than Jude Law does. She guides him through all the tough parts, like the love child of Siri and Jiminy Cricket. If anyone were to protest how much of the plot is driven by ludicrous technological machines of the deus-ex model line, that person would be laughed at as a tinfoil hat wearing doofus. Of course it’s ludicrous! It’s a comedy! Yes, parody is that which exculpates any type of narrative stupidity, and allows laziness to be recast as a virtue. The problem is, wit is the least lazy form of all. Ultimately, we have the comedies that we deserve – slack affirmations of self-congratulation for the increasingly empty-headed, glazed-eyed consumers we have become. Nothing is deadlier to comedy than complacency, or affirmation. There are indeed some funny set pieces in the film, and if you’re a fan of Anchorman et al., I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. As for myself, I swear my standards aren’t that demanding. Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll give the film a star for each of the laughs it provided.

Two and a half stars out of five

Results – Andrew Bujalski (2015)

What do you get when you take two middle-aged men, one a buff gym owner, the other a pudgy schlub, and add a young, hot female personal trainer with attitude? You get Results. What are those results, you ask? They are this movie. A movie, in which three people interact, now graces our screens. How do they interact? This is a comedy, so the stakes are low. The narrative concerns Trevor (Guy Pearce), who owns a gym and is looking to expand to a larger space, and Kat (Cobie Smulders), a younger personal trainer who works with/under Trevor, and who has trouble retaining clients because of her semi-abrasive manner. This snow globe of hilarity is cracked, if not shattered, by Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a lumpy middle-aged man who does little but sit around the house all day, drinking, getting high, and noodling on his guitar. He is not only our entree into the story, but our avatar within this fitness universe. Danny has a lot of free time because, in a freakish stroke of good luck, he recently inherited a massive amount of money. Seemingly knocked from his everyday perch, he now inhabits the world as a cross between a Beckett character and John Belushi in Animal House. He pays anyone he meets hundreds of dollars to accomplish the most meager tasks, just so he doesn’t have to bother with them and/or use his brain. He decides to employ Trevor’s services so he can get into shape, happens to spot Kat, and takes a liking to her. Kat, wanting to gain and keep good clients, likes Danny. She goes to his house periodically and helps him exercise. Danny is not creepy or even overly interested, but we know he likes her. Eventually, as Danny more and more lets it all hang out, Kat happens to spy his smoking equipment laying around, and he invites her back later that evening to partake. She does, and, coupled with some drinking, is soon making out with him, then rounding to third base (at which point the film demurs). Afterward, she has second thoughts, and while not particularly regretful, feels she has to break it off with Danny for professional reasons. Danny then goes back to Trevor, at the same time that Trevor and Kat are reheating as an item (we have heard that they dated back in the day). Trevor has more feelings for her than she for him (seemingly), while Danny still holds on to some desire for her. Kat wants Trevor, but there are some issues having to do with Trevor being angry at Danny for some reason…

You know, this movie is damned hard to remember. In fact, it is completely forgettable. I feel like I’m piecing together the most boring dream narrative ever, or an episode of Passions from eight years ago. To fast forward, by the end of the movie, Kat and Trevor have confessed their love for each other, and joined forces to dominate the fitness market of their locality. Danny, having disappeared halfway through the movie to allow Trevor and Kat to ascend, returns briefly as the would-be satyr / martyr who sacrificed his side of the love triangle for the good of all. He throws a house party, after trying (and succeeding) to buy some sorority girls to party with him, and everyone boogies around as the credits roll (with copious smooching from Kat and Trevor). Who the hell cares? This film doesn’t seem to know what it is. In reality, it is a fairly boring, quite straightforward love story set in the world of personal training (gag). The jokes are very gently observational, like Seinfeld playing Vegas in 2027. To the front end of this film is stitched a fake-out story about buying love and unrequited lust and feeling empty and out of shape, a kind of lower-depths Roxanne in the throes of an identity crisis. The problem is that we are interested in Danny, as he is our representative in the world of beautiful people, and we want him to be a contender. So when the movie discards him, we feel discarded, and further, we feel bored. The zest (and meaning) this film could have had would have come from Danny, clichéd though it may be, fighting his way back into Kat’s heart (or at least making a case for himself). Danny already has a back story that is very flimsy and hard to swallow, so by ditching him halfway through, only to bring him back for the stupid winking ending, the filmmaker shows him for what he is – a device, not a character, and a malfunctioning one at that. The whole thing makes no sense. It’s like Bujalski, while writing the script, arrived at the pivot in the film, the moment of tension in his story, where he would have to actually develop something meaningful out of a bumpy setup, and flinched. Far easier to simply use Danny as the longest meet cute in film history, and then play out another half hour of Kat and Trevor bantering, forming business partnerships, and smooching. The acting is fine – I lay the fault squarely on the shoulders of the director/writer. Yes, the film is gently humorous. Yes, there was nothing offensive about spending 105 minutes watching it. All the same, there is something annoying about the whole enterprise – like the name Cobie Smulders, it gets under your skin, and, pleasant enough though it may be on first encounter, on recollection, one feels more and more disappointed and grumpy. Worry not, though, because unlike the name Cobie Smulders, memories of the film will melt away easily. In 2027, as I’m watching Seinfeld in Vegas, were someone to approach me and ask me about this film, I am confident I will remember not a thing about it… except the name Cobie Smulders.

Two stars out of five

While We’re Young – Noah Baumbach (2015)

Noah Baumbach’s new film by and large carries forth the good feelings evident in 2012’s Frances Ha. An intelligent and keen observer of human foibles and follies (keen to the point of keening, often), Mr. Baumbach started his career strongly, with the fairly gentle and modestly ambitious portrait of post-collegiate angst, Kicking and Screaming. That film reminded me of the work of Whit Stillman, the great and under-appreciated chronicler of young white privilege, partly due to the presence of Chris Eigeman, and partly due to the similarly sympathetic yet sharp portraits of bourgeois young adults presented in both films (although Mr. Stillman’s bourgeois are definitely more haute than Baumbach’s). I missed Mr. Jealousy, Baumbach’s stab at mainstream relevance, but adored his following film, 1997’s Highball, a somewhat loose and grungy Gen-X screwball comedy that for reasons I cannot fathom he has disowned. Yes, Mr. Baumbach was sitting high on my brow in those days… and then, after a too long break of seven years, he returned with two “dramedies” that were blood curdling exercises in misanthropy and ugliness. The Squid and the Whale had little sympathy for its characters, and Mr. Baumbach’s grim enjoyment of dragging the audience along on the Bataan death march that was his awkward adolescence was too palpable. One got the distinct impression that for him, pain equals truth – or rather, that his characters were authentic because they were so awful and unpleasant. Perhaps not knowing where to go after that, it must be admitted, almost universally hailed tour de force of embarrassment and frowns, Baumbach made a film with a similar form (that is, “confessional”) but without the underlying salve of autobiography. Margot at the Wedding plays like Bergman by way of Todd Solondz if both had been kidnapped, blinded, locked in a basement, and forced to write a script for Henry Jaglom. The characters in that film come in two varieties – intelligent and incredibly awful, or unintelligent (i.e. “normal folks”) but incredibly ineffectual and annoying. The behavior of Margot makes Hitler seem misunderstood and jolly in comparison. Shrill, egomaniacal, mean, static, without remorse or pity, she really is the worst person ever to visit Long Island. (I rest my case). Baumbach revels in the ugliness of the whole situation, his “honesty” communicating that families are nothing more than sewers into which unwilling participants are slung from time to time, forced into a battle royale of painful revelation and one-upsmanship. Having finally recovered from this gleeful nightmare by locking myself away with naught but Peepshow for the next month, I skipped Greenberg, figuring it would be more of the same – if I could barely abide Nicole Kidman as a self-lacerating (and everyone else lacerating) megalomaniac, Ben Stiller would put me over the top, and I’d be watching Rocky II on a loop for the rest of my days. Okay, I’m thankfully winding up my sad tale of Mr. Baumbach’s effect on my psyche, as Frances Ha brought into N.B.’s misanthropic little world the spunky, klutzy, yes, annoying in her own way but also life-loving and un-ironic presence of Greta Gerwig. With her on board as co-writer and star, Baumbach finally brushed that chip the size of a large, festering wedge of Stilton off his shoulder, got back in touch with his ’90’s self, and delivered his best film in 15 years. A bit slight, perhaps, but who needs seriousness if it comes in the form of concrete getting poured down your throat? All of which is to say, I had mixed feelings about While We’re Young when I saw the trailer. It looked pretentious and overly-intellectual, a return to “form,” yet it also looked somewhat silly and self-effacing, maybe a good time. It is, after all, about a middle-aged grump who gets a new lease on life by meeting some hopeful youths, right? Well, actually, no. It is more self-righteous than that, as the middle-aged grump turns out to be a minor version of the dreaded “last angry man,” and the youths turn out to be narcissists at best, and outright frauds at worst. And yet… the film is genuinely funny, and reveals some truths about getting older and figuring out what matters in life.

The synopsis is uncomplicated. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play a 40-something couple, Josh and Cornelia, who are beset by a midlife crisis of sorts, brought on by the recognition of their own professional mediocrity (he is a struggling documentarian, she is… the daughter of a documentarian) and the realization that they have no baby ballast to help them through this stormy period, as many of their friends do. After giving a bland lecture at a local college, Josh is set upon by two young hipsters from the audience, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who seem to be fans of his work. Flattered, he and Cornelia are pulled into their orbit, feeling revitalized and refreshed by these youngsters who seemingly eschew the material trappings of success and the social strivings that make such success possible. They watch VHS tapes, listen to vinyl, eat bar-b-q in the street, and do ayahuasca together. After a while, this relationship alienates them from their peers, who they no longer have time for, as the couple insinuate themselves further into the world of tattooed post-authenticity. Josh, now Joshie, buys a hat, Cornelia dances lamely to hip-hop, and in return, they provide entree for Jamie into the world of documentary credibility and financing. (Darby is pretty much just along for the ride). Josh soon discovers, however, that the seemingly spontaneous documentary he has helped Jamie construct is, in fact, a web of contrivances, and that Jamie perhaps arranged the happenstance meeting after the lecture, as he has so much else in his life, with optics in mind, as a way to access the prestige and vast sums of financing held by Cornelia’s father, a renowned documentary filmmaker of the “direct cinema” era (played with understatement by Charles Grodin). Aghast at the ease with which these youngsters play fast and loose with “truth,” and saddened that there seems to be no difference for them between a “real” and a “useful” friendship, Josh renounces his ways, and his hat, and fully accepts his old man status, although almost at the cost of his marriage, and at the grudging realization that authenticity never was what it used to be. (It turns out that Jamie and Cornelia’s dad have more in common than Joshie can bear). Returning to middle age, the couple discovers that they can finally attain adulthood by refocusing on something other than eclecticism in musical taste and memories of Cookiopuss. Unable to conceive, they decide to adopt a child from abroad, and the film ends with them heading toward happiness by way of accepting their inevitable irrelevance, forgiving Jamie his sins (“he’s not evil, he’s just young”), and horrified by the coming tide of children weened on screens within screens.

While the film does indeed follow a fairly stereotypical, almost mainstream comedy progression, and is intelligent in the Baumbach way (that is, referential to the nth degree), it also has a heart and some wisdom as well. Baumbach smartly concedes that, in the world of documentary, and in the world at large, it has always been thus that authenticity takes a backseat to effectiveness, and that entertainment wins out over truth most any day. This is the source of Josh’s upset; he realizes that he was seduced, and hates that he was taken in by the trappings of no trappings. Further, Baumbach posits, mostly via Grodin’s character, that the ruthlessness necessary for success is not mutually exclusive with actual feeling, and that friendships can be both useful and authentic; perhaps Josh’s problems are rooted more in how he relates to himself, and what he has chosen to value in the outer world, than within a search for authenticity that has been stymied. All the same, the film also acknowledges that our age is different from past eras primarily in the easy access to both people and images that technology provides us. Jamie feels he is entitled to every relationship just as he is entitled to make any artifact of the past, or any image he can capture or discover, his own, as he has come of age in a time of overabundance of access and a scarcity of meaning. For him, the self is the only guarantor of credibility, and so he is not shy about bending all narratives to reflect his own needs, and his own interiority, although, paradoxically, his interiority is made up of nothing but hand-me-down narratives and tchotchkes from a “culture” where truth is no longer contested, a field of battle, but instead a hall of mirrors, each reflection crystallizing its own “truth.” Josh, who perceptively yells “There is no documentary when you film everything – it’s only footage,” is put off by this realization, but at the end of the film finds a way out of the funhouse. How? He simply stops caring if his image reflects. He refocuses on his marriage, and the film maturely suggests that it is the love relation that can provide refuge from the noise of the world; the couple, allied together, can know a truth that does not need to be proved, or contested, and indeed can, as a private reality, exceed any reward the material world can provide. At the same time, it is not sufficient. To be truly happy, and “old,” that is, to remain sane over time, one must turn one’s attention away from the self and back out into the world – not as a proving ground of the self, but as a realm of others who need true connection and love. While this does come in the form of a baby for Josh and Cornelia, it need not; but the film does suggest, wisely, I think, that while a couple doesn’t need a baby to fulfill itself, it does need more than a great collection of vinyl or trips to the Riviera to stave off existential decay.

Three and a half stars out of five