Mother and Child, Cyrus, The Fighter, Tiny Furniture, Despicable Me (2010)
Last month, I wrote a piece for Slant about a Claude Chabrol double-feature that was issued on DVD (which you can find under Elsewhere, if you are so inclined) and included was an interview with the now-deceased giant of French cinema that contained a sentiment expressing pointed distrust of the family unit, which Chabrol’s pictures frequently criticized. I don’t recall the specific quotation, but I believe it had something to do with the family being a “vile, hypocritical institution”. It certainly can be; the disease of the family institution – for many of us, at least – is that we can’t detach ourselves from it as we might from other potentially damaging environments, even if we should, without potential considerable guilt and turmoil. Most of us, under the best of conditions, are helplessly perverted to one degree or another by our family or whatever serves as the family surrogate.
Those who somehow have no surrogates are, of course, perverted by the fact that they have no surrogates (assuming it’s possible to have no surrogate in any context anyway). We are all born into confusion, ambiguity and pain of varying forms – and a loose definition of the family unit is the first, but certainly not last, institution to instill self-consciousness, doubt, and skeletons in the closet. So, understandably, some version of “daddy didn’t love me” lurks in most movies to varying degrees of effectiveness and subtlety (it is the root of arguably the most discussed movie of all time – Citizen Kane) and this intangible phantom regret can be found in all of the pictures discussed below.
Rodrigo García is a director of empathy and generosity – his pictures take their time and allow their characters space to simply occupy space. García is a man refreshingly fascinated with women – his Nine Lives was the rare collection of short films that actually gathered force as it progressed, allowing a number of terrific actors the opportunity to give the kind of work they mostly hadn’t given in years. Mother and Child, García’s newest, is seemingly compartmentalized too, but the stories gradually merge into one cry of despair that ultimately ushers forgiveness and a kind of interior peace.
Annette Bening gives potentially the performance of her career. A terrific actress, Bening has a habit of technical effects that draw attention more to the craftsman than to the context of the character. García builds a hushed (sometimes too hushed) atmosphere that allows Bening, and Kerry Washington and Naomi Watts, to go for quieter effects than any of them are typically accustomed. You probably already know what Bening and Watts are capable of, while Washington may still be a mystery to you. As one of three women affected by a series of adoptions, Washington gives a sexy, vulnerable, quietly desperate performance that haunts you, along with the work of the other actresses, for a time after the picture is over. Need further proof of García’s alchemy with actors? He even shakes Samuel L. Jackson out of his ongoing self-parody.
Jay and Mark Duplass also have a refreshing sensitivity. I originally watched The Puffy Chair because I felt I was supposed to, and was pleasantly surprised by the degree of compassion and casual insight. (A number of short films included on that DVD are also worth visiting.) Their second picture, Baghead, a low-fi indie version of the post-modern slasher film, couldn’t transcend a who-gives-a-damn conceit, but it still had moments that illustrated that Puffy Chair wasn’t a fluke. And now they are back with Cyrus, which was, as widely reported, financed with a considerably higher budget (for them), high profile producers (Ridley and Tony Scott), and real-deal movie stars.
The resulting picture confidently belongs to the Duplass’ in that it sidesteps an unoriginal scenario (two losers fighting over a beautiful woman) to allow the cast the opportunity to improvise moments of greater than expected vulnerability. John C. Reilly, a depressed Joe Schmo who inexplicably finds himself in a relationship with the beautiful Marisa Tomei, doesn’t venture outside his wheelhouse of raw nerves who inadvertently reveal too much of themselves, but he’s still wonderful, especially in a pathetic couch-side confession near the beginning. Tomei has made a career of believably finding men far below her physical form attractive (Joe Pesci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Reilly) but her character here is clearly damaged; she’s a less sentimental version of what still admittedly constitutes screenwriter wishful thinking. The surprise is Jonah Hill as Tomei’s deranged son, who comes between the pair. Hill is clearly a real actor, and his ability to wring pathos out of bizarre, left-field punchlines meshes well with the Duplass’ gallery of befuddled, well-meaning eccentrics.
The Fighter has drawn a divisive reaction that seems to center around its acting. The picture is the story of boxer Micky Ward’s unexpected rise in the middle weight ranks in the 1990s, when, as the picture asserts, he was able to unify the warring factions among his family and friends who had differing theories as to how his career should be handled. The story arc is mostly traditional, the texture is not. David O. Russell, the supposedly temperamental wild card who last gave us I Heart Huckabees, and who had a film aborted in between that and this picture, seems to have taken the Fighter assignment in order to prove that he can behave and tell a story that gets a reasonable amount of butts in seats. Russell has accomplished that, and, within the boundaries of conventional mandates, he’s delivered a picture with a number of wooly little tangents and pockets, and with acting that consciously aims to blow the roof off the theater.
Acting that has frequently been dubbed “over the top” has become a hip target, particularly of chic bloggers determined to prove their subtlety detector to their readership. I’m not excluding myself from this tendency in the past, but it should be said that broader acting has its place and context, and The Fighter is one of those films that calls for it. Melissa Leo, as Micky’s manipulative, self-serving mom, and Christian Bale, as his drug-addled show-off, coulda-been-a-contender brother, are supposed to have large personalities that dwarf the contained, self-doubting Micky, who is played by Mark Wahlberg in one of his absolutely strongest, most charismatic performances. Bale has been wooden and bombastic (somehow at the same time) in a number of recent pictures, here he latches onto a Method role that frees him, allowing him to give his best work since the early 2000s. Bale’s performance is musical, ridiculous, commanding, clownish – as it should be. Russell’s direction is focused and direct, and the editing is effectively punchy. The Fighter is an inventive melodrama.
Tiny Furniture is a remarkable debut from the impressively young writer/director/actress Lena Dunham; she takes the beyond-tired college graduate ennui set-up and makes it her own. Having heard that the picture featured Dunham’s successful artist mother Laurie Simmons (the title comes from a conceit of some of Simmons’ art) and model/poet sister Grace as versions of themselves, I braced myself for an “I hate Mom” freak show. The picture is probably treading over real hurts, particularly in an impressive party scene near the end, but Tiny Furniture is also sharply written and directed with a sense of narrative shape and perspective. Parodies centered around Youtube, art-hipster self-absorption and the all-around loneliness of NYC point to a voice that might have a shot at taking on the new generation’s endless capacity for hall-of-mirrors narcissism as fostered by the internet.
Despicable Me is a delightful farce that features Steve Carell’s best work since his under-appreciated turn in Get Smart. I didn’t see the picture in the theater – I thought it was another lame meta-superhero thing. It’s actually about a super-villain called Gru (Carell) who tries to steal the moon to compensate for his mother’s (Julie Andrews!) life-long disinterest in his exploits. Soon, Gru, who was clearly never too cut out for this bad guy business anyway, finds himself distracted by three little girls he adopts, initially in a scheme to get even with another bad guy (Jason Segel), who’s nursing parent issues of his own. It could be too cute, but the animation is striking and beautiful and the gags are inventive in an occasionally intricate fashion that could have been inspired by Tati. The core though is the sad, childish Gru, who simply wants to belong. Everyone in all of these movies shares that wish, because everyone in all theaters do too.