Since February gave us that cursed Valentines Day, it is timely that three recent DVD releases deal with finding and keeping love. (Eat baguette now, smoke and adjust beret) Since my last post was a diatribe against the loud, kitchen sink approach in todays’ films, I’m happy to report that some seemed to have agreed with my screams to create, understate and find emotional reality.
In “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, RP McMurphy told the mental hospital administrator that his problem was he that he liked to “fight and fuck too much”. There was the very definition of the modern man raging against the machine of conformist society. Author Chuck Palahniuk has given us stories on these two modes of expression, with the film versions of both books now released. In the big budget “Fight Club” Brad Pitt gave us one of his best performances as the idealized alpha male to Edward Nortons’ beleaguered everyman. It also had Meat Loaf with tits. Great flick with a lot to say.
The film version of the second 'f' is “Choke” and it is a smaller film with a first time director but just as absurd. Sam Rockwell bounces back from the overacted angst of “Snow Angels” (on my worst of 08 list) to play a more playful but equally confused main character. Working in a recreated colonial village ala Williamsburg, he moonlights as a low level con man. By fake choking on food in restaurants and allowing rich diners to ‘save’ him, he somehow hits them up for cash down the road. He’s also a sex addict who gave up medical school to put his mentally disturbed mother in a home where she doesn’t even recognize him. Now here’s a guy who would have trouble finding real love! A catalyst in the form of a new female doctor appears and forces him to question his very confusing life, despite having her own issues. A sacred foreskin, flashbacks of his insane youth, chapel sex, a hilarious staged rape and foul mouthed old ladies all come into play. This could have been a god awful film but I did love the absurdity and creativity of it all. The first time director Clark Gregg clearly botches up the staging several times but he gains points for bravery. The supporting cast: beautiful Kelly Macdonald as the bizarre doctor, the excellent Anjelica Houston as the crazy mother and Brad William Henke as the obligatory best friend, who outgrows our main character, all give great quirky performances. Sam Rockwell is also sympathetic in a very difficult role. This reminded me a bit of the superior “The World according to Garp” which also taught us that we all need love despite lifes’ insanity and our own non-traditional upbringings. This could have been a great film but it passes as a pleasant distraction, much like the meaningless sex it portrays.
With over forty films under his belt, writer-director Woody Allen in his prime has given us some great stories on the difficulties of love; “Annie Hall”, “Manhattan” and “Hannah and her Sisters” being his best. However I have to admit that he seems to have really become mediocre and repetitious to me. Pretentious and top-heavy with literary and academic references, his films always feature the well-monied, elites that Allen seems to worship despite the fact that he feigns disapproval of their homogenized WASP values. His characters tend to ramble about the meaning of life while behaving selfishly but never seem to need to work for a living. His obsession with these Upper East Side neurotics became downright claustrophobic, so Allen began to drop in more old school, broad comedies and has gone on a European filming jag in recent years. To fanatical devotees these seem to be a new direction, but to me they seem to be the same characters with new accents.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a good case in point. The title itself (taken from two of the characters names plus its’ setting) seems to demonstrate its’ generic, formulaic approach. Lazy writing then puts in unnecessary narration as Allen tells a tale of two good friends on a summer in Barcelona and their dealing with an attractive bohemian painter. Javier Bardem loses the soup bowl haircut and limp from “No Country for Old Men” and proves he can be a romantic lead. Vicky the sensible, engaged one (charismatic Rebecca Hall) and Cristina the free spirit (Scarlett Johansson looking sexy but bored) go through their paces like happy lap horses. Vicky’s businessman fiancé Doug (Chris Messina) is so stereotypically superficial that you wonder why anyone would find this safe relationship appealing, but I guess that’s the point. Allen flies his freak flag a little higher giving us a ménage à trios scenario, and (gasp) a lesbian scene. Infidelity and madness seem intertwined, again demonstrating to us that love seems to be at odds with our animalistic impulses in his view. Barcelona helped fund this film which is why the settings look more tourism less realism. Would Vicky be the bird in her yuppie husbands’ gilded cage? Allen shows us her husband literally wanting a bird in a cage to bang us over the head here. The older host couple of the women also act as a too convenient foil for Vicky’s dilemma. Penelope Cruz shows up after an hour as the clichéd, hot blooded Spanish ex-wife, but gives a strong (and now Oscar winning) performance. This is a welcome relief to the self-absorbed, over-analytical conundrums of our cast despite their equally strong acting. To Allens’ credit he doesn’t try to wrap all the loose ends up nicely. Yet just because a film leaves off a happy ending doesn’t make it less forgettable. These are the same well-off, New York City characters he’s given us for decades, the fact that they are eating tapas and touring landmarks doesn’t make their sexual peccadilloes more interesting. For a Twilight Zone version of Spanish love woes, I prefer the creativity of “Abre los ojos’ and no worries, both this and the American remake feature the beauty of Penelope Cruz.
So we’ve seen the elusiveness of finding love, but how does one keep it? “Eden” shows us an Irish couple struggling with just that. With two children and approaching their 10th wedding anniversary, their relationship has grown stale. The husband, a telephone worker; would rather spend his nights at the pub then with his family. This film, like last years’ “Once” (which had the same producers) again shows us a small slice of life but manages to say a lot in that framework. Eileen Walsh is excellent as the under-appreciated wife who tries to woo her husbands’ affections back through understanding, dieting and new hairstyles. Aidan Kelly as the disturbed lonely husband recalls his heroism of the past while obsessing on a minor flirtation. There is more truth in five minutes of this film than of the two previous films combined and it recalls the suburban loneliness of John Cheever. Life is tough, love is hard but we have to keep trying.