Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Intriguers of 2013, Part II: Don Jon, The Great Gatsby, and Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg

We're continuing with our review of the Intriguers of 2013. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

Don Jon. Joseph Gordon-Levitt didn't need to become a director. He's already one of America's most talented young performers in front of the camera, and he's successfully leveraged that talent—a unique combination of movie-star charisma and aw-shucks sincerity—in a variety of ways, appearing equally comfortable in Hollywood blockbusters (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), mid-level studio productions ((500) Days of Summer, 50/50), and scruffy mind-benders (Mysterious Skin, Brick), not to mention a particularly excellent hybrid of all three (Looper). He could have just kept on acting, and he would've kept us happy.

But Gordon-Levitt insists on pushing himself in new and interesting ways, and so now we have Don Jon, a messy, highly ambitious, slightly misguided, thoroughly entertaining directorial debut. It's also clearly his movie. Working from his own screenplay and casting none other than himself in the lead, Gordon-Levitt imprints Don Jon with an undeniably personal stamp, using a variety of established filmmaking devices (most notably high-speed montage) that are effective without being ostentatious. Most contemporary rom-coms feel like they're made by any hired gun—just point-and-shoot and let the actors' glamour do the work—but Don Jon isn't the product of an eager teenager happy to have finally been handed the keys to the car; it's the work of an artist.

Just not a particularly disciplined one. Never one to settle for the old familiar, Gordon-Levitt envisions Don Jon as operating on a dizzying number of levels. It is, at times, a raunchy bro-fest, a heartfelt romance, a damning critique of our obsession with body image, an honest inquiry into the value of pornography, a skewering of the modern nightclub scene, a winking commentary on gender roles, and even a light satire of organized religion. That's quite a bit of thematic material to balance, though some of it comes across nicely, thanks largely to a fast pace (just when you've figured out the movie's rhythm, Gordon-Levitt fires another curveball) and a game cast (Scarlett Johansson, in particular, proves adept at playing spectacularly shallow). But the critical flaw in Don Jon's execution—and what renders it more a successful curiosity than a rousing success—is that virtually every character in the film is maddeningly one-dimensional. I understand that Gordon-Levitt's very point is that society is promulgating a culture in which beautiful vapidity is something to be desired rather than disdained, but his characters' extreme lack of depth makes it difficult for him to deliver that point with any force.

Except, that is, when he elects to share the screen with Julianne Moore. At 52, Moore may not be as hot as Johansson—O.K., it's not close—but she imbues her character with a tantalizing air of mystery. As a result, the complicated relationship that develops between Moore's quirky widow and Gordon-Levitt's muscle-bound mook is thrillingly unpredictable, and that lends it a charge of sexiness that's otherwise strangely lacking in this sex-obsessed film. For the most part, Don Jon, like Johansson's superficial stunner, is something of a tease: It's too scattered to be a great movie, but there are hints of greatness. It's enough to make you excited for Gordon-Levitt's sophomore effort, whatever it may be, when he presumably dials down the surface-level obsessions and digs a little deeper.

Enough Said. Nicole Holofcener's films don't exactly thrive on conflict. In her past efforts—Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money, and Please Give—she painted incisive, well-observed portraits of attractive, selfish, mildly desperate women (one always played by the magnificent Catherine Keener), but she rarely drove those women forward with anything as engineered as a plot. She was more content just to follow them around and comment, sometimes archly, on their pitiful attempts to locate purpose in their lives.

Enough Said is both of a piece with Holofcener's past work and something of a departure. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the typical Holofcener heroine, a frustrated masseuse named Eva who's struggling not only to find love but also to connect with her precocious teenage daughter. She hits on the former when she meets Albert, a winsome, heavyset man (played with casual charm by the late James Gandolfini) who complains regularly about his obnoxious ex-wife. She also develops a rare friendship with a wealthy client, Marianne (Keener), a poet who complains just as regularly about her loutish ex-husband. Things go well, until Eva learns that—can you believe it?—Albert and Marianne used to be married, and their respective objects of contempt are each other.

Hey, look, plot! And not just any plot; Enough Said features what Roger Ebert dubbed an Idiot Plot, whereby a movie generates conflict solely through the stupidity of its characters. Here, could Eva just calmly explain to Albert and Marianne that she inadvertently became intimate with both of them (rather more so with Albert), then let them all resolve the situation like adults? Of course, but instead she inexplicably withholds this knowledge from both parties, artificially inflating the suspense as we wait for her charade of ignorance to be exposed.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Yes, Eva's behavior can be infuriating to the point that you want to shake her, but her idiocy also provides Enough Said with a frisson of excitement that's typically absent from Holofcener's films. And the emotions on display here are genuine; Holofcener remains devoutly committed to exploring adults' feelings of confusion and loneliness, and the actors are all persuasive in conveying her peculiar mixture of innate selfishness and basic decency (Gandolfini, in particular, is quietly heartbreaking). Still, in the future, Holofcener would be advised to split the difference and make a movie in which smart characters do smart things. Just because her characters are shallow and childish doesn't mean she can't act her age.

The Great Gatsby. Your degree of enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby will likely depend on your attitude toward book-to-screen adaptations in general. If you enjoy seeing your prized novels faithfully animated to visual life—literal "by the book" filmmaking—you'll likely admire Luhrmann's evocative recreation of 1920s New York and his accurate replication of the novel's plot points. If, however, you prefer works of art that can stand on their own terms, using source material as a template for further innovation rather than a blueprint that must be scrupulously reconstructed, you may be frustrated with Luhrmann's slavish devotion to Fitzgerald's text. I tend to fall in the latter camp—I prefer my screen versions of legendary novels to be adaptations rather than imitations—and as a result, this latest Gatsby often exasperated me. Fitzgerald was a writer without peer, and snatches of his language have embedded themselves into our collective consciousness (pop quiz: What color is the light at the end of the dock?), but Luhrmann's insistence on paying homage to that artful language—whether by saddling Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway with a labored voiceover or, even worse, frequently displaying actual text on the screen—only reinforces the inadequacy of his own art by comparison. Fitzgerald has been dead for over 70 years, but he still casts a long shadow, and much of Luhrmann's film feels swallowed up by the novel's looming greatness.

But not all of it. Luhrmann may not be a great writer, but he is a master showman, and when he's able to free himself from the shackles of his source, The Great Gatsby pops with cinematic life. Visually, the movie is a stunner, and some of the party scenes set in Gatsby's mansion—when Luhrmann abandons words in favor of an orgiastic sensory assault via booming pop music and shimmering chandeliers—function as glorious depictions of opulence. (I must admit, the 3-D helps; it's immersive but not overbearing.) And as he did in Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann recognizes the power of music as a cinematic tool; a luxurious montage set to an original Lana del Rey song captures the novel's voluptuousness in a way mere dialogue never could. Besides, even if that dialogue occasionally feels stilted, it can be easy to lose yourself in the film's swooning romanticism, particularly when watching Leonardo DiCaprio (excellent, as ever) dive headlong into doomed love.

If only Luhrmann had followed that spirit of extravagance and taken some actual risks with his storytelling. If he had, The Great Gatsby may have been a failure, but it also might have been a landmark, the definitive cinematic incarnation of an iconic novel. Instead, it's a lush, serviceable echo of a far greater work. Fitzgerald told us that we beat on, boats against the current, but Luhrmann prefers to glide along with it. In so doing, he doesn't make waves, or history.

The Hunt. "Innocent until proven guilty" is an easy platitude to embrace in theory, but it can be tested in practice. Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt questions the reality of that platitude in particularly queasy fashion. It follows Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen: magnetic, sympathetic, and righteously angry), a respectable, morally upright schoolteacher whose life crumbles after a five-year-old pupil accuses him of sexually assaulting her. The girl is lying, but that hardly matters to the girl's other teachers, nor to the children's parents, nor to anyone else residing in the close-knit Danish community. One of the tragedies of The Hunt is how quickly the mere suspicion of wrongdoing can curdle into absolute certainty, and how actual innocence can prove powerless when battling blind rage. Even after Lucas is legally exonerated, he remains a pariah, and the film's closing scenes suggest he'll be branded with this scarlet letter for the rest of his life.

Back in 1998, Vinterberg made the much-celebrated The Celebration, a similarly clammy domestic drama that yanked back society's veneer of politeness and understanding to expose the ugliness and toxic groupthink lurking underneath. His technique has improved since then—where The Celebration, a Dogme 95 effort, practically prided itself on sloppy camerawork, The Hunt is cleanly framed and soundly composed—but his subtle characterizations have slipped a bit. The Hunt is a powerful and engrossing film, but with its broad outlines and clear villains, it's also something of a cheat; had it opted for ambiguity rather than obviousness, it could have proved even more challenging and thought-provoking. Still, Mikkelsen is fantastic, capturing Lucas' growing sense of isolation and resentment with every sharp-eyed glance and brittle line reading. His mounting desperation would feel at home in a horror movie, and The Hunt is indeed something of a nightmare, one in which the monster is not some mythical beast but society itself. We like to think we're civilized, but in Vinterberg's view, one small lie is all it takes for us to rip up the social contract and tear at each other's flesh.

Kill Your Darlings. Not a whole lot happens in Kill Your Darlings, apart from drunken revelry, drug abuse, the dawning of the Beat Generation, and the occasional murder. The first half of John Krokidas' first feature follows the young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) to Columbia, where he meets fellow dreamers Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and joins their fight against the establishment. There's talk of a literary revolution, but mostly these iconoclasts just want to hang out, experiment with sex and drugs, and rail against their professors. Krokidas favors a laidback storytelling style, preferring to emphasize mood over plot, and his slack approach can occasionally grow tedious. But that tedium is illustrative of the ennui that plagues these future poets, burgeoning rebels hamstrung by a rigorous academia that actively stamps out any flickers of passion or creativity. And so, not much happens, but you sense that something might.

You also sense an undercurrent of menace in the air, thanks not to any of the Beats but to Lucien Carr, an enigmatic hedonist played with volatile energy by Dane DeHaan. Carr is the biggest dreamer of the bunch, but he's also a fraud, a pseudo-intellectual who uses his good looks and effortless charm to mask both his sexual confusion and his gnawing envy of his more gifted peers. Krokidas' handling of the not-quite-intimacy that develops between Ginsberg and Carr is sensitive and authentic, and Radcliffe and DeHaan exhibit clear, dangerously unpredictable chemistry. DeHaan has the showier part, but Radcliffe is completely convincing as a malleable young mind eager to be shaped. Ginsberg's journey in the film is quite sad, but it is also uplifting, the triumphant tale of a boy waging war against demonic influences, shrugging them off, and emerging as the man he was always destined to become.

Kill Your Darlings, however, is not quite sure what kind of movie it wants to be. Is it a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story, or an indictment of academic and sexual hypocrisy? This uncertainty isn't all that problematic, because it proves fitting for a portrait of young artists who defined themselves through their lack of definition. Watching the film, I admit that I desired a more focused, less rambling story with sharper connections drawn between characters; I sought more order and less chaos. But then, I'm not a poet, and Kill Your Darlings, for all its faults, has a poet's soul.

One more installment to come.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part II)
The Unmemorables: The Least Memorable Movies of 2013 (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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