Doodad Kind of Town

The Road from May to December
September 18, 2010, 6:26 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I recently saw Harold and Maude for the first time in my life.  I suspect I came to it about 30 years too late.

Many people in my acquaintance treasure this darkly comic May-December romance between a baby-faced, death-obsessed teenager (Bud Cort) and the saucy septuagenarian (Ruth Gordon) who teaches him how to embrace life. I think it’s notable, however, that most of these enthusiasts were teenagers or very young adults at the time of the film’s 1971 release.  Even from my fussbudgety, middle-aged perspective, I can easily appreciate how the film’s broadly drawn caricatures of “establishment” types (Harold’s socialite mother, war hero uncle, psychiatrist and priest) and its breezy, Cat Stevens-scored exhortation to “sing out/be free” may have spoken powerfully to rebellious youngsters of the Nixon/Vietnam era.

But, seriously, this movie is not aging well.

Sure, it’s fun to watch the transition in Cort’s sad, jittery Harold, his frightened, watery eyes gradually taking on a glint of subversive mischief as Maude draws him out of his shell.  And Gordon’s Maude may have a few lines on her face, but she moves and smiles with the extroverted confidence of a natural-born flirt.  She so good that you completely buy into Harold’s attraction to her, and she almost manages to rise above ridiculous lines like “Give me an L! Give me an I! Give me a V!  Give me a E! LIVE!” 

In the space of its brief 90 minutes, though, Harold and Maude managed to wear me out completely.  Call me cranky, but a woman who routinely steals other people’s cars isn’t a free spirit, she’s a thief.  (In her mind, Maude is merely delivering a “gentle reminder” to the cars’ owners that they shouldn’t be attached to their material possessions.  That may have gone down with the aspiring flower children of the day, but doesn’t play so well in our economically stressed times.)  Maude’s tendency to collect anything and everything and stuff it all into her cozy home may have brightened Harold’s face into a beacon of delighted wonder,  but nowadays I think we’d just call her a hoarder.   And bad, reckless driving really isn’t a cute, attractive character trait in anyone, not even for Annie Hall and certainly not for an almost 80-year-old nutjob. 

The other adults in Harold’s life are so exaggeratedly awful and Maude is so exaggeratedly in love with life (she’s a senior version of the stock character who would come to be known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl) that the deck is heavily, defiantly stacked in favor of the improbable (and doomed) couple from the get go.  It might have been fresh and startling 39 long years ago , but seen from this backward perspective – years after the Cat Stevens theme song was co-opted to sell iPhones – Harold and Maude seems like nothing so much as a relic of a bygone and irretrievable era.

Another May-December romance film of the era, which is far less remembered but holds up much better for me is Alan Pakula’s Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing.

It starts in uncomfortably quirky, Harold and Maude-like territory, but gradually and gracefully evolves into something sweeter and wiser – and more enduring  – than its better-known predecessor.

When we first meet Walter Elberston (Timothy Bottoms) he’s listening to his Pulitzer-Prize winning father lecture him about his lack of initiative and direction, and – inexplicably – clutching a small turtle and an Almond Joy bar.  We never learn what’s up with the turtle and the candy bar, but soon Walter is packed off on a group cycling trip of Spain.  Unable to master either bicycle riding or speaking Spanish, the hapless Walter hops onto a tour bus, in the process spilling water from his canteen into the prim, spinsterly skirt of Lila (Maggie Smith).  Lila is herself a bit of an eccentric, given to reciting lyrics from Gilbert and Sullivan to calm herself when she is lonely or stressed, and shocked to find herself fighting off the advances of numerous Spanish men (though she manages to do so with icy propriety.)

Walter follows Lila around like a bewildered but devoted child, and Lila takes a schoolteacherly approach to him, exhorting him to work his Spanish.  Eventually, after a night of flamenco dancing and a botched suicide attempt by Lila (she has troubles I can’t expound on without delivering a huge spoiler), the two stumble their way to an awkward romance, and take off on their own trip to LaMancha in a Volkswagen Beetle with a beaten-up trailer clattering behind.

I like that the film doesn’t wallow in May-December clichés.  Lila does let her hair down and swaps her fussy suits and starchy blouses for jeans and t-shirts, but she resolutely remains her prissy, snippy, schoolteacherly self.  For his part, Walter remains sweet, inarticulate and open-hearted, and ultimately grasps the concept of love in a wholly mature, clear-eyed way.  “You’re a real pain in the ass, but I love you!” he rails at Lila (and who among us has not said as much to our own spouse or significant other?)  Pakula has a nice, sympathetic touch with misfit characters who find love, as demonstrated in his directorial debut The Sterile Cuckoo.  Here, he gives Smith and Bottoms the time and space to evolve the delicate balance of their characters’ stumbling path to genuine love.

Smith, of course, is delightful (as I once noted, I’d pay good money even to watch her take out the trash), and displays  a sadly underused flair for physical comedy.  The scene in which she rolls out of bed and into a floor lamp, making repeated unsuccessful attempts to right both herself and the lamp, is worthy of Lucille Ball, if not necessarily Chaplin. Bottoms’ performance has a quiet, earnest quality that builds into confidence over the course of the film, nicely capturing the trajectory of Walter’s emotional journey.

If Harold and Maude was a rallying cry for the young and the disaffected, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing is a love story best appreciated by grown-ups. If it occasionally veers onto too-broad comic side roads or tends towards the heavy-handed (it can’t be insignificant that the two lovers are headed to LaMancha), those missteps can easily be forgiven – it’s ultimately too wise and too well-acted to be so little seen. 

The Return of real romance (?)
September 16, 2010, 1:59 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Anyone who reads this blog with regularity (all two or three of you!) knows how much I love a good romantic comedy… and how infuriated I become in the face of the far-too-many rom coms that are routinely stamped out of Hollywood’s flimsy, uninspired templates.

Bossy, briefcase-toting bitches in Manolos and power suits who need an earnest, blue-collar hunk to show them the meaning of love.  Foul-mouthed, pot-bellied man-children who, once they succumb to love (inexplicably proffered by fabulous, gorgeous women) put down their bongs, shut off the internet porn and become responsible wage-earning adult men. Struggling twenty-somethings who incongruously live in palatial apartments and wear designer clothes.  Katherine Heigl trying like hell to convince us she’s a spunky, lovable comedienne.  They’re all fantasies, but cynically empty ones, not so much reflective of our deepest longings for intimacy and connection as of our shallower desires for mind-numbing escapes and cool stuff.

And so it is with cautious hope that I report: “Going the Distance” may well be the first glimmer of the light at the end of the contemporary rom-com’s murky tunnel.  It’s not perfect by any means; there are too many sidesteps into entirely unnecessary raunchy humor and it runs out of steam in its second act.  But its leads, Drew Barrymore and Justin Long (who are sometimes a couple offscreen as well) as so sweet together and they have the kind of lovely, unaffected chemistry that’s been woefully absent among screen couples in recent years.  What’s more, “Going the Distance” is resolutely not – as so many other recent rom coms resolutely are – a shameless showcase of product placement and real estate porn.  The film is true to the economic realities its characters face. Realities that are, in fact, at the heart of the story.

Barrymore and Long play a couple whose passionate desire to be together is thwarted by their dwindling career hopes.  She’s an aspiring newspaper reporter, he’s a struggling publicist for a fast-dying record company.  They meet over beers and games of Centipede in a down-at-the-heels bar, mere weeks before her internship at a New York newspaper ends, forcing her to return to San Francisco (where she lives with her sister’s family and waits tables) while he stays behind in a messy bachelor pad shared with two roommates.  After a few weeks of whirlwind romance, they decide to make a go of a long distance relationship.

While they start with high hopes, soon the messy realities of high-priced plane tickets, time zone differences and awkward phone sex threaten to derail the romance.  Both try very hard to find a job in the other’s city – neither succeeds.   There’s only so much joy and connection to be had through phone calls and video chats, and by the two-thirds point, you’ll be wondering exactly what foundation these two are building their everlasting love on.  I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it feels contrived and, at the same time, the only way the story could have been resolved.

I wish that Long’s roommates (played by Jason Sudekis and Charlie Day) had been a little more real and little less like transplants from a lower-tier Judd Apatow production. And I wish that Christina Applegate, as Barrymore’s protective, tartly funny big sister, might have been given a bit more to do.  But I appreciated director Nanette Burstein’s light and indulgent touch with her actors.  It’s a credit to her, as well as to the extremely likable leads, that a montage of frolicking-on-the-beach scenes – followed by a park bench conversation about the sweetness of watching old couples walking together – feels true and tender rather than hackneyed and trite.

Labor Day Weekend Movie Diary, Part 1
September 5, 2010, 4:16 pm
Filed under: George Clooney, Kenneth Branagh

Friday, September 3:

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

 Kenneth’s Branagh’s gloriously nutty take on the classic horror film proves to be a ravishing, if overdressed, period piece with feverish performances by (elsewhere) very fine actors who leave no piece of the gorgeous scenery unchewed.   Each and every scene is risibly overwrought, and Branagh fully indulges his penchant for grandiose, distracting camerawork.  (Fast-moving, 360-degree shots are used so many times that their dramatic impact is lost entirely, and you wind up feeling as though you are intermittently watching the film from a Tilt-a-Whirl car.) In one scene, the camera swoops in – apparently from the upper reaches of the stratosphere – to close in on a lone figure trekking across a vast expanse of Alpine snow, and it plays like a wintertime version of  The Sound of Music‘s prologue.  I half expected the character (Robert DeNiro as the monster, hamming it up behind stunningly grotesque make-up) to start twirling as the shot closed in on him and singing that “the hills are alive!!!!” The shot is breathtaking – and breathtakingly silly – all at once.  As is the rest of the film.

The Last Station 

Michael Hoffman’s comedy/drama on Tolstoy’s last days – and the fight between his wife and the members of the “Tolstoyan” movement over his will – is a vastly entertaining trifle thanks to the masterly performances by all involved.  Christopher Plummer’s Tolstoy wears both his exhausted sadness and fleeting moments of joy with impressive lightness, while Helen Mirren finds layers of tenderness and grief within in a role that could all too easily have been played for shrill, comic desperation alone. 

But greatness from Mirren and Plummer is certainly no surprise, and between them, they’ve garnered enough award nominations for these roles to underscore that point.  Instead, I found myself admiring  another, unheralded performance in The Last Station. 

James McAvoy is a reliable and somewhat underrated actor whose gift for playing the thankless ‘witness to history’ role was well-demonstrated opposite Forrest Whitaker’s terrifying Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.  Here McAvoy plays a young emissary from the Tolstoyan movement, sent to accompany Tolstoy is his final days to ensure that the rights to the eminent author’s works are passed to the Russian people rather than kept by his conniving wife.  Instead his character becomes a trusted and sympathetic confidant to both Tolstoys, and it’s McAvoy’s nuanced and generous performance that helps the audience to sympathize with and love both those characters, even at their most monstrous and irrational moments.  I’ve written before about “stealth performers,” the kind of actors whose quiet brilliance sneaks up on you in the midst of the more histrionic performances that surround them.  McAvoy is definitely one of those performers.

Saturday, September 4

The American

Surprise, surprise, surprise!!

George Clooney’s latest star vehicle turns out to not be a multiplex-friendly action/suspense yarn in the mode of the “Bourne” franchise, but rather a moody, contemplative European art film.  Much to the consternation of the audience with which I saw The American, I might add.  You could actually hear the murmurs of “What the hell?” as the audience shuffled out during the closing credits.  The dingbat couple next to me, who kept giggling through the sex scenes, actually got up and left at the 2/3 mark.  And they weren’t the only ones.

That being said, let us remember that European art films aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be, and though I admired the spare and calculatedly weary tone of The American, I found it a bit difficult to get through.  The film takes its sweet time establishing the day-to-day details of Clooney’s existence in a tucked-away Italian village.  His performance as a burned-out hit man working in secret is contained and controlled to the point of near-tedium.  The film put me in mind of nothing so much as mid-tier, late-period Antonioni.  Which is admirable, but still, you know, mid-tier as opposed to top-tier (i.e. The Passenger as opposed to Blow Up.)

One interesting feature: there is absolutely no musical score until near the very end, when it suddenly cranks up a run-of-the-mill, suspense-building musical underscoring.  This baffled me.  I asked my boyfriend afterwards, “Why do think they suddenly inserted music at the end of the movie?”  His reply? “To keep Americans awake and in their seats.”  He’s a smart cookie, that man.

We’ve moved our act to a new kinda town
September 4, 2010, 2:06 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Welcome to new home of Doodad Kind of Town!  Stay tuned.