Tuesday, June 10, 2008
One Soulless, the other Soulful
The following is column reprinted from the June issue of Providence Monthly
EYES WIDE OPEN
By Scott Duhamel
Too long, too frantic, too much like a big screen videogame, exactly whom was this movie made for? Four-year-old boys with a side interest in physics? Technical wizards and co-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski have made a candy-colored whiz-bang of a movie, a whirligig of sound, color, and action without a semblance of narrative panache or creative soul. Which means, that for those accompanying said four-year-olds, Speed Racer is going to be a torturous 135 minutes, an expensive and gleaming high tech translation of an old school Americanized Japanese bit of pop culture ironic junk, devoid of the pop and sizzle that was behind the ironic tone of the 60’s Saturday morning cartoon offering, like a hard candy found laying behind the couch a few months after it falls out of its package.
The movie fails miserably in the most basic of ways. For a thrill ride devoted to bang-bang gear- shifting and frenetic excess, you know, about pure speed—vroom-vroom speed-the overall effect is strangely lifeless, totally devoid of any sort of extended hold-onto-yer-seat excitement. The story, a weary fable of a good-hearted youth up against the callow evil of corporate greed, of family values versus the vested interest of Big Brotherhood, is supposed to resonate with some sort of deep-seated significance, but besides being buried under wooden dialogue and ultra stiff plot mechanics (all of it apparently delivered without any goosed-up eye-winking), it comes across as predictable, trite, and badly old-fashioned. Oh yeah, and this, a movie with cars at its center, gives off absolutely nil automobile buzz, the digital cars careening around rattling your eyeballs registering as harmless, danger less, speed less, CG whimsy.
Initially, Speed Racer sports a bedazzling look and feel, a brightly hued cross between Candyland, Yellow Submarine, and a benign LSD trip. The rudimentary backgrounds of the assembly line original have been replaced by pop visuals akin to letting Walt Disney loose on some video-game scenery, a weirdly salubrious concoction of dreamy hues and crayon splashes. Granted, The Wachowski boys are in love with the process, the gamesmanship, the Mr. Wizard tinkering and inventivess of commercial cinema, but as their post- Matrix career has shown, they are not ably conveying all that to audiences. The same vaque lefty posturing that emanated from brother’s last script (V for Vendetta), the kind of unformed hinting that’s catnip to both fanboys and hipsters leaks in around the edges here too, although it’s easily cancelled out by the glass-of-milk imagery.
The Wachowski team may well have the chops, the verve, the all-out creative imagination to eventually make a mark in the industry. (It’s easy to deny it now, but the original Matrix was indeed something special.) Unlike the great commercial movie directors, that particular sort that could successfully weave together popcorn kernels and artistry (Alfred Hitchcock remaining the bellwether), the Wachowski’s can’t seem to transcend technique, can’t yet get past the magic tricks. A little bit of Speed Racer would make one hell of a trailer or one dynamite YouTube collage of images, but as a feature its sound and fury amount to nothing, it’s a soulless exercise, a long two hours plus of a craven parade of coloring book pages as movie.
It’s been heartwarming to see all the critical kudos and generous praise sent Richard Jenkins way in the advent of his taking on a lead role in The Visitor, a small but highly effective from sophomore writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent). For those of us situated in New England who have had the pleasure of watching Jenkins perfect his craft up close and personal at Providence’s Trinity Square Repertory Company, it’s both a pleasure and a confirmation—we knew the guy had something truly special. (For me, Jenkins turns in American Buffalo, Fool for Love, and as Biff in Death of a Salesman
Remain among the best stage performances I have ever witnessed.) The Visitor gives Jenkins the role that’s been waiting for him, and he delivers a subtle and nuanced turn, transforming an indie drama that revolves around political issues into a soulful character study.
Jenkins plays Walter Vale, an economics professor from Connecticut, a widower with a child living abroad, a bottled-up and closed-down middle-aged cipher, trudging step-by-step through dutiful existence. Sent to New York for a conference he opens up his little used Manhattan apartment and discovers a Syrian musician named Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend (Danai Guirra) occupying it. Victims of a real estate scam, the two wind up being befriended by the seemingly friendless professor, and the dour middle-aged sleepwalker begins to undergo a personal transformation, ratcheted up by our immigration policies and the appearance of Tarek’s mother (Hian Abbass).
McCarthy, an actor too (who played the duplicitous reporter on the final season of The Wire), works assuredly with his cast, and the films rhythms and trenchant writing ring true, yet the film still revolves around Jenkins deceivingly sturdy shoulders. Usually a multi-racial drama that asks us to draw our conclusions predominately through a white protagonist wilts because of its inherent liberal pretentiousness. Since The Visitor’s polemics actually center around a theme of commonality, and since the narrative is driven by the slow awakening of Jenkins’ character, and the heartfelt humanism he brings to the table, the movie delivers in a movingly good-natured way.
Jenkins has managed to forge out a neat movie career, playing supporting roles both comic and dramatic, registering with audiences as a familiar face and presence, a sturdy character type. The Visitor is his late career movie break-out, a sharp feature that allows him, however modestly, to stretch and breathe in a long distance role, and he compellingly delivers, his triumph translating as ours.