The Autumn of My Discontent: Notes on The Motorcycle Diaries, Born into Brothels, Shall We Dance, Alfie, Kinsey, and Stage Beauty

diaries2As much as I hate to disappoint all the starry-eyed lockstep liberals currently a-swoon over The Motorcycle Diaries, I confess that I find Walter Salles’s soporific, monotonous film to be of no value whatsoever. If we didn’t know that the noble asthmatic played by Gael Garcia Bernal (pictured right) will someday become Ché Guevara, there’s scant evidence of anything beyond a generic buddy movie. The dialogue consists of such howlers as, “What we had in common were our impassioned spirits,” or “Their faces were tragic and haunting.” I didn’t believe for a minute virtuous young Ché’s wheezing night swim to spend his birthday among the less fortunate at an island leper colony. Truly offensive are the stylized photo spreads of suffering migrant workers, weathered grotesques posed as if for a Gap ad. It’s Diane Arbus meets Annie Leibowitz, and Salles evinces little of the command evident in his excellent earlier work Central Station.

That sort of love-me, love-me do-gooderism takes an exceptionally noxious form in Born Into Brothels, a documentary that appears to have pulled the wool over several eyes. The movie, which goes into limited release this December, has had a long run on the festival circuit, usually meeting with tearful acclaim to judge by hearsay in Seattle and from what I observed in Port Townsend. If the director Zana Briski were pure of motive, she would have stayed behind the camera and let the whores’ children speak for themselves. Let the images of these budding photographers tell the story. Instead, there’s endless footage (all of it self-serving) of Ms. Briski in various postures of moral outrage. She seems the most upset that her indefatigable efforts at appointing herself a Saint will not fall neatly into place.

shallwe6Far worse, though, is a glossy Miramax remake of the unassuming Japanese film Shall We Dance. Richard Gere stars as a schlub torn between a robotically poised ballroom dance instructor (J-Lo, whose facial muscles never budge), and a shrill Susan Sarandon, who plays his SUV-driving bitch wife as if coasting on sitcom autopilot. It’s tough sledding to choose the absolute most horrid moment, in a movie chock-full of them, but few others made me take the Lord’s name in vain as did this: Gere shows up tuxedo-clad and armed with a red, red rose at the department store where Sarandon, all too appropriately, dresses the mannequins. “Why aren’t you at the dance,” she asks, and as God is my witness, he replies, “To dance, you need a partner, and my partner is right here.” And then, like good capitalists, they waltz in front of the Lancôme counter.

The movie even reduces Peter Gabriel to the level of asshole. He sings this whiny, shitty pop song that goes, “Some of it is transcendental, some of it is really dumb…” None of Shall We Dance manages to be the least bit transcendent.

alfie10Sarandon pops up again in the godawful remake of Alfie, a “product” that fails in every way its 1966 predecessor succeeded. Jude Law, genuinely sexy in The Talented Mr. Ripley, seems decidedly less so now that he’s a commodity and nothing more. Law screwing a woman on a pool table might sound erotically promising; it isn’t. Charles Shyer’s self-consciously flashy, MTV editing style seems more suited to a frat house gang bang than the supposedly seductive ministrations of Alfie. Shyer and co-writer Elaine Pope put the dramatic arc of Bill Naughton’s narrative through a food processor. The one time they attempt recreating a scene intact—the older woman’s dismissal of Alfie’s stud service—the filmmakers allow the Sarandon-Law exchange to go on ad infinitum, and Sarandon, looking flabbier than Shelley Winters did in the same role, reads the line, “He’s younger than you,” in a cringing, almost pedophilic way. The savvier Winters got right to the point, and so did the real Alfie, Michael Caine, whom Law most definitely pales by.

Duller still are Kinsey and Stage Beauty, two of the most tedious films about sexuality I’ve ever sat through. Writer-director Bill Condon hasn’t a clue how to convey the saga of Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering sex research. Condon creates an inept montage of miniature talking heads imposed over a U.S. road map, their voices blending in an audio tower of Babel.

kinsey14Aside from a sublimely oily turn by Timothy Hutton, an effective, eleventh-hour cameo (or so it seems, at that point) from Lynn Redgrave, and a fierce, angry characterization by John Lithgow, Kinsey fails in all other regards. (Lithgow, as a stern man of the cloth, nails Protestant misery when he sermonizes against the zipper and its “access to moral oblivion.”) The film’s lighting and photography are horrible. The color palette consists almost exclusively of grim browns (and this from Frederick Elmes, the man who shot Blue Velvet.)

Kinsey showcases some of the most un-erotic grappling and dreadfully painful humping in a movie this year, from the hideous, Exorcist-like coupling of Chris O’Donnell and Kathleen Chalfant, to a quick cut of Laura Linney (in the thankless role of the weepy wife) and Liam Neeson—fresh from their drop-in with a marriage counselor—having anal sex on a bedpost. The straight stuff doesn’t really matter to Condon, who retro-fits Kinsey’s life work to conform to his own obsessive flag-waving for queerdom.

kinsey16Then there’s the idiot dialogue. “You mean there’s more than one position?” asks a young newlywed, as innocent as camp, and Condon means us to feel superior to her gee-whiz naïveté. “Hear that?” Linney, dishrag plain in yellow kerchiefs, asks a visitor in her kitchen before slicing into rhubarb pie, “It’s the sound of an empty nest.” Condon, who adapted Chicago from stage to screen more or less acceptably, here outs himself as a hack writer in complete dependence on good source material.

As an oversexed teaching assistant who seduces both Mr. and Mrs. Kinsey, Peter Sarsgaard looks appropriately clean-cut and dashing in a late 1940s sort of way; his vocal rhythms, though, sound too contemporary. More thoroughly, Sarsgaard has the facial tics and preening mannerisms of a gay boy down pat. Even with his grainy, pockmarked face, he comes off as prettier than Linney, whom the cameraman, costumer, and make-up artist apparently hate.

Looking and sounding a bit (too much) like George C. Scott, a histrionic Liam Neeson shouts his way through the title role, shutting up just long enough to share a hot kiss with a full frontal Sarsgaard, the one scene in the movie that courses authentically.

stage18 Eyre knows what boys like: Ben Chaplin and Billy Crudup in Stage Beauty (Photo: Lions Gate)

Likewise, in Stage Beauty, the incompetent director Richard Eyre botches an occasion to spotlight a largely unknown chapter in theatre history: what became of mid seventeenth-century male actors who specialized in female roles, once women were granted the legal right to act on-stage. Eyre wastes his time and ours with a lot of bawdy jokes. Billy Crudup, who’s intended to be a ravishing diva in wigs and gowns, makes for one ugly woman. In boy drag, however, he enjoys a memorably steamy cuddle with Ben Chaplin. Perhaps Condon and Eyre ought to collaborate on soft-core gay porn—that’s the only thing either of them shows a talent for. – NPT

October 28, 2004