Quartet of Bombs: Observations on Last Chance Harvey, Revolutionary Road, Frost/Nixon, and Confessions of a Shopaholic

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Visually drab, and sad without being truthful, Last Chance Harvey begins with Dustin Hoffman at the piano. A few bars of Satie lead into jazz chords, as the camera alights from a shot of fingers on keys, pulling up to a full view of Hoffman’s desiccated Harvey savoring his soulful moment. Then we hear the unwelcome sound of a New Age solo, and this New Age-y, sub-Jim Brickman stuff pipes on and on throughout, which raises a question: Why is it that commercial movies about a protagonist who allegedly has impeccable taste in music always have the most cloying, saccharine tripe on the soundtrack?

A few days prior to taking in the movie, I’d tried to slip into Lillian Ross’s unreadable memoir Here But Not Here. (I slogged through the first two chapters, then skimmed the rest, before tossing it.) In her fanciful screed, Ms. Ross imagines William Shawn, her New Yorker colleague and longtime paramour, mouthing such banalities as, “Who has blotted me out? Why am I more ghost than man?” Watching the near-moribund Last Chance Harvey, I thought that these howlers might be more aptly stated by its foolish, quixotic leading character, a garrulous mensch whose sense of worth hinges primarily on the product jingles he composes. The picture’s dud dialogue has no snap; furthermore, the director, Joel Hopkins, who also penned the script, has no discernible point of view.

As Harvey’s castigating ex-wife, Kathy Baker appears to be playing an embalmed reptile. The costume designer, certainly, has done her no favors in outfitting the blonde, pale-complexioned Baker within a heavily embroidered, black and gold-sequined blouse lined with white fleece. (This is what she wears to a family dinner on the eve of her daughter’s wedding.) Cousin Emma, as I’ve taken to calling Emma Thompson, does rather well as Kate Walker, Hoffman’s platonic love interest, despite the impossibility of the situations Hopkins places her in. As in last summer’s atrocious Brideshead Revisited, she’s the sole reason to dip one’s toes into this fetid bathwater. And Thompson has one remarkable scene toward the end when the movie flirts with tough-mindedness: Kate dresses up and waits for Harvey beside a courtyard fountain, unaware that he’s suffered a near heart attack and been rushed to hospital. She waits until she realizes he isn’t going to show, and I thought if the picture wanted to redeem itself, Hopkins would let Harvey die, thus the remainder of the film would be about her character’s shrinking back into shy/bitter acceptance of lovelessness after so brief a bloom. Needless to add, nothing of so mature a sort happens. The two reunite, but the director can’t work up any joyfulness or even relief that Harvey’s arrhythmia was only a false alarm.

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Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road, despite its comparatively handsome production values, and its relative authenticity at recreating the look of 1950s New York and Long Island, struck me as amateurish. Watching it was akin to being trapped at a bad community theatre or college play that has pretensions to grandeur and delusions of adequacy. The main reason: Neither Leo DiCaprio nor Kate Winslet can act. Sure, they pantomime well; they furrow their brows and trade anguished looks altogether convincingly. If Revolutionary Road had been a silent movie, it might have worked. The lengthy dialogue passages, however, are nigh impossible. DiCaprio, who long ago (in the derivatively trashy What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) seemed a halfway decent character actor, should never have been pushed into the arena of leading man/sex symbol or whatever it is we’re supposed to take him as. Growing older, his cheekbones as rough as sandpaper, he continues to project a little boy persona; worse still, he recites lines as if he’d never had any vocal training. Granted, the melodramatic spiels in Justin Haythe’s script would, in all likelihood, defeat most of the so-called actors we’re currently being asked to endure. Winslet, who also seemed fresh ages ago, has been misdirected to shriek like a harridan most of the time, as the unstable wifey drowning in the boredom of suburbia: “No one forgets the truth, Frank. They just get better at lying!”

Infinitely worse than either marquee name, the Oscar-nominated no-talent Michael Shannon, in his three interminable scenes, turns in a shrill and miscalculated bit of showboating as a giggly psychopath. In the otherwise fine Shotgun Stories, Shannon’s notion of creating a character consisted of aping Heath Ledger’s work as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain; here, Shannon steals his jittery, electro-shock cues from Lon Cheney in just about any grade-B horror picture you can name, reveling in precisely the kind of schlocky, attention-getting antics that so deeply impress members of the Academy as “acting.”

There are, nonetheless, two exceptional performances in Revolutionary Road—by David Harbour and Kathy Bates—both of which, as a reward for their subtlety, have been snubbed throughout the season of nomination mongering. As Shep, the next-door neighbor who has loved and lusted for Winslet’s April (their dance floor sequence teasingly stands out), Harbour may be the most grown-up thing about this elaborate round of playing house. There’s a scene in a hospital waiting room, wherein Shep tries to console Frank, following April’s attempted suicide. Shep motions to get a coffee for the tightly wound husband, but this is a pretext for Shep’s own moment alone, to stand crying in front of the vending machine down the corridor—a breakdown that is piercingly beautiful. And as a real estate agent whose chipper chattiness masks fear and loneliness, the magnificent Ms. Bates could give Kate and Leo a master class in portraying a phony without actually being one.

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Overall, despite the falsifications manifest in Peter Morgan’s play and then his screenplay, and the almost totally askew mise-en-scène of Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon manages to be worthwhile. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are peerless in the title roles, and there’s enjoyable work by the luscious Matthew Macfadyen as Frost’s producer John Birt. Most of the remaining performers in the cast (I groaned as their names went by in the opening credits) I never want to see again—Sam Rockwell, Toby Jones, Kevin Bacon, and most dreadfully, the equine Rebecca Hall (more egregious here than in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), an “actress” who would be nowhere without a famous father to have opened doors for her.

For reasons that perhaps make sense to Morgan, the movie takes pains to present Frost as a dandy and Nixon as a misunderstood, not-so-bad-after-all, martyred figure. Once their interview tapings were in the can, Frost, in this narrative, heads for a discotheque with his ladylove, and throughout, he’s depicted less as a savvy journalist than as a shallow playboy whose self-esteem depends on his ascendancy in lite pop culture. In his 2007 book, Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Interviews, Sir David almost immediately questions Morgan’s major liberties. On page four: “Why was Watergate now the twelfth of the twelve sessions and not—as actually happened—two sessions in the middle, at sessions eight and nine? Why did James Reston’s discoveries from the Watergate tapes only reach me on the morning of the Watergate session and not eight months earlier, as had actually been the case? Why did the early sessions, which contained a lot of good material, have to be depicted so negatively?” And so on. Frost is quite correct in his suspicions: Morgan’s condescending structure lends a certain bogus veneer to a story that could have walked on its own.

As a director, Howard appears to have forgotten everything he learned in the making of Splash. He attempts to ratchet suspense out of the interview research process, including such highly un-suspenseful activities as men in disheveled suits poring through tomes at the law library; he intersperses rapid cuts of the researchers’ assorted comings and goings with onscreen titles, “35 days before the first interview,” that are intended to tick off a sort of countdown, scored, gratingly, to Hans Zimmer’s generic, pulsating electronica. Howard labors to cobble a feeling of “What happens next?” among incidents that have been matters of historical record for more than three decades. For whom, thus, does he intend these editing room pyrotechnics? Middle-schoolers flunking civics? More inexplicable still, Howard cuts away from Langella giving Nixon’s August 8, 1974, resignation speech; never returning to it, Howard splices up inserts of “witnesses” speaking directly to the camera—a too-familiar cinematic device that has rarely seemed less germane. What does Howard imagine that we’ve gathered at the theatre to see: Langella act or him direct?

And Langella—with his great, gravelly timbre and spot-on Nixonian mannerisms—is masterly even as the movie’s a mess.

As much as I loathe generalizations about “Hollywood,” I’ll concede that American movies love to paint right-wingers in warm, sympathetic tones. The only time this Nixon seems a bastard occurs just before the second taping, when, presumably to psyche-out Frost, he asks, “Do any fornicating last night?” At least as Langella embodies him, the 37th President of the United States has been rehabilitated into Richard “Cuddles” Nixon. Who wouldn’t want to give him a hug as he stares dejectedly toward the sea from a balcony at La Casa Pacifica? As a performance conceit, it’s charming. And yet, this is a politician who, as late as 1985, still decried the immorality of our war in Vietnam as “a myth.” Can you fathom someone—thirty years from now—making a movie that sentimentalizes George Waterboarding Bush? It might not even take that long for amnesia and ignorance to exert their kudzu-like grip over the truths we hold immutable: Bush’s father, who was a horrible president, who instigated the unnecessary Operation Desert Storm as his own, high-end ego palliative, received, as recently as last October, the revisionist treatment as a sensible, level-headed if not lovable, politico in Oliver Stone’s W.

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On Valentine’s Day, a woman friend of mine asked me if I’d go to a bad movie with her. Plied with champagne and sashimi, I readily agreed. And so off to our neighborhood 16-plex we marched, to take our places amongst the hoi polloi and their undisguised lack of discernment. She’d had her broken heart set on seeing He’s Just Not That Into You; since we couldn’t tear ourselves from the sushi bar in time, we instead settled for Confessions of a Shopaholic. The consensus, when it was all over and window display mannequins were offering (unearned) CGI applause to the film’s hideous and untalented leading lady, Isla Fisher, as she strolls down the boulevard, resisting the urge to shop, was that we ought to have held out for a better bad movie.

Confessions is so empty, so devoid of pleasure, so completely nothing that the main detail standing out to me is this: Julie Hagerty still has impeccable comic timing after all these years. Not that the computer-generated script gives her any lines or bits to work from; Hagerty, playing the indefatigable executive assistant to the editor of a financial newsmagazine, whips it up entirely on her own. With her breathy, small voice and quizzically insinuating eyes (you can never tell quite what she’s getting at; therein lies her—and our—delight) Hagerty wrings more from, “You’ve dropped your scarf, Miss Bloomwood,” than the movie’s malformed little ingénues manage with their pages and pages of props.

Which brings me to this: Although I don’t usually read the Village Voice (a risky admission, I know) I caught Melissa Anderson’s peculiarly impassioned Confessions pan, in which the critic mentions a character named Suze, “played by Anne Hathaway look-alike Krysten Ritter.” Ms. Anderson needs her eyes examined. The gorgeous natural beauty Hathaway (uglied up for Rachel Getting Married) and the homely-at-best Ms. Ritter do not look even remotely like each other. To state that they do constitutes a put-down of Hathaway, and how unattractive must a woman be to want to do that? Ritter, whose curled jet-black bangs make her more closely resemble a squinting hamster, plays the sympathetic best friend role in Confessions—the one who’s saddled with masochistically enabling Isla Fisher and being grateful that someone with such an extensive wardrobe pays any attention to her at all. Interestingly, the casting director has come up with the beautiful Lenora May in the silent role of Suze’s mother, and the drop-dead handsome Nick Cornish as Suze’s fiancé, Tarquin. If it seems inconceivable that a soulful hunk and a gangly troll would marry, think back on all the grotesquely mismatched couples you know and remember that there can only be one star in every relationship. It’s Ms. May, however, who, in saying nothing as Suze tries on a wedding gown, speaks volumes. Suze gives the mirror a rest for a moment, and the mother, so much lovelier in her fifties than the daughter in her prime, stands there seeing how she looks wearing the bridal veil. The gesture lasts only a second of screen time, yet how it encapsulates the essence of the feminine ideal. – NPT

February 18, 2009

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