Saturday, November 28, 2009

Whatever Works (2009)

Woody Allen’s Whatever Works is based on a script he wrote in the seventies and never filmed, and he supposedly made it on the quick right before the SAG strike (which, of course, never actually happened). Critics were hard on the movie, and in many ways it’s easy to see why: it’s got that haphazard quality that so many of Woody’s movies (Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda) have had in recent years, and what interesting points it does make have arguably already been covered in better movies of his like Manhattan and Annie Hall. Yet for all these criticisms (most of which are entirely valid), Whatever Works still manages to, well, work, thanks in part to its lovely tone and feel. There’s no denying that it’s a resoundingly imperfect effort, but it still only serves as further proof of the argument that, for all his faults, Allen still makes the most watchable, breezy films of any modern director.

In classic Allen fashion, the film traces the story of Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), a misanthropic New Yorker who abandoned his old life as a near-Nobel laureate physicist to live in a shabby apartment and teach chess to children, who, like everyone else, he refers to as “morons” and “inchworms.” Boris’s insular life takes a strange turn when he decides to let Melody St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood), a young runaway from Mississippi, crash at his place while she searches for a job. Even though he insults her constantly, the impressionable young Melody takes a strange liking to Boris, and soon the two strike up a very unlikely romance.

Like all Allen movies, Whatever Works is much more about character than plot, but what is strange about it is which characters end up being the most compelling. The film suffered from a pretty terrible trailer that served up the particularly egregious Southern accents of Wood, Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. (as her fundamentalist parents) front and center. To watch it, you would’ve thought that David’s classic Allenian cynic would be the film’s only saving grace, but the reality turns out to be quite the opposite. It is Wood and Clarkson who turn out to be the funniest characters as the naive Southern belles transformed by the culture of New York City, and David, for all his obvious talent, seems left rushing to catch up. He looks the part of the elitist genius just fine, but his performance here seems the final proof that his particular brand of comedy is best absorbed in thirty minute installments on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like his famous collaborator Jerry Seinfeld, it’s pretty clear he’s no actor, but he works around this fault whenever he’s in the looser construct of his own show. The same cannot be said for his work in this film. He’s funny. He reads his lines well. But that’s just it--for a guy who’s true skill is improv, everything he does here ends up feeling just a little too rehearsed.

David doesn’t get much help from Allen, who affects one of the most flat directorial styles of his career to tell his story. This was a problem of his in the nineties, but you would have been forgiven for thinking he’d turned a corner with recent work like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Unfortunately, his go-to method here is to shoot everything like a stage play. It’s a style he no doubt does better than most, but all it does is highlight David’s shortcomings and add a dangerous air of shallowness to every philosophical statement--and there are many--that his script tries to make.

All these faults are much more apparent than they should be, but the film miraculously manages to stay afloat thanks to the twisted positivity of Allen’s world view. It seems odd to say it, but Whatever Works, for all its talk of the hopelessness of humanity and suicide (which Boris attempts twice--to comic effect), is one of the most feel-good movies I’ve seen in a long time. Allen has always positioned himself as one of film culture’s most staunch neurotics, but if this film proves anything about him, it’s that he’s also a hopelessly positive person, well aware of what he sees as the gentle indifference of the world, but also aware that this means the impetus for happiness is always in the hands of the individual. As the title suggests, for Allen the key to happiness is for each person to find and hold on to whatever small bit of goodness works for them. This idea is reflected throughout the movie, which only manages to get away with having such mean-spirited (Boris) and dim-witted (Melody) characters because it refuses to judge them. That it does it all with Allen’s trademark clever dialogue and razor sharp wit is what really makes it special. There is certainly a danger that goes hand-in-hand with this approach, as it’s easy to worry that Allen could be starting to skate away from the kind of material that made something like Crimes and Misdemeanors so good and toward a style that is just...pleasant. For the time being, though, it’s enough to keep me coming back for more.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

The Men Who Stare at Goats opens with a title card that reads: “More of this is true than you would believe.” I’ll admit that this kind of playful hedge is a great way to start a movie whose centerpiece is a military unit that trains its soldiers to read minds and walk through walls. It works because at the same time that the story told here strains all possible levels of credibility, anyone who knows anything about our government’s history of whacked out secret research and black ops knows that when it comes to wasting tax payer dollars, those in charge are forever outdoing themselves.

With such a solid, satire-ready backdrop (courtesy of a book by the English writer Jon Ronson) and a cast of old pros, it would seem that the makers of The Men Who Stare at Goats were halfway to an interesting movie before they even shot any film. But director Grant Heslov and screenwriter Peter Straughan disappointingly decide just to let the momentum of their larger-than-life premise--that in the early 80s, the U.S. Army attempted to build a unit of super-soldiers with psychic powers--carry their film. Time after time, they go for the easy hooks and the obvious jokes, seemingly so enamored with the oddness of their pitch that they forget to ever construct a story worthy of living up to it. This is an approach that was destined to produce a good trailer--which The Men Who Stare at Goats most certainly has-- but the end result can only be described as one of the most conventional movies about an unconventional subject ever made.

The story starts by introducing Bob Wilton, a small town reporter played by Ewan McGregor, who still hasn’t quite mastered that American accent he keeps getting forced to use. After Wilton’s wife leaves him for his one-armed editor-- a plot point that this film finds to be absolutely hilarious-- he takes off for Iraq with vague aspirations of becoming an embedded journalist. While languishing in a Kuwaiti hotel, he encounters Lyn Cassady (Clooney), an eccentric soldier who claims to have formerly been a part of the “First Earth Battalion,” a top-secret Army project to turn everyday grunts into what he calls “Jedi warriors.” Thinking this could be just the story he’s looking for, Wilton takes up with Cassady, who explains that he’s there on a mission, and the two head off into the desert toward Iraq.

Right from the beginning, The Men Who Stare at Goats sets up more than a few roadblocks for itself. The first is that it relies extensively on narration from McGregor’s character, who begins the film in cringe-inducing fashion by introducing himself and his story (“my name is Bob Wilton...), and then goes on to relate Cassady’s tale of government experimentation and new age military tactics. Rather than helping to create context or giving the film a chance to crack a few wry jokes, as I’m sure it does in Ronson’s book, all the narration ultimately does here is muddle up the plot and keep things at an arm’s length from having any real impact or meaning. It necessitates using a great deal of flashbacks, linear shuffling, and cut scenes, and these only succeed in making the film superficial and cursory, as though every scene has been severely cut down to size. For example, the story of how the First Earth Battalion’s stoned-out, hippie leader Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) conceived of the idea for the unit after being shot in a rice paddy in Vietnam could have been one of the funniest, most interesting parts of the film, but all we’re given is a clich├ęd montage showing him tuning in, turning on, and dropping out by frolicking through a field in a sari and doing yoga. I suppose it’s worth saying that Bridges is still great, as he always is. He gets all the best lines here and succeeds in building an interesting character, but the film’s superficial handling of his part of the story forces him to the periphery, and what could have been a legitimately funny character ends up feeling like a half baked version of The Dude.

If the flashbacks of the First Earthers and their training never gets going, the film’s present day story is even worse. Subplots are introduced left and right--Cassady and Wilton are captured by Iraqi’s, Robert Patrick shows up as the head of a mercenary company--but all it amounts to is the cinematic equivalent of running in place. We don’t get any meaningful insights into Clooney’s character’s story from these scenes, and all each additional minute spent with McGregor does is prove how shoddily carved a character Bob Wilton really is. McGregor is doing his best to keep up, injecting a little fire into the role whenever he can, but his character is an audience proxy if there ever was one. The characters eventually get back on track with their quest, and all this somehow culminates in a clash with Kevin Spacey, who is introduced as a late substitute for an antagonist and given very little to do. A rushed attempt at a plot is forged, but it’s definitely a case of too little too late.

What’s strange about The Men Who Stare at Goats is that no part of it is that offensively bad, poorly acted, or even boring-- it’s just that there’s nothing to it. I could have written off the paper-thin story and the boggy narrative if the film had been funny--satire is often about small moments and individual scenes-- but that just wasn’t the case. Heslov and company’s default mode is to go with the obvious and inoffensive, which ultimately amounts to ninety minutes of them pointing at their characters and saying “Hey! Aren’t these guys weird!?” They’re happy to take a swing at anything that comes right down the middle of the plate, from cold war hysteria and hippie idealism to modern day government contractors, but they never try to move beyond the soft and the slapstick. What the film needed was an edge or a stylistic audacity that matched the wackiness of its story, but the filmmakers are too satisfied with their killer premise to be bothered with things like character or narrative inventiveness. It is a good premise, to be sure--good enough that it deserved a better movie.