Thursday, July 2, 2009

Three movies: Miserable in New York, lonely on the moon and disoriented in China

Teaming Woody Allen and Larry David suggests a quotient of unhappiness that could push any misery meter over the red line. On the surface, the combination seems like a natural.

But differences in approach between the two comics keep them from forming the expected perfect union. Where Allen's comedy has a philosophic slant, David's is tethered to endless petty annoyance. Put another way, Allen is likely to become anxious over man's position in a godless universe; David's more apt to become inconsolable should he find a hair in his soup. In "Whatever Works," Allen turns David, the brilliant force behind HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," from a man whose reprehensible behavior can be outrageously funny into a simple pain in the ass.

The picture requires that Allen (from behind the camera) and David (in front of it) walk hand-in-hand into an indifferent universe where they're left to swallow the most bitter of pills, the sheer meaningless of everything. As far is the movie is concerned, the pill doesn't go down easily for either of them.

Allen has explored the consequences of this distressing point of view in ethical spheres ("Crimes and Misdemeanors") and in the world of romance ("Hannah and Her Sisters.") He's run his finger over the edge of despair many times. It's sobering to realize that Allen, who's now 72, has made a staggering 44 movies, an output that rivals some of the old-time Hollywood pros. I sometimes wonder whether Allen isn't making all these movies as a way of holding his own demons at bay. Whatever his motivation, he doesn't seem to have much new to say, which shouldn't be held against him.

Someone once told me a story about Ralph Waldo Emerson, A fan (did they have fans in the 19th Century?) asked Emerson how he managed to write so many essays and give so many lectures. "I say everything I know in the first 20 minutes -- and then I repeat myself,'' Emerson supposedly said. Taking a cue from Emerson, it's safe to say that novelty can't be the sole criterion by which we judge a person's art, and with a director as prolific as Allen, it seems inevitable that some of movies will be superb, some will fall flat and some will carry baggage of badness that weighs them down like an anchor.

"Whatever Works," an Allen comedy about a self-justifying misanthrope, falls somewhere between mediocre and bad with David playing Boris Yellnikov, a once renowned physicist who has lost his wife, his career and his belief in anything resembling a fulfilled life.

Reduced to teaching chess to incompetent kids and sitting in cafes, where he insults his friends, Boris wallows in a personality turned sour by too many encounters with an uncaring cosmos. Boris, of course, lives in Manhattan, where -- as he tells us in asides spoken directly to audience -- he hangs out with pals or shuffles around his loft apartment. I'm not sure what Allen intended with these asides, but they failed to turn me into one of Boris' co-conspirators.

In one of his less supple writing moves, Allen decides to rock Boris' miserable world by having him take in Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), an uneducated southern girl he finds huddled in an alley outside his apartment. Boris constantly insults Melodie's intelligence, but he begins to adjust to her presence and eventually decides to marry her. Yes, it's the all-too-familiar older man/younger woman syndrome.

Watching this odd couple provides limited amusement, and we know that it's only a matter of time until Allen again must upset the rotten apple cart of Boris' life. The second jolt arrives when Melodie's mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up for a visit, beginning the journey from fundamentalist scold to liberated artist, a transformation that Clarkson infuses with a sense of irresistible abandon. But wait: There's more. Allen also arranges for Mom's estranged husband (Ed Begley Jr.) to show up. He makes a transformation of his own, one that you can see coming from a mile away.

David lets the acid flow, but in this context -- the narrowness and sublime annoyance of his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" character -- becomes as difficult to take as the movie's resolution, which suggests that we grab what happiness we can because there may not be much of anything else. If you follow this advice, you may have to look for cinematic pleasure in some other movie. There's too little of it in "Whatever Works."

Moon, the debut picture from director Duncan Jones, is the kind of movie that reflects the heady intelligence of a young man who studied philosophy in college, shifted into advertising and has now made his first feature. It's also unavoidably notable that Jones is the son of David Bowie, which sets you to thinking, although I'm not sure about what.

So much for background. Taking a cue from "2001: A Space Odyssey," Jones sets his movie on a dreary mining station on the moon. The place is manned by Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a lone worker in the depths of space. Sam's only companion: a computer named Gerty (voice by Kevin Spacey) that's more sincere than Kubrick's chilly HAL.

Beautifully conceived on what must have been a modest budget, the moon base makes us feel as if we've been cast into space with Bell, who occasionally has a Skype-like chat with his earthbound wife. The movie begins brilliantly, and, I think, loses something when it plays its hole card. I won't reveal the movie's main conceit here, but I will tell you that Rockwell, a vastly underrated actor, works as hard as he has in just about any other film.

If it's possible for a movie to be smart and dull at the same time, "Moon" makes the case. I admired Jones' intentions and some of his execution, but found myself increasingly disengaged from Bell's deprived, lonely existence.


Director Jia Zhang-ke quietly has built an international following that regards him as one of the world's most important filmmakers. Jia's reputation results partly from his ability to capture the bizarre paradoxes of life in contemporary China. Jia's "Still Life" (2006) won widespread critical acclaim for its look at displacement caused by construction of China's massive Three Gorges Dam, for example.

In "24 City," Jia splices together a series of monologues about the transformation of the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province from the muscular industrialism of Maoist China to the more consumer-oriented preoccupations of the present. This transformation centers on a Factory 420, a facility that's being dismantled for the construction of high-priced condos.

Individual stories come from people who worked in the factory, where engines for fighter planes were made, and from a couple of actors, notably Joan Chen. Chen's segment makes playful but self-conscious reference to the fact that the character she's playing looks like Chen; to me, Chen seemed like an actress trying to play someone who's not acting.

Overall, though, Jia succeeds in making us feel the way some of the residents in Chengdu must feel, suspended between a past they may not totally have embraced and a future that promises to be strange, elusive and perhaps insubstantial.

1 comment:

George said...

when i left the theater, i thought "moon" was the best movie i've seen this year. the movie establishes its setting beautifully. rockwell is terrific. and THE PACE is amazing. the last time i saw a movie with this kind of pace was "gattaca," another thoughtful exercise in science fiction and the idea of personal worth. i love comic books, but i'm getting sick of comic book movies. this is the type of introspective effort that is missing in movie theaters.