Note: There are no significant spoilers in the below; what I’ve written is safe to read if you haven’t seen the movies. I’m happy to discuss plot details in followup messages, but please use spoiler boxes. Thanks.
This is for everybody who laments the sad state of the movie industry, and who complains that there’s never anything worth seeing because everything always sucks. There are two films currently in cinemas that demand your attention.
(Before I continue, though, if you complain simply because you like to complain, and if you will avoid going to the movies I’m recommending because you don’t want to see anything that would undercut your ability to complain, well, you might as well stop reading right now. :p)
The first movie, American Splendor, has been out for a couple of weeks, after a very successful festival tour. It’s something of a story-of-a-man’s-life biography, borrowing the title and much of the content of Harvey Pekar’s legendary underground autobiographical comic. It boasts remarkable lead performances from Paul Giamatti as Harvey and Hope Davis as his wife Joyce, and is funny and warm and cynical and smart.
But it’s more than just a biopic. It blends together realities, using Harvey himself as a narrator, and occasional on-screen commentator. In fact, there are at least five different layers of presentation for the Harvey character: the real Harvey, Giamatti as Harvey, still frames from Harvey’s comic, animation based on the comic artwork, and a play-within-the-movie where Giamatti-as-Harvey sits in a theater audience and watches another actor playing Harvey on stage in a production based on the comic.
The film is a remarkably inventive and enormously entertaining meditation on the difficulty and complexity of trying to render any true and actual person in a storytelling medium. We see Harvey working to capture the minutiae of his own existence in his comic, and then the movie cleverly begins blending these same questions and issues into its own presentation. And the great part is, the movie’s complexities of theme are so neatly worked into the story, and explored with such wit, that you don’t feel like you’re watching a difficult movie; it’s wonderfully entertaining on the level of pure comedy.
The performances are astonishing. Giamatti has an unconventional look and energy, and he’s made a career as the second banana (a bit part in Saving Private Ryan, Pig Vomit in the Howard Stern movie, the orangutan in Planet of the Apes, Bob Zmuda in the Andy Kaufman movie Man on the Moon, and so forth), but here he rises to the challenge. He recognizes, I think, the way the movie is designed to work, exploring Harvey Pekar from a variety of angles, and this frees him from the restriction of the one-dimensional performance so favored in Hollywood these days. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s prickly, he’s short-tempered, his hygiene sucks, he’s sometimes obnoxious and off-putting; it’s great work. And as his wife, Hope Davis meets him step for step, giving us a living, breathing person, loving and supportive and simultaneously neurotic and selfish.
American Splendor will be one of the best films of the year. Go see it.
The other movie just opened Friday in limited release (expansion depends on performance), and is called ***Lost in Translation.*** It’s the second feature film from Sofia Coppola (after The Virgin Suicides), and tells a story that is both superficially simple and emotionally complicated. Bill Murray plays Bob Harris, a big American movie star brought to Japan for a few days for a lucrative product endorsement deal. Jet-lagged and out of sorts, he skulks the hotel, and runs into Charlotte, played by Scarlett Johansson, another American visitor who’s at loose ends because her photographer husband is neglecting her in favor of his work. They recognize in each other a kindred spirit, and slowly begin to bond amid the disorienting confusion of a strange foreign city.
That’s the whole story, really: how these two people, who would not otherwise have met, unexpectedly make a connection under less-than-ideal circumstances. Sure, there are a few side plots, as we see the chaos outside the relationship that helps drive the two together. There’s a screamingly funny scene, for example, wherein Bob is doing a photo shoot for the product, and resorts to making subtle fun of himself and the incomprehensible Japanese crew just to keep from losing his sanity; likewise, Charlotte grits her teeth and feigns interest as a horrifyingly obnoxious and self-centered friend of her husband’s, an American actress played hilariously by Anna Faris (from Scary Movie), blathers on about “power cleansing.” But really, the main story in the film is just about these two people coming together.
And yet, that’s all we need. In watching Lost in Translation, we start to recognize how most movies shortchange us in the relationship department, as they rush ahead to get to the Plot about serial killers or mafia hits or microfilm or alien invasions or casino robberies or whatever. Writer/director Coppola shows, almost effortlessly, that a whole movie can be built around the small, subtle details in how the connection between two people is initiated, how it grows and evolves and what it turns into over time.
For example: There’s a scene late in the movie where Bob and Charlotte are lying on a bed, talking. It’s not sexual, because they’re just friends; and yet it is sexual, because they’re so unhappy with their regular lives and have recognized in each other a possible soul mate despite the radical age difference and other things that separate them. Neither of them wants to break the spell, shatter the magic of their exciting new friendship, but at the same time they ache with the possibility represented by this new person in their lives. And then, as they talk, near the edge of the frame, Bob angles his wrist, moving his hand just a couple of inches, and touches her foot with his fingertips. It’s a tiny gesture, but it’s huge, too, and Coppola very wisely doesn’t make too much out of it; she doesn’t go to a closeup, she doesn’t insert a music cue, she doesn’t underline it in any way: she just lets it happen, and she lets us notice. It’s truly beautiful.
Coppola benefits from a magnificent performance by Bill Murray, who now officially has the most interesting face in film acting. He’s as funny as you’d expect; the comedy chops haven’t faded. But what he brings is an undercurrent of sadness, something he’s been exploring in Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums but which finds full fruition for the first time here. The amazing thing is just how much he can convey with the tiniest expression, the most minimal gesture; you laugh when he mocks the ridiculous director of the TV commercial he’s there to shoot, but at the same time your heart breaks because underneath the humor you can see how much he hates what he’s doing, and in fact how much he hates himself for what his life has become.
And right there with him is Scarlett Johansson, who as the younger half of the pair has the trickier role. By design, her character is unformed; Charlotte is a recent college grad, and due to her husband’s success she hasn’t had to figure out who she is yet. She doesn’t have any touchstones, any serious decisions or commitments with which to anchor herself, with the exception of her marriage, which isn’t at all what she thought it would be. She knows she wants to be somebody, but she doesn’t know who that is. It would be very easy to overlook Johansson’s subtle work here, to be blinded by Murray’s star power, but don’t make that mistake: The movie works as well as it does because she’s holding up her half of the relationship.
I’m not going to tell you how it ends, because the magic of the movie is how emotionally invested you’ve become by the last few minutes. Because of the age gap and the other complications in their lives, a romance between these two people would be enormously problematic, and yet you ache for them to break through those barriers and make it work anyway. All I’ll say is that the movie handles this with absolute perfection through the final frames, and when it’s over, you will say to yourself, Yes, that was absolutely right.
So: Don’t be distracted by the incessant advertising for crap like Dickie Roberts and The Order and Jeepers Creepers II. Don’t waste your time with well-intentioned but essentially innocuous work like Open Range or Underworld or Duplex. There really are excellent movies out there, if you care to look for them. Two of them are described above, and should not be missed. Partly it’s so you can enjoy truly wonderful filmmaking, and partly it’s to support good work so the film industry gives us more of it. If all of your box-office dollars this summer went to Tomb Raider 2 and Bad Boys 2 and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, well, then, you have no right to complain about Hollywood crap. You voted with your wallet, and Hollywood listened. Coming soon: The A-Team Movie. :rolleyes:
Oh, and by the way, Secondhand Lions opens soon. That’s another one whose buzz suggests it should be sought out amid the deafening roar surrounding the higher-profile releases. It’s directed by the guy who wrote The Iron Giant, if that’s any indication of its pedigree.