Sunday May 26th 2013
Alexander Payne truly is the Benjamin Button of American indie filmmakers, rapidly declining in maturity as the years (and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars) pile up. A decade and a half ago, he was capable of Election. Now, aged 52, the best he can manage is Nebraska, a tangle of film school clichés, rampant condescension and woe-is-me, middle-aged-white-guy-problems so juvenile it would blot even a first-time filmmaker’s copybook.
Chief amongst the film’s miscalculations is the casting of SNL alumnus Will Forte in a lead role. According to Wikipedia, Casey Affleck, Paul Rudd and Bryan Cranston all auditioned for the part at one time or another, but — for reasons beyond human understanding — Payne plumped for MacGruber.
Forte has always been anathema to me. With each throwaway supporting role (in wank like The Watch, Rock of Ages and That’s My Boy) he seems to bring with him a sort of ‘comedy malice’ that instantly finds its way beneath my skin. Nonetheless he finds consistent favour with a whole mess of talented individuals, who seem more than happy to saddle their otherwise fine creations with his presence. (I dare you not to cringe as he systematically destroys the last ounce of audience goodwill towards Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.) Whatever Forte’s schtick is, it’s lost on me.
In Nebraska, he spares us the routine, instead reining things in to play a reticent electronics salesman eager to do right by his elderly father. The underwhelming result is somehow even more irritating than his pantomime act. Simple lines are delivered with somersault inflections, while his facial expressions do their best to contradict every word that escapes his mouth. And yet, the party line in Cannes earlier this week was that Forte and co-star Bruce Dern were beyond reproach, so my misgivings are clearly far from universal.
I can only assume that I must have some kind of profound beef with Forte, lodged deep within my subconscious. If you can help me undo this prejudice, please get in touch via the usual address.
Saturday May 18th 2013
There’s a title card on the front of Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) indicating that the film — a portrait of the relationship between a Native American war veteran (Benicio Del Toro) and his French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) — is based on a true story. They needn’t have bothered: like so many of its ‘actual events’ brethren, the film’s far too banal to be fiction.
It’ll be interesting to see how distributors around the world tackle the issue of the film’s amazingly clunky title. They could revert to its more utilitarian working title Jimmy Picard (the full name of Del Toro’s character) or drop the particulars entirely and go for Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, which has a touch of War Horse literalism to it. On the other hand, maybe only the current title, with its baggy parenthesis and awkward medial full stop, can fully convey just how graceless the film really is.
I realised ten minutes into the screening that I could have been down the road watching Blue Ruin, rather than the worst film of Cannes 2013 so far.
Friday May 17th 2013
There’s a lot of fuss made over films that manage to ‘get inside the mind of a criminal’, as though the average cinemagoer might be so unimpeachably ethical that only a storyteller of the highest order could persuade him or her to empathise with a wrong ‘un. Such films cast their audience members as complicit in some act of lawlessness, by aligning them with the perpetrators’ actions, motives and emotions. In Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, that process takes all of 30 seconds, and is so utterly convincing that I’m still not sure whether any of the film’s supposed antiheroes did anything wrong.
As they roam from celebrity home to celebrity home, looting Louboutins and posing for photographs with Paris Hilton’s self-portrait-covered pillow cases, there’s rarely a sense that anything much is at stake. Leader of the pack Rebecca (Emma Watson’s Nicki is more of a comic foil) makes something of a catchphrase out of her frequent reassurance that “everything’s fine”, and most of the time I was inclined to agree with her. After all, the valuables the gang steal go habitually unnoticed by their complacent owners, their celebrity victims have — in many cases — got where they are today by methods scarcely more upstanding, and of course, it’s not stealing when rich, white people do it.
In the minds of the eponymous Ring, breaking into Orlando Bloom’s house and stealing a gold watch is more or less akin to going to a party at his place and taking a photograph of his fridge — it’s a memento, not a cause for legal action. The first name terms they use for the likes of Paris, Demi and Ashton are a glaring clue that there’s no particular division between victim and perpetrator here — both groups exist within the same amorphous Hollywood bubble. So when Marc asks Rebecca, “if I ever became not your friend any more, would you rob me?”, the answer is irrelevant. Some other Rebecca will.
This being a Sofia Coppola film, there are plenty of cameos, but for once they’re all completely justified. When the gang go to an LA club and spot Paris Hilton, shortly before they first investigate her living quarters, we realise that we’re essentially watching a documentary. Sure, Hilton is acting (sort of) and the kids aren’t actually members of the 2008 Hollywood crime syndicate from which the film takes its name, but the dynamic is largely the same. Tomorrow, Israel Broussard, Katie Chang and Claire Julien will be hot properties, and by June they’ll probably wind up back in the same club the scene was shot in, only this time as genuine VIPs. The lines they snort here might be a synthetic substitute, but who’s to say what went down at the film’s Cannes premiere the other night? Coppola must surely be awake to the self-reflexivity of all of this, not to mention the irony of poking fun at Paris Hilton, perhaps the only poster child for nepotism more widely cited than herself.
The late cinematographer Harris Savides locates the film somewhere in the intersection of a Ruben Östlund film and The Sims — all cold distance and static emptiness — but that does little to disguise the fact that this is Coppola’s most brazenly involved film to date, a mess of autobiographical ideas so dense that all pretence of objectivity is soon eradicated. It’s no wonder the bad guys are hard to pick out of a line-up.