Archive for March 1997

The Devil’s Own

March 26, 1997

997TDO_Brad_Pitt_019The Devil’s Own is a lukewarm and insecure movie about violence and moral dilemmas — the usual Hollywoodization of Big Themes. Its brave stance is threefold: (A) that revenge doesn’t solve anything; (B) that the Irish troubles are really confusing; and (C) that in a battle between two male stars, the guy with the biggest … um … box office will win. This is why we don’t fear for Harrison Ford’s life, but we do expect Brad Pitt to go to the great phony-accent school in the sky.

Pitt, whose erratic lilt is more Irish Spring than Irish, is Frank McGuire, an IRA terrorist who leaves Belfast and flees to New York under the name Rory Devaney. For reasons I didn’t quite buy, Frank finds lodging with Tom O’Meara (Ford), an Irish-American cop with a beautiful wife (Margaret Colin) and three daughters. Tom, apparently unspoiled by his 23 years as a New York cop, welcomes this stranger into his home and is delighted to have a housemate “who can pee standing up.”

Despite Frank’s urinary talents, he soon gets in hot water. Which is a shame, because the domestic stuff in The Devil’s Own is rich and funny. It’s a hoot to see Harrison Ford navigating around three noisy girls, and he has an easy rapport with Margaret Colin, a seriously underrated character actress thrown away (along with everyone else) in Independence Day. And Pitt is touching in the moments when Frank embraces this family life — everything he didn’t have and can never have.

But then the movie falls back with a sigh of relief into a conventional gun-running plot, wherein Frank tries to get weapons to send back home; the deal goes bad, and Frank’s enemies invade Tom’s home. That scene, like every other bit of violence in the film, is crisply staged and genuinely alarming. But then Tom ships his wife and kids off to her sister’s house (why do movie wives always have a sister to stay with when things get dangerous?), and Margaret Colin and her entertaining girls vanish, taking much of my interest with them.

What’s left is a lot of moral grappling, not all of which has one iota of relevance to the plot. For instance, Tom’s partner (Ruben Blades) shoots an unarmed guy in the back, and Tom undergoes a huge crisis about covering up the mistake. The partner may or may not have known that the guy had thrown away his gun, and may or may not have fired in vengeful anger (the guy had shot at them). This subplot may or may not be there to suggest that police work can be as ambiguous as Belfast warfare, and I may or may not think that all it does is slow the movie down. Why not have Tom be the cop who snaps and shoots the unarmed man? Then this tortured subplot would mean something.

Ford, our great American man of the movies, gives one of his better performances here — nearly trembling with outrage and despair at how his surrogate son Frank has betrayed him — and it’s a pity the script, which was notoriously sketchy when shooting began and presumably didn’t improve much, just leads him into a dumb confrontation with Brad Pitt on a boat. For all its hefty brooding (Alan J. Pakula, a master brooder, directed), The Devil’s Own is as muddled as the Irish troubles it virtually ignores, and the characters are stuck in the mud.

Crash

March 21, 1997

Most reviewers (even those who admire it) have recoiled from Crash, and that’s understandable. Wall-to-wall with frigid sex, this is not the sort of movie you’d take home to meet your mom. Nor is it a dirty, guilty pleasure, unless you share the characters’ erotic fixation on collisions, scars, and fractures. Even open-minded viewers prepared to like David Cronenberg’s experiment may lose patience with its plot, or lack thereof. Cronenberg, best known for The Fly and Dead Ringers, has an arctic and antiseptic approach to his art; he likes to dissect and study the human body and psyche. Crash unites the Canadian director’s recurring themes of mutating flesh and delusional mind, with a side order of techno-fetishism drawn from J.G. Ballard’s obsessive and difficult 1973 novel.

Ballard’s story has a pornographic simplicity with unexpected philosophical complexity. The protagonist, called James Ballard (James Spader), engages in jaded sex games with his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who, in the first scene, rubs her breast against the cold steel of an airplane during a clinch with her flight instructor. Ballard has his own flings, and the couple swap sex stories in what passes for intimacy.

These, we understand, are numb automatons who push themselves into transgression so as to feel something — the fleeting illusion of sensation. Cronenberg’s camera stares at the sex dispassionately, as if through a microscope; this is not destined to be a Friday-night video for lonely guys. The film’s first real sex scene is a collision: Ballard, distracted while driving one rainy night, rams head-on into another car. The other driver is killed; his wife and passenger, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), locks eyes with Ballard through the smashed windshields. Before long, they’re having anguished sex in a car in an airport garage. Helen introduces Ballard to the scarred Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who re-enacts celebrity car crashes and insists on the connection between collision and copulation. Vaughan draws Ballard into a philosophy in which crash-induced wounds become a new form of sexual flesh.

J.G. Ballard’s idea was to take the eroticized subtext of cars (think of the bikinied blondes posing atop Ferraris, the high-school fumblings in back seats) to a Swiftian extreme. Cronenberg latches onto the visceral aspect while maintaining a cerebral distance. His view, I believe, is that Vaughan and the others with physical and psychic scars have built an elaborate belief system as a defense mechanism. Where we see mangled flesh and splintered bones, they see beauty. They must.

Why make a movie about this? How could anyone enjoy it? Well, I did. I take pleasure in visiting an inner landscape totally alien to me. Crash is a mutant work of art — a bracing splash of ice water. Numbingly repetitive on first viewing, it demands a second look to uncover the subtle exchanges in those strenuously unsexy sex scenes. It’s a minor masterpiece of a very specialized and ornery kind: It lures us with sex and car crashes, then delivers a muted essay on dehumanization. Or, as Cronenberg once said: “I love to disappoint people.”

Private Parts

March 7, 1997

giamatti-private-partsHoward Stern is the fourth controversial bad boy in as many months to get a movie made about him, the other three being Larry Flynt and Beavis and Butt-Head. Of the four, I prefer Beavis and Butt-Head: At least they didn’t get a mainstream face-lift the way Flynt and Stern have, and nobody touted them as defenders of free speech or champions of good, dirty fun. If pornographers and shock-jocks insist on their right to be offensive, why do they seem to crave our respect and approval? Private Parts, which stars Stern as himself, is just about the last word in disingenuous self-glorification. The movie is less offensive than defensive. Poor Howard! Nobody understands him. Some of the film is funny; I laughed at Stern’s battles with his priggish boss, played to cartoonish perfection by Paul Giamatti. But overall it plays like another stage of Stern’s ongoing campaign to win the hearts and minds of America.

What’s limp and soft about Private Parts is that it aims shamelessly for the heart (when it isn’t elbowing us in the ribs with all the leering about lesbians) and misses the mind. That sounds like an absurd criticism, but I’ve heard Stern on the radio and read his first book, and he can be genuinely witty (when he isn’t being cutesy and puerile). If you don’t believe me, here’s no less a comedy authority than Albert Brooks quoted in a recent New Yorker piece on Stern: “What makes him really special is simple: he’s funny … Howard has wit, and wit stands out like crazy.” Not in this movie, it doesn’t. Instead we get scenes calculated to show us what a sensitive mensch Howard really is. I don’t doubt that Stern loves his heroically patient wife Alison (played here by Murder One‘s Mary McCormack in a warm and bemused performance), but I was uncomfortable with the way the movie keeps trotting her out as proof that the sultan of shock radio has a tender side. The script also glides right over Alison’s fury at Stern for joking on the air about her miscarriage. Gee, doesn’t she get it? It’s all in fun.

Private Parts follows a familiar comedy arc: it’s Good Morning New York, with the fearless radio hero fighting uptight bureaucrats and coming to grips with his own libido instead of the horrors of war. Director Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie) works with her usual wobbly tone of deadpan irony, and the movie is cruddy-looking (surprising, coming from cinematographer Walt Lloyd, who shot sex, lies and videotape) and ineptly staged. Guaranteed laugh-getters like Fartman and the Kielbasa Queen (whose infamous trick is ruined by intrusive reaction shots) turn out not to be so guaranteed.

As for Stern, he may be the master of his domain on the radio, but he doesn’t necessarily have a future in movies. He isn’t bad in Private Parts — he has some inspired sad-sack moments playing himself as a dorky college kid who can’t even score with a blind woman. But what comes next? What’s left to discover in this man who blurts out his life and fantasies on the air and in books? In Private Parts, Howard Stern does in cinematic terms what he did all through college. By the end, we realize he’s pretty much shot his wad.


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