Archive for September 2001

Hearts in Atlantis

September 28, 2001

Hearts in Atlantis is well-meaning sludge, based on slightly worse well-meaning sludge that didn’t have Anthony Hopkins going for it. Stephen King’s 1999 book of the same name was his glancing, sidewise attempt at something serious and significant, and some of the material in the book’s five sections was powerful — the story “Hearts in Atlantis,” for instance, with its Vietnam-era college students playing the card game Hearts to distract them from the looming draft. The movie has taken the name of that story and the book, but it has nothing to do with the story; it’s based instead on the book’s first section, “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” one of the sappiest and most self-derivative things King has ever allowed into print.

Hopkins, at this point, knows he doesn’t have to do much. He lets his eyes twinkle with warmth or wisdom, or he’ll draw out a syllable to put a quiet stamp of authority on whatever he says — he’s coasting here, really, but it’s generally entertaining coasting. As Ted Brautigan, a mysterious man who befriends 11-year-old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin), Hopkins gets to wear a wreath of the uncanny while projecting pure virtue. He also gets to deliver solemn platitudes while Bobby and the camera hang on every word. He can’t really do anything with Ted except embody him amiably, though; screenwriter William Goldman and director Scott Hicks (Shine) don’t give him anything fresh to work with.

Ted joins a long line of King heroes given extraordinary powers (in this case, mind-reading) only to find the world eager to destroy them or misuse their gifts. A bit of Ted’s power passes into Bobby, who uses it to pick the Queen of Hearts at a carnival card game; that’s supposed to explain the “hearts” in the title, and Goldman gives Ted a speech to cover the rest: “Sometimes when you’re young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you’re living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been … then we grow up and our hearts break into two.” So Atlantis becomes the lost kingdom of childhood innocence, rather than the ’60s metaphor King intended. Either way it’s a bit florid.

Bobby is working on a flirtation with his first great love, Carol (Mika Boorem), and steering around the disapproval of his frazzled mom (Hope Davis, doing the best she can with a character that barely makes sense). Ted is being chased by “low men,” who seek him for dark purposes gradually revealed (none too adroitly — in one of those movie scenes where a newspaper headline pops up just in time to slide the plot point into its slot). Goldman and Hicks frame the story with the adult Bobby (David Morse), now married with three kids, heading back to the old hometown for a friend’s funeral. He narrates, too, just like Richard Dreyfuss in Stand by Me, except only at the beginning and end; you expect him to close with “I never had any psychic old-man friends later on like the one I had when I was 11. Jesus, did anyone?”

Hearts in Atlantis carries a dedication to its cinematographer, Piotr Sobocinski, who died at 42 a few months before this was released; he shot a few films for the acclaimed director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Sobocinski drowns the film in golden sunlight, except for the adult-Bobby scenes, which are drained and blue, as if adulthood were a vampire sucking the life out of us all. If you’re born with anything special about you, life will beat it out of you with a baseball bat or use it for dark designs. King and Goldman are both champion sentimentalists of the past (Goldman tosses in an anecdote about football legend Bronko Nagurski, a boyhood hero of Goldman’s invoked in many of his books, and Hopkins gets to reprise a little magic trick he did in Magic, which Goldman wrote); put them together and you have two guys who seem so depressed about their lives today that they yearn for childhood. “Then we grow up and our hearts break into two.” Whose heart? Goldman’s? King’s? A movie that says we might as well pack it in as soon as we turn 18 is more bitter than bittersweet.

Hardball

September 14, 2001

130308-hardballIn Hardball, Keanu Reeves plays a white guy who comes in to save the day for a bunch of black kids by coaching their disorganized little-league baseball team in the Chicago projects. In an attempt to make the premise less mawkish and offensive than it just sounded (blacks can’t get it together until the white man helps), Keanu has also been made a ne’er-do-well gambler who owes serious cash and only takes the coaching assignment because of the promise of $500 a week. So this isn’t just an inspirational story of disadvantaged youth triumphant — it’s a story of redemption.

I’ll let Hollywood get away with it just this once. [NOTE: This review was written the weekend after 9/11.] I was in the mood for something easy and familiar, something predictable, if you know what I mean; Hardball isn’t generally my kind of movie, but on its own terms it’s relatively painless and harmless. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone except those who feel the need to sink into a lukewarm bath of clichés for two hours, to enter a world that, while formulaic and hackneyed, makes some sort of sense. This is less a hardball than a softball, without any curves or surprises. That’s okay just now.

Brian Robbins, who used to be an actor (the intellectual hood Eric on Head of the Class) before graduating to directing (Varsity Blues, Ready to Rumble), seems to have a sharp eye for premises that play better on video. Here, working from a by-the-numbers script by John Gatins, Robbins hits all the plot-point bases. Keanu resents having to coach the team until he gets to know them. The kids do nothing but trash-talk each other (the trash-talk has been noticeably cleaned up to win a PG-13 rating — at one point you hear the only-in-PG-13-movies-or-network-TV epithet “motherfreaker”) until they learn to play as a team. Keanu flirts with the kids’ English teacher (Diane Lane), who wearily tolerates this ruffian until she comes to realize that he’s the star of the movie and therefore worthy of her affection.

Diane Lane is usually of interest — it’s a relief to see her relaxed here after her overdone Glah-stah accent in The Perfect Storm — and Keanu Reeves works nimbly with her; he works well with everyone here, including the kids, but also John Hawkes as Keanu’s gambler crony. Reeves, as an actor, is on and off. When allowed to withdraw into a cocoon of surfer-dude cool, he comes across as wasted space on the screen, but give him a modicum of friction and he actually can bestir himself to connect with his costars and with us. He sells a grandstanding moment in which he invites the president of the ball league to explain to his team why one player has been disallowed and another can no longer pitch without the headphones that have been keeping his pitching laser-sharp; he even sells a grief-choked speech after tragedy strikes the team.

Did we need the tragedy? It takes the air out of the remainder of the movie, and the speech is intercut with scenes that are meant to be bittersweet but come off as emotional bullying. There’s no question that the team will go on to win the championship, but this is the first uplifting sports movie I can recall wherein the triumph happens offscreen — we’re fobbed off with snapshots of the players smiling with their trophies. Hardball isn’t primarily about the sport; its pulse is the shabby white man learning to be nice and reach out to black kids, but it doesn’t really show why the kids respond to him when their playing sucked under his predecessor. Is it just because he’s Keanu Reeves and the kids know he’s cool from The Matrix? The movie offers little other explanation.

Prozac Nation

September 8, 2001

Drifting for four years without an American release, then ignominiously dumped on Starz and then home video, Prozac Nation seems to be as unwanted as its depressed protagonist, Elizabeth Wurtzel, feels most of the time. It was particularly unwanted in the period after 9/11, mere days after the movie had its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival; suddenly, people had bigger things to worry about than a Harvard kid freaking out over neediness and self-loathing. The real-life Wurtzel, whose bestselling 1994 memoir inspired the film, didn’t help matters by spouting some ill-advised comments about the attacks. In the wake of the “did you hear what she said” controversy, Miramax put the movie on, apparently, its highest, tippy-toe, least accessible shelf and left it there.

Now that it’s finally seen the light of day, away from all the buzz that has nothing to do with it, Prozac Nation may be viewed as an effective and moving drama about a young woman (Christina Ricci as Elizabeth) who has no idea how to get it together and behave like a human being. Elizabeth, in this film (and in the somewhat hard-to-get-through memoir), is a self-absorbed train wreck with abandonment issues going back to when her photographer dad (Nicholas Campbell, veteran of several David Cronenberg films) dumped her neurotic mom (Jessica Lange). Elizabeth has many methods of distracting herself from her pain: self-cutting, drug abuse, and throwing herself headlong into love and rock music with equal fervor. The latter wins her a prestigious award (for her article on Lou Reed, who puts in an amusing cameo and gets in some fine performance time) and some attention from Rolling Stone and The New Yorker (for which she wrote some genuinely good pieces on rock; look ‘em up sometime). None of this makes her happy, though, because as soon as the pressure is on to be a real writer, she comes down with a hellacious case of writer’s block.

Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, whose debut was 1997’s bleak and depressive thriller Insomnia (remade in 2002 by Christopher Nolan), Prozac Nation mutes everything around Elizabeth; she is a soul-sister to the daylight-haunted Stellan Skarsgård in Insomnia — both wander, baffled and distrusting themselves, through an atmosphere that doesn’t seem quite real, that always seems a little off. Skjoldbjærg doesn’t treat Elizabeth’s college disasters as a satirical/surreal playpen, like Roger Avary in The Rules of Attraction; if we empathize at all with Elizabeth, who is intensely dislikable and even cruel at times (her saving grace, and the movie’s, is that she knows this full well), it’s because Skjoldbjærg lowers us into her malaise. This director not only understands depression but knows how to communicate it without turning his films into dreary downers.

Elizabeth meets a nice guy, Rafe (Jason Biggs, handling himself well in a dramatic role), and eventually pushes him away the same way she repels everyone else: Everything becomes about her, her exquisite pain, her circular failure. When Rafe goes home to Texas for the holidays and the needy Elizabeth follows him, she learns about his mentally challenged sister (Emily Perkins of Ginger Snaps, in a brief but vivid turn). A hundred years of movies have prepared us for the scene where Elizabeth sees Rafe’s compassion and gains some perspective, but instead she takes the opportunity to lash out at Rafe: “You get off on this,” she spits at the bewildered Rafe. What is wrong with this girl? My guess is that she doesn’t feel worthy of him, and her brain immediately moves to sabotage the relationship by circling back onto her flaws, and doubling back to project said flaws onto him. It’s a surprising moment with the chill of real life. A similar moment occurs between Elizabeth and erstwhile roommate Ruby (Michelle Williams in a touching performance), when we figure they’ll talk things out and become closer, but instead Elizabeth uses her superior intellect to draw blood, like a hapless depressive Hannibal Lecter who hurts others because misery loves company.

The movie was Christina Ricci’s baby (she moved heaven and earth to get the thing made, and her name is on it as a co-producer), and it’s a shame that her work was more or less buried, because this, finally, is the role in which she resolved her uningratiating comic style into a dramatic method that works for her. In the past, I’ve found Ricci’s performances enjoyable on the surface but not quite three-dimensional — she was playing a cartoon of a surly little shit. Sometimes it benefited the movies, sometimes it just read as noncommittal sullenness. Here, though, Ricci commits fully, driven to bring Wurtzel’s demons to life. She sidesteps most of the movie-star tricks that make a character lovably unlovable — Elizabeth is toxic, a black hole of need that drains everyone she meets. She even nearly traumatizes the little daughter of her therapist (Anne Heche, keeping a professional composure while showing private flickers of empathy — we’ve all read about her honeymoon with insanity) by attempting suicide in the therapist’s bathroom. Elizabeth’s behavior poisons everything she touches; she understands this, as do Ricci and Skjoldbjærg. That’s the tragedy of the movie: Elizabeth can understand all this very well, and she can helplessly watch herself fuck things up, but she can’t find her way around it.

Eventually Elizabeth is introduced to Prozac, the wonder drug that became a generation’s anodyne. It muffles her madness, but doesn’t seem to make her much happier. The movie ends with title cards telling us that Elizabeth went on to write Prozac Nation, and that a surprising number of people are on anti-depressants. It’s a shaky excuse for a happy ending, though, because we know what Elizabeth, at the end of the movie, doesn’t know: that she will in real life go on to abuse more drugs, become addicted to snorting crushed-up Ritalin pills (detailed in her book More, Now, Again), and say things about 9/11 that made it all about her. Elizabeth Wurtzel is a compelling voice, bravely unfurling her mind in all its unlovely candor, but as a human being she has serious problems. Prozac Nation offers her story without asking you to love or excuse her.


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