Dir. John Curran
In an unspecified time during the ’60s, a housewife in a rural home somewhere outside Detroit puts her young daughter down for a nap and stares at a buzzing bee trapped behind a window screen. Eventually, of course, the trapped insect inspires her to attempt to leave her husband — whom, she claims, traps her soul in a “dungeon” — and leads to the husband grabbing their daughter and threatening to throw her out the second story window if his wife goes through with leaving him. After she quickly demurs, he puts the still sleeping girl back on the bed and slams the window shut, bisecting the bee. The scene offers up the good and bad of the film in microcosm: Well-paced and earnest, director John Curran’s moody double portrait still falls pray to overproduction and symbolic blatancy.
As the film begins, the couple, Jack (Robert DeNiro) and Madlyn (Frances Conroy), have grown old together, seemingly accepting their entwined fate. Jack works as a high-level probation director at one of the local prisons, listening to Christian talk radio on either commute, and buying giant bottles of whiskey to take home with him. On the job, he meets Stone (Edward Norton, initially channeling his inner Eminem), a cornrowed hothead who is up for probation after an eight year stint for being involved with a robbery-gone-wrong that ended in his grandparents’ murder. Stone’s stunning wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich) attempts to seduce Jack in order to ensure her husband’s freedom. At first rebuffing her obvious ploys, Jack eventually caves in to his ego and allows a relationship to brew between them. Stone, meanwhile, suddenly (and it must be said, nonsensically) transforms into a sort of metaphysical philosopher. He reasons that everything that happens was meant to happen, an idea which seems to offer him solace and peace. His newfound tranquility drives Jack, unable to attain anything beyond the four tight walls of his very controlled and self-loathing existence, into further distraction and fury.
The film posits both men as seeking a kind of spiritual absolution, their taut office conversations are meant to pave the way for their eventual transformations, but too often Curran and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan rely on gooey psychology and dubious religious metaphor (let’s just say that sinful eggs, buzzing bees and purging fire factor greatly in the proceedings) to render the characters’ plight. There is a fine line, indeed, between studied and ponderous. So little actually happens on screen, it relies on its imagery — albeit skillfully rendered by DP Maryse Alberti — to do most of the heavy lifting, which leaves for a less than satisfying tableau. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the leads — Jovovich, for one, has never been more captivating — nor with the essential concept of two men facing the prongs of their fates in entirely different ways, but in its execution, it would appear Curran has left entirely too little to chance.
Dir. Barry Levinson
Note, if you will, the lack of punctuation in the title. It’s not a question, in other words, it’s the de facto mission statement of Ben (Robert DeNiro), a fading Hollywood producer, who, in the span of two short weeks has to coddle the bipolar director (Michael Wincott) of his latest bomb of a film to accept the radical cuts the studio head (Kathleen Keener) has decreed; contend with a heavy-set and fully hirsute Bruce Willis who truculently refuses to shave his beard to start Ben’s next production; and deal with an ever-growing cavalcade of agents, writers, would-be actors and sycophants all breathing down his neck en route to heading off to Cannes, all while attempting to reconcile with his stunning ex-wife (Robin Wright) and staving off his own growing sense of powerlessness.
Intriguingly, instead of the more obvious standard satire — a la Robert Altman’s The Player — director Barry Levinson and writer Art Linson instead go for a slightly more gripping tone, a Bluetooth neo-drama, with the near constant pleating trill of Ben’s cell phone ratcheting up the anxiety level at every turn.
As a welcome rebuttal to his D.O.A. performance in Righteous Kill (see Review), DeNiro here is masterful, playing Ben with restraint and intelligence. As a producer, “just the mayonnaise on a bad sandwich,” Ben’s life almost entirely consists of placating everyone else’s ego, largely at the expense of his own. In turn, he has to be a shrink, a drug dispenser, a coddler co-dependent, enervator and showman, and he gets to do the vast majority of his work in the car on the ever-jammed 405, speaking into his earpiece and telling lie after lie to whomever is still around to listen to him on the other end.
Similar, in some ways, to Harry Fabian, DeNiro’s character in Irvin Winkler’s 1992 remake of Night and the City, Ben is a quintessential con artist, perpetually lying to everyone he encounters, masking the truth so down deep into himself, he’s as disassociated from his honest feelings as a junkie hunting for a score — and the worst of it is, it’s absolutely part of his job description.
Dir. John Avnet
Cinemaphiles of a certain vintage and distinction have ever-long lamented the fact that the two most iconic and powerful Italian American actors in Hollywood, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, have virtually never shared significant screen time together. True, they are both billed in The Godfather II, but never appear at the same time. Also true they appeared in a famous diner scene staring daggers at one another in Michael Mann’s overblown Heat, but that has been the extent of their capitulation. That is, until now, though director Jon Avnet’s lifeless, misdirection thriller will do little to reward anyone’s anticipation.
To begin with, the boys are both pretty much in cruise control here — two long-time partner cops on the trail of a potential cop serial killer. While its true both men have been known to overindulge their thespianism when working with spineless directors (“HOOO-ah” indeed), they both seem subdued here, and, frankly, flat. They aren’t helped much by Russell Gewirtz’s script, which lurches from scene to scene, telegraphing its punches like an aging fighter on the take.
You know you’re in trouble the minute the film opens — if not before, given the film’s horrific title — with a clumsy montage of the two men shooting at a firing range, playing chess (Pacino) and baseball (DeNiro) and many, many bullet casings artfully bouncing off the concrete in slow motion. The film plays out like a shell game minus the red ball — lots of feints and heavy-fisted attempts at twisting your head around the plot, with no particular pay-off that you couldn’t see coming a mile away. Sadly, we’re also forced to believe Carla Gugino, playing a detective with a bit of a masochistic streak, is crazy in love with DeNiro, a man quite nearly twice her age.
The film stops at nearly nothing to bring you its forced, melodramatic ending, replete with the obligatory agonizingly long death scene, but there’s no build up to its hoary payoff, as if the filmmakers expected the simple pairing of these two legends would be enough to carry the rest of the film in its wake. Sorry, boys, but this ship is stuck in the horse latitudes.