The Wasteland There is a furious anger in Harrison Ford?a fear of being wronged, and a fear of what he might do to those who wronged him. This anger never surfaces in comedies (which is wise, because it's way too frightening for comedy), and in adventure films and dramas he strategically suppresses it, just as his characters must strategically suppress it. But when Ford's anger does boil up, the effect is electrifying: think of the scene in Witness where Ford beats up a tourist thug who is harassing his Amish protectors, or the expression of pure righteous fury on his face in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom right after he belts a Thuggee guard across the chops and prepares to break the shackles of slave children.
Ford would make a great villain, but he chooses to be an avenging angel instead. He always plays the hero; the last time he played the villain, or at least an antihero, was in 1986's The Mosquito Coast, and though there was much to like in his performance, the film tanked at the box office. Ford, who is a businessman first and an actor second, knew better than to risk jeopardizing his greatest investment, his own career, again. He's like a sentry guarding his own personal Fort Knox. He doesn't work for scale in challenging small films, doesn't do interesting cameos (except once, in Jimmy Hollywood, a Barry Levinson studio picture posing as an indie film) and has frankly admitted to interviewers that he turned down this film or that film because the studio couldn't meet his price.
The Scrooge McDuck strategy has paid off. Ford's films have made billions of dollars; in 1994, he was voted Star of the Century by the National Association of Theater Owners, which means much more to Hollywood than an Oscar. Yet he's cheated himself and his fans. He's 57, and except for Blade Runner, Witness and stray moments in the Indiana Jones movies, he's never startled or challenged his audience or proven what they always suspected?that he's much more versatile than he lets on. So many of his movies from 1990 onward have been gloriously produced, well-directed crap. And Ford's characters all tend to blur together: How much difference is there, really, between Jack Ryan and the president in Air Force One? Ford had a shot in Random Hearts. His anger sparks the film. But director Sidney Pollack and Ford, who is powerful enough to overrule any filmmaker, don't appreciate what they've got. The film has an appreciation for the loneliness of lives lived in airports; the opening montage of empty bedrooms and airport waiting areas is ghostly and sad, and promises a rich and unusual experience. No such luck. Random Hearts is a big holiday release, a lavish, star-crossed romance. Like much of Pollack's work, it's intelligent and beautifully made (the photography, by Philippe Rousselot, is aloof and melancholy and never overdone), but its intelligence and beauty are about a millimeter deep.
Ford plays a Washington, DC, internal affairs cop whose wife died in a plane crash en route to Miami. He soon discovers that his wife was on the plane with her lover, the husband of a congresswoman (Kristin Scott Thomas). Ford's character, Dutch Van Den Broeck, has been intellectually as well as sexually cuckolded. Dutch gets paid to spot lies for a living, yet somehow his wife's infidelity escaped his notice. He becomes obsessed with proving the affair happened; once he's achieved that, he retraces his wife's steps, assembling a dossier on her deception. He insists on dragging Scott's character, Kay Chandler, into his whirlpool of rage so that she, too, can become obsessed. At first she protests that she just wants to put the agony behind her?men are from Mars, women from Venus?but the lure of both Dutch and his dark odyssey prove too tempting.
Through much of the film, Ford looks like a man who could explode at any moment. What drives Dutch? A lot of things, all of which are noted in Ford's subtle performance: the need to find the precise juncture in his wife's narrative of deceit where Dutch could have exposed the lie but instead overlooked it; an urge to master the deception by unraveling it. In effect, Dutch is getting revenge against his cheating wife by exposing her affair. But his wife is dead, which makes him a half frightening, half pathetic figure?almost a Paul Schrader hero who would rather declare war on the world than face his own demons.
With Ford in this role, even quiet moments are charged with the festering rage of a betrayed husband. In one good scene, a couple of airline investigators visit his house to tell him his wife's name was not on the Miami flight's passenger manifest; when they start to explain why they're right, he holds up a silencing finger, then plays an answering machine message in which his wife declares that she's taking that flight to Miami. While the investigators listen, properly chastened, Dutch doesn't gloat; he just unpacks a couple of sacks of groceries. Rarely has the sight of a man unpacking groceries been so charged with menace. You get the sense that if either investigator dared voice a syllable of doubt, Dutch might beat them to death right there in the kitchen.
What a shame Random Hearts doesn't know what to do with Ford's anger. Maybe Ford doesn't know either. Sydney Pollack, a tasteful, intelligent craftsman whose films have nothing in common except that they all look great and flatter their stars, is bound and determined to make this story a romance. I'm told that the source material, a 1984 novel by Warren Adler, was also a romance. I guess it must have worked on some level, otherwise a succession of Hollywood biggies wouldn't have toiled for 15 years to turn it into a movie. But onscreen, the love story is the least convincing element of Random Hearts?and it's at the center of the narrative. The characters are undernourished, a collection of dry expositional facts, each outfitted with dutiful sidekicks. Dutch has a partner, Charles S. Dutton, whose role consists mainly of saying, "Dutch, what do you think?" and "You're crazy, Dutch!"; Thomas has Bonnie Hunt, who gets to say, "Kay, buck up," and "How are you doing, Kay?" The great Edie Falco, who just won an Emmy for The Sopranos, appears in an early scene as a fellow cop, delivers three or four lines, then disappears; Dylan Baker, so chilling as the child molester in Happiness, has maybe a dozen lines.
To some extent, all the performers seem stranded. Ford ultimately does okay because he can always fall back on Harrison Ford?though a convoluted subplot about Dutch investigating a corrupt cop (Dennis Haysbert) is wholly extraneous, thrown in so that Ford could beat people up and appease the male half of the date crowd. (The film, which was shot on location in DC, makes its numerous black characters tough and credible, which is appreciated, but it still shunts them to the margins of the action. The charismatic Haysbert, in particular, seems to have been cast mainly to give Ford yet another towering giant to thrash.)
Thomas, so smart and graceful in The English Patient, is an embarrassment here. Much of the time she wears a deer-in-the-headlights expression, and her unplaceable mid-Atlantic accent is mechanical and unconvincing. Not for a moment do you believe the Senator's sexual relationship with the cop is anything but ill-advised and temporary, a crazed, doomed response to overwhelming grief. Yet the film would have us believe that in a better, less catastrophic world, these two would be meant for each other. Even if there were evidence in the script to back up this assertion, we still might not believe it.
I don't blame Thomas for her awfulness; she's stuck with an unplayable part in a film that doesn't play. The shapelessness of Random Hearts suggests Ford took over the movie while pretending he wasn't taking over the movie (thus the cop corruption stuff). Time that could have been spent making the central romance plausible is squandered on blind-alley subplots instead. And Ford and Pollack have neither the insight nor the guts to go all the way and make the film into what it obviously needed to be?the story of an obsessed cop who can't accept that horrible things happen and sometimes you can't control them. That would make a film uncommercial, uncompromising, even brave; such a course of action would require too much imagination from Ford the actor and too much risk from Ford the businessman. Too bad: Random Hearts could have been Ford's Affliction.
Framed Godfrey Cheshire has been encouraging me to write about Jakob the Liar, presumably because he enjoys it when I lob grenades of disdain and incredulity in the direction of Robin Williams. I've been putting off the assignment because after cranking out bile-soaked screeds on What Dreams May Come and Patch Adams last year, I couldn't face the prospect of assessing America's wistful clown prince one more time?then dealing with the inevitable hate mail from readers who think anyone who doesn't like the Furry One's movies was born with a defective heart. (A friend of mine accurately described Williams' recent performances as the thespian equivalent of harp solos.)
Turns out Jakob the Liar, about a Warsaw Ghetto resident whose false reports of Germany's impending demise give hope to his neighbors and redemption to his sad little life?isn't doing very well at the box office. It might even be gone from the theaters by the time you read this. Fine by me. It's much less odious than Williams' last couple of films, and it's less fanciful, ambitious and sweet (and therefore less critically provocative) than Life Is Beautiful. And Williams cranks his sad jester vibe down a few notches, from a 13 to maybe a 6, which means he's doing more acting than clowning. But as sincere and generally tasteful as the film is, it's impossible to see it as anything but a crass career move?one more advertisement for the comic heart and soul of Robin Williams. As a star, he's served up too many cups of contaminated water; now he asks us to drink from a virgin spring. It's too late. Williams has said he's quitting acting for a while to get back into standup. That's a great idea; he and Hollywood need to quit collaborating, otherwise the whole country might die of love.
Eyes has it: The current issue of Harper's has a sharp article by Lee Siegel about how America's critical establishment misread (and in some cases, misrepresented) Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Some of Siegel's assertions are excessive. For example, he dismisses complaints that the movie was overhyped by rhetorically asking if the pope overhyped the Sistine Chapel. But he does subject Kubrick's movie to the kind of deep reading that it deserves; some of his passages equal and sometimes exceed the very best work that has been previously published on this topic.
I was struck in particular by his central assertion: that critics were backed into a corner by (1) the fact that it was Kubrick's last movie and (2) the relentless media hype (particularly the talk of how sexy it was), and decided to demonstrate their independence by declaring that the film was not worth the hype and not the least bit sexy. Siegel rightly points out that critics should respond to movies, not p.r. campaigns, and convincingly argues that some of the smartest critics who panned it (including David Denby) utterly failed to grasp what it was that Kubrick was trying to do. Siegel observes that what's onscreen indicates Kubrick wanted to make a film about sex rather than a sexy movie?a slender but crucial distinction.
Original insights abound; I especially liked Siegel's list of Kubrickian homages to Homer's Odyssey?a batch of structural grace notes that, as far as I know, eluded every major critic who wrote about Eyes Wide Shut.
In all, the article confirmed my suspicion that the vast majority of U.S. critics missed the boat on this movie. Hell, I'll go further: Twenty years down the road, when Eyes Wide Shut has been analyzed and rereviewed a million different ways, the most defiant pans will stand as embarrassments to the people who wrote them.
Both Godfrey and Armond White voiced grave misgivings about the worth of American Beauty in last week's paper, and their remarks merit a response. Godfrey says the film is superficial in its approach to characterization. I agree in the case of Bening's housewife, a fairly stock character, but thought the other major characters had a lot more depth than similar characters in other suburban despair films, including Happiness and Your Friends and Neighbors. For my money, though, the child molester in Happiness is one of the great suburban wretches of all time?so terrifying and human he shows up the rest of the movie as a disingenuous exercise in subcollegiate misanthropy (complete with its own stereotypical cold-fish social climbing woman, played by Lara Flynn Boyle). Godfrey also says the film seemed like tv because nobody changed. Forget the fact that on good tv dramas, all the major characters change and evolve; in American Beauty, everyone changes, for better or worse, altering their world views, their stations in life or both (except Bening's character, who simply becomes disillusioned and angry).
Suburbia is not an easy milieu to work; by this stage in the game, after half a century of postwar expansion and comic-satiric narratives, the elements in these kinds of stories have become as predictable and ritualized as those of westerns and ghost stories. At some point, audiences and critics should give up fretting over how original or surprising the plot and characters are, since we've seen them all before. What matters is what a filmmaker does with those elements. American Beauty has a lot of problems, not the least of which is an excess of geometric neatness. But it's grim and funny and stylish; it sees the humor in America's faddish embrace of self-realization strategies and understands how Americans often pass off blind acquisitiveness as a form of self-improvement. (That's like pretending masturbation is a form of procreative sex.)
As for Armond's manifesto, I don't know where to start. There doesn't seem to be much of an argument going on that I can see. His strategy, here as elsewhere, is to assert that all the qualities American Beauty's defenders praise are in fact reasons to despise it?that it "pushes liberal buttons" and that "the hero Lester Burnham is upset because he doesn't have enough" and that the film "lends absurd cache to boomer petulance." With a few exceptions, the critic doesn't bother to prove any of these assertions; we are supposed to accept them as true because he says them, and refusal to believe his truth is evidence of "naivete," "corruption," "contempt" or some other favorite Armond White pejorative. As counterexamples of films that honestly and humanely examine suburban discontent and the sham of American self-infatuation, he cites Mumford, a fragile little figurine of a movie by a director who specializes in figurines of movies, and Breakfast of Champions, an ambitious but incoherent adaptation of a minor and dated Vonnegut novel.
It was sort of fun to read, though?especially the way he'd keep drifting back to Mumford and Breakfast of Champions, then slide into another all-out assault on American Beauty. Somehow the whole article reminded me of John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski?a helplessly angry war survivor who can't talk for more than five minutes without launching into a tirade about Vietnam.