This weekend’s new releases include an air-headed Hollywood confection, an earnest CanLit adaptation, and some hard-boiled David Mamet. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each of these films is troubled in its own way, but they all have their pleasures. The candy-floss comedy of What Happens in Vegas and the fight-club fetishism of Mamet ’s Redbelt both have quite preposterous plots. The difference is that Mamet is actually attempting realism and falling short—yet it is still the better movie. The Stone Angel, based on the classic Canadian novel by Margaret Laurence, has a narrative that remains dutifully plausible from start to finish, and it’s a bit of slog. Yet it’s as good as can be expected, given that it’s spun from the hide of a complex, interior narrative that resists adaptation with a stubbornness rivaling that of its heroine. And Christine Horne, making her film debut as the young Hagar Shipley, delivers a star-making performance.
What Happens in Vegas
What’s with all these movies about infantile grown men living in pigsties and mindlessly spoon-feeding themselves from massive bowls of cereal? Last month we had that doughboy Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and now Ashton Kutcher in What Happens in Vegas. Kutcher is blessed with a way better body, but Segel is blessed with a way better movie. What Happens In Vegas is a regression to the broad screwball formula of pre-Apatow romantic comedy. But no matter how smart or dumb the picture, the current rom-com generation of male leads seems weirdly stalled in adolescence—a phenomenon addressed by critic A.O. Scott in a bemused piece on the Hollywood zeitgeist in a last Sunday’s New York Times.
Abandoning my usual ethic of seeing movies with an open mind, I walked into What Happens in Vegas preparing to hate it, and spent most of the movie convincing myself that my hostility was justified. But these trashy Hollywood movies have a way insinuating themselves into whatever corner the cerebral cortex that guilty pleasures call home.
In this case, the residual pleasure are few and far between. The only real reason to watch this movie is to see the two stars bounce off each other. They both look quite adorable, especially Kutchner. (It’s nice to see him out of the cougar clutches of Demi Moore, and cavorting with a girl who’s just six years older than him.) And as they perform a slapstick kindergarten version of the warring courtship cliché, going at each other like a couple of puppy dogs, they actually look like they belong together.
The high-concept plot is so formulaic and predictable it feels more like software than script. Boy meets girl in Vegas as lives collide in a Cuisinart montage of symmetrical his-and-hers scenes: she gets dumped by her fiancé and he gets fired from a furniture factory by his father. In an one-night drunken whirl, they get married. Then, agreeing to divorce in the morning, he wins $3 million at a slot machine with her quarter. A sardonic judge (Dennis Miller doing thinly veiled stand-up) orders them to endure six months of marriage to claim the money, and submit to a counseling (by Queen Latifah on cruise control).
They squabble, connive and conspire, and we know where they’ll end up. Each is abetted by a best friend (Rob Corddry, Lake Bell). What Happens in Vegas is a case study of how a bad movie is just like a bad marriage. You wonder: why are you in it, why haven’t you walked out of it, and even though it’s hopeless why do you find things to love about it? Like a bad marriage, What Happens in Vegas makes us grateful for small mercies. A laugh here, a cute moment there. But we’ll hate ourselves in the morning.
The Stone Angel
The maddening thing about Hollywood formula is no matter how trite and silly and sentimental it gets, it does the job. The Stone Angel lacks that facile advantage. Instead it’s equipped with depth of character, literary pedigree, narrative integrity, and fine performances. Yet at times it feels like it’s struggling to be a movie. By that I don’t mean it’s too highfalutin or arty. On the contrary, as the story toggles between past and present with the stately rhythm of a CBC mini-series, it seems stolidly conventional.
But Canadian writer-producer-director Kari Skogland deserves credit for taking some chances with the material. To avoid the effect of a double-decker period film, she has shifted the time frame forward, so that the contemporary scenes take place in the present, rather than the 1960s, shoving the flashbacks up to the 1940s. Skogland described her film as the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” version of The Stone Angel, a come-on that rather oversells the excitement. It’s not exactly The Stoned Angel. But in the ’40s storyline, newcomer Christine Horne does bring a ravenous, forthright sexuality to her courtship scenes with Cole Hauser, who’s cast as charismatic bad boy Bram Shipley, the dreamboat who congeals into Hagar’s deadbeat husband. And together they foment enough chemistry to make the film worth watching.
In the present-day narrative, the elderly and cantankerous Hagar (Ellen Burstyn) is being dumped into a nursing home against her will. Her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) tries to sugar-coat the pill, and she sees right through him. Burstyn’s acid performance is right on the money. Baker, however, accentuates Marvin’s slippery disposition with a stilted performance that produces one of the only false notes among the cast. Baker has a knack for playing squares in cool movies (Happiness, Kinsey), but here he’s seems a bit over-the-top and out of sync. Ellen Page also shows up, late in the game. She’s now such a big deal that you can watch a pirated clip of her barely-glimpsed sex scene on youtube. (No, I’m not going to embed it. Look it up.)
For my taste, everything about The Stone Angel is too nailed-down and on-the-nose. This is a movie that knows too well what it wants to be, and its self-satisfied feminist embrace of heroic womanhood lacks dramatic intrigue.
It’s interesting to compare The Stone Angel to Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated feature debut, Away from Her, which was adapted from a work by another female titan of CanLit, Alice Munro. Both dramas feature willful, elderly women who are stepping into the great void of institutional care, although Julie Christie’s character in Away From Her goes of her own accord. Both movies also have thorny backstories to unravel. But aside from their various merits, and distinctive qualities, there are a couple of key structural differences that gives Away From Her a better chance at being an engaging movie”
• In Away From Her, the story is rooted in one central relationship, a romance in which the man (Gordon Pinsent) more than holds his own. In The Stone Angel, no other character comes close to measuring up to Hagar, and the film suffers from the protagonist’s isolation.
• In Away From Her, the legacy of the past wells up in the contemporary narrative as a largely unseen and mysterious force, while the story remains firmly rooted in the present. The Stone Angel juggles twostorylines (past and present) of almost equal weight, which splits the viewer’s focus.
Instead of being invested in two characters engaged in a central relationship, with The Stone Angel we’re following two versions of one character in myriad relationships. Which makes for a more difficult movie. That said, even aside from the gratuitous physical resemblance between Burstyn and Horne, these two actress succeed in forging the illusion that they are one and the same woman. No small feat.
No one writes dialogue like Mamet.
Short. Pithy. Profane.
Makes Elmore Leonard look long-winded.
Reminds me of a great line by the late Canadian producer, Peter Simpson: “Let’s call a spade a fucking shovel.”
Mamet lays out lines of dialogue like a grouchy addict rationing lines of coke for unwelcome guests.
No one talks like that.
But the way they talk you’d swear they did.
Redbelt is Mamet’s martial arts movie.
The plot has holes you could lose yourself in for days.
Like he gives a shit.
He omits chunks of story the way he omits chunks of dialogue.
Not his problem. Let the viewer clean it up.
Mamet writes like someone settling a score. One that goes way back.
Best thing about Redbelt is Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Children of Men). I could watch this guy forever, especially when he’s doing nothing. Not moving. Just weighing his next move.
Ejiofor plays a devoted Jiu-Jitsu master. On a dark and stormy night, his life changes with jagged strokes of happenstance. As if he’s struck by lightning. Though it’s just ordinary rain that night.
Emily Mortimer, as a strung-out woman battling to get into a closed pharmacy, sideswipes his car.
She barges into his Jiu-Jitsu studio to report it. How does she know it’s his car? Beats me.
She’s a mess. On what? Who knows. Drink, drugs, post-traumatic rape syndrome. You figure it out.
Mortimer’s character tumbles into a split-second fracas with a jiu-jitsu pupil, who’s a cop. His gun goes off in her hand and shatters the storefront window. Setting off a gang bang of ricochet events. A pinball narrative.
Mortimer is a lawyer and she wants to clean it up, for Ejiofor. Hard to say if she wants to represent him or fuck him. The script loses interest in her. She’s a girl. It’s a fight movie. Get used to it.
Ejivor’s character is pure. He won’t compete, says “competition is weakening.”
He’s got a line for everything, especially everything
— “Everything is a force–embrace it or deflect it.”
— “A man distracted is a man defeated.”
— “Control your emotion.”
— “Insist on the move.”
Before it’s over, we know the fighter who doesn’t want to fight is gonna have to do more than talk.
His grasping Brazilian wife (Alice Braga) has had it with talk. She wants to pay the rent.
Enter Big Dirty Money, and the banshee whores of showbiz, via another random incident: violating his no-fight creed, Ejiofor rescues a jaded star of action movies from a vicious bully who provokes him in a bar.
The movie star (Tim Allen—“I drink too much, I fool around”) takes a shine to his rescuer, but he’s more corrupt than sin. He’s connected.
A sleazy fight promoter (Ricky Jay) wants Jiu-jitsu boy to drop his pride and mix it up in mixed marital arts. He’s another guy with a lot of lines about everything:
“Like everything in life, the money’s in the rematch.”
“We need a gimmick. . . black against white, Irish against Jew, a racial grudge match. Give me some velocity. Velocity. Otherwise it’s just two monkeys in the ring.”
Push comes to shove in an Ultimate Fighting tournament. The gimmick: an old Japanese samurai offering a prize belt to the winner, and a handicapping stunt involving black and white marbles.
There will be blood.
Our Jiu-Jitsu purist will have to get his hands dirty, and cleanse his soul.
A Zen Rocky moment. Redbelt is a martial arts movie by a showbiz guy who loves martial arts and hates showbiz. He loves that about himself.
It’s about a contest between intelligence strength, leveraged by sleight of hand.
The fight is fixed.
So is the movie.
Deal with it.