Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brothers; It's Complicated; The Messenger; Up in the Air

There have been several movies I've been meaning to comment on... and you can only get so far behind before you basically start forgetting them. So here's Max P. Gross' round-up of holiday movies.

Brothers. I was pretty optimistic going into Brothers. For one thing, the way it had been advertised was intriguing: A soldier (Tobey Maguire) is killed in Afghanistan. His widow (Natalie Portman) begins seeing his brother (Jake Gyllenhaal). He suddenly reappears.

That's a pretty interesting plot. (Moreover, it had the great Irish director, Jim Sheridan of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, attached.)

But Brothers was an out-and-out mess. First off, the affair between widow and brother doesn't really happen. There is a late night kiss, but nothing more. So I'm going to accuse the marketing people of deception. The melodramatic tangle I was promised did not materialize.

Moreover, Natalie Portman was pretty badly miscast in the lead female role. (But, when you think about it, while Portman might be god's gift to Jewish men, her best role has been in Garden State. It has to make you wonder if this woman can really act.) And all the twists of plot in Afghanistan (where Maguire is "forced" to do some nasty things) seemed pretty implausible.

In short, skip it.

But, I have to admit, my expectations were so low for It's Complicated that I was actually somewhat pleasantly surprised by the end result.

Not that It's Complicated is a good movie. Not at all. It is the product of Nancy Meyer, director of such eye-rollers as Father of the Bride and Something's Gotta Give. (Hey, these movies do incredible box office, so if you're a fan don't take my word for it.) And it has much of the same over-sincerity tinged with inoffensive humor that made those two movies so unbearable.

But I think Meryl Streep does a lot better with the material than Diane Keaton did. (The one Keaton/Meyer collaboration that worked was Baby Boom.) And the older he gets, the fonder I grow of Alec Baldwin.

The story goes like this: Streep plays a middle aged woman ten years divorced from her ex-husband (Baldwin). They have a fling (he's gotten married to someone else) while Steve Martin plays a fatally nice guy who's trying to court her. (The tagline on the poster -- "Divorced... with benefits" -- would have actually made a better title for the movie.)

The idea of having an affair with your ex- is not a bad one. But I'm not sure Steve Martin's character really belonged there. And, whether it was or not, he was even more horribly cast than Natalie Portman was in Brothers. He spent the movie looking as if he was desperately trying to be enthusiastic. It was painful to watch.

And while Streep is good, and Baldwin was, too, I sort of wish Baldwin's part was a little more filthy. There are some actors who can really revel in sleaze (the best one is probably Jack Nicholson) and Baldwin can do it better than almost anyone. Why not let him go wild? He plays a little footsy and always wants to have sex with Streep, which is amusing, as far as it goes, but there was a little too much love in his voice -- I like my lust undiluted.

One movie that fell slightly short of expectations (but only because David Denby raved so much about it) was The Messenger -- not that The Messenger was bad. Actually, it was quite good. But I was expecting something on par with The Hurt Locker -- which it wasn't.

The Messenger is the story of a pair of servicemen whose job it is to inform the next of kin that their son or husband or wife or daughter was killed in combat. Which was an excellent idea for a movie. And which was carried out better than almost every single Iraqi War movie has -- with the exception of The Hurt Locker.

Ben Foster plays the young messenger, just returned from Iraq where he was a war hero, who must apprentice with the older Woody Harrelson.

Harrelson is surprisingly terrific. This is almost certainly the best performance of his career. He plays what a wiseguy might call "a guy with a hard-on his whole life." He never quite made it into combat during Operation Desert Storm, and he's too old to go into combat now. He's a former drunk, but can't resist occasionally going on a bender. His eye roves to any woman who looks available for sex. This is a type of American that looks all too familiar.

Ben Foster is also excellent as the much more reserved war hero, who falls in love with one of the widows (Samantha Morton) whom he must deliver the terrible news to. (The sexual tension between the two is much better done than it was in Brothers.)

If I had to make a criticism about The Messenger it would be this:

It almost felt like there was a voyeuristic element to the film. It is sometimes a little too easy to conjure up emotion by showing grieving families who must take the shocking news. Foster and Harrelson deliver news across economic and racial strata, and while each family accepts the news in different ways, they're all equally harrowing and painful to watch.

Now, I think America should be forced to confront the price of our wars. We should look at the grief and misery these things demand. But that doesn't make it any less obscene to watch it as "entertainment."

But if you're looking for a movie to feel morally ambiguous about, you could do a lot worse than Up in the Air.

I read the Walter Kirn book when it came out a few years ago, and remember liking it but not thinking there was much of a movie in it. Turns out I was wrong. Up in the Air might be the best movie in this bunch.

Up in the Air is about a businessman (George Clooney) who is perfectly content as a loner. He has no real friends, only polite relations with his relatives, and has no wife or child to tend to. His job takes him around the U.S. where he goes to various ailing companies and, one-by-one does the dirty work of laying people off -- all the while, trying to earn 10 million frequent flier miles.

There's definitely something obscene, in this economy, watching a movie about such a morally corrupt character. And yet somehow Clooney manages to make this villain extremely likable. (Jason Reitman, the director of Thank You For Smoking, clearly has a soft spot in his heart for villains.)

Clooney (like Harrelson, come to think of it!) must take on a young apprentice and show her the ropes -- which is how much of Kirn's exposition gets into the film as he explains the ins and outs of spending one's life on an airplane.

All the acting is excellent and aside from a slightly slow first third, it definitely picks up.

The only quibble I have is the ending: Reitman sort of boxed himself in, and didn't give himself any good options. He could have gone either highly sentimental and mawkish, or depressing and evil. I'm not going to say which way he went -- but it was only modestly successful.

But see for yourself. Ambiguity or not, Up in the Air is a terrific movie.