As a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I often seek out movies that I feel might hit that so-bad-it’s-good sweet spot. There are scads and scads of bad movies but few manage to land in the realm where their utter inanity and ineptitude provide genuine, baffled entertainment. The Internet would have you believe that the new movie The Fanatic fits that bill. On its face it seems like it might. It’s directed and co-written by Limp Bizkit front man Fred Durst, stars John Travolta, and is about a mentally challenged fan stalking and holding his idol hostage. That sounds like it has plenty of potential. The Fanatic is not a fun watch, especially by the last act, and I was mostly left scratching my head and wondering who in the world this movie was crafted for and why.
Moose (Travolta) is an obsessive fan. He also has a mental disability, which makes it hard for him to connect with other people. He’s obsessed with the actor Hunter Dunbar (Devon Sawa, fairly good here) and getting an autograph. After a misunderstanding, Moose is determined to track down his favorite actor and let him know why fans are important.
I have no idea who this movie was made for. I wasn’t so much laughing at it, though it did happen occasionally, as I was just staring slack-jawed and completely mystified. I didn’t really have fun watching something like this and I doubt most people would. It’s a bad movie but really it’s a gigantically miscalculated movie because what is the point and perspective presented? Are we meant to be weirded out by our mentally challenged protagonist, because that seems in bad taste? Are we meant to endorse his actions, because that seems in bad taste too considering how many transgressions he makes? Are we meant to feel that he is justified in his alienation or in how he responds to Hunter Dunbar, because that seems like enabling criminal behavior? Are we meant to feel for Hunter Dunbar when he gets the upper hand and tortures Moose in vengeance, because I can tell you listening to Travolta wail on the floor in pained cries is not exactly a hoot. Am I meant to have a squeamish sympathy for Moose that is then tested over time as he crosses more and more lines? That doesn’t really happen either. I don’t know what the movie wants me to think about Moose and Travolta’s committed yet stereotypical performance, which I think is why so many are holding this up as an example of something to ridicule because they don’t know what to make of it. It’s like the film just took a lot of bizarre and controversial plot elements, threw them together, and said, “You decide” when it comes to commentary.
What is the message about fanaticism? It’s the title of the movie so I would assume it’s being presented at least as a subject worthy of discussion. Moose is a fanatic and his fandom drives his life. It’s all he can think about. It gives his life purpose. Yet the movie takes away any real negative interpretation by applying the mental disability to the character. He’s a fanatic but he can’t be all that bad because he’s mentally disabled and, maybe according to the movie, not fully in control or cognizant of his own actions. This is a cop-out on multiple fronts. The completely superfluous voice over narration from Leah (Ana Golja), a side character at best, is generally just describing what is literally happening as well as offering an occasional dismissive comment about the facile nature of reality in Hollywood. Hey, have you heard how the entertainment industry is shallow and surface-level and exploits dreams and dreamers for profit? This is new to me! The narration almost presents a weak justification for Moose, like he was entitled to strike back when he discovered that actors don’t like it when you track down their home addresses and harass them. “You’re nothing without your fans,” Moose screams at Hunter in anger, and in an ordinary movie I would consider this a sign that the movie is lambasting the self-aggrandized sense of entitlement from fans and how toxic this can be to the psyche. Except The Fanatic won’t do any of that. It won’t set up Moose as an example of toxic fandom, and his disability is proof enough why.
I did not enjoy this movie. For thirty minutes I’m watching Travolta go from scene to scene and try out every clichéd acting trope for playing somebody with mental retardation. I may have missed something, and I don’t have the interest to watch it again, but I was left wondering how in the world Moose even supports himself. He has friends across Hollywood plugged into different tourist ventures but we only ever see him dressing as a British policeman and running around the Boulevard trying to coax strangers into snapping pictures with him. He’s terrible and off-putting to the average person on the street, so he can’t be making money from this. It seems like the filmmakers are weeding out any and all things that could keep Moose away from this very select path of being an obsessive stalker. That’s all he does. He’s not focused on anything else other than finding this star and letting him know how much he loves his work. There’s so little to this character but because the film strips any other complications or attachments from his life, it feels downright manipulative to basically set him up for this collision course. I’m reminded of 2002’s One Hour Photo where Robin Williams played a disturbed man who formed an inappropriate attachment to a group of strangers and became more and more undone, finally stalking them, intervening with horrific results, and hinting at a deeper history of abuse. None of that is present with Moose and it makes the experience feel like it’s either pandering or dithering.
When Moose does kidnap Hunter in the last act it’s meant to evoke a Misery situation but it felt to me like a much sloppier version of 2006’s Hard Candy. In that film, it was a battle of wills between an angry young girl (Ellen Page) seeking righteous vengeance and a man swearing his innocence (Patrick Wilson), and your sympathies were meant to be tested and question who was correct and who was going too far. I think that’s what Durst and company were going for but oh do they miss the mark and then some. I didn’t feel like Hunter was getting comeuppance for his behavior because his responses to Moose seemed fairly reasonable. I didn’t feel like Moose had become the villain now because the movie was presenting him still as the same figure from the opening minutes; he hadn’t become more disturbed or aggressive even after doing some very bad, very criminal things. I didn’t feel like the film was setting up some form of tragedy where Moose and his ignorance of the severity of his actions would escalate beyond his control. Mostly I was just waiting for the movie to be over, again watching with the fascination of a rubbernecker. I didn’t feel tension during any moment of this movie and I didn’t really care what happened to anyone.
I don’t know what would exactly appeal to Travolta with this part, besides the actorly possibilities of playing someone with mental disabilities. God bless him, Travolta goes all-in on this part and is practically bouncing off the walls. He’s so unrestrained, so dug into the tics and mannerisms of his character, which feel more informed by the portrayals of other famous actors playing this kind of person than it does on anything else. It is a performance that makes you second guess many of the actor’s choices, including the … shaved mullet haircut, and there are certain line readings that are so awkward they will make you leave the room in embarrassment. Of note is one frantic threat about what Moose will do to a man in a way reminiscent of Freddy Kruger, and the level of detail said in such a serious, scream-heavy tone just adds more ammunition for its unintentional hilarity. The problem is that the movie certainly doesn’t see Moose as a tragic figure, until his brutal beating at the end, and it doesn’t see him as a comic figure, so he’s just kind of hanging around like an unwanted guest. Travolta’s wince-inducing go-for-broke, almost Nicolas Cage-ian performance (I’m making this a term) is the best reason to watch The Fanatic, and you should really not watch this movie at all.
Another reason the movie isn’t derisively enjoyable is because it’s fairly competent and actually a bit stylish in several areas. Durst will get a lot of mockery for his involvement but the man has always had an eye for visuals (he directed most of his band’s music videos). There are some pretty nicely composed shots with some moody lighting thanks to cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (Panic Room). The score is pretty good too, using a lot of Max Richter-esque strings for pointed punctuation of key moments of unease and dread. This isn’t a bad movie because of the technical merits or through Durst’s direction. Sure, you could argue he should have reined in Travolta’s eagerness, but when the movie seems made to indulge those impulses, I can’t fault him for basically just letting his lead actor throw subtlety out the window and dance on its grave and other mixed metaphors.
It’s for these reasons that I found The Fanatic to just be a dispiriting movie, missing the electric charge of the truly and entertainingly bad movies like The Room or the oeuvre of Neil Breen. It’s just a bad movie by design, not on purpose. It’s hard to even find sincerity with it, an essential element of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, because I don’t really know what the movie finds sincere. It’s inconclusive what message I’m supposed to garner, what perspective is being delivered, and how I’m supposed to feel about any of this. It’s not executed in an intriguing ambiguity that pushes the audience to draw their own interpretations and conclusions. It feels more like the movie is simply incomplete, that it’s missing core elements to make it worth watching. Travolta unleashes a flurry of unrestrained acting tics and some may find it snicker-worthy, but Travolta hasn’t exactly been holding back as of late in his film choices. The Fanatic is really a dank genre thriller that doesn’t know what it wants to say and what it wants to do, and by slapping the mental disability factor into the mix, it definitely has no courage to pick a direction or statement. If you’re morbidly curious, you might find some degree of interest here but I wouldn’t advise it. The Fanatic is not the next best bad movie. It’s just a miscalculated effort and a sad one.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Sometimes in Hollywood there is such a thing as coincidence. The novel The Silence was published in 2015, the film adaption in the works in 2017, and yet it feels overwhelming like a rehash of another sound-sensitive blockbuster, 2018’s A Quiet Place. Following in the footsteps of a popular hit, you better be able to bring something different to the table or else you risk feeling like an also-ran. Having watched The Silence on Netflix, it’s hard not to constantly be comparing it with A Quiet Place, and it’s hard not to constantly be wishing you were watching A Quiet Place instead of this mess.
A group of scientific spelunkers unleashes a subterranean species of bat dinosaurs that are attracted to sound. A family (Stanley Tucci, Mirnada Otto), their ailing grandparent (Kate Trotter), deaf teenage daughter (Kiernan Shipka), son, dog, and uncle (John Corbett) hop in the car and head to the countryside for safety, but it’s not that easy.
The Silence fails as a thriller because it’s so unclear so often about the nature of its threat, its extent, and the lack of urgency on display. Once the bat dinosaur monsters are on the loose, it feels like the rest of society immediately knows the rules of what attracts them. People in subway cars are already banishing women with crying babies to die alone. At the same time, the reaction seems absurdly mellow. It dilutes the sense of danger when nothing feels imminent. The family casually piles up in the cars and heads out to the country but nobody seems to be too panicked. It was at this point, relatively a half hour in, that I started getting the first of many Birdemic vibes. Why would they think the neighboring countryside would be out of the reach of winged monsters? How many winged monsters are there? Because we’re dealing with the immediate aftermath of the first strike, it can create points of disbelief. At least Bird Box had that crazy and effective opening of society breaking down. We don’t get anything like that.
I also call into question the thinking behind going out to the country as a refuge. If they’re not outrunning the flying monsters, it’s the idea that there will be less noise away from the cities. This seems like the exact opposite of what people should be doing. It’s the nitpick from A Quiet Place about why the family didn’t just live under the waterfall (as we all do, of course) because the loud sounds muffled the other sounds that could be absorbed. Therefore it makes strategic sense to stay around the places that makes the most noise, like a bustling city that also has locked chambers within chambers. This is later demonstrated in a scene where the dino bats are discombobulated by an indoor sprinkler system. Perhaps this is because of the rain, but if that’s the case then everyone needs to relocate to the Pacific Northwest.
Without a sense of danger, the movie suffers from its timeline and lack of structure. It doesn’t feel like the movie is going anywhere. The immediate aftermath of the dino birds appearing leads to a limited response. How interesting or scary can things get when the Internet is still functioning and the teenage daughter can still keep up with her instant messages even out in the country? This brings me to the last act where the movie completely changes into a home invasion thriller with a religious cult that has bitten off their own tongues. This creepy cult is obsessed with the family, following them home to that country cabin because… the teen daughter is “fertile.” What the hell? It’s way too soon for this kind of apocalyptic nonsense. The world hasn’t broken down into factions. Society is still standing. It’s not like there is a shortage of fertile women, like some Children of Men doomsday. This group must have been waiting for any minor social setback to jump forward with their dreams of being a creepy cult. This late group of antagonists attach “sound bombs” in the form of smart phones. Even a little girl straps herself with several phones like she’s a suicide bomber. Even dumber, the other characters flail around once the phones ring like they have no idea how to turn off phones. It all comes together to form a hilariously awful conclusion that teeters into pure camp.
Let’s tackle one of the more essential elements of A Quiet Place that feels almost entirely unnecessary with The Silence, and that’s the hearing loss of the teen daughter. It astounds me that these two movies have similarities that go even that deep, even to the aesthetic choice of adopting the lack of sound when the camera takes her perspective (so many strange coincidences, which extend into its Bird Box-like cult as well). This element was a strength of A Quiet Place and played a significant plot purpose, placing the daughter in danger because of her sensory disadvantage, but it also related to the ultimate reveal of how to combat the monsters. It also communicated the distance she felt between the other members of her family after a horrible tragedy that she blamed herself over. It’s a carefully integrated and thoughtful addition to the movie.
Now take The Silence. The daughter has had a recent accident that damaged her hearing, which explains why she doesn’t have the vocal affectation that many hard of hearing people have adopted. The artistic choice that doesn’t work is that The Silence at no point makes her lack of hearing meaningful to the plot or for her character. If you were hardly paying attention you would never know she had hearing loss. Conversations between the family occur rapidly, with minimal signing, and sometimes the parents aren’t even looking at her when they speak. The best lip readers in the world only get a third of what is being said. She is holding normal conversations with no struggle. At no point does her disability put her at risk. At no point does it have any bearing whatsoever on anything, except showing the actors spent a weekend learning sign language.
Another laughable feature is the presence of completely superfluous voice over narration from the daughter. It is powerfully clunky and made me cringe in the beginning and at the end. She’s explaining things that don’t need explaining and doing so with lines that don’t add any real insight. “I had to adjust to being deaf,” she says, while jerky students make fun of her lack of hearing because I guess that’s a thing people do. Then at the end she bounds back with a resilient narration about how it’s a race for evolution, but is it really? I think mankind has a leg up over creatures that, until two days ago, evolved in a subterranean environment. It’s another sign the movie has no idea what it’s doing with its story and how to relay the important information or what even is important.
Much could be forgiven if the scares were consistent, well constructed, or even interesting, or if the characters were engaging and relatable, or if the structure packed a series of setups and satisfying payoffs, or if there was a sense of thought and care put into the world building with these unique creatures, or, all the things that A Quiet Place achieved. The Silence is a movie that is best deserving of being silent. Skip this Netflix original and, if possible, watch A Quiet Place again. This one is not entertaining, from a good or bad perspective, and even at a mere 90 minutes feels like a wasted opportunity for a nap.
Nate’s Grade: D
M. Night Shyamalan has had a wildly fluctuating career, but after 2017’s killer hit Split he’s officially back on the upswing and the Shyamalan bandwagon is ready for more transplants. At the very end of Split it was revealed it had secretly existed in the same universe as Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s so-so 2000 movie about real-life superheroes. Fans of the original got excited and Shyamalan stated his next film was a direct sequel. Glass is the long-anticipated follow-up and many critics have met it with a chilly response. Shyamalan’s comeback is still cruising, and while Glass might not be as audacious and creepy clever as Split it’s still entertaining throughout its two-hour-plus run time.
It’s been 18 years since David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovered his special abilities thanks to the brilliant but criminally insane Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a.k.a. “Mr. Glass.” David has been going on “walks” from his security day job to right wrongs as “The Overseer,” the rain slicker-wearing man who is incapable of being harmed (exception: water). He looks to stop David Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a.k.a. The Horde, a disturbed man inhabited by over dozens of personalities. David Dunn and Kevin are captured and placed in the same mental health facility as Elijah. The three are under the care of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) who specializes in a specific form of mental illness with those who believe to be superheroes. She has only so many days to break through to these dangerous men or else more extreme and irrevocable measures might be taken.
Shyamalan has a lot on his mind and spends much of the second half exploring the classical ideas of superheroes via Dr. Staple and her unorthodox therapy treatments. She’s trying to convince each man they are simply wounded individuals and not superior beings blessed with superior powers. Because the audience already knows the fantastic truth, I’m glad Shyamalan doesn’t belabor this angle and make the crux of the movie about her convincing them otherwise. The second act is something of a sleeping predator, much like the wheelchair-bound, brittle-bone Elijah Price. You’re waiting for the larger scheme to take shape and the snap of the surprise, and Shyamalan throws out plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing (I’ve never been more glad that convenient news footage of a new skyscraper opening meant absolutely nothing for the final act setting). Part of the enjoyment is watching the characters interact together and play off one another. The conversations are engaging and the actors are uniformly good, so even these “slow parts” are interesting to watch.
It’s fun to watch both Willis and Jackson to slip right into these old characters and conflicts, but it’s really McAvoy’s movie once more, to our immense benefit. Between a ho-hum character who has accepted his ho-hum city guardian role, and an intellectual elite playing possum, the narrative needs Kevin Wendell Crumb/The Horde to do its heavy lifting. McAvoy is phenomenal again and seamlessly transitions from one personality to another, aided by Dr. Staple’s magic personality-switching light machine. The command that McAvoy has and range he establishes for each character is impressive. He reserves different postures, different expressions, and different muscles for the different personas. I was genuinely surprised how significant Ana Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds) was as the returning character Casey, the heroine that escaped Kevin’s imprisonment in Split. She’s concerned for the well being of Kevin, the original personality who splintered into many as a means of protection from his mother’s horrifying abuse. I was worried the movie was setting her up to be a disciple of Kevin’s, looking to break him out having fallen under an extreme Stockholm syndrome. This is not the case. She actually has a character arc about healing that is important and the thing to save Kevin’s soul. There are in-Kevin personalities here with more character arcs than the other famous leads.
Shyamalan has been improving in his craft as a director with each movie, and stripping down to the basics for a contained thriller gave him a better feel for atmospherics and visual spacing with his frame. With Glass, the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Us) smartly and elegantly uses color to help code the characters and the development of their psychological processes. The direction by Shyamalan feels a bit like he’s looking back for a sense of visual continuity from his long takes and pans from Unbreakable, which places greater importance on the performances and precise framing.
I think the disappointment expressed in many of the mixed-to-negative critical reviews comes down to a departure in tone as well as the capitalization of being an Unbreakable sequel. Both of the previous movies in this trilogy were less action vehicles than psychological thrillers that emphasized darker human emotions and personal struggle. Shyamalan purposely grounded them, as much as one can, in a sense of vulnerable realism, which only made both of their endings stick out a little more. The movies weren’t about existing in a superhero universe but more so about unknown heroes and villains of comic-sized scale living amongst us every day. It was about the real world populated with super beings. Because of that tonal approach, Unbreakable was the epic tale of a security guard taking down one murderous home invader and surviving drowning. It was more the acceptance of the call, and part of that was getting an audience that had not been fed as much superhero mythos as today to also accept that secret reality hiding in plain sight. 18 years later, movie audiences have become highly accustomed to superheroes, their origins, and the tropes of the industry, so I was looking forward to Shyamalan’s stamp. I think our new cultural environment gave Shyamalan the room to expand, and Glass moves into a less realistic depiction of these elements. It’s not the gritty, understated, and more psychologically drawn dramas of his past. It’s more comfortable with larger, possibly sillier elements and shrugging along with them. There are moments where characters will just flat-out name the tropes happening on screen, with straight-laced exposition. It can lead to some chuckles. I think fans of the original might find a disconnect in tone between the three films, especially with this capper. They might ask themselves, “I waited 18 years for these characters to just become like other supers?”
And that refrain might be common as well, namely, “I waited 18 years for this?” While it’s inherently true that a filmmaker doesn’t owe fans anything beyond honest effort, an extended time between sequels does create the buildup of anticipation and the question of whether the final product was worth that excited expectation. Fans of Unbreakable might be somewhat disappointed by the fact that Glass feels like more of a sequel to Split. McAvoy is top-billed for a reason. Perhaps Shyamalan had more of a desire to foster the continuation from a recent hit than an 18-year-old movie. Whatever the rationale, David Dunn gets short shrift. After the opening segment, he’s being institutionalized but he’s not actively trying to escape. As a result, the attention focuses far more onto our two villains, and one of them doesn’t says a word until an hour into the movie. This further exacerbates the disproportionate emphasis on Kevin Wendell Crumb (and The Horde). As stated above, I think that’s where the emphasis should be because he has the most storytelling potential, and McAvoy is amazing. However, if you’ve been waiting 18 years for another face-off between Mr. Glass and the Unbreakable Man, then this might not seem like the special event you dreamt about. Shyamalan still has difficulty staging action sequences. The fights with David and The Beast are pretty lackluster and involve the same non-responsive choke hold moves. There are like half a dozen characters involved with the climactic showdown but half of them are bystanders waiting to be tapped in when the narrative needs them to console their fighter.
I think the ending will also turn some people off for what it does and what it doesn’t do (I’ll avoid spoilers but will be speaking in vague terms this paragraph, so be warned, dear reader). The ending opens up a larger world that leaves you wanting more, even if it was only a passing scene acknowledging the resolution to the final actions. This holds true with an organization that you get only the smallest exposure to that adds to the deluge of questions seeking answers. It sets up a bigger picture with bigger possibilities that will ultimately be left unattended, especially if Shyamalan’s recent interviews are to be taken at face value. What Glass does not do is play with the implications of its ending and explore the newer developments. The ending we do get is indeed ballsy. I gasped. Shyamalan takes some big chances with the direction he chooses to take his story, and I can admire his vision and sense of closure. On the other end, I know that these same decisions will likely inflame the same contingent of disgruntled and disappointed fans.
Shyamalan’s third (and final?) film in his Unbreakable universe places the wider emphasis on the three main characters and their interactions. While McAvoy and Kevin get the light of the spotlight, there are strong moments with Elijah and David Dunn. There are some nifty twists and turns that do not feel cheap or easily telegraphed, which was also a Shyamalan staple of his past. It’s not nearly as good or unnerving as Split, the apex of the Shyamalanaissance, but it entertains by different means. If you were a fan of Unbreakable, you may like Glass, but if you were a fan of Split, I think you’ll be more likely to enjoy Glass. It might not have been worth 18 years but it’s worth two hours.
Nate’s Grade: B
I’m going to write a sentence I’ve never written in my history of writing about film: make sure you get all the gas out of your system before sitting down to watch A Quiet Place in the theater. This intense little thriller relies upon a nearly silent film experience which makes you, in the audience, hyper aware of just about every little noise permeating your surroundings. Munching popcorn, opening candy wrappers, brief coughs, you’ll become highly attuned to the faintest of noises. This is why you, dear reader, should be advised to make sure you have no bodily gasses stored in your system. Unless that’s your plan all along, to break the tension with a well-timed expelling of flatulence, going from screening to screening, finding new purpose with being that guy, eating plates of beans in preparation for the long withholding. With all that being said, A Quiet Place is an ingenious little thriller with near flawless execution.
It’s over a year into a world overrun by monsters that are trained to attack the smallest of sounds. What’s left of humanity has had to adapt to a very quiet way of life. The Abbott family has ironically be given a head start to adapt into this scary new world that prioritizes silence. Lee (John Krasinski, also co-writer and director) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have a daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, so the family has learned to communicate via sign language. The family walks barefoot on paths of sand and resides in a farmhouse on the edge of a rural community. The Abbott clan is still overcoming the loss of their youngest child who, at and innocent and naïve four years old, was taken by the monsters. Now Evelyn is expecting a new child and the Abbotts must stick together if they are going to survive.
A Quiet Place is a brilliantly simple concept that’s exceptionally well developed and executed. Using the very concept of sound itself as the monster, or the prelude to the monster, is so clever and completely relatable. It trains the audience to fear sound itself. It also serves the role of placing the audience in a hyper aware state of continuous dread. Any little sound we deeply dread, and there are so many ways to make sound in this world above a whisper. The emptiness of the aural landscape creates a template to build upon, so that any small noise feels like an alarm to the sense. The gripping sound design brings a sense of the looming dangers as we hear the thundering claps and crashes of the monsters approach. Krasinski also very cleverly communicates the world from Regan’s deaf perspective. When the camera focuses on her, the sound levels drop entirely, and then when another character is onscreen, they rise back up. It’s an extremely effective and smart way to drop the audience into her vulnerable position.
This is a movie that sets up the stakes upfront. A young child dies for doing something stupid but entirely in character for a young child (whom I’m assuming never personally encountered these creatures). A Quiet Place establishes immediately that this new world is unforgiving of mistakes. A distracted mind, a false step, a sudden impulse, and anyone can be gone forever.
Like the similarly themed Don’t Breathe, the fun is setting up the world, the playing space, and the rules, and then watching it all play out. A Quiet Place does a great job of establishing its world and surroundings and once the action hits midway through it doesn’t let up until the end credits. Fortunately, the thrills never get old too because Krasinski and the other screenwriters, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, keep finding new and intelligent challenges to explore. The pieces all add up and the details make this world feel extremely well realized, from the marked squeaky floorboards to the routines if separated to the colored warning lights. The tension is already at a constant simmer from its very effective opening sequence that sets the mood. A simple exposed nail on a stair can be a returning point of tremendous uncertainty time and again. The very presence of a pregnancy with a looming due date feels like a bomb waiting to explode. How in the world will a baby be born in a world that punishes sound? I watched this movie with my hand covering my mouth for a far majority of it. Even the jump scares feel well distributed and earned in this movie. Mostly, it’s a film that makes you twist in that delicious sense of anxiety as you wait. It’s nerve-rattling in the best possible way.
Another aspect of what makes the film so worthwhile that won’t get as many headlines is how well developed it is as a drama about a family overcoming grief and guilt. Each member of the Abbott family feels some level of blame for the tragedy and is punishing his or herself. In a way, the events of the film are about processing that grief and handing over the protection of the family. It’s an unspoken shroud that hangs over the entire family, you can see it on their faces, with the heaviness in their eyes, and in their day-to-day anxiety. The film does a great job through the character of Marcus (Noah Jupe), the middle child, of showcasing how this terrifying new normal would affect and fray one’s psyche. He’s petrified with fear and consumed with the scary burden of having to ascend into the role of protector and provider that his father is trying to groom him for when the inevitable comes. The happy version of “the inevitable” is Evelyn and Lee growing old and feeble. The more realistic version is the two of them at some point being felled by these murderous monsters. When Marcus is given a moment to let his guard down, to not worry about the volume of his voice, it’s a sweet father/son moment of bonding that feels entirely fulfilling as well as insightful about this new, peculiar way of life.
A central conflict is the friction between Regan and her father and their desire to understand and empathize with one another. The film’s biggest emotional moment is the conclusion of this, and it feels so fully earned and poignant that even typing it out now stirs me. It’s the culmination of a well-structured screenplay that has found its moments for character development in a nearly silent movie, so that when declarations are made, even with the monsters and its creepy gimmick, you’ll still feel something. These characters matter and their struggles are universal and emotionally appealing. The acting all around by the young children and Krasinski and Blunt is completely believable and engaging.
For a relatively low-budget thriller, I was surprised how much of the monsters we actually saw onscreen. Krasinski still prefers to keep his monsters on the peripheral or in the background, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the horrifying rest. That’s where I thought the movie would stay, but it does not. There are several close-ups of the creatures at work, a mass of teeth and auditory sensors. Their heads open up like blossoming flowers. I know the designs are CGI and yet they looked very realistic, as realistic as a fanciful monster can, naturally. It had the sheen of practical effects, which is the best compliment. The monsters reminded me of the Cloverfield creatures mixed with the Pitch Black aliens. It’s a spooky design and under Krasinski’s attention the menacing creatures never stop being scary.
Who knew John Krasinski had this in him? The affable actor best known for portraying Jim Halpert on the long-running American version of The Office has directed before, an adaptation of a David Foster Wallace book and an indie family dramedy. He’s never ventured into genre filmmaking before. But then again, neither had fellow funnyman Jordan Peele, who came out of nowhere in 2017 with Get Out and rode that to box-office riches, critical acclaim, and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Maybe more performers we view simply through the lens of comedy have tremendous potential to be genre virtuosos. A Quiet Place is not an outright silent movie but one where silence is most keenly felt. The simple premise is beautifully realized, the characters and their plights are affecting, the details are fully thought through (though newspaper publishing is questionably late into this sound apocalypse), and the structure is smartly placed and paced. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, intense, and invigorating movie, A Quiet Place feels like a work out for the senses.
Nate’s Grade: A-
An inspiring true-life story that still manages to stay grounded on its own terms, Stronger is an emotionally affecting movie buoyed by two sensational performances. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, an ordinary guy who is present at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and loses his legs in the attack. He was there to support his on-again off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Needless to say, his whole world changes and he has to adjust to a new life, a new identity, and the hardships placed upon others within his family sphere, especially Erin. This is a very solid meat and potatoes kind of drama. It’s not flashy or inventive but it has serious human drama and it treats it as such. I was on the verge of tears for a solid thirty minutes. Gyllenhaal delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance, burrowing into an average screw-up thrust into the national limelight. Everyone tells him he’s a hero, but he doesn’t feel it. Everyone wants a piece of him and his doting mother (Miranda Richardson) often blurs the line between pride in her son and exploitation. The colorful, coarse, dysfunctional family dynamic will remind many of 2010’s The Fighter. I greatly appreciated that even after the terrorist attack Jake is not canonized. He’s no saint just because something terrible happened to him. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) takes great care to keep the movie grounded even as it hits the standard inspirational notes, finding moments of grace in unexpected places and people. The backbone of Stronger is the thoroughly moving relationship between Jake and Erin. They have exchanges of both ferocious anger and deep tenderness. A post-amputation sex scene between them is so intimately filmed by Green that you almost feel like you’re intruding. Maslany (Orphan Black) can break your heart or make it melt just with an expression. The non-verbal acting in this movie is truly exceptional. Stronger is a strongly developed drama with characters that earn every one of your hard-fought tears.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.
Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.
Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.
It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.
The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.
As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.
Nate’s Grade: B
A biopic on the life of Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the most brilliant men in the world, stricken with ALS and given only two years to live, should be resolutely fascinating and inspirational. And it is at points, but there’s still a gnawing dissatisfaction with The Theory of Everything, a sense that there isn’t more to it, that it lacks a center, that, primarily, it should be better. The film follows Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) as a PhD student who immediately falls in love with Jane (Felicity Jones). Shortly after their courtship, he is diagnosed with ALS and rather than preparing for the end, he pushes forward to great intellectual discovery and achievement, though the hardships and care for his physical disability places tremendous strain on his marriage to Jane. The film does a nice job of examining how a relationship comes to an end and without having to cite one party or another as a villain. It’s so measured and understanding and empathetic, but it’s also somewhat docile and hesitant, keeping its distance when it could dive deeper into Hawking and his family. Theory is far too reliant upon the tropes of biopics, speeding through significant moments for Stephen and Jane with an almost comical degree (watch how quickly the kids multiply). The moments that stray from this formula are the ones that stick the most, like a shocking moment where Stephen exits his chair to pick up a fallen pencil, a striking and poignant moment so effectively communicating the desires of its character. The film needed more creative detours. Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) has a good command of his visuals but I was left wanting a more daring approach to a story of human endurance, like 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The real reason to watch the film is the amazing performance by Redmayne (Les Miserables). The physical control he’s able to have over his body in the latter stages is astounding, but his performance is much more than just a collection of tics. There’s a moment late in the film where, even in his limited facial configuration, he breaks your heart with the richness of his acting. It’s such a great performance that you just wish the rest of The Theory of Everything could measure up.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The French film Rust and Bone’s U.S. release seemed to hinge entirely on whether star Marion Cotillard would garner a coveted Oscar nomination. When that didn’t happen, it seemed like the studio just threw up its hands and said, “Well, that’s it.” Rust and Bone, co-written and directed by A Prophet’s Jaques Audiard, has been given a very ignoble release, an afterthought for an awards season that didn’t go Cotillard’s way. While I would have nominated Cotillard for her powerful performance, I certainly wouldn’t think much else about Rust and Bone, a frustrating film that doesn’t know whose story it’s telling or what movie it wishes to be.
Alain van Versch (Matthias Schoenaerts) is struggling to take care of him self and his young son, Sam. Alain’s ex-wife, and Sam’s mother, used the boy as part of her drug trades. Alain moves in with his sister and gets a job as a nightclub bouncer. It’s at the club where he meets Stephanie (Cotillard), a marine trainer. She’s also feisty and getting kicked out for starting a fight. Stephanie works at a Sea World-esque water park, and one horrific day one of the whales makes a wrong turn. It runs into the stage, knocking Stephanie unconscious into the water where, we learn, a whale has eaten her legs below her knee. She contacts Alain and the two form an unlikely friendship, one that turns physical as Stephanie worries what her sexual performance will be like under her new circumstances. Alain dreams of becoming a professional kick boxer/MMA fighter, and he performs in underground fights as another means of income. Stephanie tags along and helps motivate him win his fights. The two grow closer, but Alain struggles with what real feelings might mean.
Rust and Bone has a serious case of multiple personality disorder. It looks like it’s going to be one movie, then all of a sudden it changes into another, and then when you think you’ve got a handle on that, it suddenly transforms into another. I’m perfectly fine with a movie switching gears suddenly, however, with Rust and Bone, I felt like I was getting three different half-hearted drafts rather than an actual movie. I went into the film knowing little other than the selling point, that Cotillard was playing a woman readjusting to life after a freak accident took her legs. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, I didn’t get a shred of this. I got a single father trying to scrape together what he could for himself and his son, often resorting to sneaky and illegal measures. Then shortly after Stephanie is introduced, the movie becomes all about her. We’re dealing with her recovery and her anger and her loss. Just when I think I’ve settled onto the narrative direction of the movie, it becomes Alain’s movie again. Now we’re following his budding career as an amateur kick boxer, with Stephanie as his cheerleader. Then she dissolves into the background of the movie yet again, and it’s all about him. I don’t think the movie knew which character it wanted to be its focal point, so we get a sloppy interspersing of storylines vying for dominance. Personally, I was much more invested and intrigued by Stephanie’s recovery than anything having to do with Alain trying to be a better father and failing. Then there’s other muddled storylines like hidden cameras in the workplace that only further distract. It’s just all too much and at the same time not enough.
Then there’s the matter of the romance between Stephanie and Alain. I suppose you could say they are both wounded people trying to gain a greater sense of independence, battling new concepts of self-identity, but I think I’m doing the film too many favors. The sad part is that these two people are extremely shallow and limited form a characterization standpoint. The only defining quality about Stephanie is her injury. Sure she’s feisty and can get into bar fights, and that fact that she’s attracted to Alain says something about her, but really, her only characterization is her new physical limitations and her adjustment to them. Her physical needs are given much more attention by the screenplay than her emotional resonance. It makes me sound like a hardhearted bastard but I’ve said it before, I need characters that have more depth to them other than that they suffer. Alain, on the other hand, is even worse. He’s a pretty flat character who’s actually a really terrible father. He loses his temper easily, chooses quick sex over picking up his kid at school, plus there’s the whole abandonment thing. It’s hard for me to believe that anything really sinks in with this lunkhead. His relationship with Stephanie, meant to open him up, instead reconfirms what a jerk he is. He uses women as sexual playthings, and treats Stephanie with this same careless abandon. He clearly doesn’t see her as anything but a comfortable fling, which he shows through his actions. If Alain’s romantic views have changed, the film doesn’t show any of this progression. I didn’t care about him and I certainly didn’t care about the two of them together.
Acting-wise, Cotillard (The Dark Knight Rises) is quite moving throughout as she tries to come to grips with everything that has been taken from her. Her more traditionally dramatic crying scenes are powerful, sure, but it’s the quiet moments that Cotillard nails. There’s a moment where she goes through her former routines hand motions, and in that moment, set to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” it becomes clear she is moving beyond her accident, accepting and getting stronger. It’s a subtle celebration of the human spirit’s ability to rebound, and Cotillard makes sure the moment is moving rather than cheesy. Also, there’s a very tender moment when she returns to the water park and reunites with the whale that took her legs. Through the glass, she goes through her training motions and the whale still resounds accordingly to her commands. It’s a wordless, touching moment that communicates so much, the nature of forgiveness, the culpability of an animal, but really about the connection between man and nature. Also, the fact that these two scenes are available on YouTube means somebody else must have seen them as standouts as well. She’s also naked frequently, if that matters to you.
Schoenhaerts (Bullhead) is too opaque for his own good. He seems to settle for his brute physicality, and as such the movie does little to flesh him out further. He has a couple nice moments, especially at the film’s climax, but it’s too little to overturn the prevailing notion that his character is unworthy of co-lead status.
Probably the most impressive thing from Audiard’s film is the special effects to remove Cotillard’s legs. While the technology doesn’t seem like it has changed since Lt. Dan’s days in 1994, it’s still a striking image to process. I’m still wondering why exactly Stepheanie gets tattoos on her (remaining) thighs, reading “Right” and “Left.” Is she worried about going under the knife and the doctors taking more away from the wrong limb? That seems past the point of return. With the special effects technology, and the film’s quotient for sweaty sex scenes, this is the art house equivalent of erotica for those discerning few with amputation fetishes.
When it came time to determine which film would compete at the Academy Awards, France chose the feel-good buddy comedy The Intouchables over Rust and Bone. It’s easy to see why. Except for Cotillard’s fierce performance, and some spiffy special effects, there is nothing remarkable about this ultimately frustrating and shallow movie. The mismatched love story between Stephanie and Alain feels implausible and too focused on surface-level desires; not enough to justify some statement of personal growth on both their parts. There needed to be a complete restructuring of the screenplay. Too often it keeps switching focus, changing gears, mixing in other subplots until it all feels like one big mess lacking firm direction. I might have loved a movie that focused on Stephanie and her recovery, perhaps even one about Alain, though I doubt it. What Rust and Bone offers is a movie that’s persistently in doubt of its own identity, trying its hand at everything, forging necessary care to its lead characters. It’s a fine film that could have been a great one, if only it really knew what it wanted to be in the first place.
Nate’s Grade: C+
When The Session (formerly The Surrogate) debuted at the Sundance film festival, it seemed like Oscar catnip. You’ve got Oscar-pedigree cast, the limitations of disability (iron lung), and writer/director Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance) certainly knows a thing or two on the subject. He’s a polio survivor himself. But the story of a man in an iron lung’s sexual reawakening, as my mother would say, is a harder sell to the public. The movie has enough bizarre intrigue to garner a curiosity factor in many, and the sweeping acting and light-hearted tone will win over many a follower. I just wished that Lewin had focused more on his central character than what’s below the waist.
Mark O’Brian (John Hawkes) is a 37-year-old virgin looking to fix that oversight. The problem is that he’s suffered from polio all his life and can only be outside of his iron lung for upwards of a few hours. He’s not paralyzed, mind you; it’s just that his muscles don’t work too well. To move forward, Mark is set up with a sex surrogate, a sort of alternative therapy that is intended to help the disabled learn how to take control of their bodies for healthy physical relationships. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) has a set of rules as she goes about her business. There will only be six sessions to limit any emotional attachment. Mark is certainly a challenge, a man who doesn’t have muscle control below his neck (he confides that he hasn’t seen his penis in over 30 years). Together they work on getting Mark experienced and aware of his own body and abilities.
The Sessions is essentially a two-actor showcase (William H. Macy as a helpful priest is really just an ear to listen/audience surrogate), an ongoing dialogue and set of interactions between Mark and Cheryl. The script could have worked as a play though film certainly does open up the viewing possibilities when you’re dealing with an immobilized character. From that stand point, The Sessions is often a fascinating and funny portrait of a world that few of us will ever comprehend. We seem to have this concept that immobility is a death sentence; In Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank preferred death over disability. There’s the standard uplifting personal tales of success, the triumph of the human spirit, that sort of thing when we talk about disability in the movies. The Sessions is different. It’s all about sex, and it’s refreshingly frank about the realities of sexuality for those with disability. The human body is an amazingly adaptable creation, so no matter the setback, there is still plenty hope of having a relatively healthy sex life. Beyond a section in Murderball, I cannot think of another movie to explore the reality of sex for those with disabilities. It’s like a wondrous combination of two topics that makes people feel uncomfortable. So, in short, this is not going to be a movie for everyone.
That’s too bad because The Sessions is an engrossing story of a man trying to experience a world of human sexuality denied to him due to cruel circumstance. Mark is a relatively nice guy, a poet, though he can be a little quick with the emotional attachment and declarations of love. Can you blame the guy? I believe some will argue that limiting the focus to Mark’s sexuality, and his desire to shape himself into a better lover, is a misuse of the narrative potential. Some will chide that the film could be the indie version of any number of horny male sex comedies. To some degree, I can agree with this assessment, mostly because I wanted to follow more of Mark’s life and the movie is only 90 minutes long. But I also think the strict focus on human sexuality is also a boon for a movie like this. The fact that you could place a movie about a man in an iron lung and, say, American Pie in the same conversation is a testament that we are losing some of the stigma of disability. This guy wants to get laid. Period. And we can be grown up about this.
Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is excellent in a role that requires him to do all his acting from above the neck. He’s convincing in every detail, down to his pained, willowy voice and his handling of a pointer for his mouth is first rate. Beyond the physical tics, Mark exists as a complex character that Hawkes is able to fully open up. He’s caustically funny, overcome with self-doubt, sweetly naïve, yet he’s also just like every other man on the planet. Hawkes doesn’t overplay the physical restrictions so it doesn’t end up being a performance dominated in showy actor traits. It’s a sweet and affecting performance that moves in small waves but makes a noted impact. Expect the man to get his second Oscar nomination this winter, as respected actor + disability is a combination they cannot refuse. Also, Hawkes is completely deserving of praise.
Hunt (Soul Surfer) has been grabbing a lot of headlines for the amount of skin she exposes, but her performance deserves more attention than a secondhand reference to her nudity. To be fair, it is copious nudity of Helen Hunt. I think she recites more lines while in different states of undress than clothed. It’s so much nudity that when you close your eyes, you may still be able to see it (not complaining here…). She does a lot of fine acting while naked. It’s hard exactly to get a bead on her character. She seems displeased with her insensitive husband, though he has to have some level of understanding to be okay with her profession. It feels like she’s looking to Mark as… something more, something else, but then it feels like her rationality returns and she returns back to the parameters of her job title. It’s a strong performance and the movie is at its best when Hunt and Hawkes are together. I just can’t help but feel if the ending wasn’t so blunted (more on that below) than maybe her performance would hit an even higher register.
The actors are so good and the movie is so tender, I almost forgive it for lacking a proper third act (some major end spoilers to follow). Naturally the number one concern you’d imagine for a sex surrogate would be the danger of building emotional attachment. This is why Cheryl limits her sessions to six max. That doesn’t stop attachments from forming. Mark and Cheryl are dreading the conclusion of the sessions, having grown close emotionally as well as physically. So to spare them lingering pain, Cheryl suggests they stop early. Mark reluctantly agrees. There, ladies and gents, is your second act break. But then rather than get a third act, the movie simply gives you a slightly extended resolution instead. Mark meets a nice volunteer at the hospital and flirts with her, crowing with pride to inform he is no virgin. But then… we cut right into Mark’s voice over telling us that he spent the last five years of his life with this new woman. We get an introduction and then immediately jump to the end of the relationship. I understand that without Cheryl’s kindness and education, Mark’s long and healthy romantic relationship would not have happened. I understand that he’s able to succeed because they broke down barriers of confidence together. This doesn’t stop the ending from feeling missing, absent the payoffs we yearn for in drama. It’s a curious and muffled close to a movie that was so interesting and audacious.
The Sessions is more than just an Oscar-bait disability movie. It’s really an arty version of a sex comedy with some extraordinary participants played by skilled actors. It has a frankness that’s refreshing and it’s never less than interesting, exploring the minutia of Mark’s life and the difficulties he overcomes. It’s not exactly a triumph of adversity, per se. It’s not exactly a chamber piece devoted to characters even though two dominate the conversation. The Sessions is a hard movie to pin down. It’s perfectly enjoyable and funny, touching, disarming, and well acted, but I can’t help but feel like Lewin should have aimed higher. To focus solely on Mark’s budding sexuality seems rather limiting for the character, and the disappearance of a final act proves bewildering, blunting the dramatic climax, thwarting further involvement. I’ve seen the film twice now and my opinion of it improved slightly the second go-round, but I’m still left scratching my head over that ending. I get it, I just don’t get why Lewin felt like racing to the end rather than exploring the conflicts and personal struggles of his characters. I suppose there’s some testament to sticking to the facts but that doesn’t matter when it comes to telling me a good story. I’m of a mixed mind here because The Sessions has plenty to recommend but I also feel that the film’s finale and light-hearted, limited sense of purpose hamstring the emotional impact of the whole enterprise. Disabled people can lead healthy sex lives. I get it. Now show me more signs of that life.
Nate’s Grade: B
Director Edward Zwick has spent the last two decades making mass-friendly action films with designed to teach us all some valuable lesson, like Blood Diamond and Glory. But the idealistic filmmaker began his career with realistic relationship dramas like About Last Night… and the seminal TV show thirtysomething. There wasn’t an explosion to be had, unless you count the emotional ennui of middleclass white people. Love and Other Drugs is adapted from the biography of a Viagra salesman, which seems like a strange jumping off point for a romantic drama. Watch out for those unexpected side effects.
It’s 1996, and Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a smooth-talking, suave pharmaceutical rep for the medical giant Pfizer. He’s been dispatched to the Ohio River valley area with a mission to push his drug samples on doctors and raise his quotas. While posing as an intern, he meets Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway), a coffee shop beauty in stage one of Parkinson’s (don’t attack me, they reveal this spoiler before you even see Hathaway’s face). She spurs his advances but he persists, and the two agree to a strictly sexual relationship. Because of her illness, Maggie is wary of getting attached to people. She sees Jamie as a shallow, well-muscled lunkhead who won’t want anything else but a slew of orgasms from a pretty girl. And Jamie is content, until, of course, he falls in love. Maggie feels she’s sparing her lover the pains that will accompany her Parkinson’s. The two struggle with her illness, the toll it takes on their relationship, and the possible future they will have together… in between lots of sex.
The true pleasure of Love and Other Drugs is watching Hathaway and Gyllenhaal together onscreen. The Brokeback Mountain buddies have tremendous chemistry that makes their give-and-take exciting and pleasing. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal may be the best onscreen couple I’ve seen since 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Chemistry is such an indelible component for romance and yet it is so elusive to capture. So when a cinematic couple really create some serious sparks, it’s a memorable exchange. Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are a terrific team but also the rare screen couple that raises the performance of their partner. You are easily convinced that these two enjoy the company of one another; they’re so confident with each other even as they’re tumbling around naked. Hathaway has grown into an actress of surprising range, making keen use of her animated Disney heroine features. She has a knack for playing defiant, spunky women that have an alluring fragility, and that also describes her Maggie (how does a coffee shop give Hathaway the health insurance she needs for Parkinson’s meds?). Gyllenhaal has always had his boyish charm, but he seems catapulted to new charisma heights with Love and Other Drugs. He’s exploding with energy and comes across bursting with life onscreen. He starts as a suave Lothario drunk on his own charms but, as movie journeys dictate, he morphs into a committed, mature man. The roles are pretty standard (slick selfish salesman, sad girl with illness) but the duo bring extra vitality and heat that makes Love and Other Drugs compulsively watchable in its finer moments.
It’s refreshing to witness a major Hollywood movie that treats human sexuality without the standard artifices of Hollywood. Love and Other Drugs is not coy when it comes to physical lovemaking. This isn’t a blockheaded movie where the woman goes through the entire night of passion while wearing a bra the entire time (the epitome of PG-13 sex). This isn’t a movie where after a healthy bout of sex the couple feels the need to cover up their goods as they lay beside one another. Like after a vigorous sexual experience now the lovers suddenly become bashful at their own state of nakedness (get the fig leaves – stat!). So it’s refreshing to watch a film deal with sexuality without giving undue attention to how “risqué” everything is. The nudity is European-style casual, and while the film manages to be quite sexy, the nudity and sex scenes do not play as shameless titillation. The sex and copious nudity is just another part of the storytelling. Of course it also happens to be a prominent and highly marketable storytelling aspect. It’s not like Hathaway and Gyllenhaal are homely actors. Watching beautiful people writhe together on screen and nonchalantly walk around without a stitch on has always been a sure-fire way to sell tickets. Love and Other Drugs utilizes all that skin to lure boys into a traditional romantic drama. It’s to Zwick’s writing and directing credits, and the natural chemistry of his two high-wattage stars, that the parade of flesh doesn’t feel like naked, prurient exploitation. It’s not exactly an edgy film by any means but it’s assuredly adult in its portrayal of sexuality. Or at least it thinks it is. The sex isn’t really a topic to be explored with nuance and clarity; it’s more something to keep the actors busy.
Ultimately, the tonal inconsistency is what hampers the momentum of Love and Other Drugs. It’s hard to build narrative momentum when the film just seems to be starting over time and again. Zwick bounces around different tones, sometimes wildly from scene to scene. At heart it’s a weepie romance, the sick girl and her paramour coming to terms with their doomed love. But then the movie also wants to be an energetic, smart-alecky comedy, then there are all sorts of crude gags (hope you like boner jokes), and then the film also wants to be a satire on high-powered pharmaceutical companies and their sleazy influence romancing doctors. And then in between all that is the weepie drama stuff as Maggie has to deal with the (movie) realities of her illness. Here’s an example of the tonal whiplash that did the movie no favors: Jamie stumbles in on his disgusting younger brother (see below) masturbating to a sex tape of Jamie and Maggie, of his own brother and his brother’s girlfriend. The scene is played for broad comic laughs and ends with Jamie beating his brother off screen with that very sex tape. If people needed another reason not to make sex tapes, here it is: Josh Gad might one day view them and pleasure himself. You don’t want that, trust me. But then the very next scene involves Maggie working on her art and unable to control her Parkinson’s symptoms, namely finger tremors. We watch as Maggie diligently and patiently tries to open a bottle of pills, the childproof locked top confounding her stubborn fingers, only to eventually find that the bottle is empty and her symptoms will only increase. The fact that these scenes coexist right next to one another makes their differences all the more jarring. Love and Other Drugs tries to jostle diverse genres but the different tones never coalesce. As a result, you feel violently ripped from one movie to another.
Let me give due attention to just how revolting the character of Jamie’s younger brother is. Josh is a cancer on the movie. He doesn’t make a scene better but rather drags it down to a lower level. He’s slovenly, boorish, coarse, and routinely unfunny. You can practically feel his sweaty fingerprints pawing at the movie for attention. This character is abominable and repulsive. He inserts himself into Jamie’s home and offers no dramatic value. His purpose seems to be solely as a cheap go-to plot device whenever Zwick feels he needs a random profane joke. Gad (The Rocker, 21) is a comic that I have enjoyed in other contexts, but he’s got the wrong energy and feel here, succumbing to the angry desperation of his character. Josh serves no worthwhile purpose and just becomes a pathetic distraction for a movie that already doesn’t seem to have full focus on what matters. He’s supposed to be an annoying presence but this annoying? You probably won’t find a more unnecessary and loathsome fictional character in a movie all year.
Zwick can’t keep tired clichés from clipping how high the film can fly. The film’s message about family over business feels trite no matter how much nudity tries to obfuscate it. The Parkinson’s angle is too easily transformed into melodrama. The film takes a trip to a Parkinson’s meeting in Chicago with real-life people suffering through different stages of the debilitating disorder. It draws a poor comparison with Maggie’s tremors, which start to seem like a lightweight Hollywood example of illness (like when a character coughs onscreen and it somehow communicates a quickly metastasized cancer). Even after shirking Hollywood conventions the movie manages to end in that tried-and-true fashion where the man has to chase after the woman to give the Big Speech about how he truly feels. The Pfizer storyline that follows the launch of impotence-crushing super drug Viagra feels like the first draft of a different screenplay or the last remnants of a different story that’s been hollowed out. It’s fairly superficial and meant to serve merely as the male lead’s occupation that he has to reconsider when love’s on the line. The side stories and side characters feel like distractions. Oliver Platt is a fine actor to have in your movie, just make sure he has something to do other than drive Gyllenhaal around. Also, the movie follows the lead from the cancelled TV show Cold Case in that every scene from the past has to be accompanied by some generic hit of the day, like a simplistic scrapbook of the times.
Love and Other Drugs feels tragically overextended and if only Zwick had only been more judicious this could have been a really solid film. There are three or four different films at play here. The tone never settles down, bouncing from broad comedy to weepie Lifetime-related drama. Gyllenhaal and Hathaway work wonders together with and without clothes. Their performances make the film stronger, and they make you wish that the movie had more going on for it than spirited rolls in the hay. You even wish there was more to the sex than simply large amounts of it. Zwick will always wear his liberal idealism on his sleeve and slip a message into his films, but this time the message is completely eaten alive. If anybody walks away from Love and Other Drugs with a blinding passion for prescription drug reform, then they must have been watching a different movie. The one I watched was amusing in spurts and had nudity.
Nate’s Grade: B-