(Films discussed in this post: A Dangerous Method, 50/50, Cedar Rapids, Margin Call, The Perfect Host, The Guard, The Ides Of March, Horrible Bosses, Warrior.)
In my post on “The Chicks,” I reflected on the ups and downs for females in film last year, from the ribald shenanigans of Bridesmaids to the slightly-less-ribald racial politics of The Help.
Ladies first. Now here come the guys.
Films by men, starring men, about men are quite a bit more common than those for the ladies. I haven’t gone through any of these films with a fine-toothed comb, but in my estimation, none of the following films pass the Bechdel test — the rule that eliminates any movie in which the female characters speak to each other exclusively about men.
I’d wager that about half of the films I saw this year fall into this category, from the boyhood camaraderie of Super 8 and Attack The Block to the inside-baseball workings of Moneyball to the heroics of Captain America: The First Avenger. Even The Muppets, I’ve heard, fits the bill of a “bromance.” (To coin a phrase as cutesy-cloying as “bromance” for the films that are less friendly, let’s go with “mantagonist” — because it’s either that or “menemy.”)
These films are all about the boys.Male relationships tend to be complex in films — probably more complex than they often are in real life. But hey, if they weren’t, there’d be no story. No movie this year illustrated that better than Warrior, a sports drama that’s both a bromance and a guy-on-guy hate fest. It’s about two very different guys who end up competing against each other in a mixed martial arts championship. Tommy is a prescription drug addict and war veteran with a chip on his shoulder toward his alcoholic pop; he plans to give his winnings to a war buddy’s widow. Meanwhile, Brendan is a high school science teacher and family man who may very well lose his house; his wife nags at him about getting hit for a living as every single wife in a boxing movie must do. Sports dramas don’t get much more formulaic than this — but, wait! Yes, they do! Because these guys are estranged brothers. You can practically hear this movie being pitched in some studio exec’s office to rapturous applause.
Warrior is as enjoyable as a movie this predictable and by-the-numbers can be. It’s well-made with fight scenes that are intense, realistic, and brutal. Both lead actors sell their respective roles — Tom Hardy is appropriately broody, never pandering for sympathy or likability (though he has a tendency to mumble that doesn’t bode well for his villainous turn as the muffle-mouthed Bane in The Dark Knight Rises). Animal Kingdom‘s fantastic Joel Edgerton gets the more typical leading man role and does what he can with the character, though the script gives him a few too many “I don’t want to do this, but I have to do this!” exchanges with his pretty wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison). The trio of credited writers does their best to make damn sure you won’t forget that Brendan’s house is at stake. And Nick Nolte may find himself with an Oscar nomination as the grizzled alcoholic dad who taught them both to fight (and hate each other). It’s a rousing companion piece to last year’s Oscar contender The Fighter, and not much else. But if it’s a display of melodramatic machismo you crave, Warrior will give you your fix.A less conventional bromance is found at the heart of 50/50, marketed as a somewhat awful-looking Seth Rogen comedy when it’s actually a dramedy with less Rogen than you’d think. (I don’t mean to hate on Rogen too much — it’s just that a little of him goes a long way.) Based on writer Will Reiser’s real-life cancer diagnosis and treatment, 50/50 features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Reiser stand-in Adam, a smart and cautious guy who’s about the least likely candidate for cancer imaginable. The story primarily focuses on how Adam’s relationship with buddy Kyle is (or rather, isn’t) affected by the disease — in the trailer’s most memorable moment, Kyle invites Adam to use his illness to pick up girls. This works in the context of the story better than it did as a selling point for the movie. Fortunately — and probably thanks to Reiser’s real-life experience — 50/50 is a great deal more sensitive and honest than this.
The script wisely underplays the “I love you, man” sentiment between the two guys — a good call, since that almost never feels genuine on screen. (Male-male friendships feel notoriously forced in most movies, don’t they?) The film serves itself well by shifting focus to Adam’s relationships with three important female characters, too — Adam’s girlfriend, Rachael, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who has a hard time mustering much support for her man during his bout with the big C; his mother, Diane, fabulously played by Anjelica Houston, bringing a world of emotional complexity this movie lacks otherwise; and his awkward therapist Katherine, played by Up In The Air Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick in a role that showcases similar talents. Just about everything in 50/50 works fine, including a number of emotional moments you wouldn’t expect to find in a movie with Seth Rogen on the poster. Maybe this is too commercial a movie to push the boundaries any further than that, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an inventive actor capable of just about anything. 50/50 falls a hair short of delivering the kind of knot-in-your-stomach dread that a potentially-terminal illness should. I guess the happy ending is inevitable (he did survive to write this movie, obviously), but aside from a moment or two, Adam doesn’t seem to quite grapple with life and death the way I imagine Reiser did. But what do I know? He was there, not me.
Still, 50/50 worked its charms on me, which is a bit of a wonder — since anything that can described as a “buddy comedy” usually fails to impress. (Fun fact: at least one in every two men is a careless risk-taker or total imbecile, as evidence by buddy comedies.) Hence you will find no discussion of The Hangover Part II here. But I did deign to see a lesser-known thinking man’s version of that sort of movie — Cedar Rapids, starring The Hangover‘s Ed Helms. On the surface, it’s that same sort of frat-pack comedy about a bumbling doof who finds himself over his head in various contrived shenanigans. But there’s actually a little more going than all that.
Helms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance salesman whose most salacious life event is his ongoing sexual relationship with his cougar elementary school teacher (Sigourney Weaver). He’s never left his hometown, which is why it’s a big deal when he has to fill in for a deceased co-worker at a convention in the “big'” city — Cedar Rapids. There he meets a motley crew of assorted quirky strangers, played by John C. Reilly, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., and the rambunctious Anne Heche (who seems to be having a lot of fun here). Oh, and there’s also a druggie hooker played by Arrested Development‘s all-grown-up Alia Shawkat. To go into specific plot points is pointless; suffice to say that the script and direction make this a little smarter than your average Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell movie, and it makes a world of difference (until the rather rote final act, anyway). Cedar Rapids won’t change your life, but I appreciated that it didn’t embarrass itself or treat me like a moron.
Which is not quite as true of Horrible Bosses, a comedy starring Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis (the usual suspects for a movie like this) and some more formidable stars as the atrocious employers of the title — Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell — plus a cameo from a thuggy Jamie Foxx. The awkward title itself is a giveaway of how clever this movie is — Horrible Bosses? Wasn’t there a better synonym? It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. The premise itself never really makes sense, either — three buddies decide to off their vile supervisors, but the film never achieves the sort of dark comedic tone necessary to actually convince us that these otherwise decent guys are capable of and willing to commit murder. It rings false all along.
Spacey, Farrell, and Aniston each have a field day playing those horrendous head honchos, and they’re the highlight of the movie — the sole reason to see it, if you must. Farrell is a coke-snorting jackass, Aniston is a horny dentist, and Spacey is a blow-hard who forces his employee to down an entire glass of scotch just to reprimand him for being drunk on the job. They’re all a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the movie spends more time with its three mostly indistinguishable “straight men.” I won’t deny that Horrible Bosses has an uproarious moment or two — the spilling of a bunch of cocaine in a botched stakeout being a highlight — but I wish it was at least halfway plausible. Never for a moment do we suspect that this movie will end in the murder of said bosses, which undercuts some of the naughty fun we might have had otherwise.It is interesting to note that Horrible Bosses, Cedar Rapids, and also John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard all invoke race-based humor in hopes of getting laughs. Is this still funny to some people? Not to me. It’s a stale, lazy source of supposed “comedy” 9 out of 10 times, even when the joke is on the racist rather than the minority as it always this these days. (Because that’s PC.) It’s a wonder that this sort of race-related odd couple buddy pic didn’t go out of style in the 80’s, but we’re still seeing riffs on that, including The Guard. The protagonist is Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), who speaks in the very definition of an Irish brogue. He’s not an easy guy to warm up to, since he doesn’t mince words and makes racist comments upon meeting his superior of sorts — the FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle), who comes to Ireland from America to stop a ring of drug smugglers. Or something.
But The Guard is a comedy — well, that brand of European crime comedy that Guy Ritchie used to make, mixing tough-guy violence with comic criminal buffoonery, a close cousin of the early films of Quentin Tarantino. It is similar to In Bruges, which also starred Brendan Gleeson and was directed by McDonagh’s brother. The heart of the film is the slowly-building friendship of the unconventional Gerry and the straight-laced Wendell, sort of like an international Lethal Weapon. The film has been critically lauded, particularly for Gleeson’s starring performance. And while I’ll admit that it’s stylish and well-made, and probably perfectly entertaining to fans of films in this genre, I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for either the characters or this story — the crime and comedy didn’t quite gel for me, and I didn’t find that it added anything new to this tired old genre. Moving on.Of course, antagonistic male relationships often end up much more satisfying than those buddy comedies, because it gives the actors more to work with. Bromances can be hard to buy, but their flip-side “bad twins” go down much easier. Thus you’ll find an over-abundance man-on-man mano y mano conflict in The Perfect Host, a little-seen thriller starring David Hyde Pierce and Clayne Crawford. It opened in two U.S. theaters for a domestic box office gross of under $49,000. Still, it’s not totally unremarkable, even if it is very obviously a first-time feature, marred by some amateurish touches in both the screenplay and filmmaking. The primary reason to see it, as you might guess, is the central performance by David Hyde Pierce, which is like Frasier‘s Niles by way of Hannibal Lecter.
The setup is pretty delicious — John, a criminal on the run, needs to find somewhere to hide. He happens upon a posh Los Angeles home owned by the fastidious Warwick. Warwick is in the midst of planning a dinner party and now is not a very good time for him to have an uninvited guest. But he relents anyway. Tension between the two men builds as Warwick learns that John may not be the best guy to welcome into your home — and you can see that this movie might go one way, with John taking Warwick and his friends as hostages or something. But it goes another direction entirely — Warwick isn’t exactly the genteel “perfect host” John thinks (in case you didn’t pick up on the title’s obvious irony) and the shindig he’s planning is no run-of-the-mill dinner party.
This all works because John is not only a criminal but also a jerk, and it’s fun to see him realize he’s been out-crazied by his intended victim. There’s also a zany musical sequence that must be seen to be believed. But then things go downhill. A backstory involving John’s girlfriend feels shoehorned in from a movie in which we actually care about the protagonist (which we do not in The Perfect Host) and there is yet another twist that is utterly ludicrous — and unravels the entire movie. What could have been a sly black comedy instead becomes a convoluted mess. The Perfect Host was based on a short film by the same filmmaker and probably should have stayed that way, though there is fun to be had along the way.Less overt about its mantagonist conflicts is Margin Call, a topical drama set on the eve of the recent financial collapse. In an unnamed investment bank, we watch as several loyal employees are mercilessly sacked — Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of them. Before he is swiftly ushered out of the building, he slips a warning to the still-employed Peter (Zachary Quinto) — which leads Peter to stumble upon something big. (We all know what it is, more or less.) From Peter and his buddy Seth (Penn Badgley), we climb up and up the corporate ladder all the way to the top — from hotshot Will (Paul Bettany) to the perpetually-stressed Sam (Kevin Spacey) to ruthless power players Jared and Sarah (Simon Baker and Demi Moore) all the way to eccentric CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). In case you haven’t yet noticed, Margin Call boasts quite a cast.
Some would have you believe that Margin Call is a thriller. It isn’t. It’s all talk and no action. However, that talk is riveting, and it does manage to generate a surprising amount of suspense — because we in the audience know how high the stakes are, and what’s coming next. (Imagine, for a moment, that the same movie were made about a crisis in a different sort of company, in a different era. It wouldn’t work nearly as well without the emotional baggage we bring into it.) As a first-time feature from J.C. Chandor, Margin Call is supremely impressive, enlightening and accurate in its details, allowing us an insider’s look behind what we now consider enemy lines. The characters are sympathetic (some more than others), humanized rather than demonized despite our feelings about with what they’ve done. For anyone still feeling burned by the recession, Margin Call is a must-see — even if it doesn’t exactly offer catharsis. (How could it, so soon?) At least it doesn’t skimp on the agony — this story appropriately ends with one character desperately burying a dead dog representing the current incarnation of the American dream.
A bit less timely (but no more optimistic) is the George Clooney-directed The Ides Of March, starring Ryan Gosling as a staffer for presidential candidate Mike Morris (Clooney). Released in October, it felt a bit out of season (late December might have been a better choice, with everyone currently talking about the GOP primaries). Not that the parties have anything to do with it — for a movie about politicians, The Ides Of March is refreshingly apolitical, using the campaign mainly as a backdrop for an exploration of… well, let’s see. Gosling plays Stephen, a bright and idealistic campaign manager who, we can guess, won’t stay bright and idealistic for long. Stephen is sleeping with a young intern on the campaign, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). The interplay between them is fun and sexy, though Molly strikes us a bit of a floozy. That’s no accident. Let’s just say Molly has a secret — and Stephen is about to have to clean up more than one of her messes.
What this all leads to is a showdown between Stephen and a variety of people with more clout than he has — first, scoop-hungry New York Times reporter Ida (Marisa Tomei), then stalwart senior campaign manager Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), then rival campaign manager Tom (Paul Giamatti) — and finally, Morris himself. (The Ides Of March is about the only 2011 movie to feature a roster of talent to rival Margin Call.) The movie features a host of well-written exchanges, mostly between two men arguing about ideals and campaign savvy. Stephen, an amateur, makes an egregious mistake relatively early in the movie by secretly conversing with his rivals, leading to what might be the downfall of his entire career. The sharpness of the dialogue should come as no surprise, since The Ides Of March is based on the play Farragut North. When I initially watched the film, I suspected that the central politician played by Clooney was never actually seen in the play, and I was right. That’s the problem with it. Including Morris as an actual character waters down any conflict Stephen has with the rest of Morris’ staff — none of these men are built up as a formidable enough antagonist. (Wouldn’t it have been brilliant to stay truer to the play and have Clooney be the face of Morris, but never actually appear on screen?) It’s much ado about not enough. We’ve seen such stories so many times that the film’s not-so-big reveal can’t possibly be surprising. There’s not much in The Ides Of March you wouldn’t also find in an average episode of The West Wing, or in actual news headlines. News flash: politicians might be corrupt! More likely, you’ll react to the news with a bemused, “That’s it?”
It’s not that the film doesn’t work on its own terms, with polished direction and accomplished acting and some strongly-written scenes. But there’s so little of interest to Mike Morris, beyond the fact that he’s George Clooney and therefore will almost certainly win any election regardless of his transgressions. The Ides Of March is a movie that might have played well during the Clinton administration, pre-Monica, back before we weren’t all used to hating our presidents and those campaigning to be one. But it’s been a good long while since we truly believed that any of these guys were as wholesome as they claimed to be on TV. The journey of Gosling’s Stephen of idealist to cynic its audience took long before stepping into the theater. The Ides Of March is handsomely made, but hollow — so even the Clooney-Gosling mantagonist showdown doesn’t thrill the way it should.Which leads us to what you might expect to be the crown jewel in 2011’s quest for bromance and mantagonism — a David Cronenberg picture called A Dangerous Method starring Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung? Yes, please! It’s hard to imagine a movie sounding more enticing than that.
But it is plenty easy to imagine a more satisfying film than the one we get, a strangely stiff affair from the filmmaker who brought us the full-frontal fight scene of Eastern Promises and the twisted black sci-fi comedy of eXistenZ. We expect our David Cronenberg movies to have a little more edge and a little more kink than the straightforward A Dangerous Method, which doesn’t feel very dangerous at all.
The story begins with Carl Jung, then a disciple of Freud’s, treating a deranged young Russian named Sabina (Keira Knightley). In a series of uncomfortable-yet-fascinating interviews, he manages to uncover the source of her insanity — she is wracked with guilt over the fact that she became sexually excited at a young age by the spankings of her father. Jung is able to treat Sabina successfully to the point that she herself decides to study psychology, but in the meantime she develops a hankering for him. At first he resists — but if he didn’t relent at some point, we wouldn’t have much of a movie, would we?
Of course, Jung keeps his affair with Sabina a secret from his mentor. The two discuss psychology first with many agreements, and then with a crucial difference in their approach — Jung wants to explore more mystical, less quantifiable aspects of the mind’s powers, while Freud rigidly draws a line between his practice and anything that might be laughed off or dismissed by the medical and scientific communities. This leads the two to part ways, professionally and personally. And that’s about it.
If you love juicy period dramas, then you should be floored by this premise, delivered by this director, starring this cast. So why is everything so uninvolving? Why does so little of the movie stay with us? Why isn’t there more sex and violence? Okay, maybe fisticuffs would be out of place in a story about the meeting of these two minds. But the sex‚ which there is some of, is curiously chaste given the subject matter. (We get a bit of light spanking, and that’s it.) The drama between the two psychological pioneers, as well as the passion between Jung and Sabine, feels curiously restrained, like it’s the PBS version of this story. You never get inside the minds of these characters — a problem, for a movie about “analysts” — and you certainly don’t get into their hearts, either. Viggo Mortensen is wonderful in the supporting role of Sigmund Freud, who comes across as a bit of a tight-ass (though still probably a genius). Michael Fassbender does all that is asked of him in playing Carl Jung — which is to say, not much. So smoldering with stifled sexual charisma in Shame, Fassbender is uncharacteristically dull here, more through fault of the writing than his acting. But the issues Jung is supposedly facing never come to light, and Jung doesn’t go through the transformations a leading man should. The script is talky, as you’d expect from such subject matter, but so little happens. The only character who seems fully alive is Sabine, ferociously brought to life by Keira Knightley, hard to look away from in her early, crazier scenes as she writhes and screeches with pent-up sexuality. If only more of that passion could have been saved for later in the movie, and spread amongst the other key players, too.
A Dangerous Method surprisingly fails to deliver much in the way of mantagonism, too, even though the two males exit the movie on bitter terms. (Earlier scenes in the bromantic stage of this relationship are more amusing, if only because these two are such intellectual nerds.) Of course part of this is due to the period’s propriety, but what we should sense is the burning heat underneath all those chaste layers of clothing, the abandon these characters find behind closed doors. A Dangerous Method feels like a competent, perhaps compelling film that the best three scenes have been cut out of. Given that both Freud and Jung delight in interpreting dreams, one longs for a more ethereal and dream-like film than the stuffy one we’ve received.
Believe it or not, the year’s best bromance and mantagonism is all wrapped into one — the fraternity-like pack of Wall Street jackals facing the end of their glory days in Margin Call, and the cliche but satisfying brotherly feud of Warrior. Beyond that, it’s been a very mixed bag this year, boys.Margin Call: Seeing it is a very good call.
Warrior: Formulaic fun.
50/50: Your chances of liking it are more like 70/30.
The Ides Of March: Well-made, but nothing you haven’t seen before.
Cedar Rapids: A cut above most studio comedies. Not that that’s a very high bar.
A Dangerous Method: Not as dangerous as you might hope.
The Guard: Fun for some, not for all.
The Perfect Host: Definitely imperfect.
Horrible Bosses: Well, it’s not horrible…