Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

Paradise lost

Alexander Payne is, arguably, the modern poet of the battered male psyche (see Matthew Broderick in Election, 1999; Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt, 2002; Paul Giamatti in Sideways, 2004). If he succeeds at articulating the triumphs and sorrows of this particular sub-species of homo sapiens, that's because he's totally inside his main male characters' heads, knows their considerable flaws and occasional virtues inside and out; if he fails that's possibly because said psyche isn't exactly what you'd call limitlessly profound, bountifully intricate territory for thorough excavation; at a certain point you're going to hit rock bottom.

Better Payne than his more commercially successful contemporary, Judd Apatow; the latter rakes in all the bucks because he makes comfortable comedies, where the flawed male is humiliated then vindicated, and along the way his hottest fantasies are fulfilled to overflowing (see Knocked Up (2007), where a total loser manages to impregnate a totally hot chick and no one in the audience cries “Foul!” (well I did, but the people around shushed me down)). Payne lives up to his surname; there's a knotty integrity to his selfishness, an agonized, self-conscious honesty to his self-regard; if he knows his males far more thoroughly than his females, if he is able to dissect them more precisely, he does acknowledge this slant in his scripts, and gives the males no lasting advantage over the fairer sex. Equal opportunity suffering, with more opportunity to laugh at the men than the women.

To that list of memorably muddled men add George Clooney's Matt King, great grandson of Princess Kekipi and her 'haole' husband Edward King, who in turn was the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha. King sits on a sizable legacy: twenty-five thousand acres of prime coastal land that he co-owns with his cousins, a varied and considerably grizzled shorts-and-sandals group, the most vivid of which is his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges toasted to a perfectly caramel George Hamilton tan, with a perfectly crispy performance to match). Matt can't focus on the impending sale, despite all the money it promises to deliver: his wife has had a boating accident and lies vegetating at the hospital (the film's opening is remarkably spooky: slow-motion footage of a woman on waterskis, flying past the camera--we eventually realize this must have been Matt's wife Elizabeth, just moments before her accident). Matt, the self-described 'backup parent,' has to step up and take charge of his two daughters, chubby Scottie (Amara Miller), and teenaged Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). Matt struggles to control them, to establish his patriarchal prerogative; out of frustration Alexandra drops a social, psychological and narrative bomb: mommy had been seeing someone when she died.

Matt trying to sell his legacy and looking to confront his wife's lover are the twin engines that drive this film's narrative, but they're not what the film's really about, I think. This is about people interacting with each other, establishing territories, boundaries, lines of cooperation and communication, resolving the unresolvable--with compromise, cash, and the occasional sudden right hook. Matt has never handled Scottie before; what is he to do when Scottie throws a tantrum? Likewise, Alexandra has probably never spent such an extended amount of time with her family before--to cope she brings along her boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), an unstoppably tactless lout. You can see trouble brewing a mile off--or can you? Turns out Alexandra can be both hindrance and help, and Sid has his moments (fleeting and rare, and yet and yet) of insight. Matthew Lillard as Brian Speer, the real estate agent that doubles as Elizabeth's lover, sounds like a self-satisfied boor until Matt throws the man's infidelity at his face; suddenly he's a father pleading pathetically for the sanctity of family (his family, of course, not Matt's). Toss in Robert Forster as Elizabeth's irascible father--every time he sees Matt he can't help but put his son-in-law down, and his very presence is irritating until you realize what all that anger really is: a way of expressing the pain he feels at losing a beloved daughter.

It's all fine performances--no, it's all finely drawn characters, crawling all over this verdant chunk of volcanic rock most people would deem paradise. We see the paradise (the film is capably lensed by Phedon Papamichael (he shot W. for Oliver Stone, and came up with the beautifully modulated, near-Mediterranean sunlight for Payne's Sideways): possibly the most memorable shot in the entire film is when Payne pans from the family on foot walking downhill to the wide crescent of lush wild grass surrounding an azure bay that is the family property. The challenge is to convince us that despite all that natural beauty Matt and his family are still capable of being unhappy, still capable of seeking (and eventually deserving) some measure of peace. I think Payne succeeds, at that. 

First published on Businessworld, 2.16.12 

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994)

Can you feel the love tonight?

“Disneyfication” is an ugly word. Mirriam-Webster defines it “the transformation of something into a safe and carefully controlled entertainment.” I think of it as Disney's penchant for taking a classic piece of literature and scraping away everything disturbing or complex about it--everything that made it a classic, in effect--leaving what is essentially tasteless pap, fit only for toothless babes, or parents who wish to keep their kids from growing a sensibility, much less intelligence.

I can think of a few heinous examples: Hans Christian Andersen's “The Little Mermaid,” a fable about a sea maiden who enters into a Faustian bargain--a pair of legs and the chance to win an immortal soul, in exchange for her tongue (Andersen's tales were not exactly kid friendly). Disney's 1989 adaptation (by Ron Clements and John Musker) stitched together broad comedy sketches (featuring cute crustacean sidekicks), a fistful of song-and-dance numbers (by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman--arguably the only decent elements in the picture), lopped off the heartbreaking finale, and pretty much transformed the tale into the story of yet another Disney brat who can't get understanding from her overbearing daddy.

More atrocities: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise's Beauty and the Beast (1991) stole its best ideas from Jean Cocteau's haunting 1946 film (would have done better to steal Cocteau's gorgeously shadowed cinematography as well). Ron Clements and John Musker's Aladdin (1992) jettisoned fabulously sensuous details in  the Islamic literary classic in favor of a movie about a stand-up comedian genie, voiced by Robin Williams.

Trousdale and Wise's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) continued the process--the hunchback's hideousness smoothed over (he mostly looked puffy, as if in reaction to a bee sting), the tragic conclusion turned into standard-issue Happy Hour. But there was one number--“Hellfire,” where Archdeacon Frollo (Tony Jay) sings of his unholy obsession with the beautiful Esmeralda--that for sheer passion and sense of damnation approached, however distantly, what Victor Hugo had in mind. Too unsettling for the kiddies, Disney must have decided (though the movie overall was a hit); the studio never tried for that level of intensity ever again.

Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff's 1994 The Lion King was supposed to be different. Set in Africa and borrowing the plot structure of Hamlet (with bits of Prince Hal thrown in), the movie was to be Disney's prestige production, the one where risks were taken. Thomas Disch wrote a treatment called King of the Kalahari, and a script was drawn up where Simba would be corrupted by Scar and eventually deposed.

Too dark, the studio must have (again) decided; rewrites followed. The way I see it, they could have gone either the Hamlet route, portrayed Simba as a young lion tormented by anguish over his father's slaying and guilt over his own indecisiveness (the possibly richer, more difficult alternative), or they could have gone the Henry IV route and introduced a Falstaff figure, to struggle with Mufasa for control of Simba's soul. Instead they have Simba opting for exile; at worst his crimes consist of laziness and a lack of accountability (the darker implications of Hamlet's self-torment--not to mention his near-incestuous love-hate for his mother Gertrude--are firmly left out of the picture). He meets a pair of friends, Timon and Pumbaa (basically pint-sized, heavily sanitized versions of Falstaff) and hangs with them.

He (please skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the picture--though at this point it's difficult to think of a reason why) eventually confronts Scar and has his vengeance, though indirectly: the villain loses balance and falls to his death (Come to think of it, nearly every Disney villain accidentally falls to their deaths. The lack of firm footwork among their ranks is alarming).

The animation is smooth--best that money from the biggest animation studio in the world can buy. As with most American animation, the best bits are often the comedy sketches: Falstaff dumbed down, all the fart and crap jokes meant to amuse an African Prince Hal without the wit, or implied criminality (petty thievery, bribery, exploitation of the prince's royal status in every way possible).

I keep hearing critics praise the background art and character design. Don't know if said critics ever noticed the background art to Japanese anime, where the very leaves of a tree seem to be painstakingly painted in (even the dappled sunlight in a relatively 'minor' work like Yoshifumi Kondo's Whispers of the Heart (1995) seem expressive, mysterious, beautiful); and then there's Hayao Miyazaki's creature design in films like Nausicaa, of theValley of the Wind (1984) or Spirited Away (2001). The Ohmu, No-Face--need I say more? The artwork in this movie doesn't even match Disney's own gold standard--Clyde Geronimi's 1959 Sleeping Beauty, which achieved the illuminated grandeur of a stained-glass window from a Gothic cathedral...

So--a Disney classic, deserving of 3D treatment? Not a big fan of the process myself; to date I can count all the decent 3D features I've seen on the fingers of one hand. Sure, it deserves this particular kind of abuse; meanwhile Scorsese's Hugo on second viewing is as complex and lovely and evocative as ever. If I had to spend my precious holiday dollars on a movie, I'd spend it on that film instead.

First published in Businessworld, 12.15.11

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Woman in Black (James Watkin

Hammer time

The film for the most part starts out well: a trio of beautiful young girls, all dressed up in lacy frills, gracefully step in lock-step slow motion across the room and to the window (crushing a toy tea cup on the way), where they promptly and unhesitatingly leap to their deaths.

James Watkins' 2012 adaptation of the 1983 novel by Susan Hill is the latest in a long line. It has been turned into a 1987 stage play in Covent Garden, where it vies with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap for the title of world's longest running play, and into a 1989 TV movie with a screenplay by the legendary Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass and the Pit (1958)). It's the latest product of the newly revived Hammer Films, the same outfit that produced Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958), and for the most part, the film takes on some of the pulpy Gothic spirit of those previous productions and of the studio's early successes--an emphasis on light and shadow, on atmosphere, on music and cunning sound design, not to mention an insistence on setting not just as background but as an important and active character. The moldering house with its cavernous rooms are a triumph of production design, filled to the rafters with unquiet furniture, heavy doors, intricate dolls with mottled complexions and inscrutable expressions; the surrounding land is if anything even more unsettling: towering forests, vasts tidelands, a crooked cross standing on a bed of thickest mud.

Enter Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe); his wife has died in childbirth, and his grieving mood has not endeared him to his law firm employers. If he is to keep his job, he has to settle the estate of an old lady client, whose properties include the Eel Marsh House, located on a causeway off of the mainland (tides rise and cut off the road for long periods of the day, increasing the house's already considerable sense of isolation). The townfolk of nearby Crythin Gifford are no help; their kids mostly watch Kipps from behind shut windows, and the parents gang up on occasion in an attempt to drive him back to the city from which he came.

The picture relies on old-fashioned effects so much it's practically a radical break from today's fashion in horror movies: it turns on the ridiculous premise that mere sounds, the shift of shadows, and a few imaginatively staged and photographed images are enough to scare an audience to the edge of their seats. And for the most part, the filmmakers are right: we are caught and held in thrall as Kipps comes to the slow realization that something is very very wrong in not just Eel Marsh House, but nearby Crythin Gifford as well; when he visits a police station two young boys bring in their sister, who they say has drunk some lye; the little girl dribbles bright thick blood down her pale cheeks (think Freddie Francis, Hammer's great house cinematographer, and his way with the color crimson) as she collapses in Kipps' arms. Kipps later learns that every time the Woman is sighted, a child dies.

Perhaps the most disturbing effect of all is the simplest: the Dailys (Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer), possibly the wealthiest couple in the village and the only one who are civil to Kipps (they insist that he stays at their house, and invite him to dinner). Problem is, the Dailys are victim to the Woman as well; their only son drowned. Ms. Daily tells Kipps over dinner that her son communicates with her by possessing her body--she promptly falls off her chair and scratches out with a knife on the wood of the dinner table the image of a hanged woman.

McTeer gives an especially chilling performance: she captures your heart with the quick and easy desperation of a mother grieving for her child, then throws a terrifying rendition of a seizure--you're not sure if it's a genuine fit or if some demon has possessed her. It's like watching your dotty old favorite aunt turn into Linda Blair with the snap of one's fingers, just like that, spinning head and all.

And just like that it all turns to dust. Watkins, presumably desperate to cater to the younger crowd and unconfident of his already gorgeous sets, music and camerawork, resorts to silly digital effects to up the ante; the net result of this unfortunate effort is to trash what Watkins has so carefully established beforehand--the sense of dark mystery and sinister foreboding--in favor of cheap pop-up scares and a silly digitized shrieking wraith. The collapse of this whole impressively constructed and plausibly designed world into a silly digitized mess happens with such speed and thoroughness one is left stunned, and not in a good way. This well and truly is a horror film...just not the kind the filmmakers had intended.

First published in Businessworld, 2.9.12

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)

Why this old piece? This is how I see it--if Lucas sees fit to recycle his works, I should be able to recycle my old article about this piece of garbage.  

So without further ado--

The world according to Lucas
The Phantom Menace has performed its relentless marketing blitz on the world, and lo and behold, it has reaped the whirlwind. Time Magazine called it "The Phantom Movie;" Newsweek was equally unenthusiastic. Salon Magazine (possibly the biggest of the web magazines), says Star Wars fans deserve better; Film Threat's Chris Gore and Ron Wells both give it only one or two stars; David Ehrenstein writes: "How does it suck? Let me count the ways…." Magisterial film critic Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic had this to say: "I still haven't seen an SF film as good as the best science fiction that I've read."

It would be tempting to go against the critics; they have too much stuffed up their alimentary canals, and I think it needs clearing. Kauffmann, for one, cites Isaac Asimov, C.M. Kornbluth, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Frederick Pohl as some of that "science fiction that I've read." Pohl and Kornbluth are fine choices, sure; Bradbury, perhaps, (though nowadays he reads like an adolescent boy pumped full of estrogen), Clarke is stretching it, but Asimov? Kauffmann is caught in a time warp; for him it's still the sixties, science fiction means John Campbell of "Astounding" stories, and Michelangelo Antonioni is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. 

It would be tempting to go against the critics--but I've seen the film and am forced to concur: The Phantom Menace is a mess. The film when not showcasing some chase scene or the other meanders here and there; the characters--even the human ones--feel computer-generated. Nothing involves you in this picture, not even the special effects: when you see the computer-generated backgrounds of great forests and underwater cities and floating buildings, it doesn't give you the tingle of awe you get from, say, the first shot of Los Angeles in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. It lacks the charge of a visionary filmmaker.

What could you expect from Lucas, who famously hasn't directed a film for over twenty years? He may have taken his time like Terence Malick, but Malick has since come up with The Thin Red Line--a film that looks like nothing ever made, and probably ever will (for a few years, anyway). The way Phantom Menace looks--in a word, expensive--by the end of next year at least five other films with equally large budgets will occupy the public's memory. 

That Lucas is an overrated director shouldn't have to be stated out loud--it's embarrassingly obvious. THX1138 has good visuals, but a banal story; American Graffiti may be his most heartwarming, but is basically his autobiography (cinematographer Haskell Wexler gives the film its welcoming, neon-warm colors). Star Wars was the product of Marcia Lucas' (the former Mrs.) brilliant editing and John Williams swooningly romantic score. And yes, it did have a well-shaped story by Lucas--lifted from Akira Kurosawa. Empire Strikes Back is probably the single best work he's ever done, but that was written by Leigh Brackett, a veteran scriptwriter, and directed by Irving Kershner, a master filmmaker. Don't get me started about Return of the Jedi--no one I know likes those ridiculous Ewoks. 

The story--about trade embargos and wars waged by robots ('Droids, they call them)--is complicated, but not impossible to follow: Empire Strikes Back had an even more misshapen story structure, and a dangling, second-act finish to boot; it's how the story is developed. Lucas totally misjudges his characters: Jar-Jar Binks is incomprehensible and irritating (judging from public reaction, he's about as popular as the Ewoks). Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) poses and preens as queen, when she's not acting the token female sidekick handmaiden (translation: totally useless). She does come up with some useful strategies towards the end, giving them the viceroy and the game--which only begs another question: what's the purpose of Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, hotdogging around in a fighter and destroying the Droid ship then? More bang for the bucks, of course.

The film might have worked, given a good actor playing the soon-to-be Star Wars villain. But Jake Lloyd as Anakin (he's called "Ani," which makes you wonder if that particular trauma was what triggered him to go over to the Dark Side) is your standard Hollywood cute kid. There's nothing dark to this tow-headed tyke, no texture to him, no anger; you can't see him growing up to become a member of Melrose Place," much less a future Sith Lord. He's called a "slave" but slavery for this kid consists of tinkering with robots and rocket engines--which is what he wants in the first place (maybe if his slavemaster--a bulbous-nosed alien cockroach--looked at him with covetous eyes…but I forget, in the Star Wars universe, human sexuality doesn't exist). He risks his life in "pod racing"--a lift from William Wyler's chariot race in Ben Hur"--and his mother lets him, just like that. 

It's as if Lucas has a story all right--he just keeps forgetting about those damned inconvenient humans. The cast and crew of Star Wars complained about Lucas' ineptness with actors; Lucas himself has admitted he wants to digitize everything, from the backgrounds to the special effects, to specific creatures--and by implication, though he's careful not to say it out loud, to the human actors as well. The man's in a world of his own, playing with chess pieces of his own imagining, and he wants it to remain that way.

True, millions of people want to follow him into that world; it's a tribute, I think, to the simple power of Star Wars, the evocative mythmaking of Empire, and the millions (maybe billions) of dollars spent on marketing money and merchandise tie-ins. Never mind that almost half the ideas in that world were filched elsewhere--from Joseph Campbell to Flash Gordon to, again, Kurosawa (Queen Amidala posing as handmaiden to "learn about the world" was basically purloined from The Hidden Fortress). Lucas plays his pipes, and all the lemmings--I mean, children--must follow him into the drink.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story called "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." It's about an imaginary world called Tlon, found in the pages of an encyclopedia. Soon, references to it pop up everywhere, where none existed before; objects from its culture are found, and ruins from its civilization are dug up. An entire set of its encyclopedia is uncovered, detailing its society, arts, fiction, philosophies. 

Everyone starts dropping his own pursuit, and entering into the study of this created universe; obsession with all things Tlon becomes rampant. The all-too-short story ends with the chilling words: "The world will be Tlon." On reflection that might have been a preferable fate: I would have liked to have lived in a world created by hundreds of artists, scientists, philosophers (and behind them all, the overarching genius of Borges). Lucas, with his simple (and square)-minded vision and  marketing millions, is all set to do the same thing to this world--and do it sooner than you think.

First published in Businessworld, approximately June 1999 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, 2011)

Once more with feeling

David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is less a remake of the 2009 Niels Arden Oplev movie than it is a 'reinterpretation' of the Stieg Larsson books, for better or worse. Have not read the books myself (I know, I know; should step out of the cave I stay in more often), but from what I've seen of the Oplev movie and its sequels, seems to me Larsson is driven more by passion than by any real skill at storytelling, more concerned at following some fixed agenda (a kind of ad hoc campaign against female victimization, with maybe just a whiff of exploitation) than churning out a well-reasoned, well-paced story.

We know of the initial impulse that led Larsson to write his novel--the girl whose assault he had witnessed at the age of fifteen, the intense pity and self-disgust it inspired in him. You get some sense of the emotional impact in the way he writes (or the way Oplev channels Larsson's feelings to the big screen) of the assault on eponymous protagonist Lisbeth Salander--and let's be honest, that scene is one of the big draws of the story, on paper and onscreen. Powerful scene, too, almost as powerful as Salander's subsequent and no less violent response. You have to admire the way Larsson pushes our buttons--we see the girl brutalized, we see her get a bit of her own back. Feminism with a considerable dose of sadism, magnified by a man's adolescent trauma.

My problem with the scene (at least my biggest among many) is that it occurs too early--after something like this you expect the story to ratchet up the intensity, which it never really does: the rest of the picture is a somewhat plodding procedural where Salander and disgraced journalist Mikael Blomvkist slowly and painstakingly piece together the clues leading to a serial killer. The relationship between Salander and her rapist, actually her legal guardian, is sidelined just when it seemed to be gaining momentum; instead of said guardian functioning as the film's putative villain we get another far more vague antagonist (a former Nazi, this being an always-convenient label to hang on someone you want to present as the bad guy). For the rest of the movie you wonder if Salander is planning to pay her rotten legal guardian any more visits, give him any more additional grief; as for the story's main mystery--well, I'm not exactly paying attention, are you?

That's pretty much what the movie boiled down to for me: Oplev's chilly evocation of wintry Sweden, Larsson's erratically effective storytelling, Noomi Rapace's larger-than-life rendition of Salander. Rapace in my book is the best reason to see the movie: her fire-breathing performance takes over the picture like napalm on jungle growth and keeps one watching, no matter how attenuated and overly complex the plotting gets.

Fincher, I suspect, knew he couldn't find anyone who could match Rapace's intensity, and went in a whole other direction. You get a different vibe from Rooney Mara; she's altogether more frail, more delicate--a deliberate choice, I'm guessing, as one is likelier to worry about a heroine so evidently vulnerable than a heroine ready to kick ass. Instead of a flawed, mostly tedious procedural upended by one actor's larger-than-life presence, we have a more balanced effort where all the elements come together in graceful harmony.

That's the official agenda; Fincher's secret agenda, or at least the one I saw (and enjoyed) watching this, is to modulate every element--screenplay, cast, lead performance--so that the directing will shine. Fincher was reportedly given the chance to adapt this film, back when it was a relatively unknown Swedish thriller; now he intends to do the right thing, and if not exactly wipe the memory of Rapace off our collective minds, at least offer an alternate version of what should have happened had he accepted the offer in the first place.

Oplev's film comes across as a bleak view of Sweden by one of its native sons; Fincher's film comes across as no less bleak, but with the unmistakable taint of beauty. The bridge; the falling snow; the opaque, unyielding mansions housing opaque, unyielding people are all there, yet somehow aestheticized. There is a color scheme--gray and white for the wintry outdoors, warm fireplace glow for the indoors and nostalgic past. And yet the scheme can be deceptive--in the aforementioned past a young girl flees from her unknown tormentor; in the cozily lit and heated house (Fincher uses vast panes of glass to keep us aware of the surrounding cold), you hear a random sound and the house-owner is forced to excuse himself, ostensibly to check on some unfinished business...

That unfinished business is of course a secret soundproofed chamber, lit a clinical fluorescent white. Fincher quietly employs his lighting scheme to illustrate one of the film's themes: inhospitable environment besieging snug homes--said homes, in turn, housing hidden corners of chilled corruption.

Against this precisely constructed background Fincher presents his favorite activity: intelligent men and women, indulging their obsessions (the hunt for a serial killer). Fincher does what Oplev couldn't quite manage: he makes the process of piecing together every news article and photo, every interview and archival search, compulsively watchable. He's pulled off this trick before on a larger scale, and that 2007 film happens to be his masterpiece; repeating the trick within the confines of an internationally best-selling story may seem redundant...well, is redundant, but fascinating, nonetheless. Far from Fincher's best work, but in my opinion superior to the Swedish original, and worth watching.

First published in Businessworld, 2.2.12

Saturday, February 04, 2012

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011)


Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, his biopic about the legendary director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, turns out to be his most tender and fully realized love story. 

It doesn't quite start out that well. First time we see J. Edgar as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he's wheezing along under pounds of prosthetic makeup, meant to make him look old. The makeup is a horrific mess; DiCaprio looks like a half-melted version of himself,  a doughy dumpling that had been left turning in the microwave some twenty seconds too long. Eventually, after one gets used to the unholy pancake mix, and especially after the film presents the younger J. Edgar (DiCaprio sans makeup) and allows us to see the differences and similarities between the two expressions the character's true nature emerges: an intense young man whose focused gaze with the passing years settles into a grim glare (actually he looked uncannily like any number of grumpy old men from childhood, scowling with disapproval when they looked in my direction). We're talking about a man whose basic nature doesn't change but because the world around him does, his significance to that world changes considerably.

The story moves back and forth in time, the later scenes meant to comment on the earlier (a classic tactic, popular with recent biopics). The story really comes to life, however, when J. Edgar meets the love of his life: Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), first a prospective agent, later Hoover's protege and Assistant Director for the FBI. Their initial meeting plays like a meet-cute--J. Edgar is intrigued by the young man's qualifications; soon they're having meals together, shopping for clothes together, so on. Without much comment or fuss, they move gracefully into a comfortable relationship that in its first major crisis (involving Hollywood star Dorothy Lamour) erupts into a full-on lover's quarrel, all passion and hysterics and a single, startlingly uninhibited kiss.

Part of what makes that kiss such a surprise is that there's so little overt physical evidence to suggest such passion; you need to listen carefully to hear the emotions simmering beneath the narrative surface. Dustin Lance Black, no stranger to LGBT material (he wrote the screenplay to Gus Van Sant's entertaining Milk (2008)), tries to make the case that what Tolson and Hoover had was less than a gay marriage, more than just heterosexual friendship. It's a delicate balance he's trying to suggest, and the closest parallel I can think of is the relationship evoked by Anthony Burgess in his novel Earthly Powers, where a gay man (writer Kenneth Toomey) and a straight man (Dr. Shawcross) fall in love. As Burgess writes: “Whatever word I use will probably be wrong...we’ve just been here together. We didn’t have to put it into words. I was never so happy in my life.” It's not physical--which is what everyone assumes, or is interested in--but it is every bit as knotty.

Eastwood's direction plays a crucial role here. What's needed is a straightforward presentation, done at a leisurely, deliberate pace; Eastwood takes the skills he's perfected in Bridges of Madison County (1995)--that patient, novelistic way he has of constructing a relationship, one mortise-and-tenon joint after another--and applied them here. This isn't a tempestuous love affair but a lifetime companionship, less motel-room beds and crumpled sheets and more like an overstuffed living-room sofa, smelling faintly of pet dog.

Eastwood and Black are to be congratulated for their detailed and singular sketch; one wonders, though--does the man deserve it? J. Edgar comes off looking so faithful and temperate (at least domestically) that the film comes off looking like a professional whitewash job. Oh, there's a scene--tellingly, with Tolson dominating--where all is called into question postmodern style, and J. Edgar is accused of manipulating his own narrative to look good. Props are due for the inclusion, but it may be too little, too late: where are the scenes revealing constant persecution and humiliation of, say, Martin Luther King, Jr.? The footage showing how J. Edgar's active participation in the '50s communist witch hunts resulted in thousands of government workers losing their jobs? Where's the “Lavender Scare”--the hunt for homosexuals (often assumed to be also communists) so virulent it defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson's run for president? J. Edgar was a powerful enough and monstrous enough presence to have warped the American landscape for almost fifty years, but all we see here is J. Edgar the tender and intimate BFF; Black could at least have used some of the unused material for dramatic contrast.

One of the better films of the year, then, with the caveat that it could have been so much better--great even--if the filmmakers had along with its surprisingly soft core given it a little more teeth (and to said teeth a little more of an edge).

First published in Businessworld. 1.26.12