Saturday, March 26, 2011

When They Were Young: A Coming-of-Age Saga

In any category for failed films with a fascinating premise and stellar cast, 2008’s Flashbacks of a Fool deserves a spot at the top of the list. Although the title perfectly describes the narrative structure and the protagonist, it creaks with obviousness. Daniel Craig plays the fool, a British actor named Joe Scot who has destroyed his once-enviable career with booze, drugs and non-stop anonymous sex – a role model for Charlie Sheen! He lives in a sterile California mansion, where his black housekeeper, Ophelia (American rapper Eve), seems to be the only person who cares enough about him to say: “You’re a disgrace to white folks.”

When his agent drops him around the same time Joe learns that an old chum has died back in the United Kingdom, he hits bottom by getting drunk and wading into the surf off Malibu. Suicide? Apparently not. That watery sequence provides an awkward segue, as the script by writer-director Baillie Walsh suddenly lands on the English coast 25 years earlier. The Scot family – Joe’s mother Grace (Olivia Williams), his Aunt Peggy (Helen McCrory) and little sister Jessie (Mia Clifford) – lives on the beach in a sprawling, slightly funky cabin. The nearest neighbor is a cranky busybody, Mrs. Rogers (Miriam Karlin). Two doors down: the flirtatious Evelyn Adams (Jodhi May), her rarely-seen husband and their neglected daughter Jane (Jodie Tomlinson), who is about eight.

Felicity Jones and Harry Eden in a rock ‘n’ roll rapture
It’s 1972 and Joe (Harry Eden) is a 15-year-old pretty boy but rather a blank slate, especially compared with all those around him. His sweet-natured best friend Boots (Max Deacon) has more evident personality. The girl they both covet, Ruth (Felicity Jones), is smart, vibrant and an ardent fan of glam rock. They regularly all meet up in the downtown arcade, though the geography is so ill-defined it’s not clear where downtown might be located in relation to the seaside community or to her posh home. (Perhaps this confusion can be attributed to the movie’s South African locations.)

When Ruth invites Joe to her place, he’s hoping for some adolescent canoodling. What happens instead is what would have been an intellectual, emotional awakening in a guy with more depth. She dresses him in her glittery clothing, upsweeps his hair with gel and applies the era’s requisite eye shadow. With dramatic gestures, they lip-synch to albums by Roxy Music and David Bowie, whose “The Jean Genie” becomes the subject of a hilarious discussion. Ruth points out that the tune uses “clever wordplay” to describe French playwright and poet Jean Genet. She explores the world of ideas; Joe exists merely on the surface of things. He’s read William Burrough’s Junkie on her recommendation but didn’t like the book. She teases him with a comment that seems to go over his head: “So, it’s back to The Hobbit, then.” 

Jodhi May as Evelyn Adams
The lyrics to two songs they’re hearing in the scene sum up a romance that is ultimately doomed, another too-precise though apparently heartfelt choice by Walsh. In “If There is Something,” with a chorus that repeats the refrain “when you were young,” Bryan Ferry trills I would do anything for you/ I would climb mountains/ I would swim all the oceans blue/ I would walk a thousand miles/ reveal my secrets more than enough for me to share....” (Joe’s untold secrets encompass the fact that Evelyn is a predator intent on seducing him when her husband’s at work.) During “It Ain’t Easy,” Bowie sings “When you get to the top of a mountain/ look all over the seas/ just think about all other places perhaps/ where a young man could be...” (The other place where Joe will soon be is Evelyn’s bedroom, when he skips a planned date with Ruth and easily succumbs to the older woman’s wiles.)

Portrayed by Jodhi May (The Last of the Mohicans (1992)) with astonishing raw intensity, Evelyn can only offer Joe a carnal quickie that will lead to long-lasting grief. It’s equally impossible to take your eyes off Felicity Jones (The Tempest (2010)), whose Ruth displays sensitivity and wit that might have been his salvation if he were not tragically misguided by lust. She delivers the best line of dialogue in the film when explaining to him why Bowie and Ferry matter so much: “Because they are gods!” With the wonderful exuberance of youth, what teen hasn’t worshipped at that altar in awe of some rock star or other? Her utter devotion won’t endure, of course, but understanding human nature through the prism of an exhilarating art form isn’t such a bad way to grow up.

Daniel Craig as the adult Joe Scot
Joe never does grow up, as he makes abundantly clear in the first act’s present time. Like the character central to “The Jean Genie,” he “smiles like a reptile.” Ophelia, his housekeeper, asks him: “Don’t you have any philosophies of life apart from self-indulgence?” In the third act, the story flashes forward again to a tentative but kindly moment of redemption – happily, not with the sort of overkill a similar Hollywood production would require. A friend of the director, Daniel Craig co-produced Flashbacks of a Fool and gave it a potentially bigger international draw by taking the lead role. But his cache as the new James Bond (Quantum of Solace came out a month later) wasn’t enough to sell tickets to this indie release, which earned less than $2,000 during a limited run in the United States. DVD shelves and late-night cable television were waiting. That’s a shame. The sequences with May and Jones are alone worth the price of admission.

This debut feature disappoints, primarily in that the pieces don’t fit together very well. But it does provide Baillie Walsh, who previously shot music videos for groups such as Oasis and INXS, with a calling card. He has a vivid imagination as a writer, knows how to encourage some exquisite performances and demonstrates a keen sense that the cultural icons of any generation are important because they are gods.

 Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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