Friday, November 11, 2011

Excess, Baseball and the Irish: The Rum Diary, Moneyball and The Guard

The late French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once said that you could tell if a film is shit within the first five minutes. I wouldn’t go that far, but with most movies, you can pretty much sense when a film is working or not. The bigger question is why do certain films, with decent ideas and talented stars, fail while other more modest efforts succeed? Two recent American failures demonstrate the former while a certain Irish comedy sails up the middle and blows the two more expensive efforts out of the water.

The Rum Diary
If it didn’t already have a definition, The Rum Diary could go next to somnolent in the dictionary. If it’s not the worst movie of the year, it’s easily one of the dullest. But it shouldn’t have been. It stars Johnny Depp in an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1960 novel of the same name and, more significantly, marks the directorial return to film, after nearly 20 years, of Bruce Robinson, whose directorial debut Withnail and I (1987) was one of the great British comedies. (His follow-up How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) wasn’t too shabby, either.) Yet, despite Depp and Robinson’s presence, the movie begins desultorily and stays that way.

Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary
Depp, essaying a thinly disguised version of Thompson, plays Paul Kemp, a down-and-out journalist who snags a job – it seems he was the only applicant – on a fading San Juan, Puerto Rico, newspaper, circa 1960. Right from the get-go, he’s told by the paper’s harried editor (Richard Jenkins) not to delve too deeply into the island’s turbulent politics, but instead confine himself to puff pieces and human interest articles. But the perpetually hung-over Kemp, who considers himself politically neutral, eventually cannot ignore what he sees around him, notably the rapacious business dealings of Union Carbide and other big companies, and is forced to take sides and re-discover the conscience he always had.

Granted that’s not much of a storyline, but with the right amount of brio and bravado and Depp at his best, it could have delivered some high-octane jolts of energy and wit. Alas, it doesn’t ever break a cinematic sweat, and Depp hits one facial note (mildly stoned) and works it constantly. He’s already played Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), but as overwrought as that film was, Depp at least maintained a lively demeanour in it. Not so here, but at least he’s in sync with the rest of this laid-back movie, particularly when he’s paired with a wan Amber Heard as his potential love interest. (I’ve always preferred Garry Trudeau's take on Thompson in his comic strip Doonesbury. His ‘Duke’ character was always more interesting and entertaining than the monolithic persona Thompson proffers in most of his writing.) The rest of the cast ranges from adequate (Aaron Eckhart as a sleazy consultant) to overdone (Jenkins) to truly wretched (Giovanni Ribisi as the real Hunter S, Thompson prototype, a former journo whose brain has been fried by his taking every sort of drug known to man). Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay, seems asleep at the switch throughout the movie, both in terms of the film’s flat dialogue and its consistent lack of atmosphere. I’ve always felt that if you don’t exercise your directing muscles regularly (Robinson quit directing after studio interference sunk his film Jennifer 8 (1992)) you lose whatever skills you displayed in that department. (See also Darnell Martin who went from I Like It Like That, 1994, to Cadillac Records, 2008.) Robinson can’t claim studio interference for this debacle, however, as Depp, who also produced the movie, gave him free reign. But whatever the reason, this return to movie-making doesn’t auger well for his future, which on the basis of The Rum Diary, seems dismal indeed.

Moneyball, the adaptation of Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, isn’t nearly as snoozy a movie as The Rum Diary. but it’s not exactly a lively flick either. The fact-based tale of the Oakland Athletics baseball team and how its eccentric General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), in 2002, turned the team around using a revolutionary statistics-based technique, is certainly a compelling story even for non-sports fans. But director Bennett Miller (The Cruise, Capote), for some reason, tamps down the dramatics of the A’s rise, smothering his cast and the rousing arc of the teams’ winning ways – which involved Beane’s calculating on base percentages to the exclusion of more obvious stats like home runs and stolen bases – to build a consistently competitive team. Beane did so despite the A’s disadvantage in terms of lacking the monies to be spent on developing a top-notch roster, something richer squads like the New York Yankees have in abundance.

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Part of the film's problem is that it’s split between wanting to come across as a typical sports drama, (complete with the cliché of montages as the A’s begin to get on a victorious roll, though even those are overly laid back), and alternately, being a comparatively subversive questioner of the ethics of winning at all costs, which can have a detrimental effect on family life and personal morale. (If you want to see a movie that directly and courageously assails the shibboleths of the sports world, check out Ted Kotcheff’s underrated 1979 movie North Dallas Forty or Peter Gent’s even better 1973 novel of the same name.) The film also simplifies the dichotomy between Beane, who not only breaks the ‘rules’ of the way things are supposed to be done, but behaves in an uniquely, even odd manner in his daily life on the team (he never stays in the stadium during games preferring to flip the radio on and off to catch snippets of the action), and old-school Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, atypically dull). The film begins with Beane chafing at the bit when his payroll requests are routinely denied by the A’s penny-pinching owners, and later reveals that Howe, too, has his resentments, notably being given only a one year contact, even though the A’s made it to the division finals the previous year, hardly a mark of confidence in his abilities. When Beane’s ‘oddball’ theories do pan out, Howe is allowed to claim credit for them since he’s the visible face of management, but we never find out if he came around to accepting that Beane's methods had merit or still stuck to his strongly held beliefs. I guess it’s easier to cast Howe as a cheap villain rather than build on the nuanced commonalities of these two disparate men, Not surprisingly, Pitt doesn’t get to do much more than hint at a complex persona, mostly revealed in some rather clumsily inserted flashbacks that unveil Beane’s own failed Major League career. Kerris Dorsey, as his young daughter, is too precocious to be believed; and Jonah Hill (Get Him to the Greek), as an economics whiz who introduces Beane to his offbeat theories, though restrained onscreen for a change, is still a lousy actor.

I was somewhat shocked that Moneyball was written (separately) by two of Hollywood’s finest screenwriters: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, The West Wing) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, Mission: Impossible). But it actually makes sense. The film’s dialogue is witty (one of Sorkin’s strengths), and also quite smart at times, especially when showcasing the men, owners and players alike, caught up in the sometime nastiness of sports mania – Zaillian’s contribution, I’m sure. But combining the two men’s pass at the same script doesn’t jell. Perhaps if Miller had settled on one or the other writer Moneyball might have made for a more memorable sports film. As is, it shows only glimmers of originality and uniqueness, ironically an opposite result from what the film is supposedly all about.

The Guard
Fortunately, there’s also John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, a clever comedy that’s part fish out of water, part buddy comedy, with a star turn by the delightful Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later, the Harry Potter films) as a corrupt but efficient Garda (Irish cop) named Boyle. When we first encounter him, he’s looting the pockets of an accident victim and pocketing the drugs he finds on the dead man. Then the FBI, in the person of by-the-books agent Everett (Don Cheadle), shows up requiring the Garda’s help in taking down some vicious drug dealers. Boyle, prone to racist jibes at African-American Everett (he assumes all sorts of stereotypical things about Everett’s background and skills), quickly exasperates the man, but soon enough the two join forces and, grudgingly, become friends.

Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson in The Guard
The smartness of McDonagh’s script, which bears some similarities to Walter Hill’s enjoyable 48 Hrs. (1982), is that you never quite get a handle on Boyle’s character. He has a lovely relationship with his elderly, tart mother (Fionnula Flanagan); sweet ones with various hookers he likes to solicit, even having them dress as cops; but he can also be brutal and vicious while overseeing captured bad guys and more than a little condescending and insulting to a Dublin big city copper who’s dared show up in his neck of the woods (Rory Keenan). Heck, he’s even been known to swipe a few weapons and sell them to the IRA. Gleeson's take on Boyle is to squint his eyes and look like a small town hick even as his brain is working overtime to position himself to best advantage.

The suggestion, moreover, that his racial jibes are knowing ones, meant to disconcert the visiting Yank, – in 2011 could anyone be that clueless? – renders his persona even more mysterious and disturbing. Or, as Everett points out in one of the best lines of pungent dialogue I’ve heard in any recent film, “I can’t tell if you’re really motherfucking dumb, or really motherfucking smart.” Actually the latter, mostly, but Boyle also does some pretty boneheaded things during the course of The Guard. The film also plays around with some of the clichés rampant in crime movies, such as when one of the drug dealers, (a better-than-usual Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), asked by a crooked cop if all the money for his payoff is there, goes off on a rant, pointing out that no intelligent person would rip off the very people they’re trying to bribe. What would be the advantage of that? Yet that rote and ultimately silly line, questioning the veracity of the payoff pops up in almost very other hard-boiled action drama. It’s nice of The Guard to take the mickey out of that bit of business. (It also uses its Irish setting and the country’s tense relationship with the British to good effect.)

Admittedly, The Guard is also a bit too in love with its cleverness, such as late in the film when one of the cops points out how Boyle and Everett’s adventure could form the basis for a (formulaic) Hollywood movie. (There’s a difference between smart writing and dialogue that pats itself on the back for its smartness.) Like 48 Hrs, the plot is perfunctory, and Cheadle (Devil in a Blue Dress, Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen), who also produced the movie, good as he is, doesn’t get much to do. (He’s the observer of other’s crazy antics, mostly, as he was during his run on his TV series, Picket Fences.) I’ll concede that without Gleeson in the lead, The Guard might have been eminently forgettable, or at least much weaker, but with his commanding the screen, it’s a really fun ride.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he is currently teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also on Monday Oct. 17, he began teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre

No comments:

Post a Comment