Monday, November 16, 2020

Movie Romances

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks.

This article contains reviews of On the Rocks, A Rainy Day in New York, My Octopus Teacher and Love and Monsters.

Rashida Jones is very likable as Laura, a young Manhattanite wife and mother, in the new Sofia Coppola picture, On the Rocks, and the quiet scenes that focus on her emotional responses to situations, when she’s the only person on camera, showcase not just her but also Coppola’s gift for collaborating with her actors to capture quicksilver moods. And there are some very funny bits, somewhat reminiscent of old Paul Mazursky movies, built around Jenny Slate, who plays Vanessa, a friend of Laura’s through their middle-school daughters. Vanessa, a divorcee, chatters on, entirely uncensored, about her love life while she and Laura are ushering their daughters to various activities; it’s as if she weren’t aware that she’s trumpeting her troubles (which mostly concern her recent discovery that the man she’s been sleeping with is married) to the world.

But On the Rocks isn’t a good movie. Coppola hasn’t worked it through in stylistic or dramatic terms, or, I would say, in psychological ones either. Laura is a writer who’s been struggling to get back to her fiction since she became a mother (she has a younger daughter, too). Her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) has recently started his own business – I never got exactly what kind – which obliges him to travel constantly and leaves him with limited time to spend with his wife; when he’s home, he tends to focus on the girls. Laura feels lonely and unattended-to; when he gets in after a flight one night zonked on Xanax and appears to think she’s someone else, she panics. She imagines that other clues point to the possibility that he’s having it off with his hot – younger – business manager (Jessica Henwick), who accompanies him on these trips. Laura confides her fears to her charismatic, wealthy father, Felix (Bill Murray), a retired gallery owner whose chronic philandering ended his marriage to her mother years earlier. Felix is sure she has reason to worry because if Dean’s sleeping around, he’s simply doing what men, in Felix’s view, are hard-wired to do. That doesn’t mean Felix excuses it; he’s furious that his son-in-law would treat Laura with such disloyalty and disrespect. So, unbidden by her, he starts to investigate, and though what he comes up with is insubstantial at best, he persuades her that they should set out together to spy on Dean’s activities.

The two setpiece sequences that revolve around the spying are farce, and you might accept them in another movie that’s more screwball than this one. But Coppola has grounded On the Rocks in comic realism, so when Murray and Jones shoot through the streets of New York in his noisy, falling-apart roadster, it feels like we’ve relocated to a Harold Lloyd comedy. Nothing in this scene makes sense. Why would a man with pockets as deep as Felix’s be driving a car that looks and sounds like it’s about to explode? When they’re stopped by a cop (played by Mike Keller, a good young actor with a Bobby Cannavale vibe), Felix talks his way out of a ticket by revealing that he knows the officer’s dad, also a cop, and even attended his retirement party. The point of this little exchange is to show us that Felix leads a charmed life and can get away with murder, and also that he knows everyone in New York City. But why the hell would a man who ran an art gallery have attended the retirement of a policeman? The revelation is so jarring that for a moment I thought I’d misunderstood the plot – that Felix used to be a cop, not an art-world V.I.P.

It’s easy to sympathize with Laura’s distress because Rashida Jones is so appealing, but when she agrees to Felix’s nutty plan to take her to Mexico, where his latest alleged business trip is taking place, you lose the character; this time you think Coppola has shifted to one of those dreadful Goldie Hawn comedies from the eighties and nineties. And frankly, handsome as he is, Marlon Wayans is so dull in this movie that the viewer doesn’t have much stake in the future of the marriage; his conversation is restricted almost entirely to corporate clichés. But the biggest problem in the film is the way Coppola uses Bill Murray. Like everyone else I know, I love watching Murray, and here his trademark balance of the drily ironic and the outrageous is so much fun that you don’t take his behavior – or his perspective – seriously. But when his plan goes awry and Laura feels like a fool, she turns on him, leveling her anger at him for the way he treated her mother some two decades earlier. Shouldn’t she be over it by now, for God’s sake? Coppola’s idea is clearly that Laura is pissed because her father infected her with his cynical male vision of the relationship between the sexes, but shouldn’t she be more pissed at herself for taking it on? Poor Murray doesn’t have any strategy for playing this scene; Jones makes accusations and he stares back at her. Women are so angry at men at this cultural moment that female moviegoers and sensitive male ones may not question the logic of Laura’s explosion at Felix, but I found it obnoxious. Coppola may think she’s making a feminist statement but the movie infantilizes her heroine.

Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning in A Rainy Day in New York (2019).

For roughly an hour, Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York is erratic but quite nice. Gatsby Wells (Timothée Chalamet) is a discontented young man who hasn’t found himself and whose skeptical attitude toward his college education at a liberal arts school in New England is linked to a rebellion against his parents, aristocratic New Yorkers. When his girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) lands what’s supposed to be an hour-long interview in the city for the school paper with her hero, an art-house filmmaker (Liev Schreiber), he tags along, thinking they can spend a romantic weekend together and he can show her around his beloved hometown. But things get complicated when Ashleigh finds herself in the midst of several celebrity meltdowns. The director is having an existential crisis about his new movie and invites her to watch a screening with him; the experience makes him so distraught that he wanders off to get drunk. The screenwriter (Jude Law), drags her along in his efforts to track down the director and happens to catch his own wife (Rebecca Hall) with his best friend. Ashleigh runs into a famous movie-star hunk (Diego Luna) who tells her he’s just broken up with his also-famous girlfriend and takes Ashleigh to a party. And meanwhile Gatsby, whose only communiqués from Ashleigh are brief, baffling fragments of phone conversations as she’s being driven from one Manhattan locale to another, bumps into Chan (Selena Gomez), the kid sister of the girl he dated in high school. Chan’s now grown up and is in every way a better match for brainy, moody Gatsby than flighty, not-so-bright Ashleigh. (Allen must have amused himself dreaming up the character names; the filmmaker carries the moniker Rolly Pollard.)

Allen pits two plot ideas against each other, and both of them are fun – that three famous movie men are all so enchanted by Ashleigh that they choose to confide in her and that by happenstance on a rainy day in New York (Vittorio Storaro lights the movie so that New York looks magical in the rain), Gatsby, away from school and separated from the young woman he thinks he adores, starts to see his life differently. It’s easy to see why anyone would be enchanted by Elle Fanning, though Allen doesn’t do her any favors by directing her to sound like a junior version of Diane Keaton; this is the first time I haven’t bought her in a movie. Still, she’s so luminous on camera that if the performance doesn’t work, the conceit does. At first, Chalamet sounds way too much like Woody Allen – he’s hardly the first actor to fall into that trap in one of Allen’s pictures. But the effort wears off after a while and he begins to relax, and for the first time in his young career I found myself responding to him. It happened during the scene where Gatsby sits down at a piano and plays and sings the wonderful masochistic ballad “Everything Happens to Me,” revealing a warmth he’s never exhibited before.

Unfortunately, Allen blows it in the last half hour. He strands Ashleigh in a scene borrowed from Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (earlier scenes with Fanning reminded me of another early Fellini I love, The White Sheik) while Chalamet gets an encounter with his socialite mother that is so misbegotten it makes your jaw drop. Poor Cherry Jones, in a dreadful gown, has to play the mother; she’s badly miscast, but it’s hard to think of an actress who wouldn’t be in this role. However, the good items in the movie outweigh the bad. They include Schreiber, Law, Luna, and Annaleigh Ashford as the fiancée of Gatsby’s older brother (Will Rogers). And they certainly include the singer-actress Selena Gomez, whose hard-boiled Chan serves as a reality check for Gatsby after the time he’s spent with Ashleigh.

A scene from My Octopus Teacher.

The underwater images in My Octopus Teacher are so exotic and lustrous that you can feel your eyes widening as you try to take them in in all their bedazzling detail. (The cinematographer is Roger Horrocks.) I’ve never seen anything quite like this documentary, which is about a camera operator, Craig Foster, who, having spent some years filming with San-Bushmen trackers in the Kalahari Desert, returns to the South African village he grew up with, on the edge of the Atlantic, and trains himself to swim in the frigid ocean waters without a wetsuit. Drawn all his life to the rich, mysterious animal life beneath the ocean, he is astonished when what looks like a random collection of seashells turns out conceal a female octopus. (Only much later does he learn the significance of what he’s witnessed.) Drawing on the lessons of the San-Bushmen, he sets out to track her, a daunting proposition since her fluid, boneless body permits her to change shape at will to outwit sharks, her predators. Foster marvels at her chameleonic gifts; he compares one of her incarnations to a little old lady with a parasol, and by God he’s right.

Foster’s first efforts to track her are frustrating; she jetted away from him because she had no reason to trust him, and it takes him weeks of patient daily underwater trekking to find her again. And then they become friends. There’s no other word for it, though Foster (who narrates the film), determined not to Disney-fy the adventure, never uses it. Nor does he name her; he’s aware that she isn’t his pet. But she is, it turns out, capable of emotional attachment: when she reaches out her tentacles to make physical contact with Foster, you may gasp in wonder, or you may weep. (I did both.) The closest equivalent to this scene in another movie is the one in the 1988 Gorillas in the Mist where Sigourney Weaver as the primatologist Dian Fossey cradles Digit, a magnificent mountain gorilla, in her arms. But we think of gorillas as close to human; octopuses are supposed to be anti-social, hermits that don’t even make contact with other animals except when they hunt them or are hunted by them. Foster’s evidence challenges this idea – especially when the filmmakers, Pippa Erlich and James Reed, capture this octopus cavorting with a school of fish.

My Octopus Teacher is endlessly fascinating, exquisite to look at, sometimes terrifying (in two sequences where she is chased by sharks) and finally profoundly moving. An octopus lives perhaps a little over a year; Foster tracks her for most of her life and then, inevitably, has to deal with losing her. One admires the hands-off approach of the two filmmakers, who let the story tell itself. The only exception is that they insert an emotional arc for Foster, and it’s an affecting one. At the beginning his voice-over hints that he undertook the dual experiments – to see if he could accustom his unguarded body to ocean temperatures and then if he could track the octopus – at a time when he was undergoing a kind of personal crisis, perhaps (though this is guesswork on my part) as a result of the time he’d spent away from his family in Botswana. He seems to have become a loner. When a loner of another species literally reaches out to him, it is not too much to say that he falls in love with her – and (at least, this is how Erlich and Reed portray it) it restores him to his humanity. At the end of the movie, he and his teenage son Tom are exploring the ocean together.

Dylan O'Brien and Ariana Greenblatt Love and Monsters.

My second-favorite friendship between a human and an animal in a movie this year is the one between twenty-four-year-old Joel (Dylan O’Brien) and an Australian kelpie named Boy in the post-apocalyptic comedy-adventure Love and Monsters, which is also – and primarily – a coming-of-age story. In a world that has been taken over by massive mutations of the creatures that once roamed it, Joel lives in an underground colony with other young people who, like him, have lost their families. Psychically ill-equipped to fight the monsters that threaten to breach their enclosure (he freezes up when he’s confronted by one), he serves as cook and repairs the radio. That’s how he makes contact with Aimee (Jessica Henwick once again), the girlfriend he hasn’t seen since the apocalypse, seven years ago. Feeling useless and untried – and lonely for Aimee – Joel decides to go above ground and take the eighty-mile journey to her colony. And he’s lucky: he’s adopted for a little while by an experienced hunter (Michael Rooker) and the little girl (Ariana Greenblatt) who has become his surrogate daughter and permanently by Boy, a canine of remarkable intelligence and surefire instincts. The movie, which was written by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson and directed by Michael Matthews, is sweet and satisfying, and the monsters (Steven Boyle gets the “head of creature” credit) are such imaginative exaggerations of familiar animals that they make you laugh out loud. A snail that lopes distractedly across the landscape – one of the few benign monsters – is so big that instead of a shell it carries a boulder on its back. Matthews is a South African writer and filmmaker who has made only one previous feature, Five Fingers for Marseilles, which won the Africa Movie Academy Award. He’s got talent.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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