Monday, August 11, 2014

My Foul Laddy and Smiley's Germans

Magic In The Moonlight

The title is half-right.  There is actual moonlight.
After successfully making his own version of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen has now attempted to do the same thing with Shaw’s Pygmalion, the results of which are a lot more laughable than the movie itself.  Which is, like its main male character, almost completely heartless—as well as being, like its director, kind of creepy. The heartlessness stems from the fact that Allen reproduces the condescension of Henry Higgins in his male lead, but never bakes in anything more than acid.  He’s like a prettier version of the Max von Sydow misanthrope in Hannah And Her Sisters; you want him to get his comeuppance, not the girl.  And the girl here is definitely a girl and not a woman, unlike other versions of this story.  For instance: in My Fair Lady, there were 21 years between Harrison and Hepburn (he was mid-50's, she was mid-30’s); and when Peter O’Toole and Amanda Plummer did Pygmalion on Broadway, there was a 25-year difference between them (he was 55, she was 30).  There are 28 years between Colin Firth and Emma Stone (they were 53 and 25 when the movie filmed in in 2013).  Unlike the other two, Firth is more than twice Stone’s age.  And the fact that Stone wears a lot of waistless sack dresses makes her look like she’s barely out of her teens. 

Plus there’s no chemistry between the two of them.  (Thank God, in a way; right?)  (I mean, ewwww!)

Double-plus: Colin Firth isn't given anything but egotism and condescension to work with, and supplies nothing to suggest there's anything more to his character than an author's note that reads "Be pompous and unlikeable here." The film would have been much better off with somebody like Jonny Lee Miller in the part, because Miller is one of those actors who makes his every attack feel like a defense against emotional involvement, and isn't that what you want in your Henry Higgins?

Triple-plus: about 20 minutes from the end of the movie, everybody else disappears—the girl’s fiancé, the girl’s mother—everyone else who has or might have an opinion about who Stone is going to marry just drops out of the plot like they were never there.  Which is incredibly bad writing.  Or Allen recognizing that actually writing a final act that included these characters and their motivations was beyond his powers, so he played to his lack of strength and just disappeared them. 

In other words: don’t bother.

A Most Wanted Man

That smile is how I want to remember PSH.

The film version of A Most Wanted Man bears two burdens, one intended and one accidental.  As an adaptation of John LeCarre’s angry anti-American novel, the movie has to tell the story without the anger getting in the way.  It does this by turning the plot into a Smiley’s People for the war on terror, concentrating on the tradecraft of a tightly-knit group of professionals who have integrity, pride, and a job to do, and showing how they do that job despite the interference of short-sighted superiors and politically-motivated foreigners. It’s like a dark Howard Hawks movie, where the job comes first, and anybody who gets in the job’s way is either incompetent or evil because they don’t understand that long-term gains are better than short-term profits. (And guess which one the American favors.)

The movie succeeds in making you care about a small group of co-workers not because you know their backstories or their secrets, but because you see how well they work together as a team.  Team members float in and out of the background as the people they’re tailing are followed and watched (there’s even a shout-out to that great De Niro/McElhone car kiss in Ronin). And because you’ve come to know and care about these people, especially the guy running the group, Günther Bachmann, the end of the movie is an even stronger sucker punch than the end of the book.

The unintended burden is that Bachmann is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  That makes it hard to watch on one level, and fascinating to watch on another.  It’s difficult not to read the actor’s future into the world-weary character that he plays, but it’s impossible not to see how the man was single-handedly capable of raising the level of both the actors around him and the movie they were making by doing nothing less than his best. 
The movie and his performance in it are crystallized, for me, in a moment near the end.  Bachmann is making his case to his superiors and the Americans, and when he’s asked a particular question, the answer he gives, which is a direct quote from an earlier conversation, is followed by a smile, a smile that says he knows that, by using these exact words, he’s won his case.  The reaction shot that follows is brief but echoed in my head long after the movie was over, when I realized that this moment, the moment Bachmann smiles, was the exact moment when he lost everything.  The line is what wins him his victory; the smile that comes with it is what causes his eventual defeat, because he’s just pissed off the wrong person in the room.  And the way Bachmann delivers that smile made me feel like Hoffman knew exactly what he was doing, showing us Bachmann’s one mistake.  That’s brilliant acting.  We shall not look upon his like again.

1 comment:

DidimoChierico said...

Couldn't agree more about the lack of any magic in Allen's moonlight or Firth's Higgins manqué' character for that matter. It was uncomfortable to watch, not only for the character's unrelenting misanthropy, but for the look, at times, of utter desperation in the actor's eyes as he floundered trying to make something of his thankless role.