After a week of serious films aimed at awards season, it was time for an afternoon palate cleanser. There are certainly Twelve Days of Christmas movies that you can watch, but this season, new films were limited to “Bad Santa 2” (have yet to pull the trigger on that one) and this collection of comedians and comic actors who get a chance to act out for a couple of hours. It is exactly as stupid and meaningless as it looks in the trailers. Although it wants to be a holiday “Hangover”, it is mostly mildly amusing and in bad taste.
Jason Bateman has the straightman role once again, Jennifer Aniston plays a bitch, and everyone else manages to fit their character stereotype without having to work very hard. An IT company is closing down some branches, and rival siblings of the late company founder have different attitudes about it. In order to land an old school tech client, looking for a unique company, the current managers of the branch scheduled for closing go all out in order to throw a raucous Christmas party, to show their family ties and creative spirits.
The film plays on every fantasy of old school holiday parties you can imagine. Drunken confession, check. Photocopies of private parts, Check (plus an update with a 3D printer). Casual, ill advised hook ups that lead to awkward day after exchanges, you betcha. Throw in a hooker, a bunch of cocaine, and some loose cash and you have the movie.
It won’t rot your brain, but it will insult your intelligence with fart jokes and physical humor that defies the ability of modern medicine to repair.
I had popcorn, Coke Zero with both lemon and lime, and three or four chuckles. This film will never be on anybody’s Christmas Movie Draft List, and it will be forgotten by the time the New Year gets here. Everyone earned their pay, and I got out of my wife’s hair for two hours. Merry Christmas.
I’d considered a video post for this film comment so that you could hear the tone in my voice as I spoke about it. I have been told by family members and some of my students that I have a way of sounding that can be harsh and sharp and bitingly dismissive, often without any intention. Well let me say, I have every intention with this review but I thought better than to subject you to the bile of my notes in an auditory fashion and will leave them to your imagination instead. I hated this movie. I hated the characters, I hated the attitude, and I hated that I was so irritated by it. The trailer suggests that this is a thriller with a revenge theme built in. There is a revenge theme in the movie, but the thriller part is all a distraction to show off creative story telling tools which only makes the movie more irritating.
Director Tom Ford made one movie before this, the well respected “A Single Man”. He is apparently best known as a fashion designer. In this movie it shows. The film is full of images that are designed to evoke a reaction. Amy Adam’s character Susan, has a house that is all clean lines, grey and black contrasts, and there is almost nothing to suggest that human beings actually live there. It is as if it were put together by a sales stager for Hollywood mansions. The offices she works in look like outtakes from the set of “2001”, round rooms with tiered levels all in white. Since she is an art dealer/curator and Ford moves in those circles, maybe he has it right, but the impact is to make the pretentiousness that he seemingly is mocking, feel even more pretentious. If you can get past the opening titles without thinking about how hypocritically artsy they are, maybe you will be able to enjoy this film. I prefer the way Susan sees it, she speaks of her opening that night as being “Shit”. You might think that Ford is saying the same thing, but that is not the attitude the camera takes nor is it the viewpoint of the editing. There is nothing subtle about the way this movie is made. Ford even goes so far as to have the word REVENGE, mocked up as a piece of art on display at the offices of Susan’s company.
The one aspect of the film that I do admire is the narrative structure of the film. There are three stories being told simultaneously, and that works to make the connections between them understandable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two parts, Susan’s ex husband Edward and the lead character in the novel that Edward has written, Tony a husband and father. We get plenty of Tony’s stopry and if it had been the plot of the film without all of the literary and personal baggage surrounding it, this might have been an effectively dark thriller. Instead, it turns out to be a piece of work designed to be a big “FU” to his ex wife. We barely get any of that story and Ford the scrip[t writer relies on a five minute piece of exposition with Laura Linney, as a way of short cutting that part of the story. It just does not work. Armie Hammer plays Susan’s current husband and his moments in the film feel so thin that they might just be some applique that Ford is putting on his dress to try and make it more interesting. Again, it doesn’t work.
There were two references that occurred to me as I was watching this movie.The first is “The World According to Besenhaver” a novel within a novel, from the book The World According to Garp”. In that book, the violent and revolting story is told as a way of expunging a character’s guilt. The author becomes famous for the book but ultimately has very negative feeling about it’s success. “Nocturnal Animals” is the title of the book Edward has written and dedicated to his ex-wife. Rather than exorcising his demons, the story allows them to run wild and attempt to punish Susan for her abandonment of their life. In the visualization of the story, Tony’s wife and daughter are doppelgangers for Susan and her own daughter. The anguish and destruction of Tony as a character is Edward vomiting his bile on Susan’s consciousness. The second reference that this film evoked in me was to a film called “The Rapture”. In that film, a woman who finds redemption in her life in Christianity, has it ripped away from her in the most cosmic manner imaginable. This film has two equally unfulfilling endings, one for the novel and one for the lead character. Having devoted two hours to the film, I felt ripped off by an incomplete resolution to one story and an unsatisfying but at least understandable ending to the other.
The performers are all fine in portraying characters that are flawed, but ultimately those characters are reprehensible. Susan is the shallow and unsatisfied woman her mother predicts she will be. Hammer never establishes any character that would matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a character that we all might enjoy seeing tortured to death. Gyllenhaal is sympathetic as Edward when he and Susan are together, but as the unseen author of the manuscript, he is a monster. Only Michael Shannon as the fictional Bobby Andes, a West Texas detective with a strong sense of justice elicits any of our sympathy. The film is clever and well shot and acted but it will make you want to take a long hot shower before you go out into civilized society again. The dark characters of Gyllenhaal’s movie “Nightcrawler” were also awful, but that movie had something to say about the world and especially the media. This movie is a cruel joke played on an audience who might be expecting a thriller and who are subsequently tortured themselves by having to endure the unpleasantness that passes for art in Mr. Ford’s film.
Not exactly a feel good film for the Christmas Holiday, but an impressive family film about the ties that bind us and the fact that they do so in multiple ways. There are many, many things to admire about this film, from the sterling performances to the complex way in which the story unfolds and most especially for the ambiguous ending that resolves only an immediate issue but not the deeper needs of the main character. Manchester bu the Sea is a well made film that is worth the pain that you sometimes have to get through to be able to understand the characters.
Casey Affleck has been a solid actor for years. His side kick roles in the Ocean’s 11 films show that he can be comedic when called upon, but he also has serious dramatic chops. Earlier this year he was quietly heroic in “The Finest Hours“. In this film he is also quiet, but in a much different style of performance. His character “Lee”, has a tragic background that follows him wherever he goes but most especially in his hometown. He is forced to return to “Manchester By the Sea” for another tragic passage in his life, and the confluence of the two events are enough to give anyone a depression that would feel overwhelming. That his character is able to cope to some degree is the one outward sign of inner strength. Affleck doesn’t really raise his voice often, he is not bitingly sarcastic but the audience can see that he is masking turmoil which makes it nearly impossible for him to manage the family obligation he finds himself in.
I have not seen director Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature but his first was the affecting and slow moving “You Can Count on Me”, which came out sixteen years ago. This movie does seem to fit into his sweet-spot, a family drama with imperfect people, taking their time to try and work out their problems. There are several wordless moments in the film where the actors perform in an almost classic silent film manner. Watching Afflect’s face conveys ninety percent of what we need to know in most scenes. There are instances where you can see his self loathing percolating to the surface just before the bubble pops and a moment of catharsis, which is even more damaging to him, takes over. The will it takes to hold things together is substantial. There is plenty of angst to go around but there are also moments of human connection that are heartfelt and sometimes amusing. The contentious relationship Lee has with his nephew Patrick is punctuated by love and off beat humor. Lucas Hedges plays Patrick as a self confident but needy adolescent. Sometimes he needs to be smothered with attention and other times he needs to be left alone. Of course Lee usually chooses wrong, but when he does get it right, there is a sense of hopefulness that lingers long enough to make the story bearable.
The structure of the film is similar to a second film I will be commenting on today. There are contemporary events and then there are several flashbacks that occur in no particular order which trace back the history of our characters. Lee’s guilt cannot allow him to move forward but moving forward is what is needed for Patrick. I never found the narrative confusing and the jumps back and forth in the story often set the tone for an upcoming incident in a way that would have required a huge amount of exposition if the story were told differently. This is a film without a clear ending, but it does let us know that the path to the future is not entirely bleak.
There are some secondary characters that intrude on the story and did little to advance the plot such as it is. Patrick’s estranged Mother briefly returns to his life but it is a dead end that only shows how essential Lee is to getting things right for Patrick. The uncomfortable lunch that Patrick and his Mother and her new boyfriend share, is an emotional dry well. On the other had, the scenes with Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, are in fact heart breaking. She wants him to find the forgiveness that he cannot give himself and her own spirit is limited because he can’t. Every family has bumps in the road, some derail the family entirely, this is a film about two of those kinds of events and how they intertwine. This is a great movie that is hard to experience but has at it’s core an honest portrayal of the sort of depression that is based on real life and not just on manufactured emotions as you will sometimes find in other films.