A triumverate of noble losers
Lord of War (Andrew Niccol) [C+]
Once again, Niccol’s better as an idea man than a screenwriter; I’d say he should stick to farming out his high concept plots, but we all know how that turned out. In a career of crushing disappointments, this has to be the biggie. (The Truman Show’s second half is too indifferent to all-out derail the film.) Bracingly funny, mercilessly outraged, bottomlessly nihilistic...these are words the film constantly summons up. But even moreso than Gattaca, Lord of War is two straight hours of Niccol threatening to take right turn, being almost there, spying the gold that lies riiiiiiight around the corner...then swerving back to the least interesting trajectory possible. Niccol seems to be under the impression that he’s perverting moldy conventions (here, the rise-and-fall set-up, complete with tedious subplot about a trophy wife), but his films are too clearly smart to surrender to pure genre. Here, he’s mostly in tune with a global system that, through a combination of greed and incompetence, turns opportunists into merchants of illegal goods. All the pieces are in place, and yet Niccol never connects the dots, leaving what's left of his argument to a jarring trail of just-FYI end notes, when, if Niccol were a better writer, they would have all come across in the (funny, scathing, nihilistic) film. So why the relatively high grade? Because I’m too much of a wuss to diss a film that so often hits the mark, or at least goes places few studio products dare tread. (It’s almost not worth mentioning Three Kings at this juncture.) There are great moments aplenty, particularly a race-against-time to re-paint the name of a cargo ship mere minutes before a sudden visit by the feds. And Nic Cage (back yet again) smooths over any and...well, most self-importance with his dry performance. Jared Leto and Ethan Hawke aren’t bad either -- two one-time pretty boys from the greasy-hair-and-goatee mid-’90s inexplicably turning into unpredictable quasi-Method heads. But it says a lot about the film that they’re both on salvage duty, Leto playing a hoary cliché, Hawke monkeying around with no character at all. Bridget Moynahan hits 30-70 this time -- not bad for an actress I previously assumed was a robot.
Spanglish (James L. Brooks) [C]
I like Edelstein’s reading of this cross-cultural Dramerdy as a “hang out” movie -- for the first time since Broadcast News, Brooks drops the sitcom shtick and fully commits himself to diving into a specific set of characters. Unfortunately, his thoughts aren’t that interesting, his takes on racial politics more like L.A.-big-whig thought bubbles (though not, thankfully, as glib as that of Mr. Paul Haggis). Worth seeing, half-surprisingly, for Adam Sandler’s ego-free, wildly aloof turn, but Téa Leoni’s attempt to shade in her monster of a character is an unwatchable if noble failure. Why no subtitles on the Spanish-talk, dude.
Kinsey (Bill Condon) [C+]
Reminiscent, of course, of Alexander & Karaszweski’s once-touted streak, though Condon is even farther out there. There are Horatio Alger moments aplenty in this semi-middlebrow-ization of Proc, but, seemingly by design, they never add up, the film refusing to build to any real endpoint. It’s not about the man finding love amongst icy science, a topic Condon gets out of the way in the first 45 minutes (then shoots down cold in the final minutes). It’s not much about prudes-vs.-non-prudes, either, as Tim Curry gets next to little screentime and the Lithgow story is all but forgotten after the (inventive) flashback opening two reels. It’s not really about anything, in fact, except that brief period where the obsessive researcher and the cultural climate suddenly collide, turning him into a name before his topic-of-choice melds into the zeitgeist -- the creator rightfully winding up a distant second to that which he introduced. (The finale is a keeper: it's back to work for these two, and, even better, there's nary a set of post-film comments.) It’s pretty sad when a sub-genre has to strip itself of most of its tropes to not be totally annoying, but them’s the breaks for our steadfast enemy, the biopic.