Mini-Reviews: Anna Karenina, Rust and Bone, The Comedy
With Joe Wright, you know going in what you’re going to get. You will get luscious visuals. You will get at least one impressive lengthy tracking shot. You will get a quality costume melodrama performance from Keira Knightley, as she provided in Wright’s previous films, Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. In Wright’s newest venture into the past, Anna Karenina, he uses a bold theatrical device putting the majority of the film in an old theater, putting these people on a stage much like the royalty in imperialist Russia would be constantly needing to perform for an audience. This tactic, aided by a smart script from Tom Stoppard, gives Anna Karenina far more forward momentum and energy than the usual period piece might provide. While the film stumbles with some usual adaptation problems and a dud of a performance from Anna’s love interest, the strong performances, witty dialogue, and visual splendor more than make up for the film’s shortcomings.
Much of the early portion of the film is set on or around a stage, as Anna (Knightley) visits her brother (Matthew MacFadyen) in hopes of keeping his wife (Kelly MacDonald) from leaving him. Meanwhile, an old friend of her brother, Konstantin (Domhnall Gleeson), has come to visit in hopes of marrying his wife’s little sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander). Sadly for Konstantin, Kitty is enamored with a young cavalryman, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Sadly for Kitty, Vronsky only has eyes for Anna. Sadly for Anna, she herself alls for Vronsky, despite being married to a well-respected statesman (Jude Law). Sound complicated? It’s not, really—considering how heavy this material could get, the first half in particular is quite breezy and stylish. Johnson’s Vronsky, however, doesn’t possess the natural smolder necessary to truly connect with their love affair—the love story between Konstantin and Kitty is far more moving. It doesn’t help that the second half of the film is forced to fast forward through a gradual falling out between Vronsky and Anna; instead of looking like the fleeting nature of love had any impact, it becomes a typically melodramatic “how dare society frown upon us!” tale, not nearly as complex as the ending should get. Knightley and Law are both sensational, so it’s never disengaging, and the literal “staging” allows for some fantastic theatrical moments that should delight even those who turn their nose up at costume melodrama. Still, it’s a shame about Vronsky: the film is one perfomance shy of being truly terrific.
Rust and Bone:
It feels dismissive to call Jacques Audiard’s new film Rust & Bone paint-by-numbers. The lead performances by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard are rich and engaging, the cinematography rivals any film this year, and a few scenes within the two hour run time truly pack a punch. However, one can’t shake the feeling that Audiard has taken the “damaged people” storyline and given it the Mad Libs treatment. Outside of a killer whale attack, there’s nothing here that indicates the film will veer into unfamiliar territory. Perhaps this is just some lingering disappointment, as Audiard’s previous outing, Un Prophet, took the usual “menial thug to mafia don” storyline and made it feel fresh and alive. There’s no denying the film is exquisitely crafted… it’s just hard to fully emotionally engage when you’re admiring the craft from afar rather than being hopelessly absorbed into these characters’ lives. It’s well worth watching, but it falls slightly short of its potential.
Ali (Schoenaerts) is an ex-fighter working the odd security gig here and there in hopes of being able to support his five-year-old son. He’s not a particularly good father, yet you sense he means well enough underneath his luggish exterior. Stephanie performs with the killer whales at Marineland, when one day an accident during a performance costs her her legs. She met Ali out clubbing one night, when he served as her designated driver. They reconnect after her accident and begin to help one another. It’s not enormously difficult to predict that the film will draw clear parallels between her physical damage and his emotional damage, but Schoen and Cotillard share terrific chemistry. I’m not sure what method Audiard used to make Cotillard look like she has no legs, but it’s one of the more impressive effects I’ve seen all year. As an audience member, your eye at first is constantly drawn to try to find the seams that simply aren’t there, so eventually you merely accept the illusion: no small feat. The visuals alone are worth your admission price, as each angle and flare of light creates an air of delicate romance. If only the storyline or the characters presented us with something that felt new; every time the film looked like it was parting ways with the usual path, it would slide back into the formula. It’s still a formula that is proven and enjoyable, yet this tale of redemption via romance is likely to fade from memory long before the best examples of the genre do. Check it out for the execution, but afterwards, check out Un Prophet to see what this film could’ve been.
Tim Heidecker is a comedian who revels in “anti-comedy,” turning the usual expectation the comedy genre provides on its head and allowing an audience to wallow in awkwardness. This works to great effect on his TV show, “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!”, and did not work for me in ninety-minute form in this year’s “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.” However, with The Comedy, Heidecker plays a man whose life is so sheltered by ironic detachment due to boredom that his attempts at humor make him a reviled figure. He jokes about Hitler and slaves, he makes black jokes to a room of black people, and he harasses the nurse caring for his dying father. This isn’t playing for laughs from an audience this time. Here, there’s commentary being made on humanity’s recent trend towards irony and removal—even shock humor is boring to most nowadays. While the message is certainly a bold one to tackle, The Comedy’s execution stumbles. By examining this loathsome man as a pure character study without any surrounding narrative, it forces us to spend ninety minutes hating the main character with only one message to deliver to its audience. It’s like the dramatic version of the Saw franchise: those were torture porn, The Comedy is metaphorical torture porn.
One can’t fault the actors and director for commitment: Heidecker, per usual, goes all out to act as disgusting and socially retarded as possible. Several of the scenes between Heidecker’s character and other similarly irony-cloaked figures involve merely a game of oneupsmanship: who can be the grossest party in the conversation? (The best of these features Neil Hamburger, out of his usual stand-up comedy persona.) I admired the bravery of a few scenes near the end, which added much-needed complexity. The first features Eric Wareheim sharing melancholy family photos, interspliced with pornographic images of naked women. No one laughs or responds at all to their inclusion. The other involves Heidecker watching blithely as his date one evening has a violent seizure. He watches, never removing his gaze, taking a sip from his drink and chewing his ice cubes. These scenes suggest more than boredom causes this detachment, and this need to “feel” something goes beyond our normal desires for love and sex. The prospect of watching someone possibly die in front of him seems to connect with Heidecker’s character more than any of the horrendous jokes he tosses out to family and friends. While this idea presented towards the end intrigued me, it sadly comes in the last thirty minutes, after I sat for an hour watching an awful human being behave awfully while the filmmakers acknowledge how awful and sad his behavior is. Perhaps some sort of narrative could have helped introduce further dimension into the proceedings earlier, or maybe the film doesn’t want dimension—it just wants you to bathe in how shitty people can be and how we all in this age of increasing disconnect may become. If the titular comedy is life, I wonder if Heidecker is laughing that he made me use ninety minutes of me to immerse in this unpleasantness.