O Brother, Where Art Thou?
dir.: Joel Coen
PG-13, 106 min.
Opening Dec. 29 at area theaters
In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a likably excessive tall tale set in a Deep South of enchantment and wonders, Joel and Ethan Coen work in a bumptious yet burnished style; for lack of a better phrase, it might be termed yokel pastoral. The movie’s not as funny or as frantic as their Raising Arizona, but as a whole it feels looser, like less of a contraption. In this Depression-era update of The Odyssey, for which Homer gets a writing credit, George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson play fugitives from a Mississippi chain gang who embark on a series of treacherous adventures en route to the impending nuptials of Clooney’s Penelope, Holly Hunter.
The title comes from Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travelsit was the name of the socially conscious allegory that comedy director Joel McCrea wanted to makebut the rambunctious tone comes more from Sturges’ The Great McGinty. The movie’s most engaging at its least realistic: in Clooney’s highfalutin speech, in the knockabout slapstick of the convicts’ run, and in the surprising adaptability of the mythic elements. There’s even a beautiful sequence that may be the first spark of unforced lyricism in the Coens’ canon: a riverside baptism, set to a soaring Alison Krauss hymn, at which the congregation materializes in white robes amidst the sunlit glow of a glade. In these moments, the mix of folktale Americana and Capra-corny sentiment brings out a sunny fondness in the Coens, underlined by the golden hues of Roger Deakins’ glorious cinematography.
But whenever the Coens try to introduce elements of social commentary, or even simply to acknowledge the harsh truths of living in rural Mississippi in the 1930s, they look like pandering wiseasses. The nadir is a Klan rally staged as a Busby Berkeley routine, replete with the comically bungled lynching of the movie’s most significant black character. It’s funny only if, like the Coens, you can set aside the thousands of successful lynchings and the history of suffering and intimidation behind them. Here they give full vent to the least generous side of their wit, which basically consists of pointing at funny-looking people and laughing. Nor are they above having cows machine-gunned and run over for laughs that don’t come.
At the same time, the movie burbles along to the strains of a stunning soundtrack of old-time country and gospel that’s in many ways its most distinguished feature. (The songs were recorded last year in Nashville with Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, and Gillian Welch, who turns up in the movie as a record buyer; members of the Fairfield Four also show up as gravediggers, and the Cox Family play on a flatbed.) The heavenly music not only contributes to the otherworldly mood, it anchors the Coens’ dreamy movie-fed past in genuine emotion and experience. O Brother, Where Art Thou? may not be the Coens’ best work, but its best moments are heartfelt and oddly personal, a celebration of hyperbole as our national heritage.
Sade's sweetest taboo
It’s easy to shape and frame arguments about the necessity for free speech when the speech in question would offend only a prude or a censor. So test your liberal pieties on this, excerpted from the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom: An aged, wealthy libertine demands that a tradesman’s daughter, a 12-year-old virgin, be brought to his quarters for his amusement. After inquiring indelicately about her maidenhood, he orders the terrified, humiliated girl to act as his chamber pot. He defecates upon her vagina and then mashes the fecal matter inside her with force sufficient to break her hymen.
A reader is certainly permitted to express outrage at this filth: Outrage is its intent. Yet within the cruelty and the vilification are some provocative political ideas. One is that in sexas in politicsmoney, self-interest, and social position dictate who is on top and who’s on the bottom, and who derives pleasure accordingly. Another is that morality is up to the discretion of the powerful, and power breeds nothing but the satisfaction that comes from dominance and defilement. But even if you see worth in these ideas, what worth does a free society get from allowing them to be expressed in such vile fashion?
Anyone who has access to the Internet, where the text of The 120 Days of Sodom is freely available, deals with that question all the time. The opening scene of Quills promises a similar confrontation with Sade’s chilling but undeniably fascinating work. As an unseen narrator describes a tableau of ritualized humiliation, the camera finds the curved throat and exposed flesh of an 18th-century noblewoman, who trembles at the touch of a hooded inquisitor. What sounds and looks sexual, however, is instantly brought into the realm of the politicaland intimate cruelty is revealed as state-sanctioned brutality, removing the distinction between the two.
That’s the last moment at which Quills demonstrates the courage of its convictionswhich raises the question why anyone wanted to tackle Sade’s work for mass consumption in the first place. Quills is set in the Charenton asylum where the Marquis was intermittently jailed; in Doug Wright’s clever but shallow script, confinement only frees the imprisoned author’s debased imagination. In collusion with Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a chambermaid who smuggles his works to a public eager for scandal, the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) operates away from the scrutiny of the asylum keeper, Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a liberal-minded man of the cloth who enjoys spiritual sparring with his infamous charge. But when Sade’s publications enrage Napoleon, Charenton gets a much less tolerant ruler: the monstrous Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine).
As long as Wright sticks to asylum intrigue and the nasty cat-and-mouse game between the Marquis and Royer-Collard, the movie is devious, amusing adult entertainmentthe specialty of director Philip Kaufman, whose hard-to-evaluate career encompasses The Right Stuff, Henry and June, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But Quills has been overscaled as an allegory about unfettered free expression and the consequences of repression. By taking away Sade’s writing quills, Coulmier and Royer-Collard succeed only in driving him and the other inmates to other, more dangerous outlets.
That only makes the movie’s timid treatment of Sade’s ideas laughable as well as hypocritical. The movie excises the scabrous political content of his writing along with his most indefensible extremes. What remains, filtered through Wright and Kaufman, sounds as intellectually threatening as the Penthouse “Forum”it’s as if the guy were persecuted for writing saucy books. If the filmmakers can’t trust the viewer with the full force of Sade’s depravities, what right have they to construct glib ironies about free speech? Rush, who attacks his part with a lewd sense of mischief, is quite impressive within the confines of the role. But his Sade still comes across as a PC plaything.
Although Rush and Caine have the juiciest roles and savor them accordingly, the luminous Winslet gives the performance that seems least like an ideological mouthpiece and most like a human being. An avid Sade reader, her Madeleine says that imagining herself as a bad girl on the page allows her to be a good girl in life; only Winslet’s earthy, guileless sensuality redeems that thudder of a thesis statement. The movie takes pains to show how driven Sade is to write when he loses his quillsif not in his own blood, then in feces. But by watering down his writing for the sake of dubious argument, it’s pretty obvious which ink Quills is dipped in.
Mel and female
A picture of Mel Gibson with the caption “What Women Want”it’s less a movie poster than a truism. But the movie means something else by its title. In romantic-comedy New York, Mel is not what women want, although he thinks he is. Transforming him from male chauvinist flirt (and what men want to be) into romantic hero (and What Women Want) takes an accidental electrocution that gives him the power to hear women’s thoughts.
Not a bad concept, as these wacky “only in the movies” things go. Gibson plays Nick Marshall, an advertising executive who fortuitously acquires his strange power just when his firm is retooling its pitch toward the distaff demographic. A high-powered female exec named Darcy (Helen Hunt) puts Nick on some estrogen accounts, and he’s able to pick up selling tips by mental eavesdropping in day spas, yoga classes, and department stores. Since he’s a jerk (albeit a mutant one), he uses his powers for evil, stealing Darcy’s own ideas to become a star and take her job. By the time he falls in love with her, it’s apparently too late to apologize, step back, and let her take credit for the Nike ad that’s going to save the firm.
This is an idea that Frank Capra might have been able to run witha nutty wish-fulfillment fantasy plunked down just east of the real world. The trick would be to stay focused on the central dilemma: Simply knowing what women think doesn’t help you figure out how to give them what they really need. And advertising isn’t about what people need or want, of course; it’s about creating needs and wants. There’s a little of this in the screenplay by King of Queens writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa: Working on a campaign for Advil, Nick takes an unspoken suggestion from a female colleague and proposes a slogan based on faking headaches to avoid sex. What women want isn’t even the same as what they’ll admit to in mixed company.
But the story is filled with irrelevant and insultingly vapid subplots that detract from the main point. Marisa Tomei, sliding deeper into her personal post-Oscar slough of despond, plays a ditzy coffeeshop girl who loves Nick from afar, finally accepts his offer of a date, then can’t make up her mind about how to feel about him. Another mousy office girl fights depression when no one seems to notice her. Darcy has a reputation as a dragon lady, which she combats by wimping out in the clutch at every opportunity. Any one of these problems might have been interesting to explore on its own, but thrown together they can’t be anything but superficial caricatures of the problems women face these days.
Director Nancy Meyers, whose version of The Parent Trap earlier this year showed some unexpected depth, reverts to the type of high-concept comedy she and Charles Shyer cranked out in the ’80s (Father of the Bride, Baby Boom). Her bankrupt sense of the possibilities of this particular concept is revealed early on. When Gibson is visiting all the feminine haunts to discover those closely held secrets, a blaring pop song drowns out exactly the inner dialogue the movie promised us we’d hear. And when Nick doesn’t want telepathic powers at first, what does the “creative team” have him do? Get hit by lightning, think for a long sequence that he’s cured, and then find out that he’s not. Brilliant.
The core flaw of What Women Want, however, is that Gibson is never believable as a conniving jerk. Meyers ruins his characterization in the first half-hour by having him act much more charming, funny, and graceful than he’s allowed to be after the transformation. When he does a thrillingly beautiful solo dance number alone in his apartment to the strains of Frank Sinatra, the goose is cooked. Anyone who can dance like that in a movieFred Astaire, Gene Kellycannot be a jerk in said movie. Anyone who can do that is already What Women Want.
Best known stateside for his docudramas about the history of Poland after World War II, director Andrzej Wajda brings a lighter touch to Pan Tadeusz, his adaptation of the epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz. A multitentacled plot involves an age-old feud between the families of Judge Soplicka and Count Horeszko over a castle, and the hoped-for marriage between Soplicka’s dashing nephew Tadeusz (Michal Zebrowski) and Zosia (Alicja Bachleda-Curus), granddaughter of a murdered Horeszko. Zosia’s coquettish and worldly guardian Telimena (Grazyna Szapolowska), however, only complicates things.
As befits any foreign period film submitted for Oscar consideration, epic landscapes, gorgeous costumes, and sumptuous feasts abound, together with military pomp and gritty 19th-century detail, such as fearsome battle scars on male faces. Which points to the power politics that make up Wajda’s larger theme: Castle warden Gervazny (Daniel Olbrychski), a beefy Horeszko loyalist who could be Jesse Ventura’s doppelganger, convinces the local peasantry to back the count in an attempted coup. Meanwhile, Soplicka’s ally, a rabble-rousing monk with a secret past, incites them to join Napoleon’s approaching army in an assault on Russia. The already bloodthirsty peasantry, who revel in bear hunts, brawls, and swordfights, are ripe for manipulation.
If Mickiewicz’s poem suggests a nostalgic, even Camelot-like take on the Poland of old, Wajda’s gimlet-eyed treatment highlights the drama wrought by an enduring imbalance of power in the hands of a moneyed fewproviding decent entertainment value along the way. Pan Tadeusz opens Friday for one week only at the Belcourt.
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