Gun Crazy 

In 'Pulp Fiction's' wake, two hit-man yarns aim and shoot—but only one scores

In 'Pulp Fiction's' wake, two hit-man yarns aim and shoot—but only one scores

The Way of the Gun

dir.: Christopher McQuarrie

R, 118 min.

Nurse Betty

dir.: Neil LaBute

R, 109 min.

Both showing at area theaters

Because Quentin Tarantino is an obnoxious, motor-mouthed geek, and because he was so overexposed in the wake of Pulp Fiction’s surprise success, the recent trend among critics and cineastes has been to forget what made Tarantino’s first three films so special. So here’s a refresher: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and especially Jackie Brown were thrilling because they collided two worlds that we knew intimately—mundane, pop-culture-saturated everyday life and the violent posturing of the crime movie. Thugs with guns had long been a staple of American cinema, but to see criminals portrayed as overworked, TV-addicted mall-dwellers appealed to one’s sense of whimsy. It cast both movies and real life in a brilliant new light.

The same can’t necessarily be said of the copycat crime movies that followed, and it certainly can’t be said of The Way of the Gun, an often excruciating “thugs with guns” holdover written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie is best known for writing the Oscar-winning screenplay for director Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, a cleverly implausible entertainment with overwritten low-budget dialogue spoken by slumming big-budget actors. For his directorial debut, McQuarrie tones down the plot twists but ratchets up the groan-inducing speeches. This time, though, they come out of the mouths of actors grubby enough to almost pull off McQuarrie’s tin-eared tough-guy philosophizing. Almost.

Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro star as small-time hoods—code-named Parker and Longbaugh—who hatch a scheme to kidnap the surrogate mother of a wealthy couple. But both the pregnant woman (played by Juliette Lewis) and her employers are mob-connected, and soon Parker and Longbaugh are being stalked in their Mexican hideout by two bodyguards (played by Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs) and an aging bagman (played by James Caan). The cast—even the usually addled Phillippe—is outstanding, and for the first hour The Way of the Gun has an oddball, disjointed tone that’s unique enough to be promising. The film’s highlight is an early gunfight that plays out as an intricate chess match.

But the movie hits the wall with an interminable and gruesome standoff that’s so unpleasant to watch, it forces the viewer to reevaluate just what’s entertaining and/or enlightening about this brutal shoot-’em-up. Aside from a too-brief barroom conversation between Caan and Del Toro (during which the latter drops the pertinent observation that “people want to be criminals more than they want to commit crimes”), McQuarrie doesn’t give us enough of these characters to care about what happens or why. Nothing these crooks say or do leads us to believe that they had lives before McQuarrie started to tell their story. They exist only to allow the filmmaker to show some ice-cold bloodletting.

This is not the case with Nurse Betty, a far more imaginative “thugs with guns” movie that heads into delightfully strange places, with characters who reveal new layers of themselves right up to the final scenes. The film was written by John C. Richards and James Flamberg and was directed by Neil LaBute, a filmmaker who made his reputation on two stifling, bitter black comedies. Nurse Betty has almost no thematic link with LaBute’s In the Company of Men or Your Friends and Neighbors; rather, it’s an affectionate spoof of the illusions that people use to get through the grind.

Renee Zellweger stars as a sunny small-town waitress named Betty who’s married to a loutish car salesman, played with gusto by LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart. Two hit men named Wesley and Charlie—played by Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman—have been dispatched to clean up one of the car salesman’s side deals that’s gone south, and when they commit a shocking act of violence that Betty accidentally witnesses, the waitress goes into shock. A longtime fan of the soap opera A Reason to Love, she becomes convinced that she’s actually the former fiancée of a doctor character on the show, and she travels to Los Angeles to be with him, unaware that the hit men are on her tail. A series of coincidences ensue, and Betty finds things breaking her way for the first time in her life, though she’s too dazed to appreciate what’s happening.

LaBute hasn’t entirely shed the nastiness that made his first two films so hard to like. Nurse Betty has more than one bloody sequence that seems excessively shocking, and it’s been reported that LaBute and Rock rewrote much of the script to give the dialogue a coarser flavor—one that’s often incongruous with the weird fantasia transpiring onscreen. But the film is frequently very funny, especially when Betty finally meets her actor/doctor (played by Greg Kinnear), and nothing happens the way we expect it will...or indeed the way it should, were this film more realistic.

But even LaBute’s earlier work wasn’t about realism, no matter what some easily duped critics may have thought. Like his idol David Mamet, LaBute is into hyper-realism, where everything is a little more vivid and outsized than in the real world. And in the midst of all the ridiculous contrivances and stock comic characters—which mark this film as a blatant comedy—there’s room for poignant observation in two marvelous performances. Zellweger recovers from a series of post-Jerry Maguire duds with a tiered take on Betty that shows her delusional side and her haggard side in an equally sympathetic light; both sides function as a defense mechanism against a harsh life full of thwarted dreams. And the key to the film is Morgan Freeman, who concocts his own fantasies about the woman he’s tailing to give his dirty job more meaning.

The biggest laugh in the film comes when Freeman’s Charlie denies that Betty could be hooked on something as silly as a soap opera. While staring at a photo of Betty embracing a life-size cardboard cutout of Kinnear, he mutters, “It just doesn’t fit her profile.” At that moment, LaBute and company have given the “thugs with guns” genre something it hasn’t had since the heyday of Tarantino—the element of surprise.

—Noel Murray

Puff pieces

Last week, in the movie listings, I wrote that Ron Mann’s documentary Grass is “insufferably smug pro-pot propaganda—as opposed to Saving Grace, which is sufferably smug pro-pot propaganda.” Having taken a second look at Grass and having snuck another peek at Saving Grace, I’ve decided I was wrong. Not about the smug part: Both Grass and Grace preach cloyingly to the converted. But Saving Grace fails the test of its convictions, while Grass, despite its flaws, refuses to back down from the ugliest truths of the U.S. government’s wasteful, ineffective war on marijuana.

Chief among these are the roles of xenophobia, racism, and classism in the drug war, one of the few points Mann doesn’t undermine with his annoying use of cutesy animated graphics and goofy film clips. In Grass, Mann traces anti-hemp crusading back to the early 20th century, with the flow of Mexican immigrants into the U.S. Unfounded racist fears of bloodthirsty Mexican stoners were rampant, but they weren’t enough to convince states to enact marijuana laws. It took a campaign mounted in the 1930s by Harry J. Anslinger, the chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to scare the bejeezus out of white middle-class Americans.

Mann charts with dismay the subsequent evolution of anti-pot sentiment, from the eye-rolling hysteria of 1936’s Reefer Madness to the tut-tutting sleaze of 1967’s Mondo Mod. Unfortunately, he draws little distinction between actual government propaganda and these exploitation artifacts. But even these camouflaged drive-in movies show how pot became a one-size-fits-all bogeyman for whatever offended the current generation: sex mania in the 1930s, antisocial behavior in the ’50s, collapsing social strictures in the ’60s.

Good intentions and information aside, Grass is infuriatingly shallow. It relies on cheap ironies for comic effect—a typical gag has President Ronald Reagan listing the ill effects of pot smoking, like memory loss—and strokes its audience with winking pot-culture references that reinforce the weed warriors’ worst stereotypes. But at least it doesn’t justify pot only as an upper-crust privilege, unlike the entertaining but timid and hypocritical Saving Grace.

In its favor, Saving Grace has an immensely likable lead performance by Brenda Blethyn as Grace Trevethyn, a widow in a seaside British village who stands to lose her estate. To scrape up the mortgage, her wacky gardener (Craig Ferguson, who also scripted) suggests that she convert her greenhouse into a hydroponic pot farm. Without seeing the movie, you can pretty much guess the complications that will ensue, from the ladies’ garden club getting zonked to Blethyn tangling with big-city dealers. Some of this is as funny as it is predictable.

But Saving Grace rigs the plot so Grace doesn’t actually become a major trafficker—something that might offend a matinee crowd. Indeed, the movie draws a line between Grace the harmless cultivator and the nasty chaps who sell the stuff. The inference is that as long as pot remains a plaything of sweet British ladies and colorful villagers, it’s acceptable. How similar this is to Grass’ account of the legalization fervor of the mid-’70s, when suburbanites decided marijuana must be OK if they and their kids could enjoy it. The audiences for Saving Grace laugh at gags about giggling and munchies; the question is whether they’d feel so complacent watching the profane, sullen rappers puffing blunts in the awful new hip-hop documentary Backstage.

If not, that only shows how the drug war has been rigged to divide Americans along lines of class and race, even though the one thing that would bind the audiences for Grass, Saving Grace, and Backstage is first- or secondhand knowledge of the essential harmlessness of marijuana. No matter who wins the White House in November, we’re almost certain to have a former pot smoker in the Oval Office. And yet marijuana continues to be demonized. It’s telling that Saving Grace is getting primetime TV advertising, while Regal snuck Grass into Green Hills last weekend with all the fanfare of a street-corner drop-off. When it comes to addressing the ramifications of the war against hemp, we’re still more comfortable blowing smoke than clearing the air.

—Jim Ridley

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