The Assassination of a Great Yarn by Windbags Who Dig Really Long Titles
By Fernando F. Croce

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a sort of sagebrush Miller's Crossing. That's no compliment. Like the Coens, Andrew Dominik rummages through the tropes of American mythology in search of indelible tragedy, and instead pumps them full of gas -- cinematic aerophagia. Most of it is unendurably aestheticized, the most blatant example since Road to Perdition of how ruinous platitudinously "beautiful" photography can be. Clouds are forced into the sped-up scuttle, a locomotive rushes out of darkness and steam, the center of the frame is kept sharp while the edges trail into fastidious Vaseline smears: Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, probably nodded when one of the characters asserts how easy it is to "hide in vocabulary." Brad Pitt plays the notorious Old West gunslinger as a fatigued deity, but, if the weight of legend is taking its toll as he enters middle-age, his Jesse James can still be majestically silhouetted while conducting one last train holdup. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), with top hat and soft grin, introduces himself to the James gang as a man "destined for great things;" the 19-year-old gives the older Frank (Sam Shepard) the willies, though Jesse is intrigued enough to take the flattering upstart under his wing, at least until he feels Ford's gaze while soaking in a bathtub. "You want to be like me... or you want to be me?" Ford keeps a can of dime store novels romanticizing Jesse's exploits, and, when the outlaw tells the fan they're "all lies," it's the beginning of the young man's trajectory from gauche sycophant to bitter Judas.

The Yankee Passion-Play quality of this yarn, examined by such artists as Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, and Walter Hill, is enduring, and even Henry King's stodgy 1939 movie can be very stirring when Tyrone Power's Jesse James, the reckless phantom-hero of an increasingly sedentary nation, is finally eulogized for "what his times made him." The most intriguing earlier version, however, is Sam Fuller's 1949 directorial debut, I Shot Jesse James -- it's not only the abruptness of Fuller's style (even the title suggests bold, tabloid-styled directness) that contrasts with Dominik's lugubrious prettiness, but also his view of Ford as a belligerent mug increasingly warmed by pangs of betrayal. The new movie's Ford, sketched in Affleck's patented sotto squeak, feels like a crestfallen fanboy one moment and a spurned lover the next, and a nonentity throughout. In that sense, the character's closer to Alain Delon's angel of death in Losey's The Assassination of Trotsky, another account of a void filled with fame and infamy following the murder of an icon. After two hours of faux-Malick fields, Dominik's film briefly wakes up for the subtle complicity of the eponymous killing (Jesse James all but offers his back to his tremulous assassin), then proceeds to an absorbing final stretch, suggesting Ford's theatricalization of his crime as a blend of shameless cash-in and masochistic confession. Even then, however, the monochord dirge gropes for nonexistent depth -- Nick Cave shows up for the Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid bit, but the film is still just a shallow view of the cult of celebrity, just as Affleck's peeved glare, far from giving "signs that grieve the soul," simply looks like he's still pissed at Pitt for dressing him in Frito Bandito drag in Ocean's Thirteen.

*

Morgan Freeman plays God for the second time this year in Robert Benton's tepid dramedy Feast of Love, smiling benevolently over the mortals around him as a wise professor in a Portland college community. Rooms are lined with rich wood, wine is poured, plush weddings are conducted, amber lighting is plentiful: Freeman waxes on the folly of romance, but love, like everything else in here, has been polished within an inch of its life. Greg Kinnear, never more tiresome than when dispensing soggy sincerity, plays the town cuckold, whose eyes are elsewhere when his wife (Selma Blair) is getting her thighs massaged by another woman under the table. He hooks up with realtor Radha Mitchell, only to lose her to the married fellow she's been boinking for years; alone again, naturally, he slices his hand to feel "in my body as much pain as I felt in my heart," a line that works wonders on the next victim, a comely European nurse (Erika Marozsan). Contrasted with Kinnear's middle-aged heartbreak (and the twilight serenity of Freeman and Jane Alexander) is the innocence of Alexa Davalos and Toby Hemingway, a young couple so guileless that Benton can't resist tilting up from their snuggling to the night sky, where a star shoots by on cue. Subplots with homemade porn and stabby ol' Fred Ward notwithstanding, this is a ruthlessly winsome movie -- Benton has the desire to focus on human relationships, yet his approach is too placidly "humanistic" to pursue them beyond a sheen of cloying tastefulness. Despite the abundance of tits and beaver shots, this is really a ABC Movie of the Week from 1978 starring Robert Guillaume and Robert Reed.

*

A while ago, I used the sweet-gross generosity of the Farrelly Brothers to put Judd Apatow in his place. Now comes The Heartbreak Kid. Guys, how could you make such a liar out of me? Their remake of Elaine May's 1972 masterpiece of comic sourness is an utter botch -- unfunny, cowardly and, for the first time, mean. Ben Stiller is a San Francisco neurotic who marries Malin Akerman and gets cold feet during their Mexican honeymoon when her faults (from warbling along to the car radio to failing to trim her bush) suddenly become magnified, and he locates Michelle Monaghan on the greener side of the proverbial fence. May, one of the most overlooked American directors of the 70s, cuttingly mined Neil Simon's humor for Jewish and male anxiety: When Charles Grodin ditches the human messiness of his wife (Jeannie Berlin) for a golden Wasp (Cybill Shepherd), the moment is extended harrowingly for all the pain inherent in comedy. The Farrellys instead labor to make this asshole groom "likable" by turning Akerman's character into a full-on psycho cartoon, lest anybody's sympathies be disturbed; the dumbing down of the central joke just heightens its nastiness, which the film tries to alleviate by throwing in a menagerie of lame sidekicks. Jerry Stiller, Danny R. McBride, Rob Corddry... fine. But Carlos Mencia? Guys, how could you?


Reviewed October 12, 2007.

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