Droning Lessons: An Education, Paranormal Activity, Chelsea on the Rocks, The Invention of Lying
By Fernando F. Croce

"Don’t let schooling interfere with your education." Lone Scherfig may have heard Mark Twain’s jape, but the year-I-became-a-woman triteness of her film An Education suggests she more likely had Helen (Bridget Jones’ Diary) Fielding in mind. Her teenage heroine (Carey Mulligan) is an Oxford-bound lass who, stranded in the middle-class realm of 1961 (not-yet-Swinging) London, dreams of Camus-penned, Juliette Gréco-scored bohemianism. As Wannabe Worldly Girl meets Wannabe Thirtysomething Roué (Peter Sarsgaard), the timbre is peculiarly breezy, as if aping the insistent bounce of Georgy Girl, Girl with the Green Eyes and all those early-Sixties British comedies full of grinning jolie laides. The ensuing pile-up of swell parties, continental trips and sundry luxuries dazzles Mulligan (and her parents, played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), though, like any good proto-hipster, she doesn’t let her practiced self-possession down even at the loss of her virginity. ("All that poetry, all those songs... for something that lasts no time at all," she sighs drolly afterwards.) Since the playboy has a yen for stolen artwork and bedroom baby-talk (and since he’s played by Sarsgaard, whose creepster-opacity is his fortune), it’s just a matter of time for unsavory secrets to surface and for the protagonist to smack her head on the ceiling of moralism. Scherfig, whose Italian for Beginners revealed her as the most humane member of the fungusoid Dogme 95 caboodle, is wobbly with tone and style but good with actors. Mulligan gets the season’s highest quota of smiling close-ups, yet she has enough charm to fill them -- poised, sly, elfin without getting too Audrey Tautouish. It’s not her fault the movie decides to sweep her character’s complexities under the rug with a hitting-the-books montage. The old "stay in school" adage has rarely been trotted out to such cop-out effect.

*

The reliably intolerable Harmony Korine gets an honorable mention for the upcoming Trash Humpers (a movie about trash... being... humped), but the year’s P.T. Barnum Award has to go to Oren Peli for Paranormal Activity. The gag is that this is oafishly composed and horridly acted because it’s supposed to be footage found by the police as evidence in a spooky case involving a suburban couple. As a girl (Katie Featherston) is picked on by a malevolent entity, her dickhead beau (Micah Sloat) records the tantrums for our benefit. "You promised me you wouldn’t buy a Ouija board!" "You’re fuckin’ freaking me out, babe!" A medium drops by: "Wooo, it looks like you guys have a demon. That’s not my area of expertise." Horror is no less subjective than humor, I know, but talcum footprints don’t exactly hit me where it hurts. Over and over again, the camera returns to a bluish, night-vision tableau of the couple’s bedroom, with half the screen vacant so that scare-starved viewers can anticipate the indescribable terror of... a creaking door. I mean, really? Have we learned nothing from the Blair Witch hoax? Paranormal couldn’t get a shiver out of a Chihuahua, but there is something scary going on here -- namely, the way this overhyped klutzfest is making a mint and being hailed as a shining example of zilch-budget ingenuity. A calling-card of a manufactured phenomenon, complete with inevitable Cinderella backstory: Shot in over a week for $11 grand, shelved for two years, and praised by Steven Spielberg (though surely not by George Romero, who made fun of this kind of narcissistic laziness in Diary of the Dead). Even trotting out the tired, spiritual-anxiety-metaphor standby would imply that Peli & Co. had something in mind other than dollar signs. Wait, if you must, for the YouTube mashup.

*

The Chelsea Hotel is Abel Ferrara’s kind of dive. A "garden of Eden" and a purgatory, a "vortex," a hip place to visit, live, drop out, create, and die. A grotty landmark of Manhattan’s artistic netherworld, the hotel seems to be on its way out, in danger of becoming another example of bland gentrification papering over the city’s historic cracks. Briefly back from his European sojourns, Ferrara eulogizes it in the fond, funky Chelsea on the Rocks. Ethan Hawke and Dennis Hopper are among the reminiscing denizens, Milos Forman is a witty tour guide of orgies past. Ghosts abound, whether in footage of Andy Warhol cooing at William S. Burroughs’ autograph and the 9/11 attacks glimpsed from a balcony window, or in impressionistic reenactments of famous former visitors such as Nancy Spungen (Bijou Phillips) and Janis Joplin (Shanyn Leigh). (The dead-celebrity romps are bleary improvisatory gigs, though they do give you the lasting image of Grace Jones cradling Leigh’s fallen Janis: "You’re gonna end up in the dark...") Ferrara, bless him, couldn’t care less that, in a documentary, the filmmaker is supposed to keep out of the camera's way: He laughs raucously at anecdotes, interrupts his subjects with a raspy "Holy fucking shit!" and shambles into the frame to lick a painted nude. "It’s easy to flip out here, sometimes." He’s too personal a director not to include himself among the struggling artists and hangers-on documented here, just as his presence is always felt among the sinners and hoods and vampires of his feature films. Hawk Alfredson, whose canvases were slashed by a loopy lodger, supplies this ragged, loving film’s emblematic line: "He gave my paintings a couple of scars. We all have scars." Ferrara wouldn’t want it any other way.

*

Hollywood has a history of rounding the edges off sharp foreign talent, but sometimes talent is complicit in its own defanging. Case in point: The Invention of Lying. Ricky Gervais, the brilliant British comic, not only stars in this maudlin offal, but also co-wrote and co-directed it (Matthew Robinson is the other culprit). The concept is something you’d find in the bottom drawer of Charlie Kaufman’s desk: In a Bizarro world where the entire human race can only tell the truth ("Hi, come in. I was just upstairs masturbating"), a sad-sack screenwriter (Gervais) conceives the radical concept of saying "things that aren’t." With it come flattery (Gervais gets to woo eugenics-obsessed Jennifer Garner), fiction (Gervais’ tall tales become hits with audiences, to the chagrin of Designated Asshole Rob Lowe), and, natch, religion (Gervais invents a "Man in the Sky" to comfort dying mum Fionnula Flanagan, and is promptly hailed messiah). It’s clear that anybody who comes up with a mock-advertisement like "Pepsi: For When They Don’t Have Coke" possesses all sorts of smarts, which only makes it more galling to see Gervais wasting his time and ours with flaccid rom-com uplift and cut-rate snark. Fans hoping for some of Gervais’ The Office wit will find themselves staring at an agnostic version of Bruce Almighty, scratching their heads until they draw blood.


Reviewed October 25, 2009.

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