Catching Up #3: The Fighter, I Love You Phillip Morris, Enter the Void, Burlesque, Tiny Furniture
By Fernando F. Croce

The Fighter. Taking a cue from The Wrestler, David O. Russell stages his comeback to the screen (it’s been six years since I Heart Huckabees) with a burly tale of underdog pugilism, throwing in some junkie-redemption shtick just to be safe come Oscar time. But where Darren Aronofsky’s film at least connected with the director’s fascination with baroquely frayed flesh and psyche, there’s nothing personal about Russell’s paint-by-numbers portrait of real-life Lowell, Mass. light welterweight boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), unless you count Melissa Leo’s car-alarm turn as Micky’s Mommie-Dearest manager as an expressive addition to Russell’s gallery of kooky materfamilias (Alberta Watson in Spanking the Monkey, Mary Tyler Moore in Flirting with Disaster). Even more foul is Christian Bale’s Method minstrelsy as the fraternal fuck-up, a once-golden boy now hooked on crack, old memories, and scene-hogging gestures -- it takes mere seconds for the actor’s sunken cheeks to start bulging from the gigantic chunks he bites out of the scenery. To heighten the project’s streak of bogus candor, Russell keeps slamming bodies together, his camera bobbing to inane musical montages and displaying less respect for blue-collar experience than a Jerry Springer Show segment. As the stolid eye of this high-decibel hurricane, Wahlberg’s sensitive-bruiser bit does generate a touching diffidence. Everything else is Cinderella Man with crack pipes.

*

I Love You Phillip Morris. Un Chant d’Ace Ventura. A far nervier true-story saga, this slapdash, invigorating screwball romance milks its third-act, for-your-consideration clichés (namely, the gay victim expiring in bed in the nobly moist Longtime Companion-Philadelphia manner) only to blithely uncloak them as part of the main character’s charades. As church organist-turned-flaming queer scam maestro Steven Russell, Jim Carrey vibrates with glee -- wired up for the story’s heady brew of libido, lies and liberation, he rediscovers the randy turmoil that had been blunted by the likes of Fun with Dick and Jane and Yes Man. Russell meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor, very sweet as Carrey’s bottom-boy, um, straight man) during one of his many sojourns behind bars, and soon the two are swaying to Johnny Mathis’ "Chances Are" while guards and prisoners clash outside their cell. Settled in McMansions with his new beau, Russell’s love remains genuine even as his mind seems to head higher into the clouds with each slippery hoax: "Sometimes you gotta shave a bit off the puzzle piece to make it fit." First-time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa operate in brassy skits (imagine Almodóvar handling the lovers’ yellow and orange prison uniforms to see how visually drab they are), but Carrey and McGregor never shortchange the ribald humanity in the characters’ dance of outlaw actions and outlaw emotions.

*

Enter the Void. "I am the hallucinogenic, take ME!" cries Dalí. My second stab at Gaspar Noé’s pothead opus, having previously been driven off after one hour due to sheer sensory fatigue. I stuck it out this time, and was glad I did -- like Aronofsky, Noé has thuggish sensibilities but an occasionally tingling feel for cinema, and here you get moments that pull the medium’s visual vocabulary this way and that like taffy. Digitally lubricated to give the feeling of a single, mutating POV shot, it follows a drone-voiced American shithead (played by the back of Nathaniel Brown’s neck) as he marvels at the phosphorescent Tokyo cityscape, gets killed during a drug bust, and drifts through walls and over buildings as an unmoored spirit. Star-children, smoky heavy-petting sessions, Paz de la Huerta as the protagonist’s discombobulated sister (a stripper, but really a Cocteauesque Other Half), and assorted light shows ensue. "They say you fly when you die," and so does the camera, liquefying screen space in ways usually reserved for experimental animators. Closer to Corman’s The Trip than to Kubrick's 2001, though I have to admire any filmmaker cracked enough to cap a vision of cosmic transcendence with a vagina’s view of an incoming penis-missile. Knowing Noé's work, that’s probably as close to humanism as he’ll ever get.

*

Burlesque. Another year, another musical that completely misunderstands the genre’s allure. Think of the dancing cameras of Minnelli and Donen leaping into the action, of Renoir’s can-can dancers swirling off the stage and into the audience. Hell, think of the Brooklyn Bridge hoofers sculpting with air and smoke in Step Up 3D. Here, however, there’s only the meek viewer’s vantage, nailed to the seat and made to watch as director Steve Antin vainly scrambles to energize static setup after static setup with cuts, cuts, cuts. So you’re stuck with Christina Aguilera as Carroll’s Alice as Ruby Keeler, showing off her "mutant lungs" at a boringly Fossefied nightclub run by Cher’s waxen Cleopatra. In the year of Ne Change Rien and Our Beloved Month of August, this lack of melodic imagination especially rankles. Those films mined songs for enthralling visual-emotional abstractions; this is elevator music.

*

Tiny Furniture. The universe as Tribeca loft. Gratuitous swipes at foreign films. Narcissism side by side with ugly-duckling masochism, neither interestingly examined. Relatives and friends muffing dumpster-loads of pop references (Nietzsche and YouTube! Woody Allen and tentacle porn!). Gratuitous frozen dead hamster. Lena Dunham is still young and, as her character whines to family, critic and viewer, she’s "trying really, really hard." Watch this space, though I must confess that this chunk of "post-graduation malaise" is so close to my personal definition of a cinematic Hades that it’s scary.


Reviewed December 23, 2010.

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