Reconciliatory art doesnít have to be dull, but Clint Eastwoodís Invictus is about as adventurous as a centrist politician dedicating a monument in the park. The scene is South Africa in the early post-apartheid years, the racial divide is stated along sports lines: the camera pans across a soccer team of uniformed Afrikaners, then cranes up to reveal black kids kicking a ball in the field across the street. Tasked with suturing the nationís "black aspirations and white fears," newly-elected President Mandela hopes to bring both sides together at the rugby stadium in the 1995 World Cup. Morgan Freeman is Mandela, and, except for the occasional private twinkle (and his exquisite recitation of Henleyís titular poem), itís a stiffly dignified job, a monolithic vertical wheeled cautiously in and out of offices, parties, arenas. Despite protests from other characters ("Heís not a saint, okay? Heís a man!"), the halo persists. As Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks national rugby team, Matt Damon actually gives a more shaded performance, rendering an apolitical manís tiny shifts toward awareness with intelligent reticence. A plainspoken and often devastating analyst of breakdown, Eastwood turns to butter when dealing with healing. Turgid as it is, Invictus is nevertheless the least offensive of the seasonís Oscar-grabbers. Save for an unforgivable bit of fear-stroking (why is that jet flying so low?!), this blend of Great Man biopic and underdog sports rouser is spacious and laidback, light on pious cathedral lighting and inescapable Obama parallels. At best, the all-business transparency approaches artisanal eloquence. With his insistence on human frailty and the heft of responsibility, Eastwood is too smart to believe that racism can be magically conquered -- in the midst of post-game euphoria, the salt-and-pepper bodyguards who spent the movie scowling at each other guardedly venture a handshake. At least thatís better than Gran Torino suggesting that "spooks" and "zipperheads" are just an old timerís way of saying "hiya!"
A far slimier tale of race, sports and uplift, The Bind Side makes Invictus look like a paradigm of subtlety and sobriety. The true-story basis is the trajectory of Michael Oher from semi-homeless Memphis kid to star offensive tackle at the NFL after being adopted by a privileged white family. In John Lee Hancockís patronizing movie version, "Big Mike" (Quinton Aaron) is a hulking Baby Huey so docile that he never thinks about getting out of the rain until a sassy decorator (Sandra Bullock) decides to take him in. The puppy-man is soon gazing moistly at his first bed, and reminding the bourgeois clan about the importance of sitting together at the dinner table. "Is this some kind of white-guilt thing?" A disaster in class, the character finds his sweet spot on the football field after Miss Congeniality gets him to channel his "protective instincts" into gridiron pummeling. Cue montage of college recruiters pissing their pants as if seeing a tackle for the first time, and playing straight-men to a grinning brat who quotes from Jerry Maguire. Ever the happy scullion, Big Mike sits back while his saviors take credit for his victories; his single independent thought -- suspecting that his adoptive parents might be exploiting him -- leads him back to the ghetto, natch. The real Oher is probably too busy counting his millions to care, but I wouldnít be too happy to see my life turned into a blob of playdough to be stretched and molded by paternalistic ideology and given second billing to Bullockís bottomless supply of pluck. And what about the filmís view of black people as baby-daddies, ravaged junkies, and shirtless thugs who are easily quelled by a pasty ladyís NRA credentials? In his equally retrograde The Alamo, Hancock asked his audience to remember. Facing other cultures here again, his message here is even simpler: "Honey, his gift is the ability to forget."
If Orson Welles didnít exist, David Thomson would have had to invent him. Maestro, exhibitionist, conjurer, Falstaff, self-romancer and self-lacerator, spotlight-hog, pussy-hound, Napoleon, cigar-gnawer, hustler, exile... And yet, Richard Linklaterís Me and Orson Welles focuses on the Me, a starstruck student played by Zac Efron, who still comes off as a cross between Troy Donahue and a Beanie Baby. Itís 1937, and the Mercury Theater is about to stage its notorious production of Julius Caesar in fascist drag. O.W. (an uncanny rendition by Christian McKay) is a whirlwind of impatient creative energy, clashing with everybody from investors to carpenters and shtupping his leading ladies, high on knowledge of his own brilliance. Cast as Lucius, Efronís callow thespian gets "the chance to be sprayed by Orsonís spit," as the fetchingly acerbic secretary (Claire Danes) puts it. Can greatness rub off? The contrast between the mild/turbulent characters (mirrored in a moment when an amateurís manuscript is brushed against an ancient Grecian urn) might have been developed thematically if it didnít so patently reflect the chasm between a teen idolís blandness and an impersonatorís virtuosity. Period reconstruction is a matter of Ď30s music and underlined name-dropping ("David O. Selznick! The man whoíll bring Gone With the Wind to the screen!"), a shade too tidy for a tale dealing with an artist who was forever orchestrating a swirling mise-en-scŤne wherever he went. Still, itís a film of true (if conventional) pleasures. Linklater stages the backstage tantrums and footlight derring-do with fleet-footed fondness, and gets tasty performances from Ben Chaplin (a neurotic George Coulouris), James Tupper (a womanizing Joseph Cotten) and Leo Bill (a jittery Norman Lloyd). And, knowing his fascination with youthful ardor and potential, itís easy to imagine Linklater being equally beguiled by Wellesís post-premiere booming ("How the hell do I top this?") and a wannabe poetís proto-indie murmurs ("Wouldnít that make a great scene in a story? Just two people meeting?").
Crazy Heart and Young Victoria: Mediocre awards-season staples with some good acting. The former, directed by Scott Cooper, is Jeff Bridges warming for The Waylon Jennings Story as a crinkly country troubatour who used to be a honky-tonk luminary but has since crawled up into a tequila bottle; now he tours bowling alleys, pukes in the back of saloons, and depends on a starstruck bartenderís freebie or a worn groupie in the audience. A smitten journalist half his age (Maggie Gyllenhaal) provides the path to redemption. The genre isnít the dustbowl naturalism of Payday or Tender Mercies, but the Comeback-Kid vehicles of Venus and The Wrestler, in which the protagonistís last chance of salvation echoes the aging starís last grab for a Best Actor Oscar. Itís a familiar slab of role, but Bridges, an effortlessly physical performer with an unfussy, never-mawkish grasp of character, provides plenty of salty detailing. Young Victoria is a genre picture, too: Jean-Marc Vallťeís plush, plodding stroll through the dowager queenís early years fits all too snugly into the Marie Antoinette-Duchess-Other Boleyn Girl mold of young actresses donning corsets, perukes and plumes for the benefit of history-class slackers. (The screenplay spells the intrigue out for slow-learners: "Do you ever feel like a piece of chess? ... Youíre like a china doll walking over a precipice!") Victoria is Emily Blunt, whom Iíve eagerly followed since My Summer of Love. I love actresses with hints of cruelty, and Blunt has the regality and fetching petulance of a blue-blooded heartbreaker. Thereís no excusing the film for having her neatly pressed and folded in period respectability, particularly when the tangible emotional urgency Jane Campion brought to Bright Star is still so fresh in the memory.
Reviewed January 9, 2010.