Straaaange world. Unashamedly escapist The Legend of Zorro sneaks in references to stolen elections and homeland security, yet Jarhead, set in the first Gulf War, willfully says zilch about the current U.S. involvement in Iraq. Perversity? Or just further proof that director Sam Mendes, after American Beauty and Road to Perdition, is by now the ultimate ace at arranging soulless packages that profess edginess and subversion while glibly questioning nothing? Either way, the snarky gravy gets poured on heavily from the opening, the Full Metal Jacket boot-camp bit recycled for a head slammed against a wall in freeze-frame, then the lame-brained whistling of "Don't Worry Be Happy." No irony should be this obvious, but Mendes prefers his flippancy ready-made, thus the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal, with all his Donnie Darko cross-associations as a staple of goofy Gen-X angst, for the young protagonist, Anthony Swofford. A troubled mom, a Vietnam-vet dad, a sister stashed away inside a mental institution -- but background details would only get in the film's hair, so each family member is dispatched via cutesy reverse dolly, the better to send the hero off to the barracks with other "retards and fuck-ups," including Peter Sarsgaard, Evan Jones, Jacob Vargas, and Marty Papazian, all under sergeant Jamie Foxx's grueling tutelage. The "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now is screened to whet their bloodlust, for Saudi Arabia, circa 1990, is the next stop.
"Operation Desert Shield," then "Operation Desert Storm," but really "Operation Sit Around and Fart" for these jarheads. Thousands of troops are unloaded into the desert for babysitting-duty of the oil reserves -- sounds familiar? Don't worry, be happy: political subtext, then and now, is scrubbed off in favor of wiseass Beetle Bailey antics seasoned in Mendes' trademark derisive flash. Dumped under the sweltering sun, the grunts will away their time jerking off, drilling against an unseen enemy, jerking off, placing bets on scorpion duels, jerking off, sitting in for censored TV interviews, and jerking off some more. Indeed, Jarhead is more successfully structured as an extended bout of macho coitus-interruptus than as a warfront jamboree -- the marines' communal shooting of loads to Coppola's virtuoso helicopter attack is later reversed when the fellas settle down for a viewing of another Vietnam-era staple, The Deer Hunter, which follows into homemade porn starring the wife of one of the soldiers. (Ed Gonzalez at Slant astutely tagged the sequence an interrupted orgy.) The military is a collective raging cock, fully erect for battle ("I think I got a hard-on," officer Chris Cooper rallies the troops, ready to kick ass) but kept immobilized while the fighter jets with the bombs get all the fun. Meanwhile, the women back home get pelted with blame; unable to rub one out to his girlfriend's pic, Gyllenhaal ambles through a nightmare scored to Nirvana, beloved staring at him from the mirror as he vomits up a molehill of sand.
At least Mendes' camera is looser here, especially refreshing after last composing a graphic-novel adaptation through the Barry Lyndon filter. A game of football gets played in full gas-mask regalia for media cameras, followed by mimed gay boffing; "The earth is bleeding," someone says later after Saddam Hussein has set the wells ablaze and oil rains down on the slowly advancing forces. A low-angle view of Gyllenhaal standing dead-eyed amid explosions then reveals pissed pants, but only after an obligatory crackup scene meant to illustrate the desensitizing effects of combat (or lack thereof); a stallion, covered in oil, wanders in for a hallucinatory touch, while the hero sits amid the charred remains of an Iraqi camp. Potentially pungent images all, but even working here with gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins, Mendes still works by egotistically tricking up airless setup after airless setup, a fastidiously prosaic visualist, rose petals over Mena Suvari's body or not. Jarhead plods its way to a frustrated mass ejaculation set to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" before coming home to garlands for a "clean" war, all the while cunningly dodging the arc from Bush I to Bush II, the racial-political mechanisms of the war machine, or the thirst for oil. Mendes is in the helicopter swirling overhead, patting himself in the back for assembling slick military faux-criticism from scavenged classics, while I'm on the ground looking up, yelling out: "Can't we get our own fucking war movie?"
Another Gen-X staple in Shopgirl, this time Jason Rushmore Schwartzman, who seems oilier with each new movie yet nevertheless provides the only real slivers of energy as a grubby slacker with ego issues. But the film isn't about him. Claire Danes plays the eponymous Saks clerk, transplanted from Vermont to Los Angeles hoping for an artistic career, then reduced to leaning on the counters of the swanky glove department as life sweeps by. But the film isn't about her, either. Despite the camera's doting over her as if she were a baby Garbo, Shopgirl is really all about Steve Martin, who produced, narrated, and adapted his own 2001 novella for the screen. Based on events from his life, I've been told, lending Martin's own hermetically pained playing as Danes' rich, middle-aged suitor the suggestion of confession, if not of self-analysis -- a "sexual relationship," but only from his side, leaving forlorn Danes to deal with the murmurs of the heart and eventually reconsider plebeian roadie Schwartzman, who's less stingy with his feelings. The camera dollies into the starry night from Martin's private jet, then out from the same sky, seen by the shopgirl from her bathtub: cosmic connection amid urban loneliness, but Anand Tucker's picture, meant to be bewitchingly graceful, instead comes off as half-asleep. Lost in Translation minus the cultural condescension, the chasteness, and the behavioral appeal, with another menopausal comedian enchanting a dewy starlet -- Martin as sour ruminator, but who remembers his wacky tour-de-force in Looney Tunes: Back in Action?
Speaking of 'toons... Chicken Little is Disney's maiden foray into the computer-animated realm of Pixar and DreamWorks, self-referential busyness picked up along with the technology. The rubbery characters are all barnyard dwellers, an oversized porker tags himself a "flip-flopper" and manic footage could be sent to "Chicks Gone Wild," though the main take-off here is Spielberg. Nerdy Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) once famously mistook a falling acorn for the sky coming crushing down, but the slender fable has to be stretched into 80 minutes, so Little can win back his perpetually embarrassed father's (Garry Marshall) respect by scoring the peewee baseball tournament. From there, send in the flying saucers. Patriarchal acceptance? Cuddly aliens left behind in cornfields? Arachnid invaders vaporizing cities? The only thing missing is John Williams swelling. Joan Cusack, Steve Zahn, Amy Sedaris, Don Knotts, Wallace Shawn, Harry Shearer and assorted wise-guys and gals provide enthusiastic vocals, but the zinginess is leaden, heavy with the sweat of a studio straining to snatch the kids back by throwing digi-crayons, potty jokes, and disco tunes at the lens. Cel animation doesn't sell nowadays, so into the trash with it, say Disney honchos; one more area taken over by the computers, though hope dies last, for Corpse Bride and Wallace & Gromit still showed the remains of a defiantly handcrafted art. Modern animation -- Welcome to the Suck.
Reviewed November 10, 2005.