Family Affairs, Plus the Japanese Man Who Wasn't There
By Fernando F. Croce

Another miscellany week, though with more than worthy bits. The most immediately appealing thing about Junebug is that it isn't Thumbsucker, or The Chumscrubber, or Chumsucker or what-fucking-ever, cynical twaddle dressed up as exploration of familial-communal alienation. Like them, it hails from Sundance, but artistically it's on a different level -- indeed, simply based on their abundance of interest on the registers of human interaction, director Phil Morrison and screenwriter Angus MacLachlan blessedly trade the facetious snickering of American Beauty for the behavioral humanism of Leo McCarey. Nowhere near the transcendence of such McCarey masterpieces as Make Way for Tomorrow, Good Sam and My Son John, the movie remains a spiritual descendent, its focus shifted from suburban to pastoral (or, more specifically, from Chicago to North Carolina) as a business detour segues into perilous meet-the-parents territory. Freshly wed Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz drive to see his family in the course of pending negotiations with a local painter for her art gallery; Ma (Celia Weston) gives Davidtz the eagle-eye, Pa (Scott Wilson) meekly searches for his screwdriver, and sullen younger bro (Benjamin McKenzie) simmers in unspoken bitterness, a two-year "phase," according to effusively chatty, very preggers Amy Adams, his wife.

No need to imagine this as a Reese Witherspoon Hollywood romp to appreciate its unstressed loveliness -- truth lies in the details. Adams breathlessly pelting skinny, cosmopolitan Davidtz with questions ("What makes you tick?") as they paint each other's nails; McKenzie scrambling to tape a nature special for his wife, then yelling at her in frustration in the midst of her baby shower; empty, lifeworn rooms lingered over by the camera, spaces where the characters might be sobbing by themselves moments later. More than anything, Amy Adams' smile -- I remember her only as DiCaprio's gal in Catch Me If You Can, but here she's simply magical, guileless and throbbing, sunniness fraught with desperation. The tension is between urban and rural values, updated to Blue and Red States, or maybe between human beings, who remain mysteries to each other even after years under the same roof. Judgment-passing comes only once towards the end, morally tsk-tsking the city chick's choice of career over good, old-fashioned family values, though the film is more about uniting than separating, Brit teaching native about Mark Twain (more McCarey, Ruggles of Red Gap), quiet bliss during a hymn, the distance between two estranged brothers acknowledged in the arc of a thrown wrench. In the "outsider" works of the old painter (Frank Hoyt Taylor), slavery and the Civil War come to the fore as chunks of history to be inescapably dealt with; Junebug suggests a similar approach to the space separating people, both within and out of a family -- acknowledge it and render it, tenderly, into art.

*

Even Adams would have to work her glowing flakiness like a dray horse to brighten up the deadpan bleakness of Tony Takitani. The title character is a Japanese Man Who Wasn't There, first seen sculpting a miniature battleship from construction dirt, with the same meticulous care he's to apply to his illustrations later on in life as a hangdog adult (played by Issey Ogata). Craft but "no warmth" in his work, someone says, and the same might be said of Jun Ichikawa's rigorous formalistic approach, although what other approach could have suited the Haruki Murakami original source? Ichikawa's style is a distillation of a distillation, the colors bled of vitality, figures walking from afar toward the camera or standing by the horizon, the possibilities of life all but miniaturized. It certainly appears that way to Tony, the son of a jazz trombonist and war prisoner during the 1940s, outsider status already cemented since birth with an Americanized name in post-WWII Japan. Mega close-ups mingled with sepia wartime photography, but Ichikawa's main gambit is the lateral tracking shot, languidly, from left to right, the passage of time hardly caring about emotional misery. Piano tinkling and somnolent narration (with gaps completed by the characters) further push the tone of cosmic loneliness, until Tony finally decides to court and marry much younger Rie Miyazawa.

For much of its slender running time (75 min.), the film seems to be building some kind of shock-surprise beneath the aestheticized lulling, kinda like Miike with Audition. The twist, so to speak, arrives with the revelation that his wife, initially praised for the way she wears her clothes, turns out to be a garment-freak, shopping nonstop till designer wear fills an entire room and, in one of the movie's spartanly understated tragic-comic moments, a return to the store causes her death. Alone again, naturally, thus Tony, bereft, arranges a newspaper ad seeking a lookalike to literally fill her shoes; a young woman (also played by Miyazawa) shows up and promptly drops to her knees, crying at the sight of so much pricey clothing. An aborted Vertigo, so there's little more for Tony to do other than wait out life's minutes, spiritual anguish worn like a badge of honor. Not really in the mood for stylized moping, no matter how delicately woven, yet I found myself increasingly interested in the stately, lyrical relentlessness of the work, objects encasing memories and unexpressed feelings, and visual rhythms as severe as Jarmusch's. (The main character could indeed be a distant relative of Bill Murray's forlorn Don Juan in Broken Flowers, though with more of the pain of self-awareness.) Minimalist to the point of evanescence, Tony Takitani scarcely satisfies, yet it lingers -- limpidity of image along with imperceptible epiphanies.

*

Neither limpidity nor epiphany for Cry_Wolf, which might as well have been created by sleepy Tony Takitani -- emmintently unremarkable, and further evidence of the horror genre today as the place where promising ideas go to die. Actually, it isn't a horror movie, despite the campaign shooting for the Scream slaughtered-teen crowd -- too jaded to believe in supernatural furies, the young protagonists whip up their own boogeyman (on a laptop, of course), only for him/her to validate the serial killer rumors they've been spreading over campus, "Be careful what you wish for" popping up as instant-messenger threats. Or is that really what is happening? Director Jeff Wadlow and his writer, Beau Bauman, keep pulling the rug from under the audience so often that the characters' tedious, interminable hoaxes come off as straightforward by comparison. Jon Bon Jovi playing a journalism teacher is nearly as ludicrous as Paul Rudd laboring to get down with the guys in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but the movie wants to have its statement and eat it, too, in the shape of "the Game," the role-playing elimination contest concocted by the privileged kids where someone tagged as "the Wolf" has to vanquish the other "sheep" by using lies and accusations. I know, teen anomie finds outlets and all that, but seriously, isn't smoking pot less complicated?


Reviewed September 22, 2005.

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