For such a vaunted versatilist, the Michael Winterbottom scent is getting familiar. His filmic grubbiness -- slovenly lenses, dodgy framing, nervous editing -- is in full sail in A Mighty Heart, along with his opportunistic mingling of dramatization and vérité: The introductory flurry of volatile footage from Pakistan is spiked with fastidiously "unstaged" glimpses of Angelina Jolie and Dan Futterman, offered as though culled out of the same CNN bin. A desultory explorer, Winterbottom is scarcely in full control of even his most orderly works, and here he's virtually a carpenter entirely at the mercy of his subject, namely the story of Mariane Pearl, or, rather, La Jolie's stardom as filtered through her character "Mariane Pearl." Pearl is, of course, the widow of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped in the aftermath of 9/11 and whose decapitation by jihadi extremists was uploaded on video; Jolie is Jolie, no matter how many coats of lotion she has to get to Mariane's Franco-Cuban skin tone. The Pearls are stationed in Karachi in early 2002, Daniel (Futterman) arranges an interview with people potentially connected to Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid, and disappears in the heavy night traffic -- by the time images of him as a prisoner are e-mailed to his seven-month-pregnant wife, the Pearl sanctuary has turned into a center of global fretting, with friends, Pakistani police officers and pushy CIA agents camped out in the living room. The investigation is a frenzied welter of journalistic tracing, cajoling and torturing, pivoting on Jolie's glance of serene apprehension by her cell phone.
In Winterbottom's view of the pernicious "War on Terror," A Mighty Heart is patently the After to the Before of Road to Guantanamo. The director wants anxious links between Daniel's killing and the treatment of POWs in the Cuban military base, yet his unilluminating portrait of a self-perpetuating cycle of atrocity and retribution lacks the moral complexities of Battle of Algiers and Munich. In its place, Winterbottom supplies lazy DV skittering, facile CIA digs (the casting of perennial weasel Will Patton says it all -- why not go all the way and get Willem Dafoe?), and, above all, a monument to Jolie's glam-mag variety of activism. A word on the actress is in order, since her presence blocks so much of the view. Jolie once gave tingles of authentic danger, perpetually pondering whether to slice a co-star with a knife or fuck his/her brains out, often settling on a combination of the two. What a wax figure she's become -- her turn here is Mother Theresa, Interrupted, with pained smiles, valiant faraway looks, prosthetic-pregnant-belly-holding, ostentatiously studied reticence. "Don't you collapse," somebody tells her, but such concern is ludicrous when directed towards such an essay in Spartan poise, which crumbles on cue for the tragedy as the howl Mariane-Jolie has been saving up all along is released; Winterbottom's camera is in the bedroom with her, reminding me of Albert Brooks in Real Life asking distraught Charles Grodin to film his loneliness. "Reading newspapers turns you into a cynic," it is said here, and the same applies to watching torpid, faux-inspirational films.
A Mighty Heart smothers Pearl with the E! True Hollywood Story treatment, La Vie en Rose gives Edith Piaf the VH1: Behind the Music once-over -- both are about performers, but while Jolie looms over the terse tragedy of the narrative, Marion Cotillard immerses herself in Olivier Dahan's sprawling bio-blockbuster about the turbulent French chanteuse. Piaf was tremendous, a sort of aural Magnani who poured herself through song and turned ballads into wrenching pop cataracts: The iconic voice wasn't soothing, but uncouth and unembarrassed of braying, brandishing her travails like medals. She was born in a brothel and learned to sing in the streets, became a music-hall sensation and a kamikaze vivant, Cocteau wrote her a play and her funeral mobilized Paris. In other words, what Variety used to call a socko role; Cottilard knows it and fills it accordingly, a whirlwind of teeth, peepers, toothpick limbs, hunched shrugging and morbid passion, surely the season's hardest-working performance. One sequence only lies in synch with the actress' operatic timbre, when an extended take follows Piaf's meltdown after an airplane crash claims her beloved (Jean-Pierre Martins), weaving in and out of fantasy until her escalating hysteria spills onto the stage; for the rest, Olivier Dahan's direction is lazy both stylistically (when in doubt... montage it!) and historically (the picture skips blithe over the Occupation, then wheels in Marlene Dietrich for a quick howdy). No regrets for Cottilard's dedication, but plenty for the clichéd pap of the biopic genre, which the French can do as well (i.e., as badly) as us.
The opening credits of Evan Almighty are not quite over before a pooch bites Steve Carell's nutsack. Honest, lowbrow comedy is not in the movie's agenda, however; no, it's all about spurious reaffirmations of faith and family values, with Tom Shadyak, who used to at least gather the critters around Ace Ventura, now rounding up pairs of animals for his sanctimonious modern-day Noah's Ark. Carell, who lent Bruce Almighty its single half-a-laugh, has been appropriately neutered for the dismal sequel, which upgrades the character from TV newscaster to Washington, D.C. congressman while downgrading the comic from sharp supporting player to insipid lead. "Change the World" is his platform, his bedside prayer for support is answered by God (Morgan Freeman, again snug and smug in white linen), who unloads gopherwood on the hero's lawn and directs him to Genesis 6:14 ("Make thee an ark," bitch). As if there weren't enough politicos pimping God's name to justify their many idiocies today, Carell's suddenly bearded and robed Evan proceeds through horrid, Tim-Allen-was-not-available treacle, learning that transcendence lies in being a sturdy patriarch. Like The Astronaut Farmer, Evan Almighty is a plot that could (and should) have been projected as wholly disturbing were it not so wrapped in a cocoon of feel-good sitcom tropes (the way studios have always dispensed their merchandise). I'm partial to raining frogs myself, but by all means let a deluge come and cleanse Hollywood, with Carell and Shadyak first in line getting flushed.
Reviewed June 30, 2007.