Gangster's Paradise: Public Enemies, Brüno, Whatever Works
By Fernando F. Croce

Michael Mann slows down silvery-ghostly celluloid views of Clark Gable and Myrna Loy towards the climax of Public Enemies, but his Histoire(s) du Cinéma instant arrives earlier: John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), the notorious Depression-era bank robber, impulsively saunters into a Chicago police station and, as if in a trance, comes face to face with his own mug shot pinned on a wall. Cinema, celebrity, death, transformation. Was Mann ever actually thought of as an "action director"? Like Miami Vice, this is an experimental film masked as a studio blockbuster. Dillinger here is less a dapper gangland Robin Hood than a haunted Cocteau mannequin who keeps pushing forward to avoid being rattled by thoughts of mortality. When he lists four or five of his favorite things as a way of summarizing himself to hatcheck honey Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), he’s not being facetious -- this Dillinger is all surface, an amalgam of romantic pulp-fiction poses animated by Depp’s charisma and the filmmaker’s twin impulses of violence ("You can be a dead hero or a live coward") and dreaminess ("The stars... they look at you right before they go, and then they drift away into the night"). His nemesis, grim G-man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), is his mirror image in ruthlessness and blankness. They face each other only once, with cell bars between them, but the two are locked together in their individualism, a quality made obsolete by the rise of crypto-fascist forces (the FBI on one side of the law, organized crime on the other, neat rows of corporate desks in both). As in Heat, it’s a foxtrot between antagonists; other characters, whether vividly sketched (Stephen Graham’s Cagneyesque Baby Face Nelson, the ice-cube eyes of Stephen Lang’s Texas Ranger) or barely glimpsed (did I see Giovanni Ribisi? was that Lili Taylor?), are just guests in it.

Stylistically, Public Enemies plays Inland Empire to Miami Vice’s Mulholland Dr. Mann’s use of hi-def video lenses is fairly ravishing: Bronze light in a dance parlor and nocturnal greens in a hotel corridor, flares at a rainy airfield and smeared neon outside a theater, spliced with tiny rhomboid cuts. But what about the story? C’mon, you know the story, and if you don’t then see John Milius’s 1973 barnstormer Dillinger, because Mann has zero interest in restaging the past here. For all the fedoras and tommy-guns and Billie Holiday tunes, the Depression is a series of bald scrims; there’s no shortage of Walker Evans imagery available, yet the director is more interested in the tangle of telephone wires engulfing an eavesdropping government agent than in battered landscapes. Some of this transparency, with the 2000s perpetually intruding into the 1930s, is surely meant as "relevance": The Cheneyisms of "visionary" J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, bulky and clipped), the way Purvis dutifully turns his back on "enhanced interrogation techniques." I prefer to see it as an extension, possibly even a culmination, of Mann’s feeling for the tactile moment, the present-tense thrust of a camera high on movement and, claims of "chilliness" notwithstanding, emotion. The most moving bits in Public Enemies are neither "topical" nor "period" but timelessly sensory -- Dillinger and Billie missing the outcome of a horse race because they’re kissing, or waves of feeling being unleashed by a handful of words at the very end. By insisting on the visual and the emotive, Mann’s reveries risk being dismissed as boring and decadent. Their best defense is the beauty on the screen, but you have to feel it. Otherwise, we’re the audience in Mann’s marvelous little homage to the Strangers on a Train tennis match, looking left and right and up and down in a theater and still missing everything.

*

Brüno is shot on video, too, though the goal, as befits Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his hit Borat (also directed by Larry Charles), is closer to Allen Funt than Bill Viola. Rather than a Kazakh journalist, Baron Cohen’s wacky agent of chaos this time around is a flagrantly gay fashionista who, banished from the catwalks of his native Austria, brings his frosted hair, flaming thongs, and lisping umlauts to America. The road to fame is an arduous one: Rejected talk shows, failed sex tapes ("I couldn’t even schtup Ron Paul!"), inane stabs at celebrity humanitarianism ("Don’t kill each other, shoot a Christian," he sings during a Middle East tour). He adopts an African baby, bumps into Evil Phelps’ God-hates-fags flock, and, desperate, tries gay-conversion, which leads to an awkward silence-laden hunting trip with a group of rednecks. (A naked Brüno visits a good ol’ boy’s tent in the middle of the night: "A bear tore up all my clothes, except these condoms...") There have been some claims for Brüno as a post-Prop-8 document, possibly from the same wishful-thinkers who saw Borat as a post-9/11 provocation. Much of it is lazy: Zoolander aimed sharper knives at the fashion world, and Mike Myers’s Dieter bit in the Sprockets SNL skits was a juicier Teutonic caricature. It’s slightly more effective in sending up homophobic panic, wielding an arsenal of cocks and dildos that’s both outrageous (a séance-set pantomime of oral gratification) and unexpectedly moving (a Celine Dion-scored queer reunion in a stadium of hollering Alabamans). But where’s the surprise? You can’t get the same effect twice from an exploding cigar. And Baron Cohen posed a bolder threat to heartland prejudices as Will Ferrell’s Gallic rival in Talladega Nights. Smirking with in-the-joke celebrities at the end, he illustrates not the public’s gullibility but a comic’s waning sense of danger.

*

Apropos of waning comics: Whatever Works. Back in New York following an extended European sojourn, Woody Allen recruits fellow kvetcher Larry David (of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame) to help him dust off a 30-year-old screenplay. Shot by Van Sant vet Harris Savides, Manhattan is full of humid lemon sunlight. David keeps blocking the view, though: Decked in too-short Bermudas and hurling insults ("imbecile," "brainless inchworm") and puffed-up claims of genius ("I have an enormous grasp of the human condition") at anyone within earshot, his portrayal of full-time crank Boris Yellalot (uh, Yellnikoff -- whatever) is a sub-Don Rickles nuisance at 5 minutes and medieval torture at 92. Bemoaning humanity’s status as a "failed species," he reluctantly takes in a young runaway (Rachel Evan Wood), a comely dim-bulb from the Deep South who wins Boris’s heart by parroting the geezer’s moldy-fig Sartreisms back to him. Act Two brings in Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. as the waif’s parents, Bible-thumpers melted by urban sophistication: Mom embraces her inner bohemian milf, while Dad allows Allen to add gay-marriage to his spurious attempts at updating a Sunshine Boys-stale yarn (other stabs include one-liners about Viagra and self-flushing toilets). Does Woody "make films to make the time pass," like Godard? "Hey, you gotta take whatever works in this chamber of horrors." Sadly, his shrugs have by now less to do with twilight JLG than with late-period BH (Bob Hope).


Reviewed July 20, 2009.

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