Hollywood's desire to address America's role in a world in proverbial flames is matched by its inability to go beyond condescendingly reductive scolds. Rendition is the latest entry in the dissent-chic sweepstakes, torture is its topic. With Captain Bush steering his sinking ship by recently maintaining that our current interrogation "procedures" are all "safe, lawful, and necessary," Gavin Hood's film certainly does not starve for "relevance"; what it lacks is complexity, intelligence, and a view of the world that extends beyond affected Oscar moments. Courage, too -- it's one thing to argue against the inhuman torture of a guilty criminal, it's something else (and substantially more facile) to turn the innocent guy at the receiving end of the genital electroshocks an NYU grad and well-off engineer who just happens to be the whitest-looking Arab available at Central Casting. Omar Mentwally plays the unfortunate fellow, an Egyptian-American who's deemed linked to a wanted Islamic extremist and, while going home to America after a meeting in South Africa, is shanghaied from the airport terminal by the CIA. The title refers to the policy that allows the government to skip judicial subtleties and rush suspects straight over to waterboarding sessions, as long as things are done out of sight -- a method already used in the Clinton years, and now abused in the Bush years. Accordingly, Mentwally is next seen "somewhere in Northern Africa," where the grimy medieval chamber with the phosphorescent lights from the Hostel movies awaits him.
Back home, yet another starlet tries to wow members of the Academy via pregnant pouch and outraged yowl: Reese Witherspoon does the honors this time as the Wrong Man's expecting wife, blue eyes clouded in anxiety until widened in indignation. (Her march through the Washington, D.C. maze is meant as a collective pang, and damned if Hood doesn't frame her big contraption with the Capitol dome in the background.) Plucky Reese gets nowhere by screaming at the icy CIA bitch responsible (Meryl Streep, closer to The Devil Wears Prada than to Demme's Manchurian Candidate), although there's plenty of self-righteous impotence still left for the subplot with Jake Gyllenhaal as a bemused secret-service greenhorn who observes the prisoner's horrors and soothes his guilt by sucking on a hookah. ("This is my first torture," he mumbles over the phone to Streep.) Hood can only work with rudimentary sketches (in Tsotsi, his abysmal 2005 Oscar winner, spiritual transformation was something activated with the flip of a switch), and the only thing complicating the character's arc of growing awareness is the way Gyllenhaal inexplicably plays him like a drowsy squirrel. No less inexplicable is the film's pretzel shape, the narrative forced into an inane curveball near the end to connect the mountainous torturer (Igal Naor) and his runaway daughter (Zineb Oukach) to the suicide bombing that sets the whole mess in motion. The sort of schematic slog that stirs more discussion about the cluelessness of the filmmakers than anything else, Rendition lends more well-intentioned bricks for the road to Hell.
Casey Affleck can be almost as neurasthenic a performer as Gyllenhaal, and his character in Gone Baby Gone is not dissimilar to Rendition's conflicted agent. As an amateur Boston detective, Affleck is also a figure of justice whose soft face and voice undercut his authority (in both films, people scoff at how the protagonists look like teenagers); like Rendition, the film hinges on a decision to do "the right thing" in a world of pervasive rot, but, unlike Rendition, it has some qualities. All the more so, indeed, for being directed by Affleck's older bro Ben, who shows behind the camera talent he never shows in front of it -- painting the strangeness of a territory pockmarked with tribalism, gnarled morals and at least one spot out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he's clearly paid attention to the directors he's worked with. A 4-year-old girl has disappeared, her junkie mother (Amy Ryan) is an "abomination," the young gumshoe and his partner (Michelle Monaghan) go searching in grimy bars and ugly drug dens; a veteran cop (Ed Harris) betrays an obsession with the case, the police chief (Morgan Freeman) specializes in wry weariness, everybody has secrets. The basis is the novel by Dennis Lehane, and, like Mystic River, it traffics in bad mothers, damaged children, and the moral collapse of a film noir staged in pale daylight -- the elder Affleck gives it heft, a gallery of fierce performances, and at least three indelible moments. "Everyone's got their reasons," Harris muses, and Renoir's dictum suddenly finds a new place and time: In Gone Baby Gone, the Affleck boys finally earn their stripes as cinematic artists.
Dan in Real Life gives the cutesy game away even before the tiniest daughter of Steve Carell's eponymous widowed columnist describes him as "a good father, but sometimes a bad dad." (Screenwriters say the darndest things.) Dan and daughters head out to the most cloying family meeting since A Very Brady Christmas, where he nurses his muted heartbreak until he bumps into Juliette Binoche at a bookstore in a bit that plays uncannily like a deleted scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin where Catherine Keener decided not to show up. He's immediately in love even though she's on her way to visit her new boyfriend, who turns out to be -- waaait for it -- Dan's bro (Dane Cook). Peter Hedges' dramedy has an edge over his previous, intolerable Pieces of April simply by not being filmed in that shitty DV format that back in 2002 passed for "edgy," though the location is still Sitcomland all the way, a swamp of "quirkiness." Carell hones his supposedly lovable, passive-aggressive shtick, Binoche thoroughly enjoys her time away from Haneke, Cook is quasi-bearable, and so it goes. Binoche at the bookstore is introduced looking for something "human-funny"; keep looking, sister, Dan in Real Life is neither.
Reviewed November 4, 2007.