Beasts of Burden: Shine a Light, Snow Angels, Leatherheads, 21
By Fernando F. Croce

When the Rolling Stones performed "Sympathy for the Devil" in 1968's One Plus One, Godard's camera saw a gang of impudent cultural agitators, lean and dangerous. Four decades later, the leanness has been stretched to El Greco levels but the danger has evaporated: The same song is included in the concert film Shine a Light, yet Martin Scorsese is too enraptured by "the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band" to see what a seasoned showman's trick it has become. Scorsese has repeatedly fused Stones songs to kinetic imagery for indelibly cinematic moments, and here he returns the favor by recruiting a battalion of cinematographers to film their Beacon Theatre performances last year. The band members are well into senior-citizen territory, yet the limpid sense of mortality of Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold has no place among romping geezers -- the contrast between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1960s interview footage and the ravaged skulls grinningly storming the stage in 2007 is startling, the physical gusto still leaking out of them even more so. The songs are here ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar," "Satisfaction"), but there's also the realization of weathered hounds changing the tempo of their numbers just because they have nothing new to add, and Scorsese's razzle-dazzle matches them with a busily impersonal sheen that values macho vitality more insistently than a Viagra ad. The radiant, communal feeling of The Last Waltz has turned into a glitzy fashion circle, the audience of homogenized fashion-plates reminds me of the doorman's line in Knocked Up ("Can't have a bunch of old pregnant bitches running around. That's crazy!"). Shine a Light sparkles like the polished ember encasing dinosaur DNA, but Scorsese's best jukeboxes have little use for such reverence.

*

If there's too little of Martin Scorsese in Shine a Light, there's much too much of David Gordon Green in Snow Angels. Frequently perched between the poetic and the twee, Green has been bitten by the Whimsy Bug: It is not enough to have the high-school band practicing in a frozen football field, the tubas and trombones and clarinets have to be slaughtering Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer"; if a character is building a house of cards, it must be with family photographs while a Telemundo show plays on the TV set. The plot, adapted from Stewart O'Nan's novel and set in wintry Pennsylvania, is like Raymond Carver with training wheels -- a broken romance (working-mom Kate Beckinsale and fucked-up ex-hubby Sam Rockwell) contrasted with a budding romance (shy band member Michael Angarano and oddball shutterbug Olivia Thirlby), with several other strands (with Jeanneta Arnette, Griffin Dunne, Amy Sedaris, and Nicky Katt) woven in strained, let's-go-from-goofy-to-tragic-because-life-is-like-that-right? fashion. Green is a true, singular talent -- a benevolent Harmony Korine, if you will -- and, though rather overrated, George Washington and All the Real Girls are full of felicities of sustained mood and behavioral observation. Snow Angels has characteristic lyrical touches, like the way the camera seems to drift to a stoned kid's gaze as the icy lake slowly reveals a horrible surprise, but when Green arranges a tracking shot to follow a couple of characters and then keeps on tracking after the two have stopped, it's clear that he's become more interested in his style than in his people.

*

The most intriguing way of looking at George Clooney's three directorial efforts is to consider them a prism of his own superstar persona: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind indulged Clooney the sly prankster, Good Night, and Good Luck applauded the conscientious proselytizer, and now Leatherheads celebrates the facile jock who promises ardor but coasts on affability. His latest is a valentine to his least interesting side, and also, to put it gingerly, a piece of crap -- a polished piece of crap, a golden-hued, Randy Newman-scored piece of crap, but a piece of crap all the same. The 1925 setting only enhances the lackadaisical tone as Clooney casts himself as the Clark Gableish protagonist (complete with Gableish moniker, "Dodge"), the aging captain of a ragtag batch of football bruisers eking it out during the sport's adolescent years. A possible second wind comes in the form of a WWI hero (an utterly colorless John Krasinski), the inevitable romantic triangle congeals as a journalistic sass-dispenser (Renée Zellweger) crashes the narrative in hopes of a debunking scoop. Laboring for old-school jauntiness, the film suggests Howard Hawks falling asleep: Clooney stages screwball repartee like a ping-pong match shot through molasses, possibly as a chivalrous way of obscuring the fact that Zellweger's realm is not the snap but the sniffle. When Jonathan Pryce's slimy business manager gets the boot as the gridiron "comes of age," he bids a sarcastic adieu: "There's always baseball." Similarly, why go to Leatherheads for soulless evocations of a dead genre when there's always The Hudsucker Proxy?

*

Back to the Stones for just a moment: 21 wraps with "You Can't Always Have What You Want" playing over the credits, although Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" would have been a far more candid choice. Like Jumper earlier this year, Robert Luketic's dunderheaded, would-be caper is a morality tale where the only moral at stake is the dullard-hero's thoughtless entitlement. The story can be conveniently summarized by the title of the Ben Mezrich bestseller the film's based on (Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story Of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas For Millions), so let's just skip over to the carping: Luketic's direction is both lethargic and over-edited, the cast of rejects from The Hills (Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, etc.) couldn't show emotion if Joe Pesci went at them with a hammer a la Casino, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne, and even Las Vegas phone in their performances. Of all the holes that pockmark 21, one is especially galling -- if the characters are such geniuses, then why are they stuck in a vacuum that makes Ocean's Thirteen look like freakin' Dostoyevsky?


Reviewed April 13, 2008.

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