The Social Network. Every generation gets the Citizen Kane it deserves, I suppose. Here you have the genesis of Facebook as weepy bromance, served like an unconscious parody of a made-for-TV biopic. The baby CEO, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg, in a rather brave performance of pure anti-charm), is a joyless nose-thumber who came up with the social game-changer as the result of being dumped by a Harvard coed who had enough of his insufferable brilliance. The geek/jock environment is unbalanced, status barriers are liquefied, "now we’re going to live on the Internet!" And there sits the billionaire moper, sued by former pals and waiting for his Rosebud to accept his online invitation. The irony is neatly pressed and folded and wrapped with a bow, while the website’s contradictory chill -- interactive yet narcissistic, personal yet commoditized, communal yet utterly isolated -- is barely grazed in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s avalanche of staccato faux-Mametisms. Pluses: David Fincher’s surprisingly light touch with burnished digital compositions, Justin Timberlake’s impish turn as the Napster guy, and a very funny set piece depicting a sculling competition through a nerd’s heavily aestheticized eye. Most intriguingly read as an opaque virtuoso’s self-portrait as an artistic monster -- Fincher’s The Shining, if you will. Stay tuned for the inevitable dramatization of the Twitter saga down the road, to be this generation’s The Magnificent Ambersons no doubt.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. From the podium, Me-Decade relic Gordon Gekko surveys the new millennium: "You’re all pretty much fucked." Back in the spotlight just in time to witness the 2008 financial meltdown, Michael Douglas’s piratical Master of the Universe is now less devouring reptile than graying lion, snappy, amused, practically humming at the prospect of being a grandfather. Is greed still good? Shia LaBeouf portrays the rubber toy he chews on this time around, an avid young trader out to avenge his ruined mentor (Frank Langella) by beating a nefarious plutocrat (Josh Brolin) at his own game of "steroid banking." Carey Mulligan is Gekko’s estranged, lefty-blogging daughter, Eli Wallach scowls from the sidelines as a fluttering, centuries-old Mr. Potter. Like The Social Network, Oliver Stone’s sequel is about systems and beasts, and about the difficulties of making a critique of capitalism from within a capitalist system. (A true big-studio, anti-capitalist tract is a near-impossible thing, a self-lacerating machine, Dr. Strangelove throttled by his own gloved hand. There hasn’t been one since, oh, Heaven’s Gate.) Stone huffs and puffs with visual metaphors for the economic abyss (bubbles, dominoes, Goya cannibals), but his drama lacks the sting of recent documentaries on Wall Street’s sanguine hands. As in W., there’s the feeling of a cinematic troublemaker not mellowing but slackening.
Hereafter. Clint Eastwood, thinking about death. It opens with a tropical beachfront pulverized by a CGI tsunami, and closes with a smooch that seems about to uncork a musical number. In between, there’s international hopscotching of the obnoxious Iñárritu type, a protracted meet-cute in a cooking class with a camera-mugging Life Force (Bryce Dallas Howard), and the usual blurry-folks-standing-around-in-an-overexposed-sauna views of the afterlife. And out of all this, Eastwood crafts an often beautiful film. It’s in Matt Damon’s internalized performance as an American psychic who moves through life inescapably sliding in and out of other people’s heartbreak. It’s in the ways, both subtle (stark lighting) and blatant (the camera cranes upwards from tragedy in the streets to bewilderment amid the clouds), that visually suture a Gallic TV personality (Cécile de France) and an owlish British schoolboy (George McLaren) as they grieve and grope for meaning in separate countries. Above all, it’s in its preference for incompleteness -- while Babel or Crash use characters and subplots for grandiose diatribes, locking them into airless grids, Eastwood charts the empty spaces between them and modulates towards an evocative reference to the unfinished "Dickens’ Dream" painting. Largely dismissed as Grandpa’s New Agey lament, it’s a very grim vision of solitude, shadows and charlatans, illuminated occasionally by flashes of private grace.
The American. Listless Euro-ennui pastiche, an art-house Machete xeroxing pages from Jean-Pierre Melville rather than from Jack Hill. George Clooney is the eponymous Yank, a professional killer with metallic hair, a carved-in-granite frown, and a yen for shirtless chin-ups and butterflies. Mr. Hollow Man. Following some arctic bloodletting involving rival hitmen, he holes up in some hilltop Italian Casbah with few inhabitants but plenty of medieval corridors and tunnels. "Don’t make any friends. You used to know that," his superior warns. Meant to be existential down to his fingernails, the character flickers with alertness only when putting together rifles or dipping bullets into mercury; by contrast, the fake-daring sex scene with an elegant prostitute feels laughably disconnected, the actress miming ecstasy while Clooney lies somewhere out of the frame, probably having a smoke. Meanwhile, the craggy priest spots the fatigued sinner and grows philosophical: "You’re American. You think you’re going to escape history." The intriguing, Le Carré-like view of Yankee individualism as weary, deadly and for sale is let down by Clooney’s bantamweight contemplativeness (he goes for spiritual aching but comes off as vaguely peeved) and the prosaic eye of Anton Corbijn, whose landscapes and edifices are mere cement walls next to Jarmusch’s marvels of rhythm, framing and sound in The Limits of Control.
It’s Kind of a Funny Story. After the restrained social observations of Half Nelson and Sugar, one would hope that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck would react to calculated cuteness the same way their young protagonist does in an early scene with his family, with a burst of supposedly hilarious "stress-vomiting." But nooooo, the indie writer-directors go full-on Quirk here, larding this agonizingly trite, whimsy-heals! dramedy with enough animated interludes, freeze-frames and sing-a-long fantasies to make Diablo Cody herself murmur "Less, less." Keir Gilchrist is the suicidal naïf who learns to better appreciate his privileged status by spending a week in a Manhattan psychiatric ward peopled with cuddly misfits; as the mandatory jester full of submerged grief, Zach Galifianakis sails toward Robin Williams territory, his beard sticky with schmaltz.
Reviewed December 6, 2010.