I approached the highly anticipated Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in a neutral state, balancing my admiration for Tim Burton with grisly memories of screen versions of Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera and Dreamgirls. Doubts dissolved as soon as a ship materialized out of the fog (and out of Murnau) and Johnny Depp, back in his Caligari gear from Edward Scissorhands, made "No Place Like London" his own: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit / And the vermin of the world inhabit it..." This is Burton working at full blast, locating in Stephen Sondheim's brilliant 1979 musical not simply a sturdy commercial vessel for his own obsessions, but also a kindred spirit -- Burton and Sondheim share a fascination with gothic lyricism no less romantic for being dipped in copious blood. Sweeney Todd is the alias assumed by Depp's weary, vengeance-consumed barber, formerly a family man whose happiness was destroyed by Turpin (Alan Rickman), a wicked judge with eyes for the man's wife; now back from a penal colony, Sweeney is a hollow avenger saving his warmest emotion for the many blades he stores in his attic ("My arm is complete now," he murmurs to the razor he wields). Dante Ferretti's Victorian London here is, like his Los Angeles in De Palma's The Black Dahlia, a metropolis of the mind, space colored by distorted consciousness -- a rhapsodic monochrome, slanted pale light and engulfing blacks broken by the blue of Signor Pirelli's (Sacha Baron Cohen) skintight brocade, then by the thick red of his slashed throat, Sweeney's first victim.
Even stuck with a pair of juvenile lovebirds (Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener, the movie's Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald), Sweeney Todd is an undiluted blend of deranged bloodlust and operatic brooding. A musical which gleefully swims where most horror films can barely dip their toes, it has for a hero a murderous misanthrope who rejects order, looks at the world out his window and just sees meat, fuel for the incinerator and filling for the pies of his lovelorn accomplice, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). "A Little Priest" and "God, That's Good" are sardonic tour-de-forces of fluid staging (what pleasure to finally see cinematic numbers again) yet the film's key sequence may be "By the Sea," in which Mrs. Lovett pulls the squalor around her into a vision of "normality" that's affectingly suspended between a monstrous burlesque of family life and a wistful yearning for it. As portrayed by Depp and Carter, Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett are younger, prettier and less raucous than most Broadway incarnations, their narrative inescapably bringing to mind some beastly version of Jack Skellington and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas. As in that earlier gothic reverie, however, Burton imbues his puppets with a profoundly felt melancholy -- the tragedy of a closet romantic in a world where the razor makes little distinction between the innocent and the guilty -- that finally elevates a rollicking gorefest into a dark work of art. It's the film's most perverse (and most poetic) gesture that blood and tears, like despair and hope, become interchangeable in the indelible final tableau.
No need to put Sweeney Todd's arterial sprays next to Charlie Wilson's War to note that Mike Nichols' new film is pretty anemic. Give it points for self-awareness, though: Asked to watch a picture about the Soviet-Afghan war in the '80s, Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) says, "I don't think making movies about it will do the trick." A comment on the utter artistic uselessness of recent films (Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs) dealing with the war in Iraq? Or part of the film's ass-covering glibness? In any case, Nichols takes a plot (George Crile's 2003 account of the minor Texan congressman who marshaled billions to arm Afghan fighters against Soviet forces) which could have been handled like his awful Catch-22 and instead gives it the brisk, easeful comic flair that's his forte. As long as the film stays in its limited, tart-but-in-reality-inoffensive satirical range, it's got some bounce -- Nichols sees no difference between Reagan-era realpolitik and, say, the office power-plays of Working Girl, but he zeroes in on the catty comedy of Hanks' machinations and plays it like a fiddle. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, two current axioms of mine, also show up, and, as a truculent CIA spook, Philip Seymour Hoffman adds a drop of bracing vinegar; I should be tired of him by now, but, damn it, he's good. It isn't until Charlie Wilson's War tries to grow a heart that its anorexia turns visible: Nichols suddenly remembers that pesky Middle East thing, and a visit to some producer's idea of an Afghan refugee camp is patronizingly arranged. Even with a cut from Julia Roberts putting on her glamour face to a helicopter massacre, the satire darkens not into sobering relevance but into wishy-washy "relevance."
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is another feeble movie buoyed by a member of the Paul Thomas Anderson stock company. Having been knighted a member of the Frat Pack after supporting Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights, John C. Reilly gets his own chance to run around in a jockstrap as the eponymous singer, a country crooner whose rise to stardom across the decades takes the piss out of Ray and Walk the Line (but not, alas, I'm Not There). Reilly has an open-faced silliness that's infectious, plus enough of a robust baritone to nail the Johnny Cash-Bob Dylan-Roy Orbison pastiches. The film itself, however, is pure January dumpster-fodder inexplicably crammed through the end-of-year hype-machine, unreeling like the drunk guy who squeezes your arm and tells the same joke over and over until you laugh, goddamn you, laugh! The director is Jake Kasdan, but, to judge from screenwriting and producing credits, this is really another Judd Apatow Joint -- a circle jerk that, between the lazy genre-tweaking and smug cameos (Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, etc.), succeeds mostly in leaving the audience out of the fun.
Reviewed December 30, 2007.