The Designated Mourner
Diary of a Seducer
The Bloody Child
Okay, so Breakdown, which opened on May 2nd, isn't a summer movie by a strict definition of the studios' bizarre and capricious rules -- this year, for no particular reason, "summer" as defined by Hollywood began on May 9th. (The way the studios' tectonic plates have been shifting in recent years, "summer" as defined by Hollywood will soon begin in mid-February.) Doesn't matter. While I'm not suggesting that it's impossible that a more satisfying and entertaining big-budget movie will turn up at your local multiplex before Labor Day, I think it pretty darn unlikely...not because Breakdown is so staggeringly brilliant, but because it's the kind of workmanlike, sturdy action picture that Tinseltown should be churning out every other week but in fact manages to deliver only once in a blue moon. There's really nothing exceptional about it, except that it works. And if you're thinking that that shouldn't be exceptional, especially given the virtually unlimited resources the major studios possess...well, the line at the complaint window forms behind me.
A brief list of things that Breakdown decidedly is not:
Original As just about every critic in the western hemisphere has noted by now, Breakdown is an almagam of half a dozen celebrated pictures, including The Vanishing (woman mysteriously vanishes while on road trip), Duel (everyman menaced by guy in huge rig), Deliverance (hapless city folk experience rude awakening in the boondocks), and about half of Hitchcock's oeuvre. Nothing here you haven't seen before.
Profound Don't expect any kind of insight into human nature; Breakdown's characters are purely functional, and the film isn't about anything except the next hairpin curve in the road. If you seek sharp dialogue, subtle characterizations, or social commentary, you'd best look elsewhere.
Progressive In addition to the clumsy and glib class-struggle "subtext," which is really just an excuse to depict good ol' boys as the embodiment of evil, Breakdown also features the traditional He-Man Risks All To Save His Dearly Beloved And Utterly Helpless Woman narrative. As much as I enjoyed Breakdown, I can't help wishing that for once Kurt Russell (or whoever) were in jeopardy, and that Kathleen Quinlan (or whoever) was the one who had to brave the elements and cling to the bottom of speeding sixteen-wheelers.
Plausible I believe "Yeah, right" is the operative phrase.
All of that being the case, why the hell am I so enthusiastic? Because Breakdown delivers what it promises: thrills, excitement, suspense, gut-churning kinetic mayhem -- and does so without insulting the audience's intelligence. Yes, the plot is ridiculous, if carefully examined; but hefting your disbelief into the air, where you can comfortably ignore it, should be as effortless as bench-pressing a barbell made of cotton candy. This is about as pure as action gets: no hip one-liners, no distracting sidekick or love interest, no labyrinthine, incomprehensible backstory involving stolen floppy disks or covert government operations or diabolical schemes to undermine the nation's socio-economic infrastructure. What we have here is elemental: hero loses something valuable, hero struggles to regain it. Hero encounters obstacles, hero overcomes obstacles. Simple, direct, clean.
This kind of thing looks deceptively easy, but in unskilled hands the straightforward often becomes the mundane and uninvolving. Director Jonathan Mostow, who also cowrote the screenplay, appears to have been blessed with an innate understanding of the mechanics of cinematic suspense; Breakdown is his first feature, but every frame is so confident and unfussy that it looks like the work of an old pro. Unlike the odious Michael Bay (The Rock), for example, Mostow trusts his audience enough to let scenes play out at an unhurried pace. That's not to say that Breakdown ever meanders -- in fact, it's a model of narrative economy -- but nothing ever seems rushed or frantic or desperate; I was on the edge of my seat throughout, but I never felt the director's hands pressing at my back, shoving me toward the screen. Such respect is so rare nowadays in Hollywood movies that I'm inclined to be a bit more generous with my star rating than I might otherwise have been -- in another context, Breakdown might have struck me as a respectable three-star picture, but after being bludgeoned by the likes of Twister and Batman Forever and Broken Arrow, its no-nonsense professionalism seems like a revelation. (Remember, my star ratings indicate how much I enjoyed the movie, not how objectively good I think the movie is.)
The final reel or so of Breakdown, unfortunately, is a bit of a letdown, relying as it does upon standard-issue chases'n'explosions, as well as contrivances that make that cotton-candy barbell momentarily feel like hefty bales of cotton. And there's a gratuitously ugly moment in the final scene that represents everything that's wrong with most of the other recent films in the genre -- you'll know exactly which moment I'm talking about when you see it, because you'll wince and turn away in disgust at an event that was clearly intended to make you cheer approvingly. In spite of these flaws, however, I left the theater in a terrific mood. After peering into my trick-or-treat bag, house after house after house, only to dejectedly observe each time that "I got The Rock," someone finally gave me a damn candy bar. (Explanation of cultural allusion available on request -- I think Dennis Miller might reject that one as too obscure.)
Oh, and did I mention that J.T. Walsh is in this film, in a significant role? If the paragraphs above aren't incentive enough, the prospect of seeing perennial bit-player Walsh onscreen for more than three minutes at a time oughta do it. Somebody give this guy a protagonist. He's paid his dues.
Early reports from Sundance that Chasing Amy represented a "return to form" for Smith, therefore, didn't exactly motivate me to dash to a nearby theater. Eventually, however, a feeling of semi-professional obligation prevailed, and I reluctantly paid my $4 (the cheapest deal I could find in the area) and sat down, prepared for the worst. But what's this? Halfway decent performances? Longish stretches of reasonably clever and funny dialogue? An appealing and sometimes genuinely affecting romantic streak? A modicum of restraint -- dare I say maturity? And...wait a minute...this can't be right...is this movie making one of the gutsiest, most subversive moves I've ever seen onscreen? Am I in the right auditorium?
Chasing Amy isn't entirely successful -- Smith still has a lot to learn about using a movie camera, and his maturity level, while improving, still leaves something to be desired -- but it's unquestionably a substantial leap forwards. For the first time, he actually appears to give a damn about his characters and their predicaments, and to have spent some time thinking about how their various desires and obsessions and needs and neuroses affect their relationships. For example, male sexual jealousy plays a significant role in both Clerks and Chasing Amy, but whereas in Clerks Smith merely mined the topic for crass jokes, in Chasing Amy he actually appears to be critical of his protagonist's behavior (while still mining it for crass jokes). In fact, one of the most impressive aspects of Chasing Amy is that its alleged hero is often wildly unsympathetic, and intentionally so -- a bold move in an industry where the primary concern of almost every functionary is ensuring that the main character is constantly likeable.
That's not, incidentally, the incredibly gutsy and subversive move to which I alluded a moment ago (and don't try to pretend, if you haven't seen the film -- or perhaps even if you have -- that you're not curious). Nor am I talking about the extended spoof of Jaws' dueling scars sequence, with its no-holds-barred discussion of the perils of cunnilingus, though that bit is far and away the funniest in any of Smith's three films. I'd never be so callous as to give the game away, but suffice to say that Smith's take on the buddy film is refreshingly unique; there's a moment in Chasing Amy that I've literally been waiting for for years, and I'll always retain at least a smidgen of respect for him, regardless of where he goes from here, for being the first person in movie history (to the best of my knowledge -- corrections welcome) to state the glaringly obvious.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Smith is still Smith, and consequently much of Chasing Amy is borderline unwatchable. The most painful scene features Smith himself, as his recurring and irritating character Silent Bob, who delivers a long, tedious, and totally unnecessary monologue that not only explains the film's title (wow, it's a metaphor!), but essentially functions as both a pointless summary of The Story So Far and a feeble, simplistic moral. Also problematic is Joey Lauren Adams, Smith's offscreen paramour, as Alyssa, the lesbian who unexpectedly falls head over heels for Holden (Ben Affleck), to the consternation of Holden's best friend and business partner Banky (Jason Lee). (Sorry, just realized that I haven't even begun to address the film's plot. Too late now, really.) Adams does decent work, and seems fairly talented, but she's required by the script to shout at great length on several occasions, and her squeaky voice is so unpleasantly strident that these scenes are almost unbearably grating, which is clearly not the intended effect. (Imagine Jennifer Tilly in Glenn Close's Fatal Attraction role, for instance, and you'll get the general idea.) And, of course, there's plenty more of Smith's inimitable wit, which, with occasional exceptions, I continue to find about as hilarious as thiamin hydrochloride.
Still, I find myself in a totally unexpected position: I'm actually looking slightly forward to Smith's next movie, if only to see whether his progress continues. At any rate, I've made up my mind: Smith gets the life preserver. Unlike Tony Scott, he at least appears to be trying.
To be fair, it's entirely possible -- more than likely, in fact-- that I just plain didn't get this one. Where the two previous Araki films that I've seen focused on two or three central characters, Nowhere roams all over the map, Altman-style (it can't be a coincidence that its opening titles echo those of Short Cuts), following the intertwining paths of a dozen or more attractive and confused high school students over the course of a very bizarre and traumatic day. It struck me as an apocalyptic, SoCal Dazed and Confused, but apparently that's only because I don't watch television -- everybody else has immediately recognized it as a knowing, surreal parody of shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place. Unfortunately -- or is it fortunately? -- I've never seen so much as twenty seconds of either of these cultural landmarks, so I imagine that a lot of the intended humor flew right over my head. One upsetting subplot involves an actor from Baywatch, playing a twisted, repulsive version of "himself" -- trouble is, I had no idea who he was until several hours after the movie had ended. There are also endless TV-related cameos, only a few of which I recognized (Christopher Knight and Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch have a mildly funny bit as a Scandinavian married couple); my girlfriend spent most of the walk home explaining the gags to me.
I'm therefore in the unenviable and ridiculous position of reviewing Nowhere for the four other people in North America who only use their television sets as expensive monitors for their VCRs and laserdisc players. There is, as it happens, something for we happy few to grasp onto -- Araki doesn't depend entirely upon the viewer's familiarity with his sources of inspiration, and the film isn't merely an extended spoof. As in the director's previous work, there's a deadly serious undercurrent lurking beneath the glaring primary colors and the stylized teen lingo; as superficially playful as his films generally are, ultimately each one is a tragedy. In Nowhere, however, Araki's ambition works against him: because he includes so many characters, and because they tend to be more or less indistinguishable (virtually without exception, the dramatis personae consists of hedonistic, unhappy children), it's difficult to find an emotional foothold. The only character worth caring about is Dark, a bisexual romantic with a camcorder permanently attached to one shoulder, who just wants to be loved is that so wrong?! But even he seems wan and lifeless, because he's played by Araki regular James Duval, whose performance never varies, regardless of whether he's acting in The Doom Generation or Independence Day. I liked Duval the first time I saw him, because I assumed his Keanu-on-heavy-medication routine was satirical, but he's trotted it out twice since, and it's getting old fast.
So, for that matter, is Araki's obsession with doomed youth. But there's hope: Nowhere is reportedly the final film in a loose trilogy that began with his second feature, Totally Fucked Up (which I haven't seen); and Araki, who is approaching middle age, and who has referred to himself as a gay man in every interview that I've ever read, is reportedly involved with a woman at present. I'm guessing that the word "departure" may crop up in reviews of his next work. If I'm lucky, the word "Baywatch" will not.