Don’t open before Christmas: The Reader is the trite and true story of a once fat and sassy alternative free weekly, now struggling for survival amidst a plummeting economy, skyrocketing paper costs, shrinking page size, increasing illiteracy and ebbing attention spans, epidemic employee alcoholism and eternal internal disgruntlement, and above all the ever encroaching and engulfing Web, featuring Harrison Ford as the resolute publisher, Stanley Tucci the frantic ad exec, William Macy the glum film critic — no, wait. Wait. That was in my nightmares. Let me start over.
The Reader, I meant to say, is Stephen Daldry’s tight and trim adaptation of the Bernhard Schlink best-seller on German war guilt and the filial estrangement of the postwar generation. (Daldry also handled the successful adaptation of The Hours some years back.) It begins in 1995 in the frigid colorless antiseptic Berlin apartment of Ralph Fiennes, lit by way of Vermeer, but soon it retreats to his adolescence in 1958, his incarnation in a very dissimilar young actor named David Kross, his scarlet fever, his torrid summer affair with an older streetcar attendant played by Kate Winslet, and his habit of reading to her in bed and bath: The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, The Lady with the Little Dog, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“This is disgusting,” huffs the naked lady beside him). In school, his Lit. teacher has broached the universal theme of secrecy — a nudge to us viewers — and it’s clear that the boy’s secret is his older lover. But what’s hers? Again it’s clear, from the shaded and shifting emotions of the unfailingly fascinating Winslet, that there’s a lot going on inside which we don’t know about. And not because Winslet, as the torrid affair abundantly lays bare, is to any degree inhibited.
I would not be giving away too much if I revealed that several years later, when our protagonist has enrolled in law school, his advanced seminar attends for educational purposes a war-crimes trial in which his former lover is unmasked as an S.S. officer at Auschwitz. It’s still clear even then, from all the shading and shifting, that she harbors secrets. The provocation of the protagonist to divulge his own secret and to interpose himself in the proceedings becomes quite urgent and suspenseful, although in both courtroom and classroom the film has now entered a polemical mode that can only be termed uncinematic. (It’s a sign of discouragement that so many of the leading candidates for the year-end awards have opted to hash out their issues in baldest verbalization: this one, Frost/Nixon, Doubt, Milk.) All the same, David Hare, the screenwriter, is a fastidious wordsmith; and even if the film drags on a bit once the time line catches up to Ralph Fiennes, drags on seemingly to justify his place on the payroll, it eventually comes to a satisfying end in a highly charged sit-down between him and Lena Olin, a concentration-camp survivor. The clean clear color and the pinpoint focus (Chris Menges and Roger Deakins, co-credited as cinematographers) belie the moral muddiness.
Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie recounts the story of the last and most nearly successful of the fifteen known plots to assassinate Hitler, not counting the fictitious one in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt, from the Geoffrey Household novel, Rogue Male. We know beforehand that the plot must fail, despite having Tom Cruise on board as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. (Were you hoping he’d be playing Hitler?) What went wrong, when, why, and how, can nonetheless drum up sufficient curiosity and suspense. Rooting interest is another matter, held in check not simply by hopelessness but by dimming Star Power. Cruise, who no longer can get by on his smile, starts out speaking English-subtitled German in voice-over, just to establish his Teutonic credentials, and then switches for the duration to his normal American-accented English, standing out from the British-accented English of his co-conspirators, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy (wonderfully transformed through slicked-back hair and grandfatherish eyeglasses), Eddie Izzard, and, an unreliable fence-sitter in the conspiracy, Tom Wilkinson, to say nothing of the German-accented English of the really, really bad Nazis, Hitler and Goebbels. But that’s not the only way Cruise seems not to belong. Even with eyepatch and digitalized arm stump, he comes across as something of a lightweight, no matter how hard he glares with his one operative eye: roughly as hard as a puerile comic-book addict who believes he can develop X-ray vision if only he practices. It’s a distraction, as the plan falls apart, to be thinking to ourselves that the bomb ought to have been entrusted to an Englishman.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button retains the central conceit and little else from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name: a protagonist who ages in reverse. (The story of course was written and titled before the soundalike name of Benjamin Britten came to fame, and as long as they were changing everything else....) On the page, the character is born as a full-blown old man in possession of a lifetime’s knowledge, a hurdle of illogic that immediately sets the seal of whimsy on the piece. With a script by Eric Roth, and with an historical scope and a “special” hero that often recall his script for Forrest Gump, the movie is at some pains to shore up the plausibility of the tale — a painful undertaking for sure — and to expunge the humor of it. The newborn now is only a somewhat more repulsively wrinkled baby than the average, and his condition is reasonably diagnosed as a life-shortening abnormality, so that the reverse-aging process takes a long time even to be noticed: he’s growing bigger at a normal rate, and his wrinkles understandably get smoothed away as he fills out. The heart of the tale, in every sense, turns out to be a Great Love between a couple who meet as an elderly man and young girl, have a babymaking affair when they reach approximately the same age, and then go their separate ways into infancy and senescence. (The story is told at the woman’s deathbed in the path of Hurricane Katrina, largely through the slender diary of the protagonist, supplemented by a few memories of the old lady, and spiced with a bit of insight into the workings of fate to which neither the man nor the woman could possibly be privy.)
On screen, nothing is more absurd about this tale than its length, two and three-quarters hours, plenty long enough to read the Fitzgerald story five or six times over. And its wistful theme of transience frankly gains very little from the opposite-directions aging phenomenon, nowhere near as much as you’d want to gain from so mindbending a device. The theme, moreover, gains nothing at all from the movie’s feeling of interminability. Director David Fincher, determined to show his softer side, softer than Zodiac and Panic Room and Fight Club and so on, manages first and foremost to show his technical side. The movie is replete with proficiencies of production (the periods are lavishly detailed, the brief tugboat battle with an enemy sub in WWII is dazzling, the duplex love nest is a splendid locale, etc.), and it serves as a virtual showcase for the art of makeup and/or art of digital touch-up, digital airbrush, digital prestidigitation, whatever went into the various aging effects on Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. (The movie allots far less time to the end than to the beginning of the protagonist’s life, after Pitt bows out in favor of juvenile surrogates.) The seamless surgery by which the leading man’s head has been grafted onto bodies of different sizes is used, in this instance, responsibly. But it raises unsettling possibilities for the evolutionary next leap in screen body doubles. What’s to prevent another filmmaker from putting Brad Pitt’s head, in service of vanity, on Michael Phelps’s body? Cate Blanchett’s on Giselle Bündchen’s?
Bedtime Stories remains, as the saying goes, to be seen. Somehow I don’t anticipate that an Adam Sandler comedy will weigh heavily on the year’s scales.