Hollywood spends too much time and money turning tragedies into buckets of custard. In The Descendants, a coma crisis is sweetened by Hawaiian scenery and George Clooney’s breeze-along charm. In We Bought a Zoo, the death of a young mother leads her family to being consoled by cute animals. The hell of World War I becomes an equine sob story in War Horse. And now Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close shows 9/11 haunting a child, which is like piling the World Trade Center on the frail shoulders of a toy.
Oskar Schell is an unusually bright boy who, even before the calamity, suffers from Woody Allen syndrome (snarky, motor-mouth anxiety). His dad is a smart and funny jeweler who plays brain-teaser games with Oskar, and they read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (is Wittgenstein being saved for a sequel?). But dad (Tom Hanks) has a fatal appointment at the WTC. His increasingly desperate messages left on a phone recorder torment Oskar, who feels guilty for not having answered. The marginalized widow is Sandra Bullock, who appears to be suffering from post-Oscar syndrome. Or maybe from too much know-it-all Oskar.
In the story, weirdly whimsical but not wonderful, Oskar tries to find the secret behind a key left by his father. That inspires him to walk all over handsomely photographed New York City (he is phobic about public transport). Oskar tracks down people named Black, one of whom looks remarkably like Gertrude Stein. Was “Black” used to make us feel more gravely sober, more memorially solemn?
As the key unlocks fears and tears, the long plod demonstrates Oskar’s plucky zeal to torment adults with streams of precise and didactic verbiage. Boy-actor Thomas Horn has nice features and works hard, but he could remind you of those whiz kids on the old College Bowl TV shows who seemed to be constipated from eating encyclopedias. Oskar may be too numbingly symbolic a role for any actor to bring off.
True to the novel of Jonathan Safran Foer, who tackled the Holocaust in Everything Is Illuminated, there is a haggard mystery man played by that consummate chalice of European depth, Max von Sydow. Mute, he writes “yes” and “no” on his palms (why not just nod or shake his head?). Even when staring down Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, von Sydow seemed less burdened by fate. As the kid babbles and badgers, how dearly did Max wish to become the child-menacing Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, with “love” and “hate” tattooed on his hands?
It is like a parade of file folders marked Very Important (in crayon). In a 2005 book review, John Updike discerned that the novel’s “hyperactive visual surface covers up a certain hollow monotony in its verbal drama.” Bingo! Director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot) and writer Eric Roth (Ali, Munich, Forrest Gump) are the sort of earnest, prize-loaded talents who could carry bricks to the top of Everest and call it a gift to geology. They barely employ Zoe Caldwell, Viola Davis, John Goodman, and Jeffrey Wright, all set in place like markers in a game designed to provide fishy clues.
Oskar and his dad speak, though vaguely, of a mythic “sixth borough” of New York. Is that a sly, winking clue that this bulging loaf of angst could be a dream of M. Night (The Sixth Sense) Shyamalan? As Oskar walked and blabbed toward inevitably healing uplift, I would have preferred time with Eloise, the famous mascot brat of the Plaza Hotel.
In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close at 64 again plays the fearful transvestite butler. She did Albert 30 years ago off-Broadway and won an Obie Award. In this movie that she produced and co-scripted, Close is like a shrunken-mummy version of Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day as outfitted by René Magritte. Expressive only in tiny increments, Albert is a corseted, black-suited, derby-hatted woman pretending to be a man who finds relief from blank-faced service by counting the money stashed under his floorboards.
Uniformed as a male since 14, Albert seems drugged on drag. He works at a Dublin hotel run by a pretentious “duchess” (Pauline Collins — a bit much, as usual). His little room is like a cell for a castrated monk. Albert is not so much masculine as sexless, made clear when Janet McTeer swings in as Hubert Page, another woman in manly camouflage. Hubert is tall, jaunty, almost jeeringly macho, like a pub stud in a Eugene O’Neill play or John Ford movie. The neat surprise is finding that Hubert is a crafty gay who dotes on his pretty wife.
Albert is dazzled but abashed, unable to truly imagine lesbian love. When he pursues an absurd crush on a very feminine housemaid (Mia Wasikowska), he is too frigidly trapped to make an erotic move. Rodrigo García (Nine Lives) directed with sensual snap in a credible Victorian Dublin. Though the sound blurs some Irish accents, the expert cast (including infallible Brendan Gleeson as a doctor) keeps this play/movie tight and humming. There is never the poetic poignancy of John Huston’s Joycean elegy The Dead, but there is a gentle, stricken pathos. Albert Nobbs is like a suicide note primly written on a doily.
They often have tight budgets and suffer from official censors, but that hardly equates Iranian films with B-movies. Their stories peel open layers and often exceed in human and artistic interest what mostly passes now for A-list American movies. A Separation keeps deepening, and its awards are another sign that Iran has art to offer well beyond simplistic views of that country.
As Simin, Leila Hatami is a modern woman. In Tehran she teaches English, does not wear the black chador in public, and her wall has pictures of Leonardo da Vinci and a Native American. She wants to leave Iran on a special visa, hoping to take her teen daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to a better life. But the shy, studious girl is loyal to her father, Nader (Peyman Moadi), and hopes to save her parents from lasting separation. Nader is bound to his job and his father, who has Alzheimer’s.
As daytime caregiver for the old man, Nader hires the traditionally clad Razieh. A weary mule of endurance (Sareh Bayat is outstanding), she is not only pregnant but pressured by her unemployed husband, who is prone to macho violence and verbal pieties. Razieh’s darling girl tags along, and her consuming eyes are the innocent mirror — along with those of the grandfather and endearingly worried Termeh — of mounting desperation. This involves threats from the hothead husband (Shehab Hosseini, frightening but human).
A Separation is in the Jean Renoir tradition of “everyone has their reasons.” Director-writer Asghar Farhad never sits in judgment. We absorb the truths intimately from actors so transparently truthful and free of mannerisms that we could almost think this is a documentary. There is a visible subtext: the misogyny of the Islamic Republic, which has embedded in its pious laws and politics a civil war between men and women.
Oscar buzz: I am not dazed by the Oscar nominations announced Tuesday. What did daze me was the Los Angeles Times’ full-page ad (January 15) for its glam-crazed awards section, The Envelope, blithely equating George Clooney and Cary Grant. That night, gilding the comparison, Clooney did a swinging-penis joke at the Golden Globes. Grant, by the way, was not a Globes guy. He lost five times and was never nominated for his best work.
Newsreel: Great boxer Joe Frazier died at 67 on November 7, 2011, and the San Diego Black Film Festival opens its tenth run on Thursday (January 26) with Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears, a documentary by Mike Todd (no, not Liz Taylor’s Mike Todd). Over 100 movies, mostly shorts, are in the downtown event for four days, plus panels, mixers, parties. Check it out at sdbff.com.
Reviewed in the movie capsules: Addiction Incorporated, The Dead, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, Haywire, Man on a Ledge, Red Tails, Underworld: Awakening.