The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys spells summer like a curly straw in a cocktail. Scrambling together private-eye tropes with the counterculture is, by now, an old and venerable sport for the brightest minds in the business. I wrote about the subgenre last year, citing the continuity of hipsterism from Chandler to Vietnam. The detectives are only cosmetically different from Humphrey Bogart and other forebears; it’s the world that is perceived to have changed. In the post-’60s ecosystem, the P.I. is the patsy, the Establishment is the perpetrator. Holding the Establishment accountable is like betting against the house. You might win the battle, but the war rages on.

Problem is, we’re coming up short on revelations. P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is this movie’s nearest neighbor, was a postmortem on clichés that are old enough to stink like truths. Groovy trip, but still a trip. It butt up against the Establishment only to reaffirm its unknowability. Shane Black, who directed The Nice Guys, isn’t looking for truths he couldn’t find, concealed as they are behind an Establishment firewall. Hippie grievances, for which there is little evidence that the filmmaker feels much sympathy, are sweetened into an anachronistic whine. (Even though we’re supposed to be in L.A., in 1977, those knucklehead protesters should know that we’ll fix the smog problem eventually.) For Black, the counterculture clichés are alive and wellto the point: they are alive. The movie doesn’t aspire to that level of thought that freezes fusty clichés into knee-jerk despair, so the whole thing melts in one’s mouth like a daiquiri. It’s a slurper.

Part of its sweetness comes from Black throwing another genre into the blender, the buddy movie. (N.B.: He wrote Lethal Weapon.) This probably seems like less of an adjustment than it is; having a partner sucks the bitter venom out of the gumshoe, the ur-loner of American cinema. The partners are Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, divinely paired and raising their own Nancy Drew (Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter, played by Angourie Rice). The plot is hardly worth mentioning—a genre staple, going back to The Big Sleep—though I’ll register my weariness at seeing the porn world thrown in, as it is whenever so much as a leisure suit is in wardrobe.

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Can one truly be self-deprecating if willingness to make fun of oneself is one’s armor and source of pride? Experts refer to this as the Seth Rogen Paradox; it afflicts Neighbors like scoliosis. Being average isn’t just his shtick, it is his vanity; but he’s like the hipsters of yesteryear for whom trucker caps signified “ordinary.” He won’t even stay on the screen; he’s next to you in the theater, pointing out the not-so-obscure references despite the dirty looks. Somehow, he makes this double-secret-reverse jiu-jitsu work for him, in sort-of the way that Republicans get the poor to protect the rich: That could be you up there, Mr. Swollen Stoner in the Beanbag Chair. He’s the Buddha-bellied Everydude: totally “natural” but totally formed by pop culture: down for everything but above engaging with anything out of sheer ignorance that anything could be engaged with. Rogen is not pretentious or phony or unlikable or cynical, but for all his bulk he’s weightless; it’s like he’s in the theater because he seems to react to all experiences as if they were images on a screen. He represents, in attitude and physique, all of us greasy-fingered latchkey kids who felt superior to what we were watching and yet suspected, albeit doofily, that perpetual, passive viewership was a prediabetic Shangri-La—heaven on every channel. Rogen is glamorously irresponsible. Scratch that: post-responsible. Movie-star looks would handicap him because then he couldn’t say “How did a goober like me end up in a paradise like this?” He doesn’t know the answer; all he knows is that it makes him awesome.

Self-consciously or not, Rogen is the poster child for indefinite adolescence and that’s a big blank check of hip. If cool is currency, this clump of gentrifried dough is rolling in it. And I think cool is the new currency because, like potential, it cannot be audited. Cool is what advertisers appeal to in consumers these days: our sense of being in touch with “the culture,” of catching its references—of contributing to it. It’s the fusion cuisine of communal and narcissistic, of democratic and élite. The “other” (in the ideal, one-world-order of advertising, not I.R.L.) doesn’t belong to a different race, class, gender, sexual preference, ideology, or creed anymore—that ain’t P.C., and, ipso facto, profitable. The other is the one who doesn’t get it. (By the way, I’ll toss age onto the heap of identity-politics labels. Baby boomers—a.k.a. my parents—were the test case for this Peter Panhandling, this socially diffused fiat to never grow old—a.k.a. uncool—and now they’re taking selfies in retirement.) I don’t think this mentality is all bunk, even if it’s skeezy any time someone sells his own products as the antidote for a condition he has made you think you have. But it’s bad for observational humor: a redoubt for smart, self-conscious flakes—like Rogen.

In Neighbors, Rogen plays a recent father and homeowner whose loafers help him forget that he’s wearing a tie. His wife, Rose Byrne, doesn’t even get a generic workplace; it isn’t made clear whether she’s a homemaker or on maternity leave: a red flag for feminist critics and a showpiece missed opportunity, to boot. It wouldn’t seem such a missed opportunity if the movie didn’t start off as savvy about new parenthood as it does. Stella, the product of their coitus, is now its interruptus; they can’t reach climax with her bright eyes looking on, and they try to lug her out clubbing with their childless friend only to pass out from the strain of getting all her ducks (and diapers) in a row. When a frat house moves in next door, they try to get the brothers to keep their rager quiet without seeming lame, but, baby monitor in holster, they join the party instead; the fountain of youth they’ve been craving is kept in the kegs. Rogen even bonds with the fraternity president, Teddy (Zac Efron), who prefers carousing with these geezers to having them kill his buzz. But buzz they kill when the cops they call, and Hannibal Buress shows up in uniform, the spitting image of the college-town pensioner. The gist of it is that there’s a rivalry between frat house and suburban domicile. The not-so-subtext is that the parents don’t want to live next door to this symbol of their senescence and Teddy doesn’t want to face the prospect of growing up. In it are the makings of a FOMO opus.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Referring to his early career as a movie critic, Graham Greene once harkened back to the “dead ’30s.” The Grand Budapest Hotel begins, seemingly, in the present day, with a girl bringing her copy of a book of the same name to a memorial in a cemetery; we then flash back to 1985, when Tom Wilkinson is publishing the book; then to 1968 when his younger self (Jude Law) is interviewing his source, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), at the hotel of the same name; and then, finally, to the story Zero is telling, about his mentor, the hotel’s concierge, M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), which takes place in 1932. It’s like an open-casket service for a nesting doll. Wes Anderson’s framing device is, perhaps, the film’s most ambitious gambit; I think he’s trying to indicate how heroic myths get corrupted: how time stretches tales like taffy, grows them good and tall. It’s a clever idea, for which a callback gets teased in at the end. But each leg of the trip down memory lane is done up in Anderson’s familiar style—with each nested corpse wearing the same mortuary makeup—so the point is lost: dead as the Nazi-killed ’30s.

Style might be for Wes Anderson what a weight quota is for an anorexic. It no longer seems to express him or his material so much as his “personal brand,” and it’s about as blunt a force for getting laughs as an applause sign. I suppose it is a matter of taste whether one finds a claymation ski chase funny simply because it’s just so Wes, but that falls into the ongoing love-him-or-hate-him nonargument about his work that presupposes that whether one likes his films or not, their consistency of style and intentionality of design make them beyond reproach; he gets auteur points for directing movies that look as diverse as franchises of a restaurant chain. And while I think it is wonderful for an artist to have a vision, a vision should never be an end in itself, which, I fear, Anderson’s is too widely accepted for being. Hotel is not a bad film—it’s doughty, and chipper, and totally insignificant.

To prove I’m not committing that basest sin of Internet conformity—being a hater—I’ll admit that, in retrospect, Moonrise Kingdom was a better film than I painted it to be, though Anderson’s aloof, egg-shell-walk detachment both enriched and impeded his subject matter. Apart from being a breeding ground for deadpan, his style instilled the sense of childhood as a beautiful straightjacket. Like Hotel, Moonrise was set in a calm before the storm—on a fictionalized Cape Cod in 1965—and one got the feeling that the alienation of the ~14-year-old protagonists would lose its innocence as they got closer to adulthood, that it was caught in Andersoninan cuteness like a fly in amber. This incipient fear suffused the performances of the authority figures who wanted to be the children’s protectors. Youthful rebellion and the security of childhood were contained—trapped—within a pantomime of storybook idyll which was ideally represented by Anderson’s style; from it flowed the pain and promise of growing up, and from the contrasting perspectives poured a melancholy that tended to justify the precious, cautious overcontrol.

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In the most intriguing scene in Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer, lets a woman into his apartment who has been summoned by Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the operating system he has purchased and fallen in love with. The entrant has volunteered to be a “surrogate”: a flesh bridge between the writer and his lover in the cloud. (The substance of the gulf she spans is open to debate.) For foreplay, the surrogate lip-syncs sweet nothings that Samantha broadcasts from unseen speakers; she caresses Theodore’s body in a way that Samantha—vexed by her handicap but not stifled by it—cannot; and that elusive property of his—flesh—squirms at this virtual reality: this disconnect between body and soul: these two eyes that can be beheld and yet fail to hold his beloved’s infinity of ones and zeroes. (Maybe, with this conveyance as her sole intention, they fail to convey anything at all, least of all their owner’s soul.) Shame-faced, Theodore apologizes to the crestfallen woman as he edges her out the door; his cross-platform relationship remains unconsummated, at least in physical terms. As soon as she’s out of sight, the surrogate wails about having failed the couple, avowing her love for them as if she was part of their relationship and not just an accessory to it. She’s a creature to be pitied, as is any accessory that has fallen out of use.

In a sense, the surrogate is Theodore’s real soul mate. He makes his living dictating personal letters from parents to their children or from one lover to another, and though it’s improbable that would generate enough profit for him to afford his spacious loft in a highrise, its thematic purpose is clear: in this world, people outsource their feelings. The surrogate, Theodore, and, presumably, his clients are so emotionally stunted that they can only express emotions ventriloquially. (That lovelorn surrogate is so cyberpunk’d she’s turned on by getting plugged in for a computer.) This movie’s exquisitely designed—and believable—aesthetic for a future Los Angeles is both geometrically austere and cheerfully colorful; it was shot, partly, in Shanghai, with a look inspired by Jamba Juice. But the dead space in each frame indicates that this a padded cell dressed up like a Mac Store. In ’60s art-house imports like L’Avventura, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita, and Breathless, the malaise was “alienation”—moneyed indifference alternately led to and resulted from World War II. The director of Her, Spike Jonze, substitutes alienation with the trending buzzword of today: “self-involvement.” (Though the symptoms of the afflictions are very similar, the term implies that individuals now shoulder the blame.) He conflates, however, the self-involvement of creative people (which has probably always been thus, though it may have been muted in those eons of history when survival was too darn time-consuming to trifle with the luxury of self-expression) and that of everyone whose noses are glued to their iPhones because their productivity demands have soared and their attention spans have eroded. There is overlap in terms of the people doing these activities, but a vast difference in motive. Jonze also updates the tone of the art films. Her is a twee jeremiad—depravity is sad and adorable.

This the first of Jonze’s four features for which he has the sole writing credit. His talent is for being a sympathetic observer, not a satirist; Her was made by someone who feels rather than by someone who questions. But there’s an unnerving incongruence between his being dyspeptic about humanity’s future and unwilling to raise his voice. Jonze’s focus on the central love story between Theodore and Samantha, with only fleeting glances at a culture that would sell sentient beings like these “artificially intelligent” operating systems as consumer goods—at a civilization that is stumbling into the dread Singularity—seems to me less like a critique of self-involvement than a symptom of it. To an impatient viewer, these people (and devices) who go on and on about themselves seem like the proverbial frogs in a warming pot; but Jonze seems lovingly invested in these hipsterisms, and it’s hard not to be fazed by his sweetness. When Theodore tells his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) that he’s upgraded sex partners to an O.S., she provides the only voice of opposition that isn’t in the writers’ (both Theodore’s and Jonze’s) own consciences: He’s too self-involved to have a partner he can’t control. It seems we’re meant to take that as a valid observation, but we must take it on faith; the flashbacks to his failed marriage are such nonspecific tableaux that they might as well have Instagram filters on them. (Is Mara as well-adjusted as she seems? If so, she must surely be the lone holdout.) This is where Jonze’s ideas start to need debugging. Though her maturation is poignant, and Johansson’s wide-eyed inflections toggle beautifully between inexperience and assurance, Samantha is unmistakably sentient from the moment she’s installed. Theodore isn’t projecting onto a gadget; he’s dating a teenager.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis has a surprisingly unironic title. It begins with its title character (Oscar Isaac) performing at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961. “Performing,” in this case, is a loaded word; he’s on intimate terms with his guitar, and the sad lyrics, which he knows by heart, flow from him like a dirge—as dry as sand in an hourglass. When he finishes, Llewyn feebly chatters with his audience, chuckling into his woolly chin: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” Though it’s a canned joke, this is a Coen brothers movie; it resonates like Bert’s cryptic preface to Mary Poppins: “I fear what’s to happen all happened before.”

Llewyn Davis has the richness that has been so painfully lacking in much of the Coens’ recent output. Even True Grit, with its fairy-tale effulgence, had the flatness of cold-in-the-ground history. If anything, the Village bohos here seem too much like people today—but that could proffer a greater authenticity than we are now accustomed to, especially as it pertains to the age-of-innocence early ’60s. (My suspension of disbelief was only challenged by the use of the word “fucked” as an abbreviation of “fucked up”; that variation only came about recently.) Some of the richness comes from the casting of Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake; their humanity—her sensitivity and his showmanship—can be dampened but not reduced to shtick. Unlike so many of the pawn-of-fate cartoons that waltz in and out of Coen brothers movies for an existential yuk, actors like Jeanine Serralles, Jerry Grayson, and F. Murray Abraham all give the impression of having a past. A caricature like the wizened hophead that Llewyn road-trips to Chicago with is more plausible in this light; it lets John Goodman be a real eccentric: an amusing exception rather than an excessive norm. It’s the difference between an ensemble cast and a lot of actors.

Under the pale sunlight provided by the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, however, all the world looks to be a stage; the spotlight is so bleak that even Goodman’s purple jacket is desaturated. Llewyn had some success when he was part of a duo—and he’s still appreciated by connoisseurs—but he’s an inveterate bridge-burner and couch-surfer when the film starts, lugging his guitar with him, and a cat who scurried out of a patron’s apartment once he’d locked the door. The Coens are stringent enforcers of Murphy’s Law, and Llewyn doesn’t get off easy; but the folk singer, who refuses to sell out and adhere to the new vogue in peppiness, makes bad decisions per a coherent inner logic. With the trilogy of No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man, the Coens had forged a new genre: the feel-bad movie. If their counterpoint is bound by a set of conventions that bring about an artificially happy result, these were determinist downers; they were cleverer than feel-good movies, but, with their arbitrariness, not particularly more substantial. No Country had its cold-sweat sensuousness, but A Serious Man was a distillate of the brothers’ crippling fatalism; even its autobiographical setting implied that it was the root of it, and it went deeper still—into Judaism—without bringing anything back up. It was to art what blue-balling is to orgasm; all roads led to the dead end of fate. As a hero, Llewyn is far more like the Dude in The Big Lebowski than the pischer in A Serious Man: all three are losers, but the Dude carried the loss of ’60s activism with him—and in him. He was a happy patsy, not just a pawn, in a story made of human frostwork rather than fate’s caprice.

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Drinking Buddies

Despite its present-day setting, Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies has a sense of containment that recalls the studio films of the ancient past, which were free from paying homage to other pop culture and existed in their own censored simulacrum of life. It’s a good summer movie because it’s relaxing. You can haul in a six-pack, unfold a lawn chair, and giggle along without it making any sort of demands on you. Like the drinking buddies on Cheers, or any old sitcom that Americans once put their feet up for after a long day at work, it’s companionable.

The plot consists of a love quadrilateral, with Olivia Wilde as its sharpest edge. She’s the sole chick in a sausage fest of a brewery; she’s dating a reserved record producer played by Ron Livingston, but has a workplace flirt-friend in Jake Johnson, who’s spoken for by adorkable Anna Kendrick. Drinking Buddies is literally an outline; Swanberg let the actors fill it in with improv, so, as in another mumblecore-gone-mainstream, Cyrus, the lines are often fun in the way of off-the-cuff chatter, but have little of the zing that tighter writing has spoiled us with. The payoffs are on the level of “That’s what she said!” Like the slicker Our Idiot Brother, Buddies has the over-parsed redundancy of gentrified cityspeak down pat—but it comes too naturally, too guilelessly, to be called satire. This is a hipster fantasy that doesn’t know it’s a fantasy because bobo glamour has gotten so low-key you wouldn’t know it’s glamour. Despite the movie having no backstory on offer, it’s pretty clear that Wilde—and possibly Johnson, too—is working class by choice. They work for a small craft brewery in Chicago; they have no reason not to get drunk every night because there’s nothing at stake except hurt feelings. And even those are just booboos.

Though it doesn’t amount to much more than a domestic Vicky Cristina Barcelona, on tap at your local dive, Swanberg has a smooth sense of rhythm and pace, an ear for the awkward, and a knack for channeling bonhomie from cast to audience. His direction is less casual than the dialogue, even though it’s apparent that the marquee names were happy to unwind from the stress of bigger budgets. In some ways, the stars detract: a girl doesn’t have to be as ravishing as Wilde to get the attention her character gets from the blue-collar schlubs. It might have been a more interesting take if Kendrick had been in the role of Kate, the party girl who wears sunglasses indoors, and played against type. It would have come out differently, but the results might have been more fresh. Played by Wilde, she’s like the baby sister of Charlize Theron’s bitch par excellence in Young Adult; Kate’s good looks have protected her from having to learn how to be responsible. This revelation doesn’t have much under it—she’s a brat, and the film implies she’ll just grow out of it—but it dawns on the audience at just the right rate.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

The part of me that wanted to believe in Beasts of the Southern Wild was the same part that wants to believe in Santa Claus. I think it’s marvelous to see movies that bring their cameras to subsets of the population that don’t even have movies; and it’s more inspiriting still to see them get the recognition that this one has. That said, I’m disappointed to see such a subject underserved by a lack of imagination. The film is “mythic” by fiat–a sacrifice offered up by way of bashed fish, beating hearts, and bad poetry. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) screams her nine-year-old head off frequently enough to be fodder for a supercut, and I take that to be emblematic. It isn’t a howl; it’s the equivalent of a dog tagging a fire hydrant. But it’s also a sign of life–a declaration of it.

The film is set in the “Bathtub,” a little island floating tenuously beneath Louisiana. We learn just how tenuously, early on, when Hushpuppy’s teacher works climate change into her lesson plan, using tattoos of cave paintings as visual aides. (It’s the only sensible alternative to PowerPoint.) It’s a stretch to say that Hushpuppy lives with her widowed father Wink (Dwight Henry); they’re split between two dilapidated trailers on a stretch of swampland. The film is about their hot-cold relationship. Though he won’t tell her outright, Wink is dying of what appears to be sickle-cell anemia, which is meant to excuse his abuse and neglect of Hushpuppy because he’s toughening her up to face the world alone. The problem is that it’s impossible to separate his worldview from that of the director, Benh Zeitlin (who wrote the screenplay with Lucy Ailbar, on whose play Beasts is based). After a hurricane, FEMA comes to the Bathtub’s rescue, and Wink stages a prison break from the white walls of their hospital; he puts his daughter on a bus and closes the door behind her. It doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind that she could have a good life among those who I’d hesitate to call “more civilized,” but who, at the very least, accept modernity. We’re meant, it seems, to venerate him for wresting her from modernity’s clutches; and yet we’re constantly reminded that after one raindrop too many, the Bathtub will go down the drain. Her survival is secondary to his pride.

This is one of those movies that makes a critic like myself, whose skin is the color of a celebrity’s tooth, feel like a dick when justifying his opinions to friends better endowed with melanin. Beasts is not duplicitous like Django Unchained is, Tarantino being a demonstration of the kind of huckster Billy Wilder decried in Ace in the Hole; but this is “magical realism” in the sense that Slumdog Millionaire was a “fairy tale.” Meaning: People group it in with magical realism despite the scarcity of realism or even any magic (the aurochs fantasy being the only exception I can think of) because it’s the polite way of engaging with an eccentric work about a black family that was made by white artists. Zeitlin’s the son of folklorists, and I can see that lineage in the film–including where it breaks down. Beasts skims off the top of folktales, netting archetypes at the expense of local color or detail. Screenwriters have applied the same hero’s-journey template to their mediocre blockbusters for years. What’s intended as a blueprint ends up a shortcut: Their themes are “primal,” so they’re taken for granted. Subtext floats to the surface like creativity’s corpse. Add a setting to match your themes, and you’ve fished yourself up the “world soul.”

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