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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Movie Monster So White, Part II

All right, guys. I’m pumped. The nominees for Best Picture crushed it this year, despite the color-blindness of the Academy—which isn’t the kind of color-blindness that the late, great “Stephen Colbert” used to compliment himself for back in the Colbert Report days. (Here’s a thought: There are so many good choices, why not widen the field to 2009 levels, as a means of increasing its diversity?) I’ll start where I left off, and dive right in.

And the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2015 are . . .
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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 Place Beyond the Pines

When Ryan Gosling is cast as a heartthrob, I picture him getting out of costume as soon as he’s offscreen. The actor undoes the zipper on his bodybuilder’s physique, and his confidence falls with it onto the floor. I don’t think he’s a fraud, but maybe it says something that the last working-class tough guy standing in Hollywood, with any upwind haze of ambition or prestige, comes off—to me—as archaic. Like Derek Cianfrance’s movies, Gosling’s rogues represent people who’ve fallen off the map, or simply the screen. (It’s not as if their socioeconomic bracket has vanished. But people who glom onto an American Dream unalloyed by the rust of irony seem to have.) I think it’s too rude to say he’s ripping off Brando—especially as his chronic vulnerability wraps him more tightly in the thin skin of James Dean. But I’d never for a minute believe that his attitudinizing was formed by experience.

The Place Beyond the Pines doesn’t intend to create a world soggy with movie myths, but on some level it’s soaked them up. And when Gosling, who functions better in the phony sunshine of Crazy Stupid Love or the industrial moon shadows of Drive—where he’s consciously playing with his persona at the same time that he’s making it—is used as an emblem of authenticity, it gives the lie to the film’s aggressively anti-pomo underpinnings. He’s playing a man without a past, who may have once coexisted in reality with his old-movie counterparts, but appears as a romantic delusion now—a dream for those who want to live “off the grid.” Melodramatic shortcuts hold the plot together, allow the film its premise that the sum of a fate lies in the execution of a single decision. Yet its heavy dose of romanticism gives Pines its integrity. For propulsion, Cianfrance condensed three segments of a story into a single movie that seem like chapters in a book when they should seem like installations in a series of novels. If Pines had been made as a TV miniseries, it may have been worthier of its ultimately complex vision of human interaction; the women might not have been shunted aside (or might have been shunted aside in a thematically richer way, as they were in The Godfather); and the ending—which tries to explain the blank slate of those noirish men without a past—might have been more impactful than a narrow demonstration of mystical symmetry.

The heaviness of the filmmakers’ ambitions invites them to make fools of themselves; and there’s one shot of Gosling, the stunt driver on his motorcycle, in which a traffic light bathes him in crimson as surely as a bucket of blood, that compelled me to think that a real badass wouldn’t just sit literally pretty—he’d gun it. (Drive, he said. Arcane references, anyone?) But allowing vulnerability to foolishness also grants one the porousness to convey better things, and the same impulse toward mythical graphic-making is present, to much greater effect, when the first storyline intersects the second with a bead of Bradley Cooper’s sweat falling into a pool of Gosling’s blood. There’s also a fantastically well-shot and well-played instance of sudden violence, which ends with its perpetrator, Gosling, cradling his baby, and the whole thing dangled in my head like a mobile, with all of the elements of tragic heroism in their own orbits, neither touching nor capable of being touched. There were good, small moments, too. Cianfrance, for whom most comedic scenes are no better than obligatory, has gotten at something in Cooper, who has the gift of showing tires spinning out in his brain. He ages himself 15 years by way of little more than a cocky lope. It’s a fine performance that risks as much likability as his bipolar turn in Silver Linings Playbook did. Like a Tinseltown pro, Gosling’s star-power blinds him from anything that might imperil his image; but his intelligence and instincts shine through: his voice cracks in the heat of bank robbery, exposing the shrimp inside the shark.

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The Ides of March

What if George Clooney really parlayed his star power into the sphere of politics? Would the opposing parties occupying Wall Street both decamp? Or would the dreamboat be swift-boated for sinking the ship in The Perfect Storm faster than Bill O’Reilly can cry “Hollywood élite”? (The star’s already been bested at the box-office by the Rock’em Sock’em Robots, which augurs badly for both him and the body politic.) On the evidence of The Ides of March, the fourth feature that Clooney has directed, he probably wouldn’t trust anyone who’d wander down that primrose path called the campaign trail—even if it were himself. He plays a charismatic governor vying to win the Ohio primary and secure his trajectory to the Oval Office—a progressive Democrat who stumps by reading aloud what I imagine to be the bumper stickers on the back of Clooney’s Prius. Gov. Morris’s ad campaign would drive Shepard Fairey to sue for copyright infringement, if the artist was a hypocrite; but, more importantly, it alludes to a real person, the current “leader of the free world.” Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

In Farragut North, the play on which Clooney, Grant Heslov, and the playwright himself—Beau Willimon—based the script, Morris existed offstage: He was unseen and, I gather, left open for interpretation. In the film, he’s like Julius Caesar, who, in Shakespeare’s play, was onstage just long enough to beware the ides of March, but left top billing for his assassin, Brutus. (The filmmakers’ allusion to the ill-fated dictator is as full of holes as he came to be.) Morris’s kinda-but-not-really Brutus is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the protégé of the veteran political strategist Paul Zara, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Zara’s intra-party rival is played by Paul Giamatti; and one of my biggest gripes about the movie is that these two powerhouses, Indiewood’s go-to everymen, only have about two lines’ worth of screen time together, and don’t even share the frame. Gosling projected a firestorm of psychic tension in Drive, that well-made but buffonic alum from the preschool of vulgarian connoisseurship; it’s amazing how far Method acting with conviction can go in a role for which Ashton Kutcher is overqualified. Here, Gosling imports his heartfelt vulnerability from Blue Valentine to this role of a sleek playa who sees himself as so conscientious that he’s almost in denial about his own sex appeal. (I know of no other leading man who can do a look of self-lacerating guilt as impishly as he does.) He and Evan Rachel Wood, as Molly—a 20-year-old intern who wears the opposite mask; she acts a lot feistier than she is—teem with chemistry together. They give fun, if stagey, japes a refreshing zeal; and I don’t doubt that, as director, Clooney had a hand in their tony cupidity—even if he puts the camera too close to it in a scene set at a mood-lit restaurant. But Molly is the first rung of the ladder that Meyers loses his moral grip on; he descends into the usual corruption—and the story into “tragedy.”

March is howling winter’s final blow; and Cincinnati, where the bulk of the film is set, is home to none of the principals. In some ways, contrary to those expressed by other critics, the sense of loneliness brought on by the limitations in cast and scenery seemed apposite to me. Some reviewers have said the movie was redolent of Sweet Smell of Success, which is understandable; but it struck me more as a downsized Godfather. Unfortunately, the dialogue almost always came out one shade less clever than what I anticipated laughing at; and worse, there’s no moment in this film analagous to that famous hospital scene in the first Godfather film that rechristened Michael as Don Corleone. Stephen’s a literal political junkie; and anyone who’s read Politico, and reacts to its reduction of issues into “politics,” knows that victory’s allure is as potent, and more dangerous, than a nostrilful of coke. But Stephen loses his scruples in one fell swoop; the audience gets alienated from its tragic hero prematurely.

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Crazy, Stupid, Love

If you can accept the pretense that Steve Carell would be married to Julianne Moore; that law-student Emma Stone is pre-engaged to Josh Groban (pretty awesome casting, actually); that Moore would cheat on Carell with Kevin Bacon; that that dissolves their marriage; that said marriage would produce a mind-numbingly precocious son, that species of old-soul soccer player native only to Hollywood; that the militantly square suburban-dad tatterdemalion would sip vodka-cranberries at the same swanky club as Ryan Gosling, a lothario so fresh-to-death that a mortician couldn’t improve on his corpse; that Gosling, who probably studied under the Most Interesting Man in the World from those beer commercials, would take it upon himself to mentor the soon-to-be-suede-clad Carell in the ways of the metrosexual, which I pegged as a dying breed; that the 13-year-old son would stage a public reading of The Scarlet Letter to capture his 17-year-old babysitter’s heart; that Carell would randomly hook up with Marisa Tomei, who’s quite funny as said son’s recovering-alcoholic teacher; that, after his first attempt at conjugal reconquista fails, rain starts to fall and Carell says “this is such a cliché”; that Stone is apparently the one girl “substantial” enough to rebuff Gosling and thus turns out to be his Soul Mate; that Gosling solicits Carell’s help to kindle a Meaningful Relationship; that, with no apparent occupation other than picking up chicks by the skewer, Gosling isn’t a serial killer or the record-holder for most S.T.D.’s per capita; and that—God, I won’t even stoop to recapping the way the filmmakers tie the subplots together—then you’ll probably accept the proposition that Crazy, Stupid, Love is a well-made rom-com, and that it’s so refreshing to see a movie for grown-ups amid a summerful of kiddie crap—just like, as a matter of fact, The Kids Are All Right was at this time last summer.

If you can’t accept that run-on pretense, then you’ll probably find the movie contemptible. Or maybe you’ll find it, like I did, to be a high-end sitcom that looks like a vodka ad and sounds like what your Carellian dad approves of as current and hip. It’s Captain America for the sonnet set, sure; but as harmless as a sunny day spent poolside.