Reel men never win

Movies are making a virtue of broken heroes

Brian D. Johnson November 9 1992

Reel men never win

Movies are making a virtue of broken heroes

Brian D. Johnson November 9 1992

Reel men never win


Movies are making a virtue of broken heroes

Maybe it is the emotional fallout of the recession. Maybe it reflects a general crisis in male self-esteem. Whatever the cause, in half a dozen of the season’s new movies, the message is clear: real men never win. Reversing Hollywood’s fondness for tough, triumphant heroes, movies are making a virtue of broken men. Suddenly, failure is hot. The big screen’s new heroes have beaten-down ambitions and ill-fitting dreams. They are men who have lost their place in society and will never get it back. Stuck in the past and confounded by the present, they are diehard romantics playing out boyhood fantasies in a world that is quickly losing its patience. Their only redemption lies in accepting their fate.

In several of the new movies about tragic men, nature serves as an idyllic reminder of childhood innocence. Waterland stars Jeremy Irons as a history teacher drowning in memories of a traumatic adolescence in rural England. In A River Runs Through It, an elegiac family drama directed by Robert Redford, fly-

fishing provides a tenuous thread between two brothers who have grown apart. Of Mice and Men, meanwhile, resurrects John Steinbeck’s Depression-era tragedy about two itinerant farm workers who form a fraternal bond in the face of cruelty and intolerance.

In a more contemporary, urban (and less romantic) vein, Night and the City stars Robert De Niro as a chronic loser who makes a doomed attempt to become a boxing promoter in New York City. Glengarry Glen Ross features a piranha pool of Chicago real estate salesmen caught in a no-win game of Darwinian survival. And in the darkly comic, archly existential Reservoir Dogs, petty gangsters play Truth or Consequences with guns in the aftermath of a botched robbery in Los Angeles.

Many of the new movies are, in one way or another, about the playground, about the romance and cruelty of the games that boys play. In Waterland, based on the acclaimed 1983 novel by English author Graham Swift, a pipesmoking history teacher named Tom Crick Oeremy Irons) has reached a crisis in his career

and in his marriage to Mary (Sinéad Cusack). When a student (Ethan Hawke) says that history is pointless, Tom begins telling stories of growing up in the Fens, the flat English marshlands where East Anglia bleeds into the North Sea. And his memories congeal into a gothic tale of murder, incest and madness.

American director Stephen Gyllenhaal has taken liberties with Swift’s complex novel. He moves Tom’s adult life from London to Pittsburgh and presents the flashbacks as a timetravelling field trip, with Tom guiding the students through scenes from his past. Gyllenhaal’s direction, combined with a cloying soundtrack, is at times heavy-handed. But with haunting images he captures the desolate beauty of the Fens and the heat of adolescent sexuality. The acting, meanwhile, is exceptional. Playing Tom as a teenager, Grant Wamock bears a striking resemblance to Irons. Cusack, who is married to Irons in real life, conveys her character’s torment with harrowing conviction. Irons, meanwhile, looking wonderfully haggard, surpasses his own past standards of brilliance with a mesmerizing performance.

A River Runs Through It is another lyrical family drama about irrevocable loss, and once again water plays an overpowering role. But the tale is more subtle in the telling. Set in rural Montana from 1910 to 1935, the movie is adapted from an autobiographical novella written in spare, stoical prose by American author Norman Maclean, who died in 1990. And director Redford has brought it to the screen without a bruise. The story centres on two brothers, Norman and Paul Maclean, and their stern father, a Scots Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerrit). Norman (Craig Scheffer) is the responsible one who goes to university in the East, then returns home and falls in love with a sensible woman (Emily Lloyd). Paul (Brad Pitt) is the reckless brother, a hard-drinking, promiscuous newspaperman who has built up a dangerous burden of gambling debts.

Like Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), A River Runs Through It is about a family that has trouble communicating with itself. The outside world of money and women has left Norman and Paul estranged, but they find communion in the silent art of fly-fishing. It is a versatile metaphor, representing romance and fortune, sex and death, science and religion.

The movie treats the sport as a sacrament. And its rhapsodic images of sunlit lines being cast over the water in slow, looping arcs are sheer poetry.

A River Runs Through It is cleanly and deliberately crafted, like a piece of fine carpentry. At times it seems wooden, especially with Skerrit’s mannered impersonation of a wise patriarch. But the tasteful artifice of Redford’s direction is half the charm. And although the movie’s romantic rendering of male pride is no closer to reality than a fisherman’s fly is to a real insect, it strikes home with a plain-spoken beauty.

Of Mice and Men is another story of nostalgic men looking for a patch of peace and quiet in a hostile world.

But the movie is several generations removed from Steinbeck’s 1937 novel, refracted through previous incarnations as a 1980 play and a 1939 movie. The characters form a classic odd couple: the feebleminded Lennie (John Malkovich), who does not know his own physical strength, and his nurturing companion, George (Gary Sinese), who tries to keep him out of trouble. Malkovich and Sinese played the same roles in the 1980 stage version of the novel.

Sinese, who also directs, magnifies Steinbeck’s moral landscape to a mythic scale, creating something closer to magic realism than to social realism. His rural images are so pristine that the dust of the Depression looks almost good enough to eat. The ranch where Lennie and George find jobs stacking hay is a paradise of cowboy companionship, with a hint of homoeroticism. But evil announces itself with operatic clarity, personified by the boss’s bullying son, Curley (Casey Siemaszko), and his temptress wife (Sherilyn Fenn).

What makes the movie engaging, for all its hyperbole, is the emotional depth of Sinese’s performance, which modulates male heroism with maternal compassion. Malkovich, meanwhile, has the virtuoso role, using all the tricks

of his intelligence to create the diverting illusion of Lennie’s mental incompetence, similar to Dustin Hoffman’s affectation of autism in Rain Man (1988). Malkovich’s Lennie is cute and comic. And his obsession with tending rabbits in a little farmhouse turns into a gentle parody of the American Dream.

In Steinbeck’s rural universe, salvation means just a job or a piece of land, a chance to lead an ordinary life. But in the city, the American Dream becomes a quest for something that sets a man above the common herd. And perhaps no actor has personified the failure of that dream more effectively than Robert De Niro. As boxer Jake LaMotta, one of Hollywood’s great tragic heroes, in Raging Bull (1980), he says, “I could have been some-

body,” echoing a line that Marlon Brando made famous in On the Waterfront (1954) and that originated in 1950’s Night and the City.

Now, in a remake of Night and the City, De Niro brings the sentiment full circle. He plays Harry Fabian, a small-time Manhattan lawyer who makes a desperate attempt to become a boxing promoter. When Boom Boom Grossman (Alan King), the city’s leading fight promoter tries to stop him with some firm intimidation, Fabian will not listen to reason—or force. A shameless self-promoter, he clings to ambitions of grandeur against ridiculous odds. And he finds an unlikely ally in Helen Qessica Lange), who betrays her husband for him in bed and at the bank. For Lange, it must seem familiar: 11 years after The Postman Always Rings Twice, she is playing another adulterous wife of a Greek bar owner in a remake.

De Niro, too, is on familiar terrain. Fabian is strongly reminiscent of one of De Niro’s previous characters, Rupert Pupkin, the obnoxious comedian who tries to force his way into showbusiness contention in King of Comedy (1982).

But Night and the City is drama, not farce. De Niro plays Fabian for sympathy. And it is hard to fathom why Lange’s character would dote on such a conniving loser—unless the movie is trying to reassure men that the combination of failure and dishonesty works as an aphrodisiac on beautiful women.

As usual, De Niro gives a brilliant performance, but Night and the City plays too much like a one-man show. Director Irwin Winkler allows his star to flatten the story. The result is like seeing a prizefighter defend his title in a contest that has been fixed in his favor.

By contrast, Glengarry Glen Ross uses a well-balanced cast to tell a riveting story of real estate salesmen in despair. Directed by James Foley and based on David Mamet’s 1984 play, it eviscerates the American Dream, stripping it to its most primordial elements. The characters are not looking for a piece of land or a shot at the big time. They are just trying to survive, scrounging for clients in a cutthroat sales competition. The movie features the year’s most memorable performances, notably by AÍ Pacino and Jack Lemmon. And it dissects men with an anthropological curiosity—as predators clinging to their professional pride in a world where it seems to have lost its value.

Reservoir Dogs pushes the idea of professional artistry to absurd extremes. Its professionals are six small-time gangsters. After a robbery that goes awry, they try to sort out what went wrong— and who snitched. They wear identical dark suits, and thenboss has given them code names like characters in a game of Clue. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), who was shot in the belly, is bleeding to death on a warehouse floor. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) concedes some sympathy for him, which infuriates Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), a cold-blooded weasel who dislikes everyone, especially Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), a psychopath who does a wicked dance with a knife.

A low-budget feature by novice American director Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is funny, nasty and jarringly violent. The story, which unfolds in real time, combines the introspection of a stage play with the blood-quickening rhythms of a thriller. Like Glengarry Glen Ross, it features an ensemble cast exclusively made up of men. And just as Glengarry Glen Ross is not really about real estate, and A River Runs Through It is not really about fly-fishing, Reservoir Dogs is not about crime. It is about men, their unacknowledged romance with each other, and how they wrestle with competition, failure and compassion.