Films

Tales of men undone

Brian D. Johnson October 28 1996
Films

Tales of men undone

Brian D. Johnson October 28 1996

Tales of men undone

Films

Hollywood is an industry of happy endings. It specializes in escapist tales of characters overcoming the odds. But for those who would rather escape to places so dark that their own lives seem sunny by comparison, three new movies offer an alternative. Sleepers, Basquiat and Jude are about men overcome by the odds. The first two are tragedies of lost innocence, true stories set in a cruel and unforgiving New York City. Jude takes place in 19th-century England, in the cruel and and unforgiving landscape of novelist Thomas Hardy’s imagination.

Sleepers is another tale of male bonding from American director Barry Levinson {Diner, Rain Man, Bugsy). And he has assembled a heavyweight cast that includes Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman,

Brad Pitt and Kevin Bacon. Levinson based his script for Sleepers on the 1995 best-seller by Lorenzo Carcaterra, which the author claims is a slightly fictionalized account of his own experience—although some critics have questioned its veracity. The story follows the misadventures of four boys who grow up in the Manhattan ghetto known as Hell’s Kitchen during the 1960s. Lorenzo, Michael, Tommy and John enjoy an idyllic childhood of mischief—diving into the Hudson River, peeking at naked women, dancing in an open fire hydrant—until a prank against a hotdog vendor backfires and lands them in serious trouble.

The four are sent to a reformatory, where they suffer horrifying torture and sexual abuse from a sadistic guard named Nokes (Bacon). Lifteen years later, two of the gang, Tommy and John (Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard) are back in Hell’s Kitchen, addicted to drugs and working as hit men, when they recognize Nokes in a restaurant. They shoot him dead, savoring every moment of revenge. But later, when they are charged with murder, a Hell’s Kitchen underground—operating with a cloak-and-dagger intrigue worthy of the Trench Resistance—plots to save them.

Michael (Brad Pitt), who has become an

assistant district attorney since leaving the reformatory, arranges to act as dummy prosecutor in a trial cleverly rigged to acquit the killers. To help him, he enlists Lorenzo Qason Patrie), who is now a newspaper reporter. And to finesse the scheme they recruit a Mafia elder (Vittorio Gassman), an alcoholic defence lawyer (Hoffman) and the boys’ childhood friend and protector—a streetwise priest coolly played by De Niro.

In a trio of movies, life vanquishes innocence

The film’s dramatic style—powered by a wordy narration from Lorenzo—seems deeply derivative of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. But Levinson’s vision lacks both the realism and the moral rigor of Scorsese. And there is a vacuum at the centre of the narrative—Lorenzo’s character seems gauzy and fictitious, which is odd considering that he represents the author’s own voice. On the edges, however, are some fabulous nuggets of character acting. As the elegant mobster, Gassman makes a sublimely sardonic godfather. As the shambling, ponytailed lawyer who bluffs his way through the trial, Hoffman is wonderfully deft and deadpan. And De Niro, whose character holds the final trump card in the intrigue, delivers one of his most lucid, least-mannered performances in years.

Another movie that romanticizes American vigilante justice, Sleepers has a pulpy whiff to it—it is distressing to hear the bloodthirsty cheer from the audience as Nokes is killed. Levinson, meanwhile, varnishes tragedy with Hollywood triumph. His “nonfiction” seems much less real than, say, the fiction of The Boys of St. Vincent (1992), the CBC movie about institutional child

abuse. Still, Levinson knows how to make a movie. He keeps it compelling throughout, and although it runs 21/2 hours, Sleepers offers no room for catnaps.

Basquiat dramatizes the brief but meteoric career of a New York graffiti artist who catapulted from obscurity to become the first black superstar of the art world. Discovered in 1981 at the age of 19, Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a drug overdose just eight years later. His friend Julian Schnabel— painter, sculptor and now novice film-maker—has written and directed a seductive and affectionate portrait of the artist.

Tony Award-winning stage actor Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America) makes a charismatic splash in the title role. He plays Basquiat as a charming free spirit, a poetic soul with a just-say-yes vulnerability that affords no protection from the perils of celebrity. Schnabel surrounds his star with a rogues’ gallery of supporting players— Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Willem Dafoe and Courtney Love. Walken, playing a journalist, tosses off one of his patented single-scene masterpieces. And David Bowie affects a delightful impersonation of Andy Warhol. The movie has the quality of collage. Held together by a rich sound track, the story feels tangential, unsatisfying and incomplete—like Basqùiat’s life. But Schnabel conjures up his friend’s spirit with some evocative brush strokes.

Jude is masterfully rendered. Its beautifully bleak vistas of the English countryside could not be farther from the madding crowd and graffiti tangle of Manhattan. Based on Thomas Hardy’s 1895 novel, Jude the Obscure, the film tracks the misfortunes of a stonemason named Jude (Christopher Eccleston) who aspires to be a scholar. After the failure of an impulsive marriage to Arabella (Rachel Griffiths), a pig farmer’s daughter, he falls in love with his lovely and urbane cousin Sue (Kate Winslet)— igniting an illicit passion that continues to smolder, with disastrous consequences, even after she marries his boyhood mentor, a teacher named Phillotson (Liam Cunningham).

British director Michael Winterbottom captures Hardy’s fatalism with stark, haunting images. Shooting in northern England and Scotland instead of Hardy’s “Wessex” (the now-gentrified county of Dorset), he films a world of dark stone, cold green and heavy rain. As Jude, the scrappy contender outclassed by Fate, Eccleston gives a sharply contoured performance. And Winslet displays a sexy boldness and depth that were only hinted at in Sense and Sensibility. Thomas Hardy, meanwhile, can still teach New York a thing or two about unrequited love, frustrated ambition and the fine art of slowly descending into hell.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON