Films

Bumping into Neverland

2001, a movie odyssey: moments of truth in a sea of storybook fantasy

Brian D. Johnson December 31 2001
Films

Bumping into Neverland

2001, a movie odyssey: moments of truth in a sea of storybook fantasy

Brian D. Johnson December 31 2001

Bumping into Neverland

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

2001, a movie odyssey: moments of truth in a sea of storybook fantasy

Once again, the movies have us surrounded. For months, we complain that there’s nothing out there. Then, in a last-minute binge of Christmas largesse, Hollywood goes to town, unleashing a bounty of “prestige” pictures in a rush at the end of the year, hoping they’ll stay fresh in the minds of Oscar voters. Recently, we previewed AU, The Lord of the Rings, A Beautiful Mind, Vanilla Sky, Oceans Eleven and Gosford Park. Now, we’ll look at a final batch of holiday fare— The Shipping News, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Majestic, In the Bedroom and No Mans Land. But first let’s look back over the year and take stock.

In 2001, when one event eclipsed all others—a horrific reality that everyone agreed was “like a movie”—the movies were more removed from reality than ever. This was a year of storybook fables set in fantastic worlds. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are the most obvious examples. But even the most urbane romances were staged in mythical playgrounds, from the hyper-stylized Paris of Moulin Rouge to the postcard Paree of Amélie. Between their two Lost Girl heroines—Nicole Kidman’s vamping courtesan and Audrey Tatou’s kitten-cute gamine—it’s as if Neverland had opened a franchise in Montmartre.

While the faux bohemians of Moulin Rouge chased the Green Fairy of absinthe through Paris, a robo-boy with no parents looked for the Blue Fairy in A. I. s drowned Manhattan. Steven Spielberg’s Tin Man search for a heart left us cold, but A. I. provided the template for a year in which film after film floated in a twilight zone between dream and reality—mind-game movies such as Mulholland Drive, Waking Life, Vanilla Sky, Memento and The Others.

It was also a year in which the screen became a virtual refugee camp of orphaned children and bereaved families. In Life as a House, a son watches his dying father build

a dream home on a cliff, and in The Shipping News, a father who’s lost his wife and parents looks for answers in another cliffside house. Parents dealing with the death of a child recurred in no less than three movies: The Pledge, In the Bedroom and The Son’s Room (which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes but has yet to be released here). Grief and vengeance, now the twin towers of emotion in America, galvanized extraordinary performances from Jack Nicholson ( The Pledge) and Sissy Spacek {In the Bedroom)—but with moral implications more ambiguous than those at work in Afghanistan, or Middle-earth.

On a lighter note, it was a banner year for heist movies. As the economy slid into recession, good guys got away with robbing the rich in The Score, Heist, Bandits

and Ocean’s Eleven—all riffs on vintage formula—while the Brits revived gangster kink with Sexy Beast and Snatch. Everywhere nostalgia ran thick and fast. Bob Dylan was ubiqI uitous on sound tracks, movies were rife with allusions to François Truffaut, and even Jean-Luc Godard found a sweet spot for the past with Eloge de l’amour, a masterpiece still awaiting North American distribution.

Now, the latest offerings:

The Royal Tenenbaums juggles surreal whimsy and emotional truth more artfully than any movie this year. Directed by Wes Anderson {Bottle Rocket, Rushmore), this off-kilter comedy about a family of genius eccentrics unfolds like a pop-up book of a J. D. Salinger novel. In fact, the narrative progresses in chapters, with the camera scanning each opening paragraph on a page. But there’s no book: the movie is based on an original screenplay by Anderson and Rushmore co-writer Owen Wilson, who also figures in the ensemble cast.

Set in a mythically enhanced Manhattan, the film starts out much like Amélie, with a long, dizzying sequence of narration and montage that zip through the family’s early history. Cut to the present. The Tenenbaum kids, all child prodigies, are grown up and screwed up. Chas (Ben Stiller), a financial whiz who lost his wife in a house fire, is a paranoid parent of two boys with identical perms and red track suits. Margot (a grim, kohl-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow) is an award-winning playwright unhappily married to an older man (Bill Murray). Margot’s adopted brother, Richie (Luke Wilson), a washed-up tennis champion, is in love with her. So is a family friend, Eli (Owen Wilson), a space cowboy who writes western novels—imagine Cormac McCarthy on mescaline.

At the heart of the movie is Royal Tenenbaum, a roguish patriarch played with singular finesse by Gene Hackman. Estranged from his children, divorced from his wife (Anjelica Huston) and broke, Royal tries to reunite his family by pretending he’s dying of cancer. Balancing vitriol and sentiment like so much nitroglycerine, Hackman makes a farfetched character oddly credible. It’s a thrill to see him unshackled from formula thrillers.

Some of the other actors seem trapped in caricature, prisoners of Anderson’s sublimely composed dollhouse dioramas. But the movie keeps slipping into unexpected wells of emotion. Suddenly, you find yourself absorbed in a long, tender scene with Hackman and Huston. Or hiding out with Paltrow in a yellow pup tent in a bedroom as an early Stones song plays on vinyl: in the corner of the frame, you watch the needle come to the end of the track, then you wait for the next song . . . Ruby Tuesday. It’s a moment of pure magic.

The Majestic, another storybook fable, tries to manufacture magic with less success. Set in the 1950s, and directed by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile), it’s a Capraesque tale of a Hollywood screenwriter (Jim Carrey) who is blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunt. Fleeing town, he drives his car off a wet bridge and

is washed up in a strange town with his memory erased. The townsfolk become convinced that he’s Luke, a local war hero long presumed dead even by his father (Martin Landau) and fiancee (Laurie Holden). Giving new life to this Norman Rockwell community, “Luke” helps reopen

the family business, a movie theatre called The Majestic. But eventually, Carrey’s character has to face the McCarthyite music, and the movie turns into a banal anthem of liberal propaganda.

The Majestic could have been tailormade for the current war effort. Carrey, whose dramatic acting is as earnest as his comedy is incendiary, seems determined to be the next Jimmy Stewart. And now that the Canadian actor is becoming an American citizen, The Majestic could serve as his oath of allegiance.

BETWEEN THE ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

It’s based on a book by a woman from Wyoming, is directed by a Swede and features American, British and Australian stars. But no Hollywood movie has gone further than The Shipping News in magnifying, and venerating, a piece of Canada without passing it off as someplace else. That piece, of course, is the Rock. In bringing E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the screen, Lasse Hallström has crafted a richly evocative picture full of gentle charm and stern beauty. After the sugar-spun artifice of Chocolat and the overripe drama of The Cider House Rules, Hallström finds a subtle naturalism in The Shipping News. And the performances from the actors who headline his cast-Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench-are so deliberately understated it’s as if everyone is deferring to the raw magnetism of the movie’s ultimate star: Newfoundland.

And personifying the Rock is native son Gordon Pinsent. Cast in a supporting role as local newspaperman Billy Pretty, he’s the tether that moors the story to its location. Pinsent quietly steals his scenes with a droll humour that spreads through the film like a shot of single-malt scotch. It’s a pity his part isn’t larger, and that Hallström didn’t see fit to use more Newfoundland actors.

The script offers a faithful rendering of Proulx’s story, while both condensing and embellishing it. Quoyle (Spacey) lives a drone-like existence as an ink-setter at a newspaper in upstate New York. After a car crash kills his white-trash wife-Cate Blanche« in a brief, blazing tour de force-he’s

devastated. A wily aunt (Dench) drags him back to his ancestral home in a Newfoundland outport. There, with a young daughter in tow, Quoyle lands a reporting job at The Gammy Bird, falls for a daycare worker named Wavey (Moore), and unravels his family’s gothic past.

As the movie’s gormless hero, Spacey inverts his usual glib persona. But there’s something mannered about his minimalism. He creates a character so deliberately vacant and slow-witted that, behind the concave performance, the armature of intelligence shows through. Among the actors who play Quoyle’s cronies at the newspaper, Scott Glenn delivers true grit as owner Jack Buggit, a scowling Pete Postlethwaite is Tert, his managing editor, and Rhys Ifans adds comic spark as the shipwrecked Brit, Nutbeem. Dench, meanwhile, captures the salt of her surroundings with an astringent wit, while Moore acquits herself with quiet grace-although she, like several of the cast, struggles with the Newfoundland accent.

On location in Trinity Bay, all the actors seem suitably humbled by the rugged landscape, which Hallström captures in the stark hues of bleached film stock. For readers who were irritated by Proulx’s ornate writing, it’s nice to see Newfoundland play itself on screen, unfiltered. Instead of reading that “the ocean twitched like a vast cloth spread over snakes,” we see only... the ocean.

Or Pinsent looking out to sea, talking about the weather like a man who knows. B.D.J.

In the Bedroom, which is at the top of many critics’ lists, offers a dire antidote to seasonal schlock. Set on the coast of Maine, it’s a small, slow, but utterly absorbing tragedy about a couple coming to terms with their son’s murder. Frank (Nick Stahl), a young man working lobster traps before heading off to architecture school, is involved with Natalie (Marisa Tomei), an older woman. After he’s murdered by her estranged husband, his parents’ marriage starts to unravel: Ruth (Spacek) is paralyzed by anger and grief, while Matt (Tom Wilkinson) quietly absorbs the shock. They finally confront each other, in a scene of heartrending emotion, and a dark agenda begins to emerge.

Making his feature debut, actor Todd Field directs with subtle confidence. Spacek and Wilkinson are both superb, while Stahl andTomei conjure a Splendor in the Grass spell of doomed romance that lingers throughout the film.

No Man’s Land, a satire from Bosnia, is one of two foreign films from war zones that have broken through to the front lines of North American distribution. The other is Kandahar, the story of a Canadian woman’s odyssey among refugees on the Afghan-Iran border. And No Mans Land, like Kandahar, leavens blunt realism with a haunting sense of the absurd. It is 1993. A Bosnian soldier (Branko Djuric) and his Serb counterpart (Rene Bitorajac) are stranded in a trench between the warring sides. With them is a Croatian soldier lying on a mine that will explode if he moves.

As tension mounts between the two soldiers, UN peacekeepers converge on the scene, which becomes a media circus. Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic makes his allegiance clear, but saves his venom for the UN commander, who’s hamstrung by a stance of official neutrality. (Tanovic has said he’s loosely based on Canada’s retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie.) No Mans Land is a darkly comic, smartly entertaining portrait of human folly in wartime. It’s an escape of sorts, taking us to a world of heightened reality that is no one’s idea of a dream. E3