Reviews of ‘Saving Mr. Banks,’ ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’
Christmastime is the perfect season for moviegoing, and the studios well know it: Families are together, spirits are high, there’s time off from work and school … and the Oscar nominations are just around the corner. It’s when they pull out their big guns.
Here’s our rundown of the major contenders this season for your dollars — and for awards.
Inside Llewyn Davis
I’m a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, but let’s face it: they are a smarmy pair. Peripatetic in the diversity of their interests, they are genre-benders who always seem to put quotation marks around their movies. They don’t make comedies, they make “comedies.” They aren’t masters of the gangster film, but rather the “gangster film.” They exude a self-referential, deconstructionist’s joy at defying expectation and finding humor (and darkness) in unlikely places. They always seem to be having sick fun.
But not always. No Country for Old Men was straight-on thriller with a brooding, inevitable aura of gloom (although it was also a modern-day Western where the bad guy wins). It is perhaps the one time they allowed the voice of another author — Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the novel on which the film was based — to drive out their own … or almost.
While their newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, isn’t quite as dour and brilliantly oppressive as No Country, it does show a maturity level that makes it seem almost un-Coen-ish. It’s less like it is surrounded by quotation marks than parenthesis.
Set in 1961, mostly in New York’s Greenwich Village, it follows a minor light in the burgeoning folk music scene, the fictional musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Llewyn was once part of a successful duo, but his partner killed himself jumping off the George Washington Bridge (he couldn’t even do that right — you’re supposed to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Everyone knows that). Llewyn has talent, and even some drive, but not many social skills; he’s not warm and fuzzy, and it’s hard to be his friend. He impregnates his best friend’s gal, he berates his sister, he even gets stuck with the cat of a couple of middle-aged professors.
Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a real slice of life about the guy who didn’t become Dylan, a gifted artist who self-destructed not from drugs or bad love but just because he was a dick. And yet in Coen fashion, we care deeply about Llewyn, probably for the same reason so many people stick by him: The man has chops.
Isaac’s performance drives the film forward, even as it becomes a rangy road movie (with a dazzling cameo by John Goodman as a prissy heroin addict); with the cat in tow, it occasionally resembles Harry & Tonto with a young man. But the film perpetually reinvents itself, never lingering too long in one place, conjuring Llewyn’s own lack of focus and the in-and-out way he deals with issues. It’s a portrait of an artist as a doomed man. (We know, even as he doesn’t, that the moronic novelty song he’s recording will be a hit just as he signs away his royalties to it.)
Llewyn Davis isn’t shot in black-and-white, but it might as well be, since the photography (especially in the cave-like coffeehouses where Llewyn performs) plays off stark contrasts of light and dark, much like his own life. The Coens have made one of their most sincere films, and one of their best.
Saving Mr. Banks
We expect our children’s book authors to be as warm as the characters they create, but P.L. Travers was nothing of the sort. You might get that if you read the books she wrote about literature’s most famous nanny, Mary Poppins, instead of watching the iconic Disney film. Mary Poppins was arch and strict even as outrageous things happened around her. She was a Victorian, and Travers basically was, too.
But Disney did make the film, much to her displeasure. The creator of fun for children hated the cartoons that were at the center of the world’s most pervasive kidtainment empire, and resisted, for years, the temptation to sell the rights to her stories. Eventually, we all know, she did. In that way, there’s no mystery, no suspense to Saving Mr. Banks, in which Travers (Emma Thompson) faces off against Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his creative team. She needs the money, the world needs “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
But the end result isn’t the point; the process is, and much of that process is fascinating, from the recorded interviews in which Travers dictatorially corrected the paint swatches for the Banks’ London home to her primness about being called by her first name. Between these scenes, the film flashes back to her upbringing Down Under, where a father she loved (Colin Farrell) drank his family into ruin.
“Daddy issues” drove the creation of a work of literature? That’s hardly news. But director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) has a style that nears, but does not cross, the line between sentiment and mawkishness. Truth be told, the scenes of Travers’ childhood seem too familiar and predictable, but the ones in the 1960s, with Walt cajoling until he finally gets his way, ooze a delightful, family-friendly comic tone.
Thompson and Hanks pair off winningly, matching hushed word for hushed word. It’s a sparring match of well-suited but stylistically diverse prizefighters: Thompson with her tight-lipped British classical prudery and Hanks with his warm-blooded American charm. Ultimately, it’s a draw, and the winner is the audience.
In the 1970s, Italian-American men in loud suits and wide neckties and their blowzy women with hair teased so much it bordered on bullying were all small-time hoods in the big city who thought they were smarter than everyone. How do we know this? Because Martin Scorsese told us, that’s how. In Goodfellas and Casino and Taxi Driver, Scorsese mastered a style of epic storytelling around commonplace hoods that established its own genre. Many have repeated his formula; some have succeeded in coming close (Ted Demme with Blow, P.T. Anderson with Boogie Nights), but none has done it better.
Well, David O. Russell is no Scorsese. He’s not even P.T. Anderson.
Russell’s American Hustle beats Scorsese’s latest, The Wolf of Wall Street (set in the ’80s instead of the ’70s but still with the rat-a-tat-tat he patented) into the theaters by less than a week, it’s really decades behind.
The elements are there: The classic-rock soundtrack (including a version of “White Rabbit” in Arabic); the color-coded washes over many scenes (usually a sepia-gold); the explanatory voice-over narration; even a cameo by former Scorsese stalwart Robert DeNiro. But it feels entirely derivative, a lame rip-off of better movies elevated only by the presence of highly capable actors doing good (not great) work.
Hustle purports to be a more-or-less true retelling of ABSCAM, the late-1970s FBI sting operation that became not only a major investigation into political corruption, but one of the first instances where hidden video was used to record a bust. The grainy floor-level images of the operation are indelible to people of a certain age, as was the sting’s criticism for entrapment and politically-motivated targeting of officials. The film almost ignores most of these things, concentrating instead on a rogue, largely incompetent FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and his use of a two-bit conman (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend (Amy Adams) to run a government-sanctioned boondoggle.
While it follows many of Scorsese’s tropes, the screenplay is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Russell seems to be making fun of people, and not affectionately. The scene where Cooper claims to be gaining respect while giving himself a Toni home perm, his head wrapped in tight pink curlers, is meant to be ironic, but it’s mostly juvenile, one of many sophomoric jokes. It’s gimmicky, not smart — though also not as bad as last year’s insufferable Silver Linings Playbook, also by Russell.
At times, I admit, American Hustle crackles and pops … but so do Rice Krispies. That’s no reason to waste time watching them — the film or the cereal. The real hustle here is convincing audiences that Russell is just as good as Scorsese at this kind of thing. They expect us to be as easily duped as the mark’s in the film.
RELEASE DATES FOR MAJOR HOLIDAY FILMS
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Inside Llewyn Davis
Saving Mr. Banks
Walking with Dinosaurs
The Wolf of Wall Street, pictured
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
August: Osage County
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 20, 2013.