2000 TIFF Festival Daily Update #8: "Switching Sides - When Actors Direct"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 14, 2000

In some cases, they have a story to tell. In some cases, they're tired of being told what to do when they think they know how things could be done better. And, in still other cases, it's an ego thing. I'm talking about the need that some actors have to direct. There's nothing new about this trend - it goes all the way back to the beginnings of cinema and men like Charlie Chaplin and (a little later) Orson Welles. The problem is, for every man or woman of Chaplin's talent, there are dozens who lack the skills to helm a motion picture. Passion and drive aren't enough - there has to be a fundamental ability to go along with those qualities.

This year in Toronto, three high-profile actors have unveiled their feature film directorial debuts. They are Sally Field, Ed Harris, and Al Pacino. Only one, Pacino, has previously directed anything that has shown in a theater (his documentary, Looking For Richard, received some art house exposure a few years ago). Field has directed a television film ("The Christmas Tree") and Harris is a complete neophyte. Each has selected Toronto as the location in which to unveil their work behind the camera and await the judgment of an audience not composed entirely of partisans.

After seeing Sally Field's first feature as a director, a wretchedly insipid film by the name of Beautiful, I have to wonder why the festival agreed to screen it. Commercial considerations aside, this movie is so artistically bankrupt that its very presence on the festival schedule is a black mark. Beautiful isn't just ugly, it's Coyote Ugly (or at least poised to give that ignominious film a race for the runner's-up position on the 2000 Worst Of list).

Beautiful tells the uninspiring story of Mona Hibbard (Minnie Driver), a white trash girl from Naperville, Illinois who spends her entire life trying to become Miss America Miss. Her early beauty pageant experiences aren't promising, but, after enlisting the costuming talent of her best friend, Ruby (Joey Lauren Adams), things start looking up. Unfortunately, just when Mona appears to be headed for a crown, she suffers a setback: pregnancy (no contestant for Miss America Miss can be a mother or a legal guardian of a child). But it's Ruby to the rescue. After Mona gives birth to Vanessa (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Ruby takes over all maternal duties, leaving Mona to continue in single-minded pursuit of her dream.

Compared to what Beautiful foists on its audience, made-for-TV sentimental crap looks subtle. This movie has no grace or charm; it's all manipulation. Nearly every scene is crafted ham-fistedly, with the goal of generating an avalanche of tears and goodwill at the end - goals that will only be achieved for those who exhibit little discernment when it comes to motion picture appreciation. Here's litmus test: if you enjoyed the dubious charms of films like Patch Adams and Stepmom, Beautiful is probably your kind of movie.

The film doesn't know whether it wants to be a satire, a sit-com, or a feel-good melodrama. Elements of all three are mixed together in a blend that rapidly curdles. Sexual molestation is presented in a jokey manner, with the girl's reaction designed to garner a laugh. The parody elements, while present, pale in comparison to something even as weak as Drop Dead Gorgeous. And the supposedly heart-wrenching drama left me dry-eyed and wishing that the damn movie would come to a swift end.

One thing notable about Beautiful is its extreme use of product placement. Pepsi and Ruffles are the most obvious examples - those labels are plastered all over the place - but they're not the only ones. Everywhere you look in this film, some high-profile product is being advertised. If the movie offered better entertainment, I'd call this intrusive. As it is, it's just another irritant. (Incidentally, since Hallie Kate Eisenberg is starring in a number of recent Pepsi commercials, one has to wonder whether the young actresses' presence in this film is, in itself, a product placement of sorts. Or maybe part of a deal with Pepsi is that she would play the role.)

Most of the time, the mere presence of the charming and bubbly Minnie Driver in a movie is enough to make it at least marginally palatable, but that's not the case here. In what is arguably the least charismatic performance of her career, Driver fails to shine or even make us care about her character. Joey Lauren Adams (the helium-voiced love interest from Chasing Amy) is no better, and Eisenberg comes from the school of Cute Brats You Want to Strangle. The best thing that could have happened to her character would have been a fatal car accident.

Because of Sally Field's clout, there's little doubt that Beautiful will receive a widespread U.S. release. If you see it after having read what I have written, don't say I didn't warn you...

Ed Harris' Pollock represents a step up from Field's debut, although it's still a disappointment. The film is an erratically paced, conventional biographical treatment of the life and loves of modernist painter Jackson Pollock, who blew through the New York art scene during the 1940s and 50s before dying in a car crash. As with many great artists, Pollock was an undiagnosed manic-depressive whose life was characterized by periods of self-destructive binges followed by giddy bouts of joy and creativity.

Harris' movie chronicles Pollock's life in a straightforward, adequate manner without giving us much insight into the man behind the art. Other than depicting his wild mood swings, there's not too much to this cinematic representation of Pollock. Even after spending two hours in his company, we don't understand what makes him tick. The other characters who drift into and out of his life, including his wife of 15 years, Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), and art collector Peggy Guggenheim (Harris' real-life wife, Amy Madigan), aren't any better illustrated. The result is that Pollock is more like an incomplete sketch than a detailed portrait.

The best scenes in this film are those that illustrate the creative process. They're wild and energetic, and it's during those sequences that Harris shows promise as a director. Colors are splashed on the canvas as Pollock tunes out the outside world to concentrate exclusively on his work. Harris' use of unconventional camera angles and quick cuts invigorates these scenes. Unfortunately, most of the movie lacks this drive, and when Pollock focuses on the tortured artist motif, which is most of the time, it feels derivative and is unappealing.

The subject of Jackson Pollock has been something of an obsession for Harris, who has worked steadfastly for more than a decade to bring this story to the screen. Initially, he had planned only to produce and star in the project, but, with the encouragement of producer Fred Berner, he agreed to take the reins as director. Regardless of how difficult his job behind the camera was, Harris' work in front of it does not suffer. His portrayal of the title character is precise and effectively realized. We see in Harris' performance a man who is driven by unseen forces to great highs and great lows. It's just a pity that the movie doesn't delve more deeply into exactly what those unseen forces were, and why Pollock should be regarded differently from the hundreds of other great artists whose lives followed essentially the same trajectory as his.

For Al Pacino, Chinese Coffee represents the next step in his development as a fully-rounded artist. After decades of giving tour de force performances in everything from Shakespeare to schlock, Pacino finally stepped around to the other side of the camera in 1996 with the unconventional documentary Looking For Richard, which represented a personal expression of his love and admiration for the Bard and his works. Now, Pacino has turned his attention to feature filmmaking. The result is Chinese Coffee, in which Pacino not only directs but co-stars with veteran character actor Jerry Orbach.

The movie is based on an early-1980s play written by Ira Lewis (who also penned the screenplay) and has the look and feel of a filmed play - it is essentially a two-character piece that transpires in one room. Pacino doesn't do much to "open up" the action beyond including a few flashback sequences and having the epilogue take place elsewhere. This is not, however, a project that cries out for a more expansive treatment than the one accorded to it by the director. The key elements- Lewis' crisp dialogue and the interaction between Pacino and Orbach - represent the core of the movie, and it really doesn't need much more.

Chinese Coffee is the story of a conversation between two old friends. Harry Levine (Pacino) is a down-on-his-luck writer who has just lost his job as a doorman because he isn't subservient enough. Not wanting to go home to spend the chilly February night alone in his tiny flat, he stops by the apartment of Jake Manheim (Orbach), a photographer who isn't any more financially solvent than Harry. Harry's real reason for stopping by at 1:30 in the morning is that he wants to know Jake's opinion of his latest book - an autobiography that explores their friendship. Jake claims not to have read it, but, when Harry presses him, Jake admits a few truths Harry might prefer not to hear.

The movie deals in rich subjects: friendship, envy, aging, the fear of being alone, and the creative process. Both men are poor, yet harbor dreams of being rich. There's a constant give-and-take between them as their dialogue continues. At times, Jake seems like the calm, rational one while Harry is a borderline-manic. On other occasions, the balance shifts. As we are drawn deeper into Chinese Coffee's night, we come to realize that although Harry may be the "pathological hypochondriac", Jake is the one who feels threatened. The book represents a wedge between them, because neither of them can effectively grasp what it means to the other. For Harry, it may be a path to financial solvency. For Jake, it is an invasion of privacy.

The screenplay is smart, witty, and pointed. In addition to containing much truth, it offers audiences more than one opportunity to let go with a hearty laugh. There are times when the rhythms of Lewis' writing come close to those of David Mamet - on several occasions, it's possible to close one's eyes and hear echoes of the trademark staccato beat in the way the characters speak. Pacino and Orbach both give powerful performances, with the actor/director generously allowing his co-star to dominate an equal number of shots. Chinese Coffee is not wall-to-wall Pacino with Orbach standing on the sidelines watching. There is a balance between the two actors that teeters back and forth but never truly favors one over the other.

For Chinese Coffee, Pacino expressed an interest in "bringing together the voice of theater with the voice of film" while "recapturing the feel of off-off-Broadway." There is no question that he achieves those goals; the film is more engrossing than most of the static entries into this genre. So, although the objective set by the director for himself is not as ambitious as that of either Sally Field or especially Ed Harris (both of whom were working with larger canvasses), Pacino carries out his aim with the most success. Of the three films turned out by actors-turned-directors, Chinese Coffee is the undisputed winner.

© 2000 James Berardinelli

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