2003 TIFF Update #4: "Lost and Found"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Sunday, September 7, 2003

How did we, as a society, ever survive without cell phones? That's the question I feel compelled to ask as I wander along the streets of Toronto, and through the theaters and common areas of the film festival. With the exception of the city's panhandlers, everyone seems to have a mobile phone. (For the record, I have one with me, but I leave it in my hotel room - the roaming charges are murder.) What was once a status symbol reserved for high-falutin' publicists has now become mandatory equipment for everyone. Unfortunately, not everyone who uses a cell phone knows the etiquette.

Why is this simple rule so difficult to follow: when you enter a movie theater, put the phone into "silent/vibrate" mode or turn it off? Yet, without except exception, every screening I have thus far attended has had at least one cell phone interruption. And, to make matters worse, the offenders often have their phones so securely tucked away that it takes seven or eight rings for them to silence them. (In one case, a man actually started a conversation on the phone while still in his seat. Only the angry noises of those around him encouraged him to exit the theater.) My suspicion is that most of the cellphone offenders are Americans (in particular, L.A. publicists).

I have already seen one of the best films of the festival, and its quality matches the buzz. Simply put, Sophia Copolla's Lost in Translation is an amazing motion picture. There may be some controversy over whether she truly wrote the screenplay on her own (there are sequences that argue that she at least had help from someone with a little more experience in life and marriage), but that doesn't impact the final analysis. This study into the unfathomable depths of human relationships has more honesty than 95% of the movies I have seen this year. Beautifully photographed with some amazing shots of nighttime Tokyo (and I thought Times Square was garish!), and a gorgeously composed scene of two characters reflected in a plate glass window as they hold a conversation, this movie has a look to match its acting and content.

The film details the "accidental" relationship that develops between Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). Bob, an internationally recognized actor on the downside of his career, is in Tokyo filming a series of ads for a whiskey company. Charlotte, a recent Yale graduate, is accompanying her photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) on a business trip. However, she spends most of the time alone. Bob and Charlotte's first few encounters are casual - on an elevator, in a bar. Gradually, however, they begin to seek out one another and a bond develops. The two eventually spend nearly every waking hour together, holding deep conversations and finding ways to avoid the eventual parting that both know must occur.

Lost in Translation is smart and perceptive about how people interact on a personal level. It portrays the disorientation of the two main characters flawlessly. They are two normal individuals who might not offer each other more than a smile under ordinary circumstances, but, put together in a place where they don't understand the language or customs and have no one else to turn to, their attachment is potent. In a strange sort of way, Lost in Translation reminded me of Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away, where two characters discover that the intensity of their relationship is predicated upon their circumstances. Take them off the island where they are marooned, and it all evaporates. The situation is similar here. The closeness shared by Bob and Charlotte is likely not something that would survive in "the real world." Will it get a chance? The screenplay cleverly leaves the decision up to the viewer.

The rich dialogue sparkles, and spans a variety of topics. The characters discuss issues both deep and shallow - from the search for the soul and the meaning of life to how couples communicate after long years of marriage. There's plenty of room for non-intrusive, low-key comedy, such as the blinds that automatically open in the morning to let in the light or the showerhead that is too low for Bob. Then there's the call girl who invades Bob's room and demands that he "lip" her stockings. (She actually means "rip.")

The relationship between Bob and Charlotte remains at the film's core, and remains platonic despite strong sexual undercurrents. A deep bond of friendship takes root, which leads to something more sublime than what we normally see between male and female characters in movies. The romantic tension starts out subtle, but builds until every scene throbs with it. There never really is a release, but the last, perfectly-pitched scene alleviates some of the pent-up pressure.

The lead performances cry "Oscar!" (Whether nominations will follow remains to be seen. Who knows with the Academy?) This is unquestionably the best performance ever given by Bill Murray. The word "perfect" is rarely used in association with the work of an actor, but it is deserved here. Murray is mainly serious, but he gets the opportunity to throw in little bits of comedy (improvised by him?) that are understated enough that they don't damage the flow. Best of all, as a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, Murray never seems to force anything. This is a far cry from The Razor's Edge. Matching Murray beat-for-beat is the luminous Scarlett Johansson, whose work here should catapult her into the elite circle of young female actresses (alongside Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, and Reese Witherspoon, to name a few). Johansson has been wonderful in a handful of other movies (Manny & Lo, The Horse Whisperer, Ghost World), but never has her work resonated the way it does here. And, what Murray and Johansson display goes far beyond what is conventionally referred to as "screen chemisty."

If you get the sense that I applaud this movie, you are correct. Lost in Translation requires a certain amount of patience, but it is by no means a slow or lugubrious endeavor. Director Copolla has done what any young director wants to accomplish: improve upon a successful first feature. As good as The Virgin Suicides is, Lost in Translation is superior in almost every way. When Top 10 lists are released at the end of the year, this title will feature prominently on a number of them (including mine).

I wish I could offer the same kind of unrestrained praise about the new Anthony Hopkins/Nicole Kidman movie, The Human Stain. Unfortunately, what's on screen isn't deserving of more than a lukewarm recommendation. This is a case when the whole is less than a sum of the parts. If you deconstruct the movie, you'll find that certain scenes work well enough in isolation, but, when cobbled together with the uncertain, non-chronological dynamic employed by director Robert Benton, much that is good about The Human Stain evaporates. The film's two big flaws are readily apparent: a clunky screenplay and the miscasting of the lead character. As good an actor as Anthony Hopkins is, he cannot effectively play every role, and this is a part that should perhaps have been offered to someone of equal talent but with a lesser reputation.

The main thrust of The Human Stain unfolds against the backdrop of the late-1990s Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal. Coleman Silk (Hopkins) has just quit his job as a professor at Athena College after being accused of making a racist comment. Coleman rails against the idiocy of political correctness, but resigns anyway. His wife, shocked by the injustice of the charge and her husband's reaction, drops dead. Time passes, and Coleman decides that a book should be written about his experiences, so he approaches reclusive author Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) with the story. Nathan decides not to write the book, but he and Coleman become fast friends. Soon, Coleman is telling Nathan about the new woman in his life. He has fallen for a 34-year old named Faunia (Nicole Kidman), who works as a custodian at the college. She has a mysterious, tragic past and a homicidal ex-husband (Ed Harris). But, as Faunia begins to open up to Coleman, forceful memories of his own past surface, including those of his first love, Steena (Jacinda Barrett), and how he, as a young man (Wentworth Miller), used his extremely light-colored skin to expunge his African-American heritage and live as a white man.

By the nature of its subject matter, The Human Stain is virtually guaranteed to be controversial. Like Philip Roth's novel, upon which Nicholas Meyer's screenplay is based, the film deals with the issue of "racial passing," in which an individual of one race pretends to belong to another. It was a method frequently used by light-skinned African Americans in pre-Civil Rights days to circumvent bigotry. For Coleman, however, his decision to live his life this way ultimately becomes a trap.

The movie is also a May/December love story, showing how the sad-eyed, tough-talking Faunia rekindles Coleman's sexual nature (with a little help from Viagra). At first, their relationship is all about sex, but, as is wont to happen in situations like this one, the participants develop feelings for one another. As Coleman remarks, "She isn't my first love, or my great love, but she is my last love." The presence of Faunia's lunatic ex-husband adds an element of danger to the relationship, and, as the movie shows in the first scene, things will not end happily.

The Human Stain is replete with interesting material, but the manner of presentation short-circuits its potential power. It's not a bad movie, but neither is it as good as the thematic content would lead us to believe. The convoluted structure is a part of the problem. The movie opens with an unnecessary flash-forward which eliminates any degree of plot-related tension, throws in flashbacks to Coleman's youth at odd moments, and employs an overlong and unnecessary epilogue to sew up loose ends that don't need resolution. The ice-fishing conversation is especially odd and superfluous. What would have been lost if this scene had been cut?

Then there's the question of whether Hopkins was the right man for the role. He bears no resemblance whatsoever to Wentworth Miller (who looks like a light-skinned black man), either in apppearance or in voice (Hopkins retains his British accent, while Miller has none). For viewers, it is arguably a stretch to envision Hopkins as an African American. This is a case when an actor's reputation interferes with the character he is attempting to portray. Instead of seeing Coleman, we see Hopkins, and this makes it difficult (if not impossible) to suspend disbelief. There's also not much chemistry between Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. The red-headed actress does a credible job as the haunted Faunia, but she and Hopkins don't quite click.

Undemanding viewers will probably find enough intriguing material here to make it worth a look, but I was too disappointed by the wasted potential to be enthusiastic. When the film works, it does so admirably, but the screenplay and structure are too uneven to sustain any sort of momentum. The fault may lie in the complexity of the source material, but a movie should not be greenlighted until the script is perfected. I'm not sure whether The Human Stain would have worked with another actor in Hopkins' place, or if the Academy Award winnner had been able to pull off the transformation. Regardless, what has reached the screen is uneven, and represents a disappointing early entry into the 2003 Oscar race.

The Cooler, which has been described by at least one major critic as a possible "sleeper" of the festival, is about the efforts of one man to find his luck (or, to be more precise, some form of luck other than that of the bad variety). Rarely has a more pathetic individual been captured and portrayed on the screen. Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is a loser's loser - the kind of guy who makes Wiley Coyote look fortunate. Bernie's luck is so bad that it confounds career losers. Worse, Bernie's luck is contagious. Put him next to someone who's on a roll, and he stops them cold. "People get next to me and their luck turns," he succinctly explains. That's the reason The Shangri-La Casino in Las Vegas wants to keep Bernie in their employ. He's their "cooler." Whenever anyone starts winning, all casino mogul Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) has to do is send in Bernie.

One could argue that this is a chicken-and-egg syndrome, and director Wayne Kramer, making his feature debut, has some fun playing with the concept. Is Bernie's bad luck the result of his depression and lack of self-esteem, or is his self-image so low because his luck is atrocious? Either way, there's no denying that Bernie, as brilliantly portrayed by William H. Macy (without any of his trademark over-the-top tics), is about as sad a human being as you're ever likely to encounter. Shelly desribes him as "walking Kryptonite." Someone else remarks, "I have never met someone so down on himself." Suddenly, however, that's all about to change.

Love comes unexpectedly into Bernie's life in the person of cocktail waitress Natalie (Maria Bello). Suddenly, after having sex with Natalie, Bernie begins to feel as if his luck is changing, and, the next day at work, his "cooling" powers fail him. This comes at a particularly inappropriate time for Shelly, whose "old school" methods of running the casino are being called into question by a mob boss who wants to modernize the operation. And, to further complicate matters, Bernie's no-good son, Mikey (Shawn Hatosy), and his pregnant girlfriend (Estella Warren) arrive in Vegas looking to Bernie for a financial bail-out. (Really, it's just money to use for gambling and drug purchases.)

The best part of the film, unsurprisingly, is William H. Macy's low-key portrayal of Bernie, who radiates "complete loser" from frame one. But, when things start to change, Macy doesn't just resort to grand gestures to show Bernie's reactions. The second best thing is the relationship between Bernie and Natalie, which is tender and erotic. We believe in these two characters, and we accept that they fill each other's needs. This doesn't seem like another manufactured screen romance. It feels true, and, for the third act of The Cooler to work, that's a necessity. The other plot elements, which include Shelly playing carrot-and-stick with Bernie to get him to stick around, the mob putting pressure on Shelly, and Bernie's family problems, add texture and scope to the overall storyline. And the film ends on a note of delicious irony that even the most blasť viewer will appreciate.

Kramer has fashioned an impressive cinematic calling card. In addition to its character, acting, and plot strengths, The Cooler is highly atmospheric, capturing the false glitz of Vegas (remarked upon by Alec Baldwin in a monologue that compares the city to a prostitute) with the cameras, and using an evocative score (combining the work of Mark Isham with various standards). The film offers a surprisingly frank perspective of the sexual aspects of the characters' relationship, and I wonder if it can get past the MPAA uncut with an "R" rating. (Maria Bello has a full-frontal nude scene in a sexual context and William H. Macy is almost fully naked.) There's also a hilarious scene that might make viewers question exactly what they're hearing through paper-thin motel room walls. The Cooler is, without a doubt, a hot prospect, and one of the festival's early finds.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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