Critic also scans “Prodigal Sons,” “Chloe,” “Art of the Steal”
Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) returns to L.A. after his “mature” years in New York as a carpenter. He house-sits for his wealthy brother, who’s on a family trip. There is a swell pool, yet Roger can only dog-paddle anxiously. His new companion is, suitably, the family’s German Shepherd dog, Mahler (who, like composer Gustav Mahler, is soulful).
Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” is a sorta comedy and kinda drama that never tries to work up much plot or big themes. It connects laid-back vibes to nerves strung taut as a tennis racket. Stiller achieves his most substantial acting as Roger, who gave up driving when he left for New York and is like a cranky, dependent baby. We sense that he was halfway to Manhattan (and Woody Allen) even before he junked, for control reasons, his rising L.A. career with a rock band. Compulsively kvetching, he fixates on himself and how others see him, writes angry letters about petty issues, even phobically pulls a sleeve over his finger before pushing a traffic light button.
Mainly, he is 40 and rebounding from a breakdown. Roger frets and dithers in the lush, dappled L.A. that was a garden of rueful seduction in “Shampoo,” “Magnolia,” “Laurel Canyon” (this time photographed with watercolory intimacy by Harris Savides). Roger bonds with the sweetly needy dog, and picks at the mental sores of his former band-mate, Ivan (an introverted Rhys Ifans), a hacker who is divorcing and regretful. When Roger’s college niece comes home and has a big, messy party, he gets high in a low way and spews envious sarcasms, frantic to be young again but only playing the fool.
As this thin-skinned, never cuddly man, Stiller is highly effective. He has presence beyond schtick, and edge without cruising for zingers. He finesses stuff that Larry David shoveled like an old bore in Allen’s “Whatever Works.” And he has a lucky windfall: Greta Gerwig as Florence, 25, the brother’s girl Friday. Available in many ways, yet never a mere side dish, she has radiant naturalness and decency. Dealing with Roger’s aggressive, sidewinding moods, she is both vexed and fascinated.
This career-declaring performance flows liquidly. Florence rolls gracefully through fits, moods and faulty sex, and her small dream to be a singer is an echo of Roger’s blown ambition. She echoes Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay in “Nashville,” yet is smarter, more a survivor. Gerwig and Stiller, flourishing inside Baumbach’s loose-limbed direction and generous but not sappy script, make “Greenberg” an adult pleasure worth sharing. (Opens Friday, Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas; rated R) ★★★1/2
“Hot Tub Time Machine”
(From left) Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Rob Corddry, and John Cusack face the "Hot Tub Time Machine." (Photo courtesy of MGM Studios)
Having sunk his recent career to “1408” and “2012,” John Cusack now falls to “Zero,” or close enough, in “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Still rather boyish at 43, Cusack plays one of three bored buddies (plus a mascot nephew acted as a wind-up snarker by Clark Duke) who try to revive their fading bond by returning to a crude ski resort of their youth. A hot tub magically swirls them back to glorious 1986, where party ape Lou (Rob Corddry) spends time being obnoxious and flashing his butt, laid-back Nick (Craig Robinson) guiltily misses his wife and sings some “futuristic” rap, and sensitive Adam (Cusack) looks as if he fell not into a tub but a toilet. Basically, he did.
Flushed with him are ‘80s decals Chevy Chase and Crispin Glover, references to “Red Dawn” and “The Karate Kid,” and even a preppie crew of Reaganized “patriots.” The wit includes many oral sex gags, the retrieval of BMW keys from a dog’s anus, and Lou’s projectile hurling on a squirrel. The visuals are outstandingly ugly, the writers each contributed one IQ point, and director Steve Pink must have been busy having a brewski. This is a comedy for bored guys who consider “douche” a major part of their macho vocabulary. Give them a decade and they may evolve to “bidet.” (Opens Friday; rated R) 1/2★
Kimberly Reed (right) helps brother Marc McKerrow put on Orson Welles' vest in "Prodigal Sons." (Photo courtesy of First Run Features)
Orson Welles usually dominated any scene, and in the documentary “Prodigal Sons” so, usually, does Marc McKerrow. Jealous of his two brothers since childhood, the Montana lad saw Paul become a high school football star and girl-magnet in Helena, while Todd was and is an engaging charmer (who now lives in San Diego). Since handsome Paul had a trans-gender operation and became the stunning Kimberly Reed, this film’s maker, you might think that he/she would be our interest. But the movie pivots on Marc, as Kim returns to Montana to nervously restore some roots and face her alienated brother.
Marc had an awful accident at 21, then brain surgery. Medications don’t always control moods swings that can rise from sour accusations into violence. Kim is caring but also scared (as previously, in her male years?). She has found success as a New York editor, yet remains haunted. “Prodigal Sons” is almost an exorcism, and has a bizarre twist: Marc, to his fairly late surprise, is the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, by their daughter Rebecca (who died in 2004). He was adopted by a gentle Montana doctor, whose sweet widow Carol often looks blitzed by her family.
The movie’s title letters mimic “Citizen Kane,” and it is easy to see Orsonian features in Marc’s face and build. But his visit to Welles’ love partner and partial heir Oja Kodar, in Croatia, feels like an exotic interruption, a card to be played only once. Marc, like many disturbed people, is a mystery. This bluesy, almost formless home movie is touching and unresolved. Its key truth comes from Kim, wistfully: “Marc would have given anything to be the man I would have given anything not to be.” But there is no “Rosebud” for this all-too-human story. (Opens Friday at Landmark Ken Cinema; unrated) ★★★
Julianne Moore (right) and Amanda Seyfried are rivals in "Chloe." (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe,” a Canadian remake of Anne Fontaine’s 2003 French film “Nathalie,” is sexed-up in a rather listless way. Once again the story tells of a wife, Catherine (Julianne Moore), distraught about the infidelity of her husband David (Liam Neeson), an esteemed professor majoring in flirtation. The sexual decline of the marriage is underscored for Catherine by her job as a gynecologist; not for her are the many delights of Richard Gere in “Dr. T and the Women.”
She hires Chloe, a rather diaphanously available prostitute, to lure David into an arrangement and expose his cheating. But we don’t see the two together, a fat clue that this Toronto tango is mainly happening in Catherine’s head, manipulated by glow-eyed but sneaky Chloe. Amanda Seyfried, the Dixie goober pie of “Dear John,” plays Chloe’s sexuality like a more adult (or at least naked) aspect of virginity, like Bambi emerging from a dewy glade of delight. “I try to find something to love in everyone,” she drools, and her love mission soon stalks Catherine (at one point she gazes erotically at Catherine’s shoe rack).
The film has a ‘70s aura of kicks and kinks, though chilled by wintry Toronto and a glass-box house. Director Egoyan (“Ararat,” “Where the Truth Lies”) has taken a minor French film and Canadianized it. His sketching of the sexual triangle feels pedantic. Scripter Erin Cressida Wilson, so sharply adult with the fantasies of “Fur” and “Secretary,” foments little dramatic or erotic interest (bits of Mozart, Vivaldi and Beethoven don’t add much).
The courage factor is not lust puppy Seyfried. It is that Moore works up some real marital pathos. Using her age (49) honestly, she is bravely invested in a sad, thankless role. (Opens Friday at a Landmark theater; rated R) ★★
“The Art of the Steal”
Dr. Albert Barnes lords over his Barnes Foundation art in a vintage photo. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
Dr. Albert Barnes, a butcher’s son, became rich by inventing Argyrol, an antiseptic against venereal infections. He came to see upper-crust, Philadelphia society as another strain of VD. They scorned his liberalism, independence and collection of modern art (foolishly panned by most local critics in 1923). His big slap-back was the Barnes Foundation, in the posh Main Line suburb of Lower Merion. Used mostly by scholars and art students, it enshrined the ultimate private holding of 20th century art (181 Renoirs, 46 Picassos, many Matisses, etc., now valued at untold billions).
Don Argott’s “The Art of the Steal” is an angry documentary, full of talking heads and glimpses of art. There is a great, unwritten book by Tom Wolfe lurking in this movie. The film’s thesis, nailed into place indignantly, is that elitist power brokers and the state of Pennsylvania, plus a clownish Philly mayor (his art is his Jamie Foxx-like smile), busted Barnes’ “ironclad” will long after his death (1951). His garden-circled, classical building is now gone, and a new museum will soon rise fairly near the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Inquirer, both despised by Barnes.
Argott’s gallery of portraits includes Barnes in old footage, Nixonian newspaper tycoon and Barnes hater Walter Annenberg, pro-Barnes advocate Julian Bond, Gov. Ed Rendell and slick Richard H. Glanton. Brought in by Howard University after the hard-pressed school was given control, this shmoozing showboater sought to sell some works and put others on tour. Glanton did desire to maintain the place, along with his ego.
There was covert financial maneuvering. Foundations truffled for tax advantages. Art tourism trumped sedate, suburban scholarship. Barnes’ vision has been betrayed, though more people will relish the new facility than ever visited the old mansion. Protest is justified, and yet, isn’t a principle function of serious art to be seen? (Opens Friday, Landmark La Jolla Village; unrated) ★★★
STARS: FOUR (ace), THREE (worthy), TWO (involving), ONE (dud), ZERO (nil)
CURRENT (and Recommended): “Art of the Steal,” “Avatar,” “Crazy Heart,” “The Ghost Writer,” “Greenberg,” “Green Zone,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Mother,” “Prodigal Sons,” “Shutter Island,” “The Yellow Handkerchief”
La Conquista: Again conquering the UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at the Hazard Center, the San Diego Latino Film Festival closed its 17th spree last Sunday after 11 days of la buena fiesta. “We had 19,400 people, about a thousand more than last year,” reports founding director Ethan van Thillo,” and box office was up about $10,000.”
Roberto Girault’s “El Estudiante” from Mexico, which Van Thillo calls a “nice sweet piece about an elderly man who goes back to school,” was voted audience favorite. Over 180 films were shown and celebrities arrived on schedule. Says Van Thillo: “It was great to start off with Jaime Camil, a huge telenovela star, with packed houses and women screaming, and close with a successful American star like Benjamin Bratt.” Many nationalities showed up, the galas were packed, and next year, No. 18, should happen at the Hazard. But suspense is building, for the comfy plex evidently faces future conversion into a site for condos. “I am already looking,” says Van Thillo, “and am optimistic.” Website: http://www.sdlatinofilm.com
The “Queen” docks: As previewed here five weeks ago, “The African Queen” has landed, this week, as an American DVD, 13 years after the format was launched in the U.S. and 58 years after the film came to theaters. It won Humphrey Bogart his Academy Award, over Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and could have brought Katharine Hepburn one of her Oscars, though Vivien Leigh was a fine choice, for “Streetcar.” Bogart and Hepburn have the greatest river trip in movie history, their frail boat chugging down the Ulanga in East Africa during WWI as romance blossoms. Leeches, hippos and bugs also star in John Huston’s absolute charmer scripted by James Agee, and Robert Morley has a small, moving role. Paramount Home Entertainment’s DVD was minted from original color negatives. A Blu-ray will cost you a bit more, and a box set’s extras include Hepburn’s delightful memoir of the filming.
Possibly malicious fun: If you found yourself coming out of Tim Burton’s big candy box version of “Alice in Wonderland” feeling rather gooey, you might sink your teeth instead into Simon Fallows’ “Malice in Wonderland.” This re-imagines the classic tale as a twisted, head-rushing time in London’s underworld, with lots of hoods and an American, amnesiac Alice (Maggie Grace). As one Web scribe put it, “Here ‘stealing the tarts’ means taking an 18-wheeler full of prostitutes.” Also starring Danny Dyer, it pops Friday (March 26) into the Reading Gaslamp 15, downtown at Fifth and G. (By the way, the title was also used for a 1985 TV movie about gossip wasps Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, starring Jane Alexander and Elizabeth Taylor.)
A QUOTE (not a blurb!): “Nature? Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” – Rose (Katharine Hepburn) sternly admonishing gin-loving Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) in “The African Queen.”
David Elliott is the SDNN movie critic.