Monday, January 26, 2009

OSCAR COUNTDOWN BEGINS. As I unaccountably do every year, I've been catching up on the big award-nominated movies, and will start here to give my impressions.

The Wrestler. It's a neat trick to criticize the American experience, or facets thereof, without being snotty about it. I'm not sure how affectionate Darren Aronofsky really is toward the New Jersey working-class world of crappy jobs, hard rock, and fleeting glories depicted in The Wrestler, but what he knows and shows about it proves he understands it, and understanding is tribute enough. He also knows what's absurd about it: broken-down wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson keeps on the small-time sham-fight circuit because it's the only thing that gives him joy, and it gives him joy because it's a form of self-punishment that exalts rather than debases him, unlike love and less spectacular forms of employment -- which he nonetheless gives another shot. If you get this, and also feel the thrill of the Ram's "comeback" in a slightly less seedy than usual arena when everything else has failed, you get the whole, very sad joke.

Some of Robinson's adventures outside the ring are mismanaged -- the attempted reconciliation of Ram with his daughter plays like a series of botched improvisations. But most of the scenes -- playing with the kids in the trailer park, shopping for a present for his daughter with his stripper almost-girlfriend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, very fine aside from some moments when she seems to get self-conscious), waking up alone in a county hospital, trying not to say the wrong thing to an asshole boss -- are nothing but the cold truth, as is Mickey Rourke's performance.

I never liked his acting before; I thought he tried too hard to be charming. And as I'm even less a fan of sentimental promo than of Rourke, the oft-noted similarity between his character's "broken-down piece of meat" status and his own wins no extra points from me. But Rourke just nails it: even the maudlin moments aren't about special pleading from an actor, but a simple man trying to say what's in his heart. It's also a smart performance; I'm especially impressed by his restraint when he tells Cassidy about his heart attack. (And by Tomei's, in her reaction.) And yes, he's charming, too. For real.

Frost/Nixon. The trailer had me worried: did they really think these interviews were "the trial Nixon never had"? Regrettably, yes. This results in talking-heads bullshit and Sam Rockwell freaking out about Cambodia and such. It also begs us to take the struggle to make money off a celebrity TV appearance more seriously than we otherwise might, which is unforgivable dramatic fraud.

There are two real stories. One is Frost's alleged growth, in the process of doing the interviews, from glad-handing presenter to serious journalist. But it's a shabby journey. Frost is motivated mainly by fear of blowing his chance, and is stiffened to action by a late-night call from Nixon that merely focuses Frost on the possibility of winning the battle, not on any larger stakes, personal or political. He's no more interesting or likable, nor indeed changed in any important way, at the end than at the beginning. He's just more successful.

The other story is, yet again, the fall of Nixon, which is always going to be interesting, if not illuminating. Apart from Oliver Platt's blessedly funny performance, the canny Nixon dialogue and Frank Langella's performance provide the only real pleasures in the film, and Nixon's late-night drunk-dial to Frost and the final interview have real juice in them, mostly because Langella has a clearer conception of Nixon than Ron Howard has of Frost/Nixon. His Tricky Dick is large and physically awkward, capable of wit and charm (though only in his own defense), and genuinely sad -- Frost's girlfriend, an otherwise useless appurtenance, tells Frost at one point that he has sad eyes, but Michael Sheen's eyes only betray fatigue and panic; Langella's, at the appropriate times, have the shallow, frozen glaze of old pain.

The Nixon theme has a more pointed dramatic payoff, but not a larger one. Unless you buy that Nixon's qualified admissions had a wider effect than on the fortunes of the main characters, what was won and lost? A TV star made a disgraced president look bad, and thereby promoted his own career as... a celebrity interviewer. If Nixon were Satan himself, and I admit there are some similarities, this wouldn't be enough to justify the film.

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