THE DIVING BELL & THE BUTTERFLY (2007, directed by Julian Schnabel, 112 minutes, France/U.S.)
WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007, directed by Jake Kasdan, 96 minutes, U.S.)
THE SAVAGES (2007, directed by Tamara Jenkins, 113 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Who can forget the Phawker episode a few months back when our editor/provocateur ruffled academic feathers by opining that the journalism majors should study something/anything else and then bring that speciality into their journalistic interests? Outrage and hilarity ensued. Too bad we couldn’t get our fearless editor’s act booked into the country’s film schools because they’re aching for the same advice. Although they are not all graduates of university film programs, somehow we’ve bred a generation of filmmakers whose primary inspiration is cinema’s own past. Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming turn-of-century wildcatter drama There Will Be Blood is a prime example: Anderson creates a stunningly evocative landscape for Daniel Day-Lewis’ oil man to run nuts over yet its dramatic moments echo heavily with the ghosts ofTCM classics, like Giant and Citizen Kane as well as HBO’s Deadwood. At least Anderson shuffles these cinematic memories with a knack for a well-told anecdote, too many of his contemporaries receive kudos for merely pasting together regurgitated moments from America’s filmic past.
This may account for the hyperbolic reviews gathered by Julian Schnabel’s latest film, the transcendent medical drama The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, with David Denby at The New Yorker raving about “the rebirth of cinema.” The originality so many critics are referring to lies in the fact that where most young filmmakers might spend their twenties studying DePalma or John Ford, Schnabel dedicated his energy to the art of painting, becoming a leading light in the 1980’s international movement tagged Neo-Expressionism. Schnabel was forty-five by the time his first feature film arrived (the uneven though often inspired bio of painter Basquiat) and by his second, Before Night Falls, a biopic on Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, it became apparent that Schnabel was more than just moonlighting from his painting gig. With The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, his most controlled and audacious biopic yet, Schnabel establishes himself as among the top tier of American filmmakers working today, one whose visual imagination is fueled by more than cinemas flickering history.
Who knew that when Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Munich’s Mathieu Amalric) suffered a stroke, leaving himself paralyzed in all but his left eyelid, that his most important work would lie ahead of him? There he lies in the hospital with the diagnosis of “Locked-in Syndrome,” unable to communicate at all beyond blinking yes and no when a physical therapist devises a system that involves her reading the alphabet aloud, allowing Jean-Dominique to slowly spell words by blinking when each letter is mentioned. With this he spells out his poetic autobiography which throbs with the passion of someone thirsting to proclaim themselves alive while standing so close to death.
With Speilberg cinematographer Janusz Kiminski, Schnabel inserts his vigorous visual sense into a story which frequently consists of a man lying trapped in a hospital bed. Because Jean-Dominique’s eye was lacerated when his illness struck Schnabel smears the colors he sees, capturing the energy the director has exhibited in his expressionistic work as a painter. In the film’s opening section we learn little about our bandaged lead’s life, although we hear his often darkly humorous inner dialogue as he struggles to make himself understood. Once he is given a voice through his blinking communication system the visuals, Jean-Dominique’s history suddenly unfurls like blooming flowers as a man fighting to be seen as more than a vegetable is emotionally restored to life through his words and images.
The story could easily be turned into the Lifetime Network malady-of-the-week TV movie yet Schnabel negotiates the difference between feeling and sentimentality. The therapists may cluck their tongue in disgust at jokes made at his expense by the orderlies but Jean-Dominique silently laugh along at his prisoner’s fate. Back in 1971 the once blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo centered his film Johnny Got His Gun around a similarly disabled soldier who is begging for euthanasia. With The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, Schnabel explores a hero with the same misfortune who is one of the most “alive” characters ever presented on film. I can’t remember the last film I’ve seen that was so inspirational that left me feeling so honestly unmanipulated.
Transforming similarly dark material is the new comic drama from Tamara Jenkins, The Savages. Philly-born Jenkins was heralded as a director to watch after her autobiographical comedy The Slums of Beverly Hills but it has taken her nearly a decade to deliver her follow-up, another autobiographical family story about a brother and a sister delivering their senile long-missing father to a nursing home. With Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as the loving yet bickering siblings, Jenkins novelistic scripts avoids most the cloying plot devices the scenario presents.
Brother and sister Jon and Wendy are so humorously damaged and self-absorbed they could almost be Elaine and Jerry’s new friends on Seinfeld. Jon (a role fitting Hoffman like a glove) is a theater professor writing on Brecht whose Polish girlfriend has finally lost patience with his commitment-phobia. Wendy (Laura Linney at her most neurotic) is a frustrated NYC playwright who is having an affair with a married man and spinning lies to keep her wounded ego afloat. The film is built on the siblings subtle jibes and Inquisitions as they drive their barely reachable dad around wintry New England looking for the right nursing home.
These world-battered characters lives are changed for the better over the course of the film but not through any emotionally healing moments with their Alzheimer-addled father (played by a disheveled Philip Bosco). Instead he lingers in the passenger seat like a spectral presence, reminding Jon and Wendy of the unspoken history between them which has left the twitchy pair unable to commit to romantic relationships.
The antic flourishes of Slums of Beverly Hills has been replaced by a more sophisticated conversational humor which quietly reveals the all-too-human foibles of these struggling sad sacks. That the The Savages can sustain and enliven the these siblings pathetic pathos reminded me of the similar tone so successfully conjured by Alexander Payne’s work in Sideways and About Schmidt. As it turns out, the credits reveal Payne as the executive producer (his co-writer Jim Taylor is Jenkins’ husband) and it nice to see him help enable one of the few U.S. filmmakers to rival his intelligence in creating lovable semi-losers as they struggle to find a little breathing room in our modern world.
Although directed by Jake Kasdan, most of the excitement about the new mock biopic Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is due to the fact that it is from the pen of writer/director Judd (Knocked-Up) Apatow. The sort of 21st century geek love Apatow specializes in is missing here, what Walk Hard strives to be is to be an Airplane-style gag machine, parodying the bio-pic (Ray and I Walk The Line specifically) and rock conventions as well.
Walk Hard is all as amiable as John C. Reilly’s goofy grin but there’s nary an ounce of teasing meanness in this spoofery, leaving it a little too gentle for it own good. If the Apatow stamp is here, it is in the preponderance of penis jokes, seemingly as much a part of his shtick as stuttering is for Woody Allen. A stray penis is a guaranteed laugh yet I found myself disappointed that Cox never evolved into the Lizard King phase promised by that freaky Morrison-esque pose in the movie’s poster. Instead Dewey’s career arch isn’t much different than Glen Campbell’s and about as outrageous. Seeing Reilly, our generation’s Karl Malden, at he center of a film for the first time since 1996’s Hard Eight is a pure pleasure, too bad he has as little to do as Leslie Nielsen in a Naked Gun sequel.