Adding Up The Debt

The Debt OnesheetThe Debt is a political thriller about secrets and lies and about the awful aftermath when plans go terribly wrong. In many ways it reminds you of Cold War thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and even Marathon Man. And while it’s made with skill and explores an important part of our history and psyche, it falls short by being too solemn and restrained, especially among the younger cast members. I’m not suggesting jokes should have been added to the script, only a broader palette of emotions.

The main reason to see The Debt is the casting. Helen Mirren, Ciarán Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson bring teeming, contradictory, believable life to their portrayals of the aging Mossad agents. One look at Mirren’s face at the beginning, and you know her character’s hiding something. And the under-utilized Ciarán Hinds is very good at conveying the shock that never went away. Wilkinson plays his character from a wheelchair but still commands every room he enters and holds sway over his old compatriots in a doomed scheme. And Jesper Christensen plays the Nazi war criminal at the heart of the story. As charming as he seems to be at first, there’s something in his eyes that conveys the history of his crimes and what he thinks of the world. Christensen is especially good in an extended debate, a kind of reverse-interrogation, in the middle of movie. As John Milton, William Shakespeare, and any other writer who has created villains has proven over and over again, the devil gets all the good lines.

Jessica Chastain does the most creditable job among the younger actors, torn between her duty and the horror of what happens (and torn, too, between two men in a fairly obligatory subplot). Despite her character’s restraint, her face subtly registers the changing fate and feelings she goes through.  To give her her due, you never once think of Celia Foote, the character she played so recently in The Help. Marton Csokas, too, is good as the younger version of Tom Wilkinson, though his is a fairly one-note character—brash. Sam Worthington is the soft spot in casting. He plays a character whose personal demons drive him to keep his feelings pent up.  To be fair, it’s hard to play a character who hides his feelings, but because his face registers so little emotion, we never quite believe in those passions, either political or personal.

The depiction of 1960’s Berlin is compellingly portrayed in tones of blue and sepia. And the action scenes are well-rendered, though there aren’t enough of them. John Madden directs with efficiency. The writing is spare. The older actors are especially good, conveying so much with a glance, an idea dawning on a face. And the plot has more than its share of twists and turns. If I haven’t given you enough of a sense of that plot, it’s because it’s hard to talk about without giving too much away. I’ll say this much. The story moves from capture to captivity to bloody aftermath. It’s a political thriller that knows all politics is local—and even closer to home than that.

And yet somehow, despite its many virtues, the movie doesn’t fully engage. I’ll say this much for it: with an almost constant diet of pure and infallible movie heroes (most of them wearing Lycra and/or body armor), it’s refreshing to be reminded that real life is a good deal messier, more ambiguous, and therefore flat-out more interesting than fantasy.

P.S. The Sleeper didn’t doze, though she closed her eyes at some of the violence. Before the movie ended, though, she had stacked her jacket and purse on her lap like a college freshman eager to be anywhere but in class.

Arthur: Anatomy of a Joke


Humor is hard work. Witness the generally unfunny remake of Arthur. starring the gangly British comedian Russell Brand. I liked him well enough in Get him to the Greek, but something misfires here. It doesn’t help that he’s reviving a character indelibly portrayed by the late Dudley Moore, who was somehow able to walk the line between the ridiculous and the endearing. Brand, on the other hand, looks like (to steal one of his lines) “a scarecrow that’s robbed a tailor’s.” He’s all gummy, over-bleached smile. He doesn’t act so much as deliver a ninety-minute tirade that’s held in place with a few miscast secondary characters and tied up in a thin plot. A package, you see.

You could argue that his character is indifferent to other people, that the arc of his story is in coming to realize the value and importance of others. While that’s true, you can’t deny that Brand’s rapid-fire effort is to squeeze as many anarchic one-liners into the script as possible.

Maybe if the secondary characters had been given more to do and better lines, but like so many Hollywood products, every element in Arthur is there to pay homage to the star, who’s in nearly every scene. Helen Mirren holds her own, as does Jennifer Garner, to a degree. Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig, with her flat affect, seems a strange choice for such a broad comedy. I don’t mean this as a slam. A.O. Scott of the New York Times once described her acting style as “opposed to the very idea of style,” an approach that works much better in real films as opposed to Hollywood comedies, which are nothing but style.

And what about poor Nick Nolte, who plays the steel-reinforced father of the devious bride but without even the semblance of a funny line? He’s all vast forehead and stony visage. A scene early on with a table saw is so disturbing that you can’t look at him for the rest of the movie without crying. But again, it’s not his fault. He’s been given next to nothing to work with. Arthur isn’t a filmed story so much as it is a string of skits that never made it to The Russell Brand Show. Again, not a slam. The Russell Brand Show was a funny, edgy BBC talk show that seemed always about to jump the rails until, in fact, it did.

But I digress from the task at hand, which is to anatomize a joke. At one point later in the movie, Arthur visits his sick nanny with a Darth Vader mask, instructing her to put it on and say, “Wash your winkie.” She eventually agrees, the words coming out in the voice of Darth Vader. Arthur laughs. Then his servant, Bitterman, makes a request:

      “Could you do Sammy Davis, Jr.?”


      Arthur’s petulant reply: “Sammy Davis, Jr. is not to do with that costume.”


     “I like Sammy,” Bitterman says, disconsolate.

By the way, you can see a slightly truncated version of the scene in the trailer at

But where, I ask you, is the funny?

A sick woman is asked to wear a silly mask. He asks her to say words she’s been saying to him since he was a small boy. I guess the first joke is meant to be the sight of the imperious nanny wearing a silly mask. And then the silly words coming out in Darth Vader’s voice. And then . . . what? What’s funny about Bitterman thinking the mask will change her voice to any he asks for? And about Arthur’s put-down? And then there’s the sadness of Bitterman’s last line. All he wanted was to hear the voice of his favorite celebrity. Could eighty-five members of cast and crew barely contain their laughter when that scene was shot? The filmmakers are very proud of it. They must be, or why did they put it in the trailer?

Of course, that depends on which trailer. Watch it on IMDB ( and you’ll hear Bitterman ask instead, “Could you do, Chewie?” Is it funnier this way, with Bitterman thinking the mask can make someone sound like any voice from Star Wars instead of any voice at all? I don’t think so. I think it’s just a desperately unfunny scene. Again, not a criticism of the actor. Luis Guzmán is a versatile actor who’s great in dramas and comedies and in a variety of roles. There just isn’t enough meat on this turkey‘s bones for these fine actors to sink their teeth into.

Sidenote: when the nanny chastises Arthur for probably spending a fortune on the mask, he points out that the price was surprisingly reasonable. Is that the scent of product placement wafting on the breeze?

Well, I lied. I promised I’d anatomize a joke, but there is no joke. There are chuckles here and there, but you’ll need a Geiger counter to find them. The original Arthur wasn’t exactly a comedy classic, but the new one has nothing as funny as the least throwaway line from the original. When Dudley Moore’s Arthur announces that he’s going to take a bath, his droll servant, played by Sir John Gielgud, says, “I shall alert the media.” After thirty years, that’s a joke that still makes me laugh.

P.S.: And by the way, it’s April 23rd, so happy birthday to Mr. Bill Shakespeare, the hardest working man in show business!