The Ides Have It

What Hollywood does well is melodrama. And when it’s at its best, it’s able to make melodrama bump up against real drama, which is what happens in The Ides of March. Somehow, without car chases, gunfights, or explosions, the movie’s makers have been able to ratchet up the suspense and thrills. It might have been called D.C. Confidential for all the movie’s secrets and surprises.

At the center is the character played by Ryan Gosling, Stephen Meyer (most often referred to as “Stevie”), a talented young campaign strategist who’s well-liked even by his enemies, a man who believes that “nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing.” That philosophy—and the man himself—will be tested.

The story’s inciting incident—if you want to get all dramaturgical about it—is a conversation. More specifically, it’s a decision regarding that conversation that threatens to send everyone and everything off the rails.

George Clooney, who has come into his own as a director (the kind, like Clint Eastwood, who knows how to make the camera unobtrusive), has surrounded himself with solid secondary characters. Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood are especially fine. Giamatti and Hoffman are the old pros of the campaign trail, guys with guts (actual guts) who do what needs to be done, who have pared down their ideals to a bare minimum needed for survival and self-respect. Tomei is strong as the reporter who alternatively befriends and berates her sources. And Wood has some great meet-cute moments as her character gets to know Gosling’s, though from the beginning you think there’s more to her than meets the eye, which is a tribute to her acting chops. Remember that confrontation scene she played as Mickey Rourke’s daughter in The Wrestler, the way it lifted off the screen, took on a life of its own? Great stuff.

Clooney himself does a fine job playing liberal democratic governor Mike Morris, a man who’s smart, sincere, and maybe just a little too impressed with himself for his own good, the kind of guy who can barely keep from smiling and giving a shiver of self-satisfaction over his own wonderfulness.

Gosling carries the movie in the sense that his arc is the one we follow with the most interest. His “Stevie” is young and talented but untried. Gosling, who often plays characters filled with reticence, plays this one with striding self-confidence (even his voice is lower), a man who knows he’s headed for great things. Heck, what could go wrong? Only everything.

Here’s a good example of Ryan Gosling’s talent as an actor. In both Drive and The Ides of March, there’s at least one wordless shot of Gosling in profile while he’s driving. Each shot is remarkably parallel to the other. In Drive the character is afraid he’s about to lose the only thing that has meaning in his life—his budding romance. In Ides his career and his entire philosophy of life hang in the balance. And yet, despite the similar circumstances, Gosling’s intensity hums at a different emotional frequency for each. Other factors might have an effect on these shots: framing, lighting, even makeup, and certainly the impact of the story-so-far exerting pressure on the moment and on the audience. But I think the primary difference is what the actor brought to each moment—the different histories of his characters, the different dangers, the different sense of the future—and all of it conveyed wordlessly. They’re fine distinctions, yes, but great performances are made of small distinctions like this.

The Ides of March, like the best political thrillers, shows the seamy side of politics. I know, I know, I hear you asking, “Is there any other side?” But Clooney and his team do make you feel you’re watching the death of a dream. Ides is not about the politics of Democrats or Republicans. It’s about the politics of people, about what some southern smarty-pants once called “the human heart in conflict with itself.”

P.S. The Sleeper was on the edge of her seat throughout, muttering “Et tu, brute.”

P.P.S. Why is it that the talkers always make a point of sitting behind me? This time, it was a group of four friends, one of whom kept telling the others what she thought would happen next. And what’s the etiquette? A polite throat-clearing? An air horn? A large sock filled with manure? I always figure if I say anything, they’ll make it seem as though I’m the one making a disturbance. I’d welcome your suggestions.

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Win Win is a Win Win

Imagine my frustration. The whole point of this blog is to point an accusing finger at the sorry state of movie-making, to take out, as it were, the Hollywood trash. The along comes Win Win, a disarming and truly funny comedy. It’s a small movie, which is one of its charms, a movie clearly made for a price, and yet it surprises you at every turn.

Mike Flaherty is a down-on-his-luck lawyer who seizes an opportunity without thinking it through, an opportunity that turns into a nightmare. He takes on the care of an elderly man who’s in the early stages of dementia. And if that’s not bad enough, soon the old man’s grandson and later his daughter show up. Have you ever seen a plate-spinner in the circus or on the old Ed Sullivan show? You know, the guy who spins twenty or more plates on the ends of twenty or more wands, racing back and forth to keep them all spinning. Win Win is like that as Mike struggles to keep his bad deed from destroying everything that matters to him.

Paul Giamatti, the Indie scene’s everyman, plays Mike as a combination of loyal family man, dedicated wrestling coach, and desperate schemer. What is that trick Giamatti does with his eyes? The rest of his face may exude charm and innocence while his eyes, without even moving, convey his anxiety about being caught in a lie.

And Amy Ryan, who tore up the screen in Gone Baby, Gone, is the most fully formed female character I’ve seen in many a movie. She loves her husband, but she’ll call him on his crap when she has to. Two of our best actors, Giamatti and Ryan know how to play several shades of feeling, even contradictory shades, at the same time. Poet John Keats called it “negative capability”–“being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It’s what we see in performances by DeNiro, Streep, Pacino, Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling, Viola Davis, and only a handful of other actors.

Even young Alex Shaffer, who plays Kyle, does a stand-out job as the troubled teen who hides his pain behind a veil of insolence, indifference, and mystery.

And I can’t help mentioning one of my favorite actors, Margo Martindale, who plays Kyle’s mother’s lawyer. It’s a tiny part, but the measure of Martindale’s talent is how completely realized the character is. If you want to see what this talented actor can do with a larger canvas, watch this season’s episodes of Justified, where she plays Mags Bennett, the ruthless matriarch of a clan of redneck evildoers.

Bobby Cannavale, as Mike’s impulsive but well-intentioned friend, has the best role of his career and runs away with it. The ubiquitous Jeffrey Tambor gives the movie its deadpan anchor. We’ve seen him play over-the-top lunatics like Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show. Here he plays Stephen Vigman just this side of the line between the real and the ridiculous. You laugh at him not because he’s ridiculous but because he’s so like us. Melanie Lynskey, who for years has added a touch of surreal humor to Two and a Half Men, plays Kyle’s drug-addicted mother. It’s a measure of her talent that she can make you dislike her and feel sorry for her at the same time.

The humor in Win Win arises out of character, out of the breakdown between how we picture the world and how it really is. The screenwriter strikes this note from the very beginning. Mike’s daughter asks her mother, “Where’s Daddy?” “He’s running,” she replies. “From what?” his daughter says. This brief exchange establishes Mike’s character, the movie’s theme, and the kind of humor that runs throughout. Win Win’s got more laughs per square inch than Arthur or any other so-called comedy of recent memory.

Win Win is about old-fashioned things like honor and sacrifice and second chances, about doing the right thing even after you’ve done the wrong thing. And somehow it touches on all this without being sententious and while making us laugh. At one point, when one of his spectacularly untalented wrestlers finishes his match without being pinned by his opponent, Mike points out that sometimes not losing is the biggest victory you can win. It’s a painful yet reassuring truth like this that makes this movie matter.