Drive: The Mystery of Ryan Gosling

Drive opens with a getaway driver waiting for a couple of thieves to complete their heist according to his strict standards—in an out in five minutes or he’s gone. This leads to a high-speed chase that shows why he was hired: he drives very fast, very accurately, and he doesn’t rattle. Drive reminds you of movies like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and James Caan’s Thief, movies about edgy loners who are more comfortable in their cars than they are anywhere else.

The movie also related to Ryan O’Neal’s Drive, which is also about a getaway driver. Remember that great scene in the parking garage? The gangster who wants to hire him says, “How do we know you’re that good?” O’Neal replies, “Get in” and gives them a high-speed turn around the crowded parking garage, including creasing the sides of the Mercedes just enough to prevent the doors from opening and the gangsters from getting out easily. That isn’t a scene from this movie, but the same loner-with-a-code is at its heart.

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan play their characters like the lovers in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal–yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (lines 17–20)

The resulting tension is, as they say, palpable. (Is that a first–a movie review that quotes Keats?) If Blue Valentine was about the decay of love, Drive is about love derailed, about everything leading up to, but not quite including, love. Where Blue Valentine had steamy sex scenes, Drive has no more than one passionate but ambiguous kiss. One of the interesting features of this movie is the way it plays with this serious and little-addressed theme in the context of a genre movie.

Despite his preppy good looks, Gosling, a world-class brooder, is a young Robert Mitchum. And Mulligan, despite her conventional prettiness, has an absorbing intensity that’s hard to turn away from. They’re well-matched in intensity and in the style of their acting. With acting this restrained, the smallest gestures take on great significance. Gosling’s character, who is nameless, always keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. When he meets a young boy, the son of Mulligan’s character, he offers him a toothpick of his own. It’s a small thing, a passing gesture, but it shows the character opening up to another, maybe to a younger version of himself, which might explain why a bond forms between him and the woman and her child. Later, another character will give the child something that conveys a much different message, an ending rather than a beginning. Drive has the requisite number of fights, gunplay, and explosions for edgy film noir, but it’s in the small details that the movie shines.

When Mulligan’s husband comes home from prison, we’re expecting a strutting thug, the wrong man for this quiet, sensitive woman. And when he shows up, at first he seems to fit the stereotype. Oscar Isaac plays him as tough and swaggering, but with a surprising edge of vulnerability. When he raises his glass to toast his wife and his friends on his return from prison, he admits, “It was a shameful thing that I did.” And though jealousy plays a role in how he deals with Gosling’s character, more than that binds them together and drives them part.

I’m a big fan of Albert Brooks, as a comic actor and as a writer (see and re-see Lost in America), and I was surprised to find him playing one of the heavies in this movie. But with the first words out of his mouth, I was completely won over by the character. “Won over” may be the wrong phrase. I believed in the reality of this genial and dangerous man.

In fact, all the actors do well. Ron Pearlman is excellent as Albert Brooks’s partner in crime. And Bryan Cranston does a great job as Gosling’s amped-up, jittery, but mostly well-meaning employer. Gosling’s character is a man of mystery who seems to have formed few attachments in his lifetime. So when he makes one, it has to count. A man of principle, when things go bad, he has to try to set things right. But the forces of darkness are powerful. It reminds you of the T-shirt that reads, “Where am I going? And what am I doing in this hand-basket?”

Someone once said that the best male actors convey an element of danger in the characters they play. To that I’d add an element of mystery. You don’t know what they might do next, and therefore you can’t stop watching them. Actors like Mitchum, DeNiro, and Malkovich look like they’re in the mood for mayhem, no matter what they’re in. Like James Dean, Gosling’s good looks are disarming. He might cut you or cure you: it could go either way. The dangerous element in his characters is deep inside, and he seems to nurture it like an eternal flame. When it leaps out, stand back.

We haven’t seen a movie this gritty-good since the late great Sidney Lumet’s last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

More, please.

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The Help: Getting by with a Little

The Help OnesheetI was in a bad mood. Maybe it was my late encounter with the enemy, my new roommate, the howler monkey. Maybe it was the too-cheerful trailer. But I was expecting the worst from The Help. When I see a trailer that contains too many face-splitting smiles, I get nervous. Like the cheerful smile you get from a howler monkey in the pet store. Then, when you get him home, the only face that gets split is yours, and not in the good way.  So I wasn’t expecting a great deal from The Help.

But I’m happy to say there’s a good deal to recommend this movie. It’s an old-fashioned story set in the segregated South of the early 1960’s, a story we’ve seen before about what used to be called “race relations,” but here it’s mixed with a streak of Steel Magnolias humor and irreverence that makes the movie fresher than it might have been.

Emma Stone of the laughing eyes plays Skeeter, a young woman who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and who now returns from college to start her life as a writer. But what to write about? She notices the way the black maids are mistreated by the very women she grew up with, and decides to write a book that tells their stories. The movie is mainly about her efforts to reach out to the maids, an act that violated state law. Setting the story against the backdrop of the civil rights movement gives it additional weight.

But what really sets this movie apart is the performances.

The central characters are the maids, especially Abileen, played by Viola Davis, who has a way with characters restrained by circumstances but seething with conviction and passion. The first time I was aware of her was when she played a small role in Doubt. She was so good she took the movie away from Meryl Streep, no small feat. And she delivers the same kind of powerful performance here but with a bigger canvas.

The other maid at the center of the story is Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, whose nature is the opposite of her best friend’s. Where Abileen bites her tongue and bides her time, Minny speaks her mind and acts on it in ways that get her into more trouble.  Spencer’s power pairs well with Davis’s, and the two serve as the binary stars of the story’s universe.

But wait? Didn’t I miss someone? From the trailers, you’d think Emma Stone is the main character, and in a way she is. She does a fine job, a tomboyish beauty with range. But as The Sleeper pointed out, she’s really the observer, the Nick Carraway, of the piece, the catalyst that sets the complications in motion. Yes, she has a satisfying arc, but what arc can compare to the arc of characters going from the stranglehold of racism to the first glimmerings of equality?

Even the minor performances in this movie are exceptional.

Sissy Spacek does a delightful turn as a southern matron who, despite being in the first stages of dementia, still has more on the ball than her primly racist daughter. And Alison Janney plays Skeeter’s mother as a character with one foot in the old world and one tentative toe in the new. And the great Cicely Tyson does more acting with her lower lip than any twelve actors.

How is it that a fairly inexperienced director, Tate Taylor, could evoke such strong performances? The late Sidney Lumet used to say that the most important aspect of making a film was the casting, and Taylor got it very right. But I think it’s more than that. Despite many decades of attention to the need for racial equality, our films and television shows still don’t reflect the true diversity of this country. A 2010 article in The New York Times shows that, in its 80-year history, Oscars have been awarded to African-American actors only fourteen times. So when they get cast and, better still, get opportunities to play three-dimensional characters, they know it’s more than another paycheck, so they bring their A-games.

Look at Nelsan Ellis’s performance, for instance. Fans of True Blood will recognize him as Lafayette, the gay fry-cook and one-time V-dealer who’s also a spirit medium. In The Help he plays a waiter with only a handful of lines, but his posture alone conveys the rich history of his character’s self-image and hope for a better life.

There isn’t a sour note in any of the performances.

If there are problems, they’re at the writing level. One of the key events of the movie is described as “the terrible awful,” and as funny and shocking as it is, Taylor milks it too many times. And to drive home the theme, the movie’s debutante racists mouth the most ridiculous forms of racism. It has always seemed to me that racism is much sneakier, the way a realtor once warned me away from certain areas of the city as being “too urban.” But maybe the ridiculous dimensions of racism need more attention, need to be dragged
into the light. And after all, it is a comedy, or a comedy-drama, or whatever it is we’re calling movies that make us laugh one minute and cry the next.

By the way, we went to a weekday matinée of The Help. The audience was larger than the audiences we’d seen for Transformers, Green Lantern, and Cowboys and Aliens—combined. And we were a mix of ages and races, not just a bunch of fourteen-year-old white boys. I’m all for movies that please fourteen-year-old white boys. Heck, I am in essence a fourteen-year-old white boy. But how about a little variety? The audience at The Help shows that different generations and different ethnicities are hungry for stories they can identify with. Hollywood, you didn’t seem to get the message with the success of The Blind Side. Are you listening now?

I’d write more but it’s time for the monkey’s next appletini . . .

Lincoln Stinkin’

The Lincoln Lawyer OnesheetOne of my tried-and-true indicators of the quality of a film is whether or not my wife falls asleep while watching it. We often go to movies after her grueling dressage lessons, so she deserves a nap. But she was wide awake throughout The Lincoln Lawyer, later telling me how good it was. I growled, “Oh, you just like Matthew ‘Man Candy’ McConaughey.” Needless to say, I learned a hard lesson that day: don’t come between a woman and her man candy. That’s a lot, Matthew.

The first challenge to the makers of legal thrillers is, well, The Verdict. Where do you go from there? The quiet passion of David Mamet’s screenplay, Sidney Lumet’s taut direction, Paul Newman’s soul-baring, loser-turned-savior performance, the painfully ambiguous performance of Charlotte Rampling, the deliciously evil James Mason, and the spot-on performance by every actor in the cast. It doesn’t get any better than The Verdict. Every other legal thriller since then stands in its shadow.

And here we have The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel. There’s a clever conceit at the center of this gripping novel: he’s the “Lincoln Lawyer” because his Lincoln Town Car is his rolling office, the place where he does all his business. And while the moviemakers retain key scenes in the car, their Mick Haller also has an office and a receptionist. In other words, they water down one of the key elements that distinguish the novel from every other legal thriller.

The second challenge is that shows about lawyers are the mainstay of broadcast (or as I call it, boredcast) television. Movies about lawyers can’t settle comfortably into the old formulae and clichés of the genre. That field’s been picked-over. And yet this one goes at it as if neither of these challenges existed, the only distinction being the director’s use of extreme close-ups, so extreme that I felt as though I were falling into the actors’ sweaty pores.

Side note: there are two moments in the movie’s trailer that never made it to the film. In one, Haller is riding in the car with his daughter, who asks why he doesn’t have an office like her mother. When he asks her which “office” is more fun, she says his. “Boom,” he says, slapping the car’s headliner. It’s a sweet moment that defines his character, the state of his marriage, and his bond with his daughter, but it’s not in the movie. And then there’s a brief moment where Haller slides a handgun across a table to Ryan Phillippe, inviting him to use it. Never appears in the film. And it’s a shame because it suggests a more suspenseful showdown than the one they used. Let’s just say that McConaughey spends much of the final conflict sitting on a porch.

What about plot? I don’t want to give too much away. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to ruin it for you, and if you have, you already know the plot. Haller’s big case has him defending a club kid who may or may not have murdered a young woman. As a result, Haller finds that he, his family, and his friends have become the targets of someone’s rage. The bare bones of Connelly’s novel are here, but not the narrative voice and the nuances of character and plot. The story’s been stripped down to the point where it feels like a standard TV lawyer show but with better actors and those freakish close-ups.

OK, I admit it—much better actors. McConaughey’s fine as the over-confident lawyer who finds himself in too deep. And William H. Macy is excellent as his investigator. One of the director’s crimes is that he doesn’t use Macy enough. As small as his part is, Macy gives you the sense of the complete life of his character, a life that goes beyond the edges of the screen. Marisa Tomei is fine, too. The problem is that she isn’t given much to work with. The character’s a type—the ex-wife who still has affection for her former husband. For several years now, cable television has been giving us rich female characters like Katey Sagal in Sons of Anarchy, Edie Falco in The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, Callie Thorne in Rescue Me, Toni Collette in The United States of Tara, and more–but not enough). And yet Hollywood, for the most part, continues to treat female characters as adornments that prove the hero’s heterosexuality instead of as fully three-dimensional, living, breathing characters. Hey, Hollywood! Looking for your lunch? Cable already ate it!