October 18, 2007

"Things We Lost in the Fire"

An odd duck of a movie, but one I rather liked. It starts out as a tragedy and ends up as a comedy. David Duchovny plays an affluent Seattle developer who dies suddenly, leaving a widow (Halle Berry), two cute kids with amazing hair, and a best friend from childhood (Benicio Del Toro) who is a lawyer turned fulltime heroin junkie, whom the widow despises. It's like a lighter, more watchable version of "21 Grams," which starred Del Toro, Sean Penn, and Naomi Woods.

Mostly because she doesn't have anything else to do, the widow Halle invites Benicio to move into the garage, and she tries to get him to go to his NarcAnon meetings. The bald, fat, rich white guy next door helps Benicio get a job because it will piss off his insufferable, status-climbing wife. By the end, Benicio has passed the mortgage broker test and gotten a new girlfriend (Alison Lohman, who still looks like the 14-year-old she played in "Matchstick Men"), but he still has this dream of perfect happiness: having a needle full of junk in one hand and the money for his next score in the other.

Obviously, in real life, recovering heroin junkies are not welcomed into upscale neighborhoods, but the Danish lady director Susanne Bier, making her first American film, gives the impression that she's perfectly aware that charming Benicio and gorgeous Halle aren't real people, they're Hollywood movie stars! There's an early scene where Duchovny and Del Toro talk about how beautiful Berry's character is, which is unusual in movies: we're usually supposed to assume that the ultra-good looking star is a just plucky underdog fighting against all odds.) So, the film has this strange conditional realism: this is what could happen to a heroin addict if he was as lovable as Benicio Del Toro.

The main reason for seeing this film is if you like to watch Benicio (the Oscar-winning Mexican policeman in "Traffic") overact, which I certainly do. In his ability to make his face jump around, he's like an ursine, flabby Jim Carrey. His facial gymnastics are particularly enjoyable during the early scenes for their contrast with the woodeness of Duchovny, the yuppie Charles Bronson. Del Toro's performance as a junkie appears to be modeled on heroin addict Lou Reed's affected vocal in the Velvet Underground classic "Sweet Jane." (I know that sounds like I'm just making it up, but "Sweet Jane" is played three times in the movie, so the Lou Reed comparisons are inevitable.)

I think I've finally figured out the Halle Berry question: How exactly is she both a (not undeserving) Oscar winner for "Monster's Ball" and notoriously bland in superhero films like "X-Men" and "Cat Woman?" Here, her acting starts out strongly in the emotionally-charged scenes at the beginning, but then, as things settle down in the plot, she loses screen presence. She's still easy on the eyes, but by the second half of the movie you're done marveling over how petite her chin is (Can she eat steak with that little jaw?) and there's not much else going on with her.

In other words, she's good at the big, hard stuff (like grieving over her slain husband), but not at the little things. She's like an Olympic figure skater who nails her triple toe-loops but doesn't do anything interesting in-between the jumps, like 1998 winner Tara Lipinski or Tonya Harding, in contrast to, say, Katarina Witt (1984-88) who couldn't do triple jumps, but was a dream of feminine charisma when she was just skating around. With Halle, though, it's confusing; because she's so pretty, you expect her to be good at being ingratiating but not at the big tragic emoting, when, in fact, her skills are the reverse.

So, Halle was quite good in a fairly short role in the lurid melodrama "Monster's Ball" playing the operatically absurd role of a widow who falls in love with the prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who executed her husband (Puff Daddy), but she's lousy in a comic book movie where only charisma is required.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Steve --

Great review. Except in no way is Duchovny like Bronson. Bronson had a strong, masculine, working-class presence.

Because that is who Bronson was. Son of a poor Polish coal miner in Western PA, he few WWII bombing missions over Japan in B-29's.

Duchovny is from a middle class Brooklyn family, undergraduate degree from Princeton and a Master's in Literature at Yale.

Duchovny is very good at playing upper class East Coast yuppies, but could not play a tough working man to save his life.

You're right in that both Bronson and Duchovny have/had limited range, but within his range Bronson was superb. Particularly now that no actor can convincingly play a man as opposed to a metrosexual. Del Toro play anything other than the ugly guy? Hah.

Evil Neocon

Anonymous said...

Halle is "porno," with all sorts of gasps and other flirty titillations.

Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't.

I don't think she can do "normal," but normal is probably the hardest thing to do when it comes to acting.

Anonymous said...

Daveg -- probably right on normal being hard for actors/actresses. Considering that in their circles, a guy/gal/whatever like Larry/Lara Wachowski (post-sex change) is considered "normal."

Hollywood really is a freakshow. Goldberg has a column on it in NRO Online, his point that the freakshow used to be kept under wraps because it was bad for business and now is on display 24/7 is well taken. Along with that behavior being a bad model for those not wealthy and priviliged.

Evil Neocon

Anonymous said...

It is said (by no less then Richard Ben Cramer) that when a baseball scout was sent to evaluate Lefty Gomez, he was favorably impressed by the man's playing ability. However, he refused to commit to anything until he's "talked to him in the shower room". He really wanted to "check him out", not because he had a sexual interest in men, but because he had preconceived notions that there was a correspondence between a man's male endowment and his playing abilities. He then told the minor league team that he was declining to sign Gomez because no one with that large a member could properly play the position.

Duchovny's acting gives credence to a similar theory about bejingled men having certain theatrical linitations.

Anonymous said...

Oh riot nrrd now you are just being mean . . ;)
And I think Jude Law robs any credence to that.