Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The "Upside" of Acting: Allen, Costner show how it's done


directed by Mike Binder
starring Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood

The two reasons to see this movie are: Joan Allen and Kevin Costner.

They are reason enough.

Allen, as usual, plays the alienated wife. What’s not as usual is that for once, she’s the movie’s center rather than the supporting figure. What’s more, far from her typical M.O.—i.e., woman unable to articulate her repressed emotions—her character, Terry Wolfmeyer, has *no* difficulty giving voice to her rage. From the moment she discovers that her husband's gone AWOL on her and their four daughters, the anger erupts...and keeps on erupting.

Costner’s the supporting figure here, and enjoying every minute of it. He plays the Wolfmeyers’ shambling, sloppily amiable neighbor Denny Davies, a retired baseball star gone more than slightly to seed. Denny’s irresistibly drawn to Terry even as (or perhaps because) she drowns herself in a sea of Grey Goose and tells him and everyone else to bugger off. He's in sympathy, being a booze hound himself. He also wants to lay her, which he does in due course, though the movie's not just about that. He begins by drinking with her in the living room, and ends up becoming a permanent fixture in her household.

It’s an odd pairing, but it works beautifully. Allen radiates a taut, fine-drawn intensity that can turn on a moment’s notice into a hoot, a train wreck, or a gale force. Her fierceness is nicely complemented by Costner’s laid-back charm, which overlays a core of flint: Denny can be pushed only so far, and he, too, can get very angry. Both actors approach their roles as *adults*—adults playing adults who have seen real wear and tear, whose cracks and flaws run deep yet close to the surface. The sheer maturity of their performances is refreshing, especially coming from a Hollywood dominated more than ever by the relentless culture of youth.

Not that there’s any lack of young blood here, given that the four daughters (played by Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, and Evan Rachel Wood) range from college-age to early teens. Of the quartet, Wood registers the most strongly as the youngest, and not just because she’s also the film’s narrator. The other daughters are fair enough actors (and quite lovely to look at), but their characters appear pallid and underwritten next to the Terry-Denny axis. Only Wood really manages to hold her own, on her own, with a vivid yet unforced screen presence. Director Mike Binder bridges the generation gap, in a manner of speaking, playing Denny’s friend and radio show producer—a rather sleazy figure with an eye for the Barely Legal.

A lot of pieces of “Upside” don’t work: certain scenes, particularly (though not exclusively) those where neither Allen nor Costner are present, fall flat; the timing feels off, the tone and dialogue curiously stilted, like snippets of a play or TV pilot that never made it into the final cut. The movie frequently feels piecemeal altogether, as plot threads and character arcs are taken up and left off, explored and/or resolved—or not—rather desultorily. Yet in a weird way, the fragmentary, open-ended character of the movie works, notwithstanding Binder’s ill-conceived attempt at a framing device. The ending, which should come as a surprise to no one, strains credulity. But it doesn’t, ultimately, wrap up the narrative or linger very long in one’s memory. What one remembers are the relationships, the moments of connection and miscommunication, and the ebb and flow of emotions, which continue beyond the last frame of the film.

RATING: ** 1/2




directed by Mira Nair
starring Reese Witherspoon, Gabriel Byrne, Eileen Atkins, James Purefoy, Romola Garai, Rhys Ifans, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, others

I saw this movie on an airplane, and found myself enjoying it quite a bit more than I expected. I know I’m in a minority, for obvious reasons. No period piece about a woman trying to maneuver her way up the social ladder of Regency England is ever going to make a splash at the box office, and no film adaptation of “Vanity Fair” that softens Thackeray’s edge is likely to win much favor with critics. Without deviating much from the actual plot, Mira Nair somehow manages to transform the novel’s blend of razor-sharp satire and Victorian sentiment into a breathless English version of “Gone With the Wind,” colored with a vaguely postcolonial, (post?)feminist sensibility. No doubt old man Makepeace is flipping in his grave. And even on its own terms, the movie doesn’t entirely work—in large part because it’s trying to squeeze into a two-hour span a (literal) army of characters and their lives over the course of a quarter-century, while keeping its focus squarely on the central character, the inimitable Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon).

Still, I liked Nair’s retelling of the Becky Sharp myth (apart from the ending, which felt silly and forced). Perhaps it’s because I’ve always found VF the book amusing but rather heartless. I liked that Witherspoon gave her character a touch of vulnerability without losing a certain wicked spark; she’s still a green-eyed schemer and conqueror, but no longer a monster. I liked the way Nair made her stand out visually by dressing her in rich Indian colors—a vivid reminder of the backdrop of empire that pervades the book almost imperceptibly. But above all, I liked James Purefoy as Becky’s dashing husband Rawdon Crawley. So what if he plays Rhett to her Scarlett, rather than the good-natured tool of the book? He does it well, and makes Becky’s one moment of remorse more convincing than it would have been otherwise. Besides, most importantly—he’s a dish.

RATING: ** 1/2


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