Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bombs Away on S2 Finale of "Mad Men"

“Mad Men” may take place in the 1960’s, but there’s a reason why it speaks so eloquently to viewers today. It simultaneously indulges and punctures our nostalgia for a period that even the most enlightened of us can’t help romanticizing—even though we know better. We can drool over the beautifully tailored clothes, exquisite lighting, and Hopperesque art direction while shaking our heads at the excessive drinking, thoughtless littering, and even more thoughtless sexism, racism, and homophobia on display. We tsk-tsk at the sight of a stunning young woman smoking what must amount to a pack a day even as we secretly, enviously wonder how she manages to light each cigarette with such effortless elegance. It's that combination of the alluring and alienating that keeps us returning for more.

But “Mad Men” is never better than when it reminds us that at bottom, its characters are human just like us, moved by the same impulses, fears, and desires, however differently they’ve been taught to handle them. And this season’s finale was a near-perfect exercise in that age-old truth: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In times of great fear and uncertainty—whether it’s the Cuban missile crisis, 9/11, or the economic meltdown of 2007—human nature tends to distill itself down to its barest essence, good, bad or ugly. Some panic; some stand firm; some seek out loved ones; and most interestingly, some even tell the truth.

What I particularly admired about this episode was how sharply yet delicately it drew parallel storylines that brought out the contrasts between its characters. Betty’s surprise pregnancy, on a lesser show, would have reeked of contrivance, yet its juxtaposition with the other, bigger bombshell—Peggy’s “confession” to Pete—was nothing short of brilliant. What it did was set up two starkly different ways of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy (and, for that matter, a belated declaration of love), each reflective of the characters’ respective arcs, and each, in a very distinct way, an expression of the woman’s choice, not the man’s.

Some will probably see Betty’s decision as a concession to convention and in effect an acceptance of defeat. I don't, though I did get a strong impression that up till the very last moment, she was wavering over which of her two “secrets” to tell Don, approached the precipice, and then retreated. But her choice was also the one most calculated to save the marriage, and she made it with her eyes open, with a clearer understanding of the alternative than she’s certainly ever had before in her life, and from a mixture of motives that weren’t purely rooted in fear. (What woman watching didn't melt at least a little at Don's letter?) Betty’s outlook on life has darkened, but she’s also moved several steps closer to maturity, albeit at a stiff price. I have to admit I was disappointed at her little experiment in random sex—I rather liked that she was the one character who saw adultery in black and white terms—but the dynamic between her and Don will probably be more interesting now that she no longer has the moral high ground.

As for Don, all signs indicate he’s making a sincere effort to be a new person or at least a better model, a hybrid of Dick Whitman’s tenderness at home and Don Draper’s impassive cool at work. But will it last? His face was a fascinating study after Betty’s revelation, and one that’s given rise to some very different interpretations. What I saw, after the initial shock, was a glimmer of happiness struggling with uncertainty and a growing, sobering realization that this might be the only reason Betty’s taking him back. Betty’s expression, for her part, was completely inscrutable, and the last shot of them before the fadeout—appropriately, in light of the historical backdrop—felt more like an uneasy detente than a reunion.

Still, it was a rapprochement, however fragile, which is more than one can say about their doppelganger couple, Pete and Peggy. Ok, I’ll confess: after being mostly outraged and creeped out by Pete throughout all of season 1, I’ve become quite fond of him this season, and my heart cried for him as Peggy heaped the coals on his head. I know I’m not alone, and I know the feeling’s not totally irrational, because the fact is that Pete, like Betty, has been growing up. He’s still a boy, not fully a man—as evidenced by his propensity for throwing perfectly good chicken dinners out the window—but he’s getting there. Plus we’ve had the benefit this season of seeing a glimpse of the dysfunctional family upbringing that contributed to his stunted development, and Vincent Kartheiser’s done wonders showing us Pete’s immaturity, his selfishness, and at the same time his flashes of talent, charm, and genuine feeling (mostly displayed towards Peggy).

Oh Peggy. Have a heart. As I’ve said since the beginning, I’ve been rooting for her without really liking her. Her smarts and her pluckiness are appealing, yet on a personal level she sometimes behaves in a way that seems at best emotionally tonedeaf and at worst, not quite human. I don’t get how she could twist the knife into Pete—without malice but also without mercy—and then pray at night with the serene expression of someone whose soul was now untroubled. (I don't think this is quite what Father Gill had in mind when he was importuning her to confess.) Not that Pete didn't have it coming to him, not that it was wrong to tell him—it was just the way she did it that felt needlessly cruel. Maybe it just seemed cruel because I’m still hoping against hope that she and Pete will end up together. They have a weird but undeniable chemistry.

The rest of the cast mostly receded into the background for the finale. A couple of them – Father Gill, Duck – behaved in ways that seemed out of character for them, but perhaps we were meant to see that that’s how they react in moments of crisis. I think I am one of the few members of the “Mad Men”-watching population who came to like Duck and therefore couldn’t enjoy his spectacular crash and burn. His vindictiveness didn’t ring true to me, even if he was drunk, and felt more like a lazy way of writing him off the show. Still, I had to laugh at his fake surprise after being told he’d be made president (“My, my," or was it "Well, well"?)—that’s some good Bad Acting right there. I’m going to miss Mark Moses. Don needs a good foil, esp. now that Pete seems effectively to have adopted him as his surrogate father figure.

All in all, a riveting conclusion to a sophomore season that showed anything but slump. If anything, “Mad Men” upped its game, adding more depth, more dimension, more nuance to an already meticulously crafted show. Here’s hoping that season 3 will raise the bar even further.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Rachel" Gets Married Despite Anne Hathaway's Eyes; "Nick & Norah" Make Pretty Music Together


directed by Jonathan Demme
written by Jenny Lumet
starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie Dewitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, Anna Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe

Anne Hathaway’s eyes make me uncomfortable. Not because they aren’t beautiful,—they are—but because they’re so enormous. In fact, they’re freakishly enormous—certainly far too large for her face, a quality only accentuated by their startling darkness against the ivory-white of her complexion. (With the right amount of blood-red lipstick she could easily play a Goth version of Snow White.) And there’s a bright yet fixed intensity about their gaze that can make them oddly indecipherable, at least in the parts she’s played up till now.

Well, no more. Anne Hathaway’s eyes have finally found their ideal role in Jonathan Demme’s new film, “Rachel Getting Married.” Those huge dark orbs, rimmed in kohl and framed by a choppy haircut that feels like an afterthought, stare watchfully, at times piteously, out of the pale drawn face of a strung-out, barely-together junkie named Kym. The very sight of her face is supposed to raise those hackles of tension on the back of your neck, and it does, quite effectively. Kym turns out to be the “problem child” of an affluent, seemingly close-knit family that nonetheless shows telltale signs of unraveling at the seams. Or, perhaps more accurately, signs that they already unraveled and have since been stitched back together by only the most fragile of seams.

The plot of the film is as simple as the title: Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt), elder sister to Kym, is getting married; Kym comes out of rehab to attend the wedding. Needless to say, the plot is not the point. “Rachel” traces the impact on the family dynamic of Rachel’s return, which sparks a number of increasingly squirm-inducing interactions and the gradual reveal of a page in the family history that none of them, least of all Kym, has been able to turn. In this respect, it’s something of a cross between “Ordinary People” and last year’s “Margot at the Wedding”—except that it’s livelier and more organic than the former and about a zillion degrees warmer and more compassionate than the latter—though the sibling dynamic is, if anything, more reminiscent of “Hilary and Jackie.”

Scripted by newcomer Jenny Lumet (daughter to Sidney), the film bumps along at a curiously schizophrenic pace—fitful from beat to beat, as it tracks the rhythms of the family’s conversations, confrontations, and prenuptial preparations, yet highly measured in its overall narrative line. Indeed, for a movie that may sometimes feel a bit directionless, it adheres to a remarkably traditional Aristotelian arc of rising tension, climax, and resolution, though the resolution feels temporary and tenuous. What’s exceptional about it is how vividly it captures the sense that the days leading up to Rachel’s wedding comprise just one of many cycles in the larger, messier pattern of the family’s evolution. Yet the film is ultimately a resounding affirmation of that evolution, of the ties that may fray but never entirely break, and a celebration of life and the chance to begin anew, as reflected in the extremely long takes of both the rehearsal dinner and the actual wedding. (Yes, dear readers, the wedding does happen.) Some may find these sequences a bit too long and self-indulgent, while others may wonder why the WASPy bride and African American groom are having a traditional Hindu marriage ceremony. I personally didn’t mind these scenes, because to me they opened up the film and operated as a more expansive commentary on the microscopic tensions and conflicts going on within the family. Without them, the film might have felt too hermetic, too much like a chamber piece, undercutting Demme’s overarching mantra that life just doesn’t fit into such neat little glass boxes.

“Rachel” is the kind of film that both showcases and vitally depends on thoughtful acting, and the cast rises admirably to the occasion. While I was a bit skeptical going into the movie about the buzz surrounding Hathaway’s performance (I thought maybe everyone was just surprised to see she could actually “act”), I have to say it’s justified. She’s terrific as Kym, neither overplaying nor holding back on the character’s unappealing, unwholesome affect or her grating solipsism. Kym is the textbook definition of a drama queen, and for the first half hour or so, one may feel an irresistible urge to gag her every time she opens her mouth. Yet as the film progresses, Hathaway digs deep into Kym’s soul, allowing enough layers of her brittle, paranoid defensiveness to peel away to reveal the lacerating guilt and raw anguish that lie festering underneath.

But as the title reflects, the film’s as much about Rachel as it is about Kym, and Dewitt, who played Midge in season 1 of “Mad Men” (and who reminds me, oddly, of Helen Hunt), more than holds her own against Hathaway. Rachel is in fact arguably the more difficult part to play, given that she’s by far the most grounded and probably the most sympathetic member of the family—which is not to say she’s a saint. Dewitt deftly conveys the mingled affection and exasperation of the well-behaved older sibling in response to the return of the Prodigal Daughter, as well as her natural resentment when the latter threatens to upstage her at a time when (for once!) the family’s attention should be focused on her, Rachel. Yet her tenderness towards Kym in the latter’s most wounded and vulnerable moments is no less convincing, and extraordinarily delicate. Bill Irwin is affecting as the father who tries unsuccessfully to mediate between his two daughters while suppressing a private well of grief. The luminous Debra Winger, who plays his ex-wife and mother to Rachel and Kym, has too few scenes—but not too few to etch a searing portrait of an attractive yet deeply flawed woman who bears a not-quite-buried part in the family crackup.

I don’t want to overpraise “Rachel Getting Married,” and I can’t help fearing it may already be buckling under the weight of expectations. While it’s in some ways ambitious, at bottom it’s a modest, intimate film that would benefit more from being quietly discovered and enjoyed as a sleeper than heralded with too much early hooplah and fanfare. And it certainly isn’t perfect. Despite my appreciation for the intention behind Demme’s documentary-style, you-are-there approach to shooting the film, I could really, really have done without the shaky, headache-inducing handheld cam that dominates the first third or so of the movie. And it mildly bothered me that Rachel’s fiancé Sidney (played by Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of TV on the Radio), while appealing, had virtually nothing to do other than alternately act tender towards his beloved and look uncomfortable whenever she was going at it hammer and tongs with Kym and her father. Perhaps that was unavoidable, given that the film is so centered on the dynamics of the family into which he’s marrying. Yet that doesn’t adequately explain why the great Anna Deavere Smith, who plays the father’s second wife, is also so underutilized, or why Kieran (Mather Zickel), the best man and Kym’s fellow recovering junkie, seems more developed a character than either of them. One can’t escape a sense that the multicultural wedding and the persons of color who appear in the movie (and there are quite a lot of them) are just window dressing to make the film seem less like another movie about white folks having family problems.

Still, I do believe “Rachel Getting Married” has a broader appeal. Rachel’s family isn’t quirky, nor is it dysfunctional for the sake of being dysfunctional. (I’m lookin’ at you, Wes Anderson.) It’s a family that became dysfunctional as a result of errors in judgment and communication, compounded by misfortune out of proportion to those errors. It’s the kind of situation that anyone, I think, could imagine happening to his or her own family. The beauty of the film is the grace and humanity with which it treats that situation and makes the hypothetical feel immediate and real.



directed by Peter Sollett
starring Michael Cera, Kat Dennings

“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” begs your indulgence, and, unless you’re more of a cynic than I am, will probably get it. Natural sweetness is a scarce commodity in teen movies these days, and “Nick & Norah,” despite a surface concern with hipness and coolness, abounds in it. The music may be hip, but the sentiments expressed in the film are appealingly square. Boy is heartbroken over girl. Boy meets new girl. Boy and new girl find they like each other (and are musical soulmates). It could almost be a John Hughes movie, though Hughes at his best tapped an emotional depth that “Nick & Norah” never reaches. Still, there’s a basic sincerity about the movie that’s extremely disarming, and falls nicely in line with director Peter Sollett’s previous tale of adolescent relationships, “Raising Victor Vargas.”

Based on a popular teen novel, “Nick & Norah” mixes a dash of indie rock sensibility into the standard ingredients of high school romance. Nick (Michael Cera), an aspiring rocker, and Norah (Kat Dennings), daughter of a high-powered record exec, cross paths in Manhattan on a clear spring night. Both, along with their cohorts, are in search of a mysterious, ultra-awesome, ultra-elusive band called Where’s Fluffy, who may or may not be performing somewhere in the city. Their quest becomes intertwined with Norah’s search for her best friend, the gum-snapping, hard-drinking Caroline (Ari Graynor), who, per usual, gets falling-down-drunk and goes awol, and with the pursuit of Nick by his ex Tris (Alexis Dziena), whose proprietary interest in him is rekindled when she sees him hitting it off with Norah. Predictable complications insue, which are predictably sorted out in due course.

Unsurprisingly, the film owes a large part of its charm to the chemistry between Nick & Norah. It’s worth waiting through a dreadful opening that’s as creaky as the ancient Yugo that Nick drives around the city; suffice to say things get immeasurably better once Nick and Norah actually meet. Nick is—well, Nick is Michael Cera, and what’s not to like about that? But it’s Dennings as Norah who’s the real find, mingling a startling poise with the very believable prickliness of a teenager whose particular social circumstances have made her wary and prematurely jaded. Both the attraction and the bickering between these two feel genuine, even if the twists that alternately push them together and pull them apart are rote and contrived.

I could have done with less of the cartoonish Tris, and I could definitely have done without Caroline’s chewing gum (you’ll understand when you see the movie), though Caroline herself is a hilarious and very convincing drunk. There’s also a gay boy trio (Nick’s bandmates plus a friendly stranger) that serves as something of a deus ex machina for bringing N&N together—which would be more annoying if the boys themselves weren’t so likable. That pretty much sums up the experience of “Nick & Norah” as a whole: it could easily be annoying if it weren’t so damn likable.