Used to be there were no good roles for women in film, period. Yes, yes, I’ll roll out the old cliche: Witness how many Oscars have been awarded for portrayals of Gal Fridays, wifies, hookers, and molls (though I shall never, never decry the Oscar handed to Queen of Brooklyn Marissa Tomei). But there’s been a weird trend gaining steam over the last decade: great roles for women buried in powerfully mediocre vehicles. At least three films released this fall really crystallize that trend — p.s. with Laura Linney, Being Julia with Annette Bening, and the what-the-bleep Birth, with Nicole Kidman, who (I grudgingly admit) is a gifted actor, if also a surgically enhanced giraffe with a teensy-tiny baby voice.
Not one of these movies is genuinely bad. In fact, I’d I recommend all three, though half-heartedly as they’re so half-baked. But what’s interesting is that the quality of the films relies heavily upon these actresses’ abilities to cohere the half-baked plotlines. Without these actors, the films would be nothing. And even now, their only noteworthy aspect is how little they achieve for anyone. Observe:
• In p.s., Laura Linney is Louise, a Columbia admissions officer embroiled with MFA applicant F. Scott Feinstadt (tartlet Topher Grace), who happens to a T (for tartlet) share name and appearance with the dead teenaged love for whom she still pines. Got it? Also her professor ex-husband Gabriel Byrne is a self-confessed sex addict who schtups his students. (In the ’70s, that’d just be called “dippin’ into the academic pool.”) Also her brother is a recovered drug addict so he understands the 12-step programs and feeds her ye olde “let go, let God.” Also her childhood best friend Marcia Gay Harden (as yet another slatternly malcontent) tries F. Scott on for, er, size to ensure he’s not a Canal Street knockoff. So: Is Topher really Louise’s reincarnated boyfriend or just your garden-variety 15-years-younger hottie who happens to be a dead ringer for the long-lost love of her life? And how come Louise isn’t in trouble for so baldly fucking an applicant? (It’s easier to get mired in details when a film’s logic falls out.) But Linney burrows past the plot’s — and Louise’s — nutty brittle to excavate her now-standard revelatory tiny moments: fucking F. Scott on the couch, clothed; violently applying rouge to her cheeks; quivering almost imperceptibly as she stands, pashmina-clad, in the hallway of her mother’s home. Linney’s performances always surprise; her ability to abruptly transform the tone of a scene renders her, and thus the movies in which she appears, forever mesmerizing.
• I question not that two of these three movies are about a woman involved with a too-young man who just might be her reincarnated lover, again with the same name. (Maybe that’s the real trend story here: Why the Reincarnated Lover Schtick Never Works) But Birth, about a young boy who claims to be the reincarnated dead husband of Anna (Nicole Kidman), offers a slower, more disturbing take on said topic. It’s a crazy, disturbing movie in general. Yes, I am an American ’70s baby and therefore possess a short attention span, but many shots not only linger but malinger: the opening tracking shot of Big Sean keeling over in Central Park and entering the, uh, pre-reincarnated state, for example, extends so long that you want to join him. That pacing, coupled with the eternal winter that comprises Birth‘s psychological and metereological climate, adds up to the worst Swedish-inspired American film since Woody Allen’s Interiors. Damn, that’s bad, but Kidman is good. Like Naomi Watts, she’s a very physical actress, but on a much smaller, more restrained scale — a slightly pursed mouth, a sudden straightening of the spine convey as much as a wracking set of sobs from someone else. She’s good enough that at times you actually focus solely on her character’s devolution rather than the film’s terrible, myriad plot deficiencies. Such as: Why does she still live with her family in her mid-30s? Why is her fiance (Danny Houston) so creepy? Why is her mother so blasé (besides the fact that she’s portrayed by blasé Lauren Bacall)? How much of the reincarnation is the kid Sean really conscious of? Why does he abandon his pursuit of Anna so completely? Why is his family so accepting of his relentless pursuit of a mid-30s woman? Why is she? It’s an unintentional mystery, which is the very worst kind. And drowning at its center is not only Anna, but Kidman, who has no choice but to drown in Anna. But gracefully, so gracefully. Kidman is nicest to watch when she’s stonily bearing a terrible burden. It takes the edge off her smarmy complacency. Here, as in The Others, she drowns swimmingly.
• In contrast to Kidman, Bening is anything but restrained, and she never has been. Herein lies her great appeal. In her performances she typically races from indignation to despair to elation, never pausing for a second at anything resembling listlessness. As Julia, a British stage actress whose marriage and career have grown stale, she finally visits that place, and the results are intriguing, if uneven. At times Bening seems weary, and wary, of the film itself. While that trepidation is merited — the story of an older woman humbling herself at the feet of a silly younger man is dully retold — it’s also a bit of a shame. Perhaps a good performance can be measured by the distance evident between an actor and the character she is portraying: the smaller the gap, the better the performance. And perhaps the stretch required to portray Julia proved too much for Bening in her most recent venture from nearly constant retirement. True, the plot contrivances, particularly when Julia proves her theatrical mettle by tripping up her on- and off-stage rival, not only read as unlikely but unlikeable. But I enjoy Bening all the more in this bad vehicle: When she scrubs off her stage makeup with cold cream, she looks aged, for possibly the first time ever. (LA women don’t age so much as congeal.) She also appears grim, disgusted, and flinty — all hinting at a new, chewier era in her career, perhaps when that Beatty brood grows a bit older.
So what to make of this trend? Certainly it’s refreshing to watch any film centered around very complicated, capable women; those projects are still far and few between. (Television may afford greater opportunities for the hens, possibly because the stakes are not quite so high.) But possibly, too, we’re to learn that a good female role remains hard to find — particularly as they’re so frequently entombed in what can only be described as bad movies. It’s keeping the broads in their place, however inadvertently.
I’ve thought of another question that a reviewer always asks herself in the claustrophobic darkness of a screening room, unseduced by trailers or Junior Mints or luxuriantly large screens. The question has echoed in my ears since the United States signed on for another four years of plundering, imbecility, and the general decline of the American Empire — since John Kerry ceded the election to George II. The question is: why bother?
This is not an existentialist rant about the point of film or film criticism when the country is going to hell in a handheld flasket. It’s just that there are certain films and certain days that make me wonder why the filmmaker bothered, why the distributor bothered, why I bothered. There are days when the impetus for a particular film seems cynical or sophomoric or just plain off. And days when even the best movie offers scant comfort once you return, blinking, to the relentless light of reality.
As much as I admire Anthony Lane’s agility and wit — his are the only reviews I cannot read while I’m drinking hot liquids lest I snort through my nose — I don’t aspire to his level of critical ennui. It is clear he’s come to loathe most contemporary films. In his pieces he mostly dwells on the physical attributes of featured actors, and, like the snickering boy in the back of the classroom, he concocts elaborate jokes that only tangentially relate to the movies themselves. Lane singlehandedly has set an unfortunate new bar for cinematic criticism: irreverent and, well, irrelevant.
But I still write because I love movies and because I think they help the human condition. I’m still desperately glad there’s an excuse to creep back into the womb — especially when there’s so much to creep away from. It’s just that a pall has fallen since November 2, and the screening room has not provided the succor I seek.
Today waiting for a film to begin, I overheard two fairly famous critics (who shall remain unnamed) hold an exchange that resonated with me uncomfortably:
Critic John Doe: Do you know how long this movie lasts?
Critic Joe Blow: I don’t know. God, I hope it’s not long.
Critic John Doe (glumly): I know.
Schoolhouse rumblings or elite media discourse? Potato, potawto.
That said, if you reside in New York City, go see the 50th anniversary re-release of working-class hero On the Waterfront at Film Forum. It’ll cure what ails you, albeit for two hours. Karl Malden as an activist priest is hokier than a hooker with a heart of gold; Lenny Bernstein’s score sometimes intrudes rather than interludes; and the happy ending in which the dockworkers unite to oust the mobsters rings about as true as Bush’s election promises. But it’s a rousing ending, nonetheless, and, hell, ain’t grand, rousing endings why we go to the movies? For those, yes, and for such elusive, gorgeously suspended moments as when Brando absentmindedly tries on the delicate woolen glove of the girl (Eva Marie Saint) he’s chatting up on an overcast, wintry day.
And, uh, VOTE FOR KERRY — OR DIE!
Om shanti, baby.