The Nazi Next Door
Baking in their ovens of asphalt, smug city-dwellers may not think much about suburban paranoia, but it’s as real as property taxes. At my country retreat in Connecticut, I have a neighbor who locks her doors and draws her Ralph Lauren curtains every time she hears the U.P.S. delivery truck heading down the road. She may move to downtown Detroit after she sees Arlington Road .
Unlike the cement jungles of New York, where everybody automatically suspects the people in the apartment next door of hiding illegal aliens or dealing drugs, on the tree-lined streets of suburbia you can’t avoid your neighbors. You know when they light their barbecue pits, you memorize their license plates, you expect them to run out of sugar at the exact hour when you settle down with a fresh margarita to watch a Barbara Stanwyck movie. But what if the neighbors turn out to be terrorists, hatching a plot to blow up the F.B.I.? It’s not as ludicrous as it sounds. Well, maybe it is . Still, you read about holocausts in Waco and Oklahoma City, and you think, these wackos have to come from somewhere .
Arlington Road is such a tightly made, intelligent film, with such superb actors and such a plausible script, it convinces you anything is possible. The title refers to a typical street in a typical suburb of Washington, D.C. Its lawns are manicured, its mailboxes are neatly aligned, its middle-class families all have Wagoneers. But even in this cookie-cutter conformity, paranoia is palpitating in the petunias. Michael Farady (Jeff Bridges) is the only one who sees it. He’s a professor of American history at George Washington University who specializes in courses about terrorism, violence, and alternative political conspiracies. He’s also a widow; his wife was killed by a fanatical right-wing group while she was working as an F.B.I. agent, leaving him with a troubled teenage son to raise alone.
Still grieving, and fueled by deep-rooted anger, frustration and migraines, Farady doesn’t trust anybody except his girlfriend Brooke Wolfe (the excellent Hope Davis), a lovely, loyal graduate student who is patiently helping him put the pieces of his life back together. But no matter how hard he tries to graft a normal life out of his nightmarish past, there’s something a bit too Ozzie and Harriet about the new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). The Langs are all-American as boysenberries, Oliver is a structural engineer designing a shopping mall, Cheryl always has a new recipe for puff pastry, and their three children are role models for Gap Kids. But something is screwy here.
Michael spots a strange blueprint on the Langs’ kitchen table that looks suspiciously like the J. Edgar Hoover building that houses the F.B.I. He’s up on surveillance videos, subversive propaganda and government security breaches, so he knows a red herring when he smells one. While Brooke thinks he’s bordering on a breakdown, and his son bonds with the Langs’ son and joins the same scout troop, Michael launches a private investigation. He steals mail from his neighbors’ mail box, looks them up in old college yearbooks, discovers Mr. Lang is using an alias, and even sneaks into his den, rifling through his desk drawers looking for criminal evidence.
Up to this point, it’s hard to sympathize with Mr. Bridges’ character. He has more problems, complexes and phobias than the suspicious neighbors he’s spying on. But when his theories come true-the Langs are not only right-wing extremists, but part of a lethal national conspiracy that has long ago outgrown letter bombs and is out for much bigger prey-and jeopardize his life, the film pushes a panic button that sends the audience into collective root canal surgery. What begins as a tense, taut exercise in paranoia shifts gears and the brilliantly conceived script by Ehren Kruger heads into dangerous detours that will make you scream out loud.
It takes a long time before you realize Arlington Road is not about an Average Joe who discovers his next-door neighbors are terrorists, but about what the genius extremist groups are capable of in their elaborate mission to achieve their destructive goals. One shock after another awaits you as the plan moves from murder to kidnapping and you discover it was all part of a carefully plotted setup. The hero does not end up saving the world, the villains triumph, and Mr. Bridges’ character was a scapegoat all the time. The ending cannot be revealed, but be prepared to be devastated.
Arlington Road occasionally plays the wrong cards. Joan Cusack is too much a Stepford wife to be entirely convincing (this is a rare dramatic role and she doesn’t always resist the temptation to mug) and the transition made by her three kids from shiny moppets to Children of the Damned rings hugely false. But director Mark Pellington finds Hitchcockian terror in the most benign surroundings and builds suspense where you least expect it-the corner of a mailbox, the edge of a tire spinning out of control, a scrap of library microfilm-until your nerves are frayed.
While your jaw drops open at the film’s powerful risks, you can luxuriate in the marvelous central performances by Hope Davis, who proved with Next Stop, Wonderland she’s a natural talent who makes the small moments as vital and true as the big ones, and by Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins as perfectly matched counterparts. It’s a thrill watching Mr. Bridges thrashing around going mad while Mr. Robbins gives a cool, clean (and, yes, sympathetic) performance as a likable maniac with the face of a scoutmaster.
In the worst summer I can remember for trashy movies, when vile and mind-numbing junk like Wild Wild West and Austin Powers are the order of the day, Arlington Road seizes attention and leaves you with something serious to think about. You may leave it with high blood pressure, but at least you’ll know you’ve been to the movies.
McCorkle’s Blue Skies
Through gray skies or blue, the answers to life’s most daunting questions can always be found in a song. In her elegant and felicitous new act at the Algonquin, the acclaimed pop-jazz vocalist Susannah McCorkle proves it. Promising peaceful solutions in an alienated world, she investigates a variety of songs from the perspective of a woman picking up the pieces after a love affair collapses with all the optimism she can muster. The results form a tapestry of feelings and moods in a sublime act called “From Broken Hearts to Blue Skies.” It’s also a swell way to kick off her new CD of the same title, her ninth for the Concord Jazz label, and one of her best. The show runs through July 17; the CD is on sale in the lobby, next to the Algonquin cat.
Lucid, eloquent and a musical joy, this exemplary singer opens and closes her new act with brief and bouncy choruses of Irving Berlin’s eternally optimistic “Blue Skies,” sandwiching between them an impressive catalogue that also manages to pay tribute to an eclectic group of idols and influences that include Django Reinhardt, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Antonio Carlos Jobim. First, she’s a woman alone at last, ready to explore her inner child on Dave Frishberg’s amusing “I Want to Be a Sideman” (which more or less sums up the theme of the Tony Award-winning Broadway play Side Man in the bargain).
Yes, you can start over after love kicks you in the shins, if you just follow Johnny Mercer’s advice and “Accentuate the Positive.” Then there’s the danger of losing yourself in work. Life can become, as Ms. McCorkle deftly points out, “one big job ” if you don’t “Look for the Silver Lining.” Working in the perfect song to illustrate each detour on the journey to self-discovery, she explores loss, freedom, guilt, nostalgia, the pain and euphoria of love, and the havoc it wreaks on the human heart. And with the wisdom and sophistication I’ve come to expect from this superb singer, there are always a few musical surprises.
“Stop Time,” from the clever, undervalued score of the ill-fated Broadway musical Big , is a poignant essay by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr. on grown-ups who wish their children wouldn’t grow up so fast. “Scars” is a dark purple killer of a song by the great Fran (“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”) Landesman about the blows, emotional and physical, everyone tries to hide. And “Phone Call to the Past” is a rare gem by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini about those lonely after-midnight hours after one too many martinis when you’d gladly settle for your old discarded lovers, warts and all. Ms. McCorkle, who sings like a dream and writes her own glib patter as bridges between numbers to link the material thematically, picks you up as often as she pokes your tender bruises. “Just think,” she says, before launching what she calls her cheer-up medley, “you may have made some terrible choices, but at least you didn’t get involved with Chet Baker.”
There’s an appealing catch in her throat that stops just short of a sob, and long, breathy vowels like Julie London, and she can swing with driving abandon on up-tempo jazz treats like the Rodgers and Hart evergreen “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” The message she delivers is clear. You can concentrate on your self-improved inner life all you want. Yoga, meditation, or a computer course in Microsoft for Dummies-you still won’t find true happiness in a gym or a book without some help from the human race. Her deft and humorous musical strokes can lift and lighten the flintiest of hearts.
Get yourself to the Algonquin and experience some of Susannah McCorkle’s magic for yourself. It’s the most liberating, un-neurotic thing I’ve done in New York this year.
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