Another Freudian Mobster Ends Up on the Couch

Henry Bromell’s Panic ,

from his own screenplay, is so much better than its plot sounds that it takes

its place as one of the revelatory viewing experiences of the new year. Alex

(William H. Macy) is a hit man with a midlife crisis so acute that he goes to a

shrink for relief. Sound a bit like Analyze

This with a subplot of The Sopranos

thrown in? It’s not. For one thing, the distinctively chiseled look of the

movie is thoroughly original. For another, the characters are driven deeper and

deeper into their hitherto repressed psyches until they explode with epiphanies

of feeling.

What makes Alex an unusually Freudian hit man is his intense

relationship with his domineering father, Michael (Donald Sutherland). It was

his father who trained Alex to kill squirrels when he was little, and as Alex

grew up under his father’s tutelage, he learned to kill people cleanly and

efficiently. Though he is married with a child, Alex is not allowed by his

father to reveal what the “family business” really is to his wife, Martha

(Tracey Ullman), and his 6-year-old boy, Sammy (David Dorfman). Yet his mother,

Deidre (Barbara Bain), knows all the family secrets and enjoys all the perks

the family enjoys thanks to the contract-killing fees. One comparatively

unexplored element of the narrative is the minuscule mail-order business Alex

pretends is the sole source of his income. By neglecting this fount of easy

satiric laughs, Mr. Bromell shows that he is after bigger game and deeper

drama.

When Alex confides in his mother about his visit to a

shrink, he pleads with her not to tell his father-which she immediately does,

with a maddening indifference to her son’s painful vulnerability to his

father’s hectoring and bullying.

The plot thickens considerably when Alex’s father gives him

a new assignment, and it turns out to be his shrink. Alex understandably drags

his feet, despite his father’s constant teasing. Not only has Alex become

attached to Dr. Josh (John Ritter) and his probing insights, he has also found

relief from his troublesome family in Sarah (Neve Campbell), a troublesome

analysand he met in the waiting room.

Despite his helpless

infatuation with Sarah, Alex finds he cannot leave his wife and little boy,

with whom he has one of those magically mature relationships one finds on the

screen more and more often these days. The level of child acting and child

affect has risen to stratospheric levels in recent years, and Panic is no exception. Indeed, Mr. Bromell

constructs his shattering climax around Alex’s horrified discovery that his

father has taken Sammy out for an instructive lesson on killing squirrels.

What finally happens to the characters in Panic is gently moving and ironic, but nothing seems forced or contrived. A noted

writer of fiction and quality television dramas, Mr. Bromell displays a gift

for building characters from the inside out, so that everything they do,

however bizarre, seems consistent with who and what they are. Yet I never knew

what was going to happen next, and that is the mark of a masterful screen

storyteller. Mr. Macy and Mr. Sutherland have never been more effectively

wedded to their roles.

See it.

Million-Dollar Mistake

The creative credits for The

Million Dollar Hotel are curiously intermingled with the numerous producer

credits. Hence, veteran German cutting-edge director

Wim Wenders is billed as the director-producer, Nicholas Klein as the

screenwriter-producer and rock star Bono as the co-producer and also the

story’s co-creator. Bruce Davey and Deepak Nayar are merely producers, and

Ulrich Felsberg is aboard as an executive producer. This multiplicity of

credits is not unusual in this age of endless vanities, but seldom (if ever)

has a broth with so many cooks, and a cast so full of real and virtual

celebrities, spoiled into a concoction as excruciatingly bad as The Million Dollar Hotel . The only

mystery is how a superstar like Mel Gibson allowed himself to be enmeshed in

such a pseudo-avant-garde mishmash.

I must acknowledge at this point that I have never been an

admirer of Mr. Wenders’ elaborate exercises in faux-naïf sentimentality,

through which love and friendship seek to find fruition in a corrupt and

uncaring world. But in the past I could appreciate at least the shrewd

crowd-pleasing competence of Paris, Texas

(1984) and Wings of Desire (1987).

Mr. Wenders has been making movies since 1970, and one must thereby concede him

the virtues of sincerity and persistence. But the duration and durability of

his career are no excuse for the total disaster of The Million Dollar Hotel .

The plot, such as it is, concerns a murder investigation

conducted by initially robotic Agent Skinner (Mel Gibson), hampered

conspicuously by a neck brace. The alleged murder of a junkie (Tim Roth)

occurred on the roof of the Million Dollar Hotel, from which the junkie jumped

or was pushed to his death. Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies), the junkie’s roommate, is

one of the prime suspects, the leading character, the random narrator and, in

short, the poltergeist of the piece, but Mr. Davies gives one of the most

ill-advised performances that I have ever seen or heard in English-language

entertainment. He just goes on and on, twitching, grimacing, contorting and

making animal sounds and gestures that are his and his alone.

Tom Tom has a fitful romance going on with Eloise (Milla

Jovovich), who is clinically disturbed-but next to Tom Tom, she appears to be

the soul of sanity and lucidity. Among the other delusional occupants of the

hotel are Geronimo (Jimmy Smits), a suspiciously nihilistic Native American

“painter” who simply smears black tar over paintings he has stolen; Dixie

(Peter Stormare), a Beatles fanatic who insists he wrote many of their songs

and never got credit for it; and Vivien (Amanda Plummer), a pushy would-be

femme fatale claiming that the dead junkie wanted to marry her.

There is nothing new about the ironic idea underlying the

film’s structure, which is simply that the people inside the asylum are less

crazed than the supposedly “normal” people outside. This stuff was very chic

back in the 60′s, but it is a very tired conceit in the new millennium. But the

concept is not primarily what is at fault with the movie, but rather the

confused and chaotic execution. At times it seems as though Mr. Wenders has

become obsessed with his real-life locale, a seedy hotel now known as the

Frontier Hotel, with its old Million Dollar Hotel logos still emblazoned on the

roof. The problem is that the characters drown in the allegorical flow of the

imagery, and nothing can revive them. It is best to pretend that this film

never happened, and its performers, including those mentioned above, can hope

that nobody saw it.

Ullmann’s Swipe at Adultery

Liv Ullmann’s Faithless ,

from a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman, reminds us that Mr. Bergman launched his

film career in 1944 as a screenwriter for Alf Sjöberg’s Torment ( Hets in Sweden).

Mr. Bergman was then only 26 years old, but the metaphysical morbidity of his

career was already in place. Now Mr. Bergman is close to 83, and two of his

three recent screenplays have been directed by Ms. Ullmann, his ex-lover and

one of the most luminous actresses in his gallery of beauties. Indeed, if

anyone were emotionally and spiritually qualified to direct the master’s winter

tale of his own turbulent married life, it would be Ms. Ullmann.

Erland Josephson, another recent Bergman regular, plays an

aging screenwriter and director (Bergman himself) who conjures up memories of

the characters in his ongoing family saga. The events unfold with a new

generation of Swedish performers, most prominently Lena Endre, who serves as

Marianne Vogler, Bergman the character’s Muse of Memory. Marianne is a

successful actress happily married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), an orchestra

conductor much in demand for overseas concerts, and devoted to her young,

affectionate daughter, Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). But is the marriage so

perfect? Apparently not, since Marianne almost absent-mindedly drifts into an

affair with family friend David (Krister Henriksson), a film director

(conceivably an earlier version of Mr. Bergman) notorious for his tendency to

enter into unstable, neurotic relationships.

Ms. Ullmann and Mr. Bergman seem to be saying something

about the pitfalls of married life in the artistic community. In previous films

dealing with the marital woes of Mr. Bergman’s parents in the shadow of the

Church, the emphasis was on the penalties accruing from the stifling

repressiveness of religion. But in Faithless ,

the comparative license accorded artists in their bohemian frolics and carefree

work schedules creates its own obstacles to commitment and fidelity. One

wonders if Mr. Bergman would have made Marianne more sympathetic than Ms.

Ullmann does if he had directed Faithless

himself. As it is, Ms. Ullmann brings Isabelle, the pain-ridden daughter, front

and center, in mute judgment of her frivolous and irresponsible mother.

Nonetheless, the Ullmann-Bergman collaboration extends the

mortal chain of the Ingmarian universe to present times. There is nothing casual

or even pleasurable about adultery here. If anything, it is a little ridiculous

at some moments, and piercingly painful at others. There is always a price to

pay, and yet there is never a suggestion that any other course of action would

be more fruitful. Suffering of one kind or

another is inevitable given the inexorably ticking clock to eternity.

See and enjoy, as we have done for so long with the Nordic Pirates of

Pessimism.