The more complex movies become in the commitments they demand of their audience, the harder it becomes to describe them for readers who might want to become potential members of that audience. Clint Eastwood’s challenging and interesting new drama, Mystic River , is a good example. A dark and lurid exploration of violence, retribution and the inhuman cruelties committed under the masquerade of friendship, it is so complex it defies linear explanation. That should not deter anyone keen on movies with big plots, myriad characters and a reverence for old-fashioned-narrative storytelling values. But bring your powers of concentration. Questions may be asked later.
Adapted by Brian Helgeland from a novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River is about three men-Jimmy, Dave and Sean-who grew up as best friends in a seedy blue-collar suburb of Boston until the age of 11, when a shocking event had such a devastating effect on their childhood that they drifted apart and pursued other courses of life, rarely coming face to face except by accident. One day when they were playing stickball, they stopped to carve their names in a square of wet sidewalk cement. During this innocent little act of mischief, Dave was taken away by two men believed by the other boys to be police detectives. The truth was much more harrowing: The men were pedophiles who tortured the boy for weeks with such unspeakable acts of sexual horror that by the time he escaped his kidnappers, Dave was never the same boy again. Twenty-five years later, the lives of the three former friends, estranged for decades, intersect again when another heinous crime is committed in the same neighborhood. The psychological impact of Dave’s traumatic adolescence are clearly visible. Shy and withdrawn, Dave (Tim Robbins) is an overprotective father and husband desperate for anonymity. Jimmy (Sean Penn), a tough merchant who hangs out with thugs and solves the disorders of society with his fists, finds his whole world falling apart when his 19-year-old daughter is murdered, plunging the whole neighborhood into chaos. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is now a homicide detective assigned to the case, trying to solve a crime and still showing some compassion for the old friends he grew up with. But the tangled fingers of destiny tighten around all of their throats when it turns out that Dave was one of the last people to see the girl alive in a bar near the Mystic River. To make everything worse, Dave’s loyal but long-suffering wife, who has never fully understood her husband’s problems, admits he came home the night of the killing with his skin slashed and covered with blood, claiming he was mugged. As the pieces of the mystery unravel, and suspicions spiral in several directions at once, your blood freezes in your veins. The bones of structure do not begin to convey all of the things that happen in this picture. While the plot points swell (the bullets that killed the girl are traced to the same gun that was used by her boyfriend’s father in a robbery back in the 1980’s that landed Jimmy in jail, and even tangential children become suspects), the clouded relationships intensify between Sean and his patrol-car partner (Laurence Fishburne); Dave’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and Jimmy’s wife (Laura Linney), who are cousins; and Dave and everyone else. It takes a prolonged amount of time before all of the threads of past and present meld cohesively. But nothing is as it appears, which keeps the suspense on the boil, and when fate plays its third hand in an electrifying finale, you will find the experience profoundly unsettling.
Mystic River is a long movie that could, in my opinion, use a pair of scissors. But it benefits hugely from Mr. Eastwood’s fondness for actors and his ability to get beneath the surface of their facial expressions to show a multitude of attitudes and character revelations simultaneously. The entire ensemble works impressively, but Mr. Penn’s contrasting grief, anger and blind passion for revenge, juxtaposed with Mr. Robbins’ sympathetic need for truth and dignity without the self-confidence or the social skills to demand either, earn special praise. The subtleties of interaction are a testament to both cast and director, enhanced by Mr. Eastwood’s nuanced sensitivity to locale (the city of Boston becomes a major player here) and his evident flair for telling a complex story with painstaking detail. In the end, every person in the movie is guilty of something, but the most innocent of them all pays the greatest price. A solid whodunit, with disturbing, provocative, take-home insights into human nature.
I took home nothing from the alleged comedy Intolerable Cruelty except a pounding headache. This dim-witted, mean-spirited and brain-dead calamity should surprise no one. It’s a labored farce written, produced and directed by the lucky, indestructible and only mildly talented Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel (I forget which one does which), who hit pay dirt with Fargo and have been digging unsuccessfully ever since to hit more. They finally hit rock-bottom with the abominable and grotesquely out-of-control O Brother, Where Art Thou? , proving that whatever their strengths, comedy is not one of them. That doesn’t seem to deter these cool, misguided dudes (or the fools who back their projects with actual money, like Brian Grazer) for more than a few years at a time. According to the press notes, Intolerable Cruelty was eight years in the planning; it seems to have been completed in fewer than eight hours, including George Clooney’s latte breaks. How do these fakes do it? Who among us can know?
The glaringly unfunny premise in this divorce-court fairy tale assumes that it’s gotta be a riot when the king of summary judgments (George Clooney) meets his match in a serial divorcée (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who bankrupts husbands and disbars lawyers before breakfast, right? Wrong. You cannot believe the endless number of deadly contrivances that await you as Mr. Clooney, a heartless divorce attorney who has invented the world’s most foolproof prenup, defeats Ms. Zeta-Jones, a conniving gold-digger who is in the process of dumping a kinky, philandering real-estate tycoon for everything he’s got. Ending up with nothing but the sable on her toned and tawny back, she sets out to get even by quickly marrying and disposing of a corny, redneck oil tycoon (Billy Bob Thornton). This time she’s ready for all opponents. Naturally, in the tradition of hackneyed Hollywood hokum, the two enemies fall in love and marry in kilts to the cacophony of a bagpipe band in Las Vegas.
The next morning, the divorce attorney who stopped at nothing in the past to win a case, slandering and perjuring his way through the judicial system and leaving the broken women of America for grease spots on the side of the road, now finds himself jilted by his own wife, who is a cross between a Playboy centerfold and Lucrezia Borgia. The rest is a title bout of world-class double revenge in which she breaks his heart and wrecks his career while the lame filmmakers dream up a desperate volume of dull ways to dispose of a never-ending assortment of prenuptial agreements. (Billy Bob Thornton eats his dipped in barbecue sauce.) Vulnerable, naked and in love, Mr. Clooney finally gets his long-overdue comeuppance, mugging and winking with the same kind of self-indulgent clown faces that pass for charm in Hugh Grant movies.
After numerous films, Mr. Clooney still can’t act, and his flat, monotonous voice is pitched just south of a dial tone. But at least he doesn’t give the impression of taking the acting profession seriously, and he has such a jolly disposition nobody seems to mind. Ms. Zeta-Jones strikes a lot of superficial poses, looking the way glamorous movie stars used to when they were photographed by Horst and Hurrell. A pathetic follow-up to that Oscar-winning role in Chicago , if you ask me. The movie has no pace or tone or style. It just drags on and on, like a donkey cart with the wheels missing. The title Intolerable Cruelty must refer to the way it treats its audience.
Misfits in Transit
The Station Agent is a delicate and unusual little gem about a reclusive dwarf who lives in an abandoned railroad station. Peter Dinklage is a warm, expressive and gifted little chap with a big heart who will make you forget his size faster than you can say “Munchkin.” At 4-foot-5, he makes quite a tall impression as the cynical Finbar McBride, an expert who repairs and sells rare parts for model trains while enduring rude stares and cruel jokes about Snow White. One day his boss dies, leaving him some land in a desolate, ugly junction in New Jersey where a depot once stood. He goes there seeking solitude, to walk the quiet tracks and read books, but everyone encroaches with their chatter and their problems. Before the summer ends and the leaves turn to autumn, Finbar has reluctantly learned to share his loneliness and isolation with two new friends who have emotional challenges of their own-an unhappy, accident-prone painter (Patricia Clarkson) who nearly runs him down with her oversized roadster, and a nervous, loquacious vendor (Bobby Cannavale), who sells coffee and hot dogs from a truck in the train-station parking lot. The movie is about how three lost souls learn to reduce their anger and redefine themselves through an awkward but touching friendship. The lesson they learn is that feelings of loss, anxiety and pain are easier to conquer when they are shared with others. This exemplary debut film by writer-director Thomas McCarthy has a fine sense of comic timing and a rare generosity of spirit. Mr. McCarthy, who is an actor himself, reveals a patience with his cast members that allows them to stretch, contemplate and grow within their characters using a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of feeling. Every angle of this trio is balanced, but Patricia Clarkson really soars as a sharp, flighty woman who is secretly mourning the loss of a dead child. One always expects Ms. Clarkson to be as memorable and honest as she was in Far From Heaven , but these centered, balanced and multifaceted portraits of humanity in transition, in roles large and small, are getting to be a habit.
A Small, Big Talent
“Diminutive” is a word that fits the 5-foot-4 British jazz-pop sensation Jamie Cullum, who had them standing in the aisles at his American cabaret debut at the Algonquin’s Oak Room (through Oct. 18). But it’s not the proper word to describe the size of his talent. The 23-year-old son of a Palestinian father and a Burmese mother, Mr. Cullum looks like Oliver Twist at an all-night rave-up in Liverpool. He digs Oscar Peterson and Coltrane. This is good. He sings like Harry Connick Jr. This is bad. He scats. He dances around the keyboard and beats out drum rhythms to entire songs by banging on top of his Yamaha with tiny knuckles the size of quail bones. He explores the alternatives to familiar lyric lines by Cole Porter (not always in tune) and then adapts the dissonant electric-guitar chords of Jimi Hendrix to the formal structure of the acoustic piano in a stretch that fails to pay off. Then he can turn around and thrill you with a sensitive, mellow reading of Oscar Levant’s “Blame It on My Youth” that belies his age and experience. Sometimes he just snaps his fingers accompanied only by his bassist, Geoff Gascoyne. His risks are constant and scary, but he always ends up back on the track. Sometimes his hands, like knitted mittens for kittens, fly right off the 88’s and play air. He doesn’t know what kind of music he plays best, so he plays it all. Someday he’ll find out. For now, there is nobody quite like him. You just have to sort of discover him. So get yourself to the Algonquin without further delay and start discovering. A talent this size comes along as rarely as a hot January.