Jim Sheridan Released
Directed by Jim Sheridan, he of those rabble-rousers My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father , In America centers around an Irish immigrant family making a new start in the States after the death of their young son. It’s loosely based on Mr. Sheridan’s own experience-the screenplay was written with the help of his two daughters, Kirsten and Naomi-and the most poignant scenes of the film are those spent basking in the warmth of the family as they deal with typical immigrant obstacles, struggling to make ends meet, etc.
But what starts off as a quaint tale about the American Dream quickly descends into pathos-one might even say bathos.
Mr. Sheridan admits in the director’s commentary that his initial experience in the U.S. was not as vexing as the film suggests. He didn’t lose his son to a brain tumor; that part was based on his brother, who perished of a brain tumor when both were young. There was an artist in the family’s building, but he didn’t suffer the harrowing decline of Djimon Hounsou’s character, whose affliction with AIDS provides the film with an especially lugubrious climax (inspired in part by another New York artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat). Mr. Sheridan has chosen to supplant his natural source material with hackneyed conflict-“drama doesn’t deal well with a lack of conflict,” he argues lamely-and the film sags under its weight. It appears he had some trouble making the transition from sweeping epics to the nuance of everyday life.
But you can’t fault the acting. Both Mr. Hounsou and Samantha Morton, who plays the main character’s wife, earned Academy Award nominations for their performances. And Emma and Sarah Bolger, who play the kiddies, are scrumptious little pints.
[ In America (2002), PG-13, 107 min. $27.98]
Thalberg’s Last Night and Day
It’s hard to say where the Marx Brothers fit into today’s pop culture, let alone where their influence can be found in the smugly self-deprecating humor of the Ben Stillers and Owen Wilsons of this world. Their inheritors’ slapstick routines have become so hackneyed that they’ve been replaced by the Farrelly Brothers gross-out gags. The witty quip, which still has a home of sorts in the occasional Friars Club roast, has lost out to the sly sarcasm of Jon Stewart. And when was the last time you saw a comedy sketch that involved a harp? So when The Marx Brothers Collection , a DVD boxed set of their films sans Zeppo, is released on May 4 by Warner Home Video, it will be a tough sell to a younger generation culturally ill-equipped to appreciate the Marx Brothers’ anarchistic brand of humor.
Two movies in the group are especially noteworthy: A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races . They stand as a testament to the spectacle that made Irving Thalberg, who died during the production of Races , a legend in his own time-if not in our own. He is credited with structuring the unwieldy comedy of the Marx Brothers around a plot-typically involving a love story to bring in the female audience-and adding song-and-dance numbers with high production values, giving the Marx Brothers the two greatest commercial successes of their careers. The question is whether anyone of the O.C. age cohort knows who Irving Thalberg is.
As recently as 1992, a failed attempt was made to introduce a new audience to the zany antics of the Marx Brothers: Brain Donors , which starred John Turturro doing a respectful-if not uniquely humorous-impression of Groucho’s Dr. Hackenbush, was a commercial flop. The old fogies stayed away, probably insulted by someone trying to imitate their crowned kings of comedy; nor did the Gen-Xers or -Yers show up, much to this Gen-Y reviewer’s embarrassment (I still consider Donors one of the all-time great movie comedies).
So who is going to pay attention to the original? Judging by the cameo appearances on the DVD’s extra tracks, Warner Brothers wants to lure two demographics: those born in the 1930’s, during the height of the Marx Brothers craze, who will wax nostalgic about the sublime nature of the brothers’ timing; and those baby-boomers who still argue over which instrument-smashing scene was funnier, Harpo banging a grand piano to pieces or John Belushi doing his best imitation of Peter Townshend in Animal House . Both are represented in the DVD’s documentary, On Your Mark, Get Set, Go! , which extols the many virtues of the Marx Brothers’ humor (the famous Tootsie-Frootsie ice-cream scene is central).
Whether it sinks or swims, it’s a great film. And as Groucho might have replied, “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”
[The Marx Brothers Collection: A Night at the Opera (1935), A Day at the Races (1937), A Night in Casablanca (1946), Room Service (1938), At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940), The Big Store (1941), $59.92.]
Bruno: King of the Cartoon Dogs
Why they changed the French-Canadian title of Sylvain Chomet’s Oscar-nominated animated film from Belleville Rendez-Vous to the Triplets of Belleville for its U.S. release, I will never know.
This is not to denigrate the importance of the film’s three titular songstresses: The elderly women, in a now familiar if still effective film device ( Little Shop of Horrors , anyone?), serve as the three Fates, cheering the film’s grandmother on and lamenting her misfortunes as she quests to find her bicyclist grandson, kidnapped by the French mafia.
But the true star of Belleville is Bruno the dog. Driven by a traumatic encounter with a toy train-it ran over his puppy tail-Bruno makes a point to station himself by the upstairs window every hour to bark at the elevated commuter train that passes by. This requires the portly mutt to carry his enormous bulk up the stairs-a scene that is at once endearing and saddening in its futility. His dreams, which feature a curious-looking train running in circles around a doggy bowl, display the degree to which the dog is obsessed with trains, and also serve as a projection of the circular nature of the psyche of the decidedly non-emotive main character-the boy who becomes infatuated with cycling following the apparent death of his parents. And so Bruno, apart from being devilishly cute, provides the added benefit of being the subconscious that generates the most compelling imagery in this very psychological animated film. And it is because of his explicit futility that the audience comes to understand the ensemble’s dour obsessions-the grandmother and her grandson, the boy and his bicycling, the dog and its trains, the triplets and their bygone singing careers; the characters are like several Wile E. Coyotes, but without the laughs.
By this dark film’s happy ending, Mr. Chomet, with the his bizarre landscapes and unique characters, delivers on the audience’s belief in the grandmother’s great love for her grandson. The artistic and emotional stakes in this animated film stretch the form into new territory-which is nothing to laugh at.
[ Triplets of Belleville (2003), 78 mins., PG-13, $24.96.]