Soderbergh, Clooney and Co. Make Mideast Mess Too Simple

120505 article sarris Soderbergh, Clooney and Co.  Make Mideast Mess Too SimpleStephen Gaghan’s Syriana, from a screenplay by Mr. Gaghan, suggested by the book See No Evil by Robert Baer, seems to position itself as a serious-minded political statement by studiously, even laboriously, avoiding all the compromises and clichés common to mere commercial entertainments. This is to say that it’s hard to follow, overloaded with characters who come and go with little fuss or fanfare or much in the way of exit lines, excessively simplistic in its liberal-left orientation (even for a liberal-left viewer like me), and grimly pessimistic about where the world (not including China) is going in its insatiable thirst for oil. Indeed, the movie could have been subtitled “Oil Is the Root of All Evil.” Along the way, Mr. Gaghan takes a stab at explaining the motivations of suicide bombers; indeed, he displays more sympathy for one of their number than for all but one of the nefarious agents of the C.I.A. and all of the agents of the big, bad oil companies.

There is one gruesome torture scene with a somewhat puzzling provenance, but otherwise remarkably little action in a film that incessantly buzzes with hush-voiced conspiratorial conversations in one corridor of power or another across three continents. Indeed, the movie’s one undeniable virtue is its ease in shifting the scene among the various venues of corporate and governmental crime, as if we were all locked into a global roller coaster programmed to explode in one big bang at any moment. But frankly, there’s more violence these days in one 24/7 “breaking news” cycle on CNN then there is in all of Syriana, the scenario of which is concerned more with causes than effects.

Top-billed George Clooney, who plays Bob Barnes, the ill-fated C.I.A. operative with a delayed attack of conscience, is clearly the driving force behind Syriana, along with his prestigious co–executive producers Steven Soderbergh, Ben Cosgrove and Jeff Skoll (as well as bread-and-butter producers Jennifer Fox, Michael Nozik and Georgia Kacandes). Fattened up by a reported 30 pounds and virtually unrecognizable with a scruffy gray beard (a friend claims to have mistaken him for Francis Ford Coppola), Mr. Clooney seems to be angling for Oscar consideration via the familiar route of an impenetrable disguise. At the very least, he’s demonstrating the moral integrity of the whole enterprise by not exploiting his movie-star persona. Strangely, his role is that of a largely passive and befuddled victim caught in the machinations of oil-company attorneys Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) and Dean Whiting (Christopher Plummer), who make it a point never to let their right hands know what they’re whispering to their left hands. Mr. Wright’s character, an African-American conniver who flies in the face of traditional typecasting, is cloaked in such secrecy that his own father, Bennett Holiday Sr. (William C. Mitchell), expresses his moral disdain for his son without ever saying a word.

Mr. Gaghan wrote the screenplay for Mr. Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), about the cross-border drug trade between the United States and Mexico, a more amenable subject for multi-character intrigues than the global miasma of Syriana. One can say of Mr. Gaghan, Mr. Soderbergh and Mr. Clooney that their heads may be in the right place in Syriana, but their hearts are not much in evidence as far as any emotional investment in their characters is concerned. So much time and energy are expended in exposing and denouncing the evildoers that the inner lives and feelings of the major characters are left almost completely unexplored, except for some secondhand piety lavished on the Muslim characters as a form of political correctness.

The most troublesome character for me is Bryan Woodman, a Geneva-based energy analyst played by Matt Damon, whose youthfulness in comparison to the other characters—along with his intertextual eminence as an action hero in Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity (2002)—strikes just the false Hollywood note that Mr. Clooney was trying to avoid with his own very strenuous makeover. Not that Mr. Damon is any kind of action hero here, but his is the only character encumbered with anything as bothersome as a private life, in the form of a disapproving wife and two children (one of whom drowns in a bizarre accident caused by an electrical malfunction). For a time, Woodman is consumed by a Lawrence of Arabia–style vision of Arab reform in the fictional state of Syriana by enthroning the more progressive Prince Nasir Al-Subaai over the younger playboy Prince Meshad Al-Subaai, who, like the king who favors him, is a mere puppet of “the Americans.” Nasir and Woodman have long conversations (by this film’s standards) about how much good Nasir can do for his nation’s people and infrastructure with the oil revenues. Naturally, he has to be assassinated by the C.I.A. on behalf of the wicked American oil companies. As far as I can remember, there’s no mention in Syriana of OPEC, although there is mention of a right-wing cabal in Washington called the Committee for the Liberation of Iran or something of that nature. Nor am I sure whether there’s any mention of either Saudi Arabia or Iraq, and so I wondered when all this skullduggery was supposed to be taking place, or if it constituted some timeless allegory on the eternal evil of the oil industry and the politicians, lobbyists and lawyers that do its bidding.

It is embarrassing for this reviewer to admit that he sometimes misses the old conventions and clichés. I’m reminded of Vincente Minnelli’s Ziegfeld Follies (1946), which dispensed entirely with an old genre bugaboo of that era’s reviewers, namely the backstage plot. Here was a musical without any plot at all, just one musical or comedy number after another, some pretty good—and wouldn’t you know it, many shamefaced reviewers confessed that they never meant for the genre to go that far. Similarly, I must confess that I missed anything resembling the big speech on morality or democracy that told us which side we’re supposed to be on, like the old Capra-Riskin lullabies delivered to us by James Stewart or Gary Cooper. That would be as uncool today as a happy ending, which is nowhere to be seen in Syriana. Not that I believe that any sort of happy ending awaits us after the gloom and doom of recent headlines. If anything, Syriana tends to oversimplify a mind-bogglingly multifaceted problem that cannot so easily be resolved by a diatribe against the supposedly all-powerful “Americans.” I happen to be an American too, and I believe what Walter Huston (in John Huston’s 1949 film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) told a querulous Humphrey Bogart, who was worried about someone stealing his gold if he took it to town with him from the mining camp: “If you’re unlucky enough to run into bandits, they’ll kill you for the shoes on your feet.” The world is too full of people who’d kill us for the shoes on our feet.

Keira’s Good!

Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, from a screenplay by Deborah Moggach, based on the novel by Jane Austen, turns out to be about as effectively entertaining as any Austen adaptation can be expected to be, given that there are literary savants who consider it vulgar if not sacrilegious for Austen to be adapted at all. I heard one such cinephobe recently berate the BBC for no less than its much-applauded five-hour miniseries of Pride and Prejudice a decade or so ago, with Jennifer Ehle as the smart and witty Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as a dashing Mr. Darcy. The cinephobe in question repeated the old, snobbish maxim that only bad novels should be adapted for the screen, and certainly not great ones. But then what would the cinephobes use for material in their censorious Sunday pieces? One reviewer pinned a tail on the donkey by complaining that the current Pride and Prejudice suffered from excessive Brontë-fication, thus implying that Emily Brontë was inferior enough a novelist, at least in comparison to Austen, to rest more comfortably in her grave with Cathy and Heathcliff histrionically cavorting on the moors than Austen would have been with Elizabeth and Darcy suffering the same onscreen fate. As an obsessive cinephile of sorts myself, I have never felt that the greatest books are grievously compromised by being turned into movies, however ineptly. This is not to say that Mr. Wright cannot be criticized for spending much more time on the moors than he should.

At the very least, however, Mr. Wright and his collaborators deserve immense credit for the casting of four crucial characters: Keira Knightley’s vivacious yet vulnerable Elizabeth Bennet; Matthew MacFadyen’s sympathetically subtle and shy Mr. Darcy (ironically underrated because Mr. MacFadyen doesn’t project the histrionic, Heathcliffian swagger of Laurence Olivier in the 1940 Robert Z. Leonard Hollywood version opposite the now-underrated Greer Garson); poised and talented Rosamund Pike as Jane Bennet; and Tom Hollander as Mr. Collins, the least charismatic cleric in creation. On the debit side, Brenda Blethyn is well over-the-top as dithering Mrs. Bennet, though she makes Mr. Darcy’s initial resistance to the whole Bennet family more understandable. Donald Sutherland is distractingly miscast as the long-suffering Mr. Bennet, but he does manage to capitalize on his few sagacious moments. The three other sisters, somewhat lost in the Knightley-Pike shuffle, are played with due deference by Jena Malone, Carey Mulligan and Talulah Riley. Rupert Friend’s Mr. Wickham is unmasked as a pernicious villain almost as soon as he is introduced as a teller of tales against Mr. Darcy.

Mr. Wright and Ms. Moggach have made choices in their adaptation that serve to focus the audience’s attention on what is happening in Elizabeth’s mind vis-à-vis Mr. Darcy. In one felicitous stylistic coup, Mr. Wright places Elizabeth on a swing that keeps shifting in all directions, making her mistress of all she surveys as she experiences her own swing of emotions. And, oh yes, Judi Dench makes her almost-obligatory entrance as the dowager monster, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, put on this earth simply to torment Elizabeth until she abandons her “designs” on Lady Catherine’s nephew, Mr. Darcy. She is all marshmallow, of course, though Ms. Dench makes the transition between the bitter and the sweet as subtly as possible. The fact is that, with all the softening she has endured at the hands of the worshipful mass media, it’s a wonder she thinks she can give the impression anymore of dictating to a wildcat like Ms. Knightley’s Elizabeth. There is simply no suspense there.

Though I keep raving about Ms. Knightley, I can’t remember ever having seen her in anything else before except Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), and I barely remember her in that, though even Garbo in her prime would have had a hard time attracting attention in a movie so dominated by Johnny Depp’s shamelessly grotesque pirate masquerade. This demonstrates the endlessly spinning wheel of role roulette in the trajectories of movie careers, up or down. As Ms. Knightley’s eyes flashed in the midst of the lavish ballroom scenes, I kept thinking of the fierce intensity of the early Winona Ryder in Heathers (1989), though Ms. Knightley strikes me as prettier. But who knows what the future holds for her? So you’d better catch Pride and Prejudice while she’s red-hot and clearly equipped to give audiences maximum romantic pleasure without any lingering guilt. Dare I say that even Jane Austen herself would have delighted in the final triumph of Ms. Knightley’s quick-witted Elizabeth in this film? Yes, I do, and all the highbrow and middlebrow cinephobes of the world be damned. Sadly, they don’t have the late Ismail Merchant to kick around anymore for the heinous cultural crime of helping to bring many good books to cinematic life—and showing a profit for his efforts.

Jen’s Comeback?

Mikael Håfström’s Derailed, from a screenplay by Stuart Beattie, based on the novel by James Siegel, has turned out to be so completely dismal a failure as a film noir that it blankets everyone involved with enough blame to keep anyone from getting off the hook. This includes Clive Owen, woefully miscast as Chicago ad executive Charles Schine, who is victimized by a scam that even I could see through—and I have a reputation for being notoriously gullible when it comes to movie con games. The point is that the last thing Mr. Owen should be playing is a stupid character who suffers all the guilt of an adulterer without even getting laid, and who pays and pays and pays without even suspecting that he’s being played for a sucker until it’s too late. Nonetheless, Mr. Owen has generally been given a free pass by most reviewers on the basis of the critical credit he has amassed for allegedly out-acting and symbolically intimidating the despised Jude Law in Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004). And why is Mr. Law so despised by the media? My guess is that he has been singled out thanks to the lurid reportage in gossip columns of the scandals he caused by his alleged misbehavior with his children’s nanny. Or it could be that he has appeared in too many movies in unsympathetic roles, or in too many movies that have been box-office disappointments. I generally like Mr. Law as an actor as much as I like Mr. Owen, but if the latter attempts too many roles like the one in Derailed, with his nervously approximated American accent, he may find himself on the same mysteriously motivated media hate-list.

As for Jennifer Aniston’s Lucinda Harris, a pitifully inadequate rendering of the traditional femme fatale: Everyone has been rooting for Ms. Aniston to have a big hit as delayed compensation for being so publicly betrayed by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The mini-debauchery in Derailed obviously won’t do the trick, but winsome, wistful Ms. Aniston is not without talent, and more congenial roles may come her way. Among the major miscreants in the artistic debacle of Derailed is the French actor Vincent Cassel as the superhumanly malignant LaRoche, robber, rapist and blackmailer extraordinaire, who seems to anticipate every pathetic move that Mr. Owen’s protagonist makes to protect himself and his family.

Why doesn’t Schine go to the police? Ah, that’s the beauty of the scam: Guilt is piled upon guilt to make him tactically helpless against the machinations of the seen and unseen conspirators, who foster misleading impressions about carefully staged non-events.

Not that Schine is without real family problems of his own. He and his wife, Deanna (Melissa George), are burdened with a daughter, Amy (Addison Timlin), on dialysis. Finally, it’s all the money for her future treatment that is jeopardized by LaRoche and his confederates. Before everything is sorted out, more or less, there are five messy murders, each contributing to an ending characterized more by a disbelieving exhaustion than a classical catharsis. Someone had to work extra hard to make a movie this bad with two likeable leads like Mr. Owen and Ms. Aniston. I can’t figure out why.