Funny, Fiftysomething Pierce Returns as The Matador

010906 article sarris Funny, Fiftysomething Pierce  Returns as The MatadorRichard Shepard’s The Matador, from his own screenplay, casts Pierce Brosnan in his first role since he was dropped from the James Bond series. This is to say that if the 52-year-old Mr. Brosnan were still on board as 007, he wouldn’t have been allowed to branch out in The Matador as a privately hired contract killer for fear of tarnishing his kill-only-evildoers image. Actually, hit man is such a common career choice in movies these days—especially in our own hard-to-find-a-good-job-and-keep-it times—that there is little shock value to be had in merely disposing of other human beings for a profit. The comic twist in The Matador is that Mr. Brosnan’s globe-trotting assassin, Julian Noble, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown when he bumps into Greg Kinnear’s struggling Denver businessman, Danny Wright, at a hotel bar in Mexico City, which both men are visiting on business.

Their first meeting ends abruptly when Julian responds with an emotionally inappropriate (and very funny) dirty joke to Danny’s heartfelt account of the death of his only child in a school-bus accident and the devastation it has wrought on his marriage to his high-school sweetheart, Bean (Hope Davis). It’s not clear from Julian’s drunkenly glazed expression whether or not he realizes the faux pas that he has committed, but Danny quickly walks off in anger anyway.

Danny spends the rest of the night, however, trying to fight off the sleep-depriving effects of the depression caused by his failing marriage and seemingly dismal job prospects—which leads him to seek out Julian the next morning for company. Julian has two tickets for the local bullfight; Danny reluctantly agrees to accompany him to the corrida, where Julian stages a fake assassination in which Danny is seemingly recruited as a lookout. The bullfight scenes are enacted in sufficient detail to indicate that writer-director Mr. Shepard has seized the matador metaphor for Julian and will run with it for the rest of the picture.

Yet who has ever heard of a matador needing a buddy out there in the ring to help restore his lost confidence? This is the switch that Mr. Shepard pulls on his genre. There are several levels of trickery involved in his management of the narrative. First, we have to be rooting for the hit man to succeed in his mission in the first place; second, his targets have to be anonymous or unlikable, and unconnected to any identifiable politics—even when the locale happens to be Moscow, as it is on one occasion in The Matador. The penalty for failure on Julian’s part is almost certainly death, but at whose hands? Mr. Shepard gives us only a sliver of specificity in a mysterious intermediary known almost facetiously as Mr. Randy, played with casual portentousness by that charismatic character actor, Philip Baker Hall.

The crux of the relationship in Mexico City between Julian and Danny involves an action that we never see onscreen and an intervention in Danny’s floundering career— of which Danny himself is blissfully unaware until a desperate Julian comes banging on his door six months later, during a snowy Christmastime in Denver. Danny’s own career is now booming and his marriage thriving, perhaps from his wife’s own association of her husband’s business success with his renewed virility (and is this not also the American Way?).

The final harmless joke of this essentially harmless entertainment is the unexpected reaction of Danny’s wife to the visit of a professional killer: She finds it pleasantly intriguing, titillating and just a bit sexy to be sleeping under the same roof as a hired assassin. The wife’s fascination with criminality remains safely vicarious; The Matador would have been a more dangerously complex film if it didn’t. As it is, the three major characters remain frozen in their psychological and sociological types.

Still, on one level The Matador illustrates Charlie Chaplin’s insight in Monsieur Verdoux (1947): that if war, as Clausewitz’s dictum has it, is the logical extension of diplomacy by other means, then murder (in Chaplin’s view) was simply the logical extension of business. But there is also a touch of amateur psychological therapy in Danny’s accompanying Julian on his next mission so as to lend him “moral” support. And why not? Whether wittingly or unwittingly, Danny himself became the beneficiary of the murder business six months before in Mexico City.

In the end, Julian saves himself by assassinating his own would-be assassin, with Danny’s supportive presence on the scene. He then leaves Danny and Bean to their home and hearth, albeit a little regretfully in view of his own unbridled existence of forbidden pleasures and soul-destroying hedonism. The Matador is admittedly a trifle in the long view of cinema, but it’s an amusingly adroit piece of work nonetheless. My only regret is that the always-remarkable Ms. Davis didn’t have more to do. Mr. Brosnan and Mr. Kinnear are otherwise almost perfectly cast, written and directed as polar and temperamental opposites.

Reese’s Treats

James Mangold’s Walk the Line, from a screenplay by Gill Dennis and Mr. Mangold, based on the books Man in Black and Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash, raises the ante on musical impersonation not only with Joaquin Phoenix playing and singing the role of Johnny Cash, and Reese Witherspoon delivering similar duties in the role of June Carter, but also such lesser-known actor-musicians as Tyler Hilton and Waylon Malloy Payne presuming to represent such iconic luminaries of popular music as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. On the whole, the impersonations are zestful enough and energetic enough to remain thoroughly entertaining in the midst of the darkening clouds of amphetamine addiction that threatened to destroy Cash’s life and career.

Indeed, before I saw Walk the Line, I was predisposed to disapprove of the genre itself, especially when its real-life subjects have become overly recognizable through previous nonfiction films, concert films and even a television series. I know I picked Ray as my third-best picture of 2004 and Jamie Foxx’s incarnation of Ray Charles as the best male performance for that year. But Ray is the exception that proves the rule—or was it that I was more familiar beforehand with the Johnny Cash persona than with Ray Charles? Was it also the obstacles of race and blindness that made Charles automatically more sympathetic as a screen protagonist than Cash, despite the vices they had in common?

But what I hadn’t counted on in Walk the Line was the spine-tingling feistiness of Ms. Witherspoon’s performance as June Carter. This feat has belatedly placed it (in my mind, at least) among a mere handful of more-than-Oscar-worthy performances this year, such as Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof, Maria Bello in A History of Violence, Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, Claire Danes in Shopgirl and Laura Linney in The Squid and the Whale. Mr. Phoenix isn’t bad either, but the clinical details of Cash’s addiction (in which he is enmeshed for much of the film’s running time), along with his emotional neediness, deprive his performance of Ms. Witherspoon’s comic buoyancy, which has always been her strong suit. Some Cash admirers have deplored the predominantly gloomy tone and warts-and-all frankness of a film about a performer they always found cheerfully exhilarating. Of course, all great entertainers double as con artists in concealing from the audience their deepest hurts when they’re onstage or onscreen.

Cash’s problems seem to have started in early childhood with the death of his beloved brother, whom their father pointedly preferred to little Johnny. The father, Ray Cash (Robert Patrick), is presented as emotionally cold and vocally abusive. Cash’s first wife, Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin), seems to pop up from nowhere just before Cash’s first big break. She has ample cause for complaint over his frequent womanizing with groupies, an omnipresent tribe of underage temptresses that seem to have infested the tour buses of every pop sensation of modern times.

Indeed, the earlier rock-music side of Cash’s career is emphasized over the later, more remorseful folk music that he also recorded, as exemplified by the film’s title song. Unfortunately for the movie, our most vivid memories of Cash seem frozen in the period of his comparative maturity, whereas Mr. Phoenix’s portrayal seems fixated on his youthful escapades and congenital wildness. By contrast, Ms. Witherspoon’s June Carter remains, even in the midst of her own antic high spirits, a calming and stabilizing force in Cash’s life. A colleague who knows more about these things than I do assures me that Vivian Cash has been somewhat slandered in the film by the ingrained tendency of biopics to treat the hero’s first wife as a disaster from which he has to be rescued by his second wife. In actuality, my colleague insisted, Vivian remained friendly and hospitable to both Johnny and June even after they were married.

Even so, the movie overcomes whatever lapses of fact and nuance it has incurred by the sheer verve of the folk-music ethos, which ever since Robert Altman’s triumph with Nashville in 1975 has seemed singularly unique in its ability to establish an immediate and seemingly effortless rapport with audiences. Hence, even if you’re not the folk-music type (and I assure you that I am not), I advise you catch up with Walk the Line, if only for Ms. Witherspoon’s transcendent joyousness as a still-growing legend within a legend.

Not Funny

Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone, from his own screenplay, seems to have been designed as a Christmas-season entertainment, inasmuch as not one but two Christmas family reunions take place within the film, with all the shifting realignments of elective affinities between the first and the second. In the process, Mr. Bezucha has put many usually pleasant performers into unbelievably unpleasant situations through a strange mixture of somewhat mystifying and distinctly unseasonable rudeness, obtuseness and obliviousness. The opening-credit sequence makes the film’s ultimate intentions crystal clear with idyllically rendered winter shots of a New England country house, set to the overly familiar and overly seasonal tune of “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” Later, there’s a pointedly prolonged excerpt from Vincente Minnelli’s exquisite Currier and Ives postcard to the Middle American family, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), with Judy Garland’s misleading rendition to Margaret O’Brien of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” (I say “misleading” because Minnelli’s masterwork is only marginally about Christmas, ranging as it does over the four seasons in a family’s adventures at the time of the St. Louis Exposition at the turn of the century.) Nostalgia was big in Hollywood in the middle of World War II, and the censors made sure that family life of whatever period was behaviorally circumspect. But as Norma Desmond might have said, “Ah, we had families back then”—blissfully happy despite their enforced conformity and conventionality.

This is not the case in The Family Stone, in which jealousy, resentment and a deadly secret run rampant in our early introductions to the family and its possible additions. The most troublesome among the latter is Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is presented as a nonstop chatterbox of a New York career woman. With her domineering manner, Meredith embarrasses even her flustered fiancé, the family success story Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney), while he’s trying to buy a Christmas present. Earlier, we’ve heard Everett’s sister Amy Stone (Rachel McAdams) bad-mouthing Meredith to their mother, Sybil (Diane Keaton).

For her part, Meredith dreads spending the Christmas holiday with Everett’s family. He keeps assuring her that everything will be O.K., but sure enough, Meredith’s worst fears are realized with the deep chill she gets at the outset, particularly from Amy and Sybil. Not that Meredith doesn’t do her share to contribute to the ill will, but I still never quite figured out what all the hostility was about.

Is it because Meredith is a career woman from New York City? But the head of the Stone family, Kelly Stone (Craig T. Nelson), is a presumably enlightened college professor—and, anyway, New England isn’t all that far from New York, either geographically or spiritually. The family chill toward an outsider was far more plausible in Junebug, in which a Chicago intellectual visits her husband’s religious family in North Carolina; there at least you had massive regional and cultural divides to overcome.

The other members of the strangely prickly Stone family are Ben Stone (Luke Wilson), Everett’s comparatively underachieving and more bohemian brother from California, who is vaguely connected with making documentaries (or growing marijuana, for all we know), and—almost lost in the shuffle— Susannah Stone Trousdale (Elizabeth Reaser), a pregnant housewife with one daughter already and a husband who hasn’t yet arrived for the festivities. Most startling of all the family members is gay, deaf Thad (Ty Giordano) and his African-American boyfriend, Patrick Thomas (Brian White). Believe me, you’ve never met two nicer guys in your life, but while the other “tolerant” Stone family members are befuddling Meredith with their seemingly excessive displays of sign-language fluency, I was counting on my own fingers the numbers of ways that a newcomer like Meredith could earn the enmity of the group. She started promisingly enough by shouting her thoughts to Thad as if he were simply hard of hearing, but then went further than I expected any supposedly sophisticated New Yorker could go when she asked him (at the top of her lungs) whether he was concerned that the child he and Patrick were planning to adopt would turn out to be gay.

At that point, I abandoned all the characters to the writer-director’s devices and waited, with some trepidation, for the inevitably gushy turnarounds. Ms. Parker had drifted a long way from the warm collegiality of Sex and the City, and Ms. McAdams was quickly using up some of the points she had earned with me as the resourceful heroine in Red Eye. Even the divine Diane Keaton was sadly misused.

The most curious (though oddly satisfying) twist in the film occurs when Meredith, in desperation, summons her sister to come to her rescue—and who should show up but Claire Danes as the beautiful, intelligent and tactful Julie Morton, who wins over the same family that rejected Meredith? What happens next has to be seen to be disbelieved, except that it makes a kind of romantic sense eventually. Still, it’s much too late to save the film. I have always stressed the importance of endings in film narratives, but this is the first time that I recognized the importance of beginnings, too—especially when farcical shenanigans are involved, as they are here. Still, I can’t deny the incidental pleasures of watching these talented players giving it their all, even in such a misguided project.