Pajamas: When a Bad Marriage Happens to Good People

120406 article sarris Pajamas: When a Bad Marriage  Happens to Good PeopleJeff Lipsky’s Flannel Pajamas, from his own screenplay, demonstrates for one of the very few times in film history that physical chemistry—even ecstatically compatible sexuality—cannot guarantee a successful marriage. Indeed, Justin Kirk’s Stuart Sawyer and Julianne Nicholson’s Nicole Reilly have so much going for them as a couple, from their first meeting on a blind date onward, that Mr. Lipsky needs more than two hours—and many highly articulate conversations—to get his co-protagonists to the breaking point. Yet the warning signs are there from the beginning. For starters, he is Jewish and she is Catholic—although the religion issue is never confronted early on, and it is actually Nicole’s Catholic mother who brings it up late in the marriage, in a very frank but friendly exchange with Stuart. For his part, Stuart has grown increasingly disenchanted with Nicole’s spectacularly malfunctioning extended family, particularly with its varying stages of alcohol abuse.

Nonetheless, when Stuart first visits his future wife’s family for Christmas in Missoula, Mont., there are none of the explosive encounters we have come to expect from the mixed-marriage movie (and not just those by Woody Allen, the poet laureate of non-assimilated, non-melting-pot cinema). At the engagement party, when Stuart’s extremely extroverted brother, Jordan (Jamie Harrold), unsteadily gets up to toast the couple, we again expect the worst, but Jordan uses the occasion to be sweet and eloquent. Similarly, when Nicole’s best friend, Elizabeth (Rebecca Schull), gets up for her toast, we brace for trouble—we already know that she and Stuart have never gotten along together—but after a teasingly ambivalent introduction, she too is cheerfully generous to the couple.

And so it goes throughout the film, with none of the characters taking cheap shots at one another for easy laughs—or, for that matter, any laughs at all. At first, Stuart and Nicole seem to resolve their differences in a spirit of give and take, but lingering resentments fester, particularly for Nicole. For example, she wants to have children right away, but Stuart presses for a delay of two years, partly so that they can have time to make enough money to afford children, and partly because he wants time to enjoy Nicole alone without the seismic change in their lives that a child would entail. Nicole seems to accept Stuart’s not entirely unflattering reasoning without protest. But this is just her way of going off alone and sulking. Certainly, Stuart has the whip hand when it comes to discussions of money: Not only does he make much more money than she does, but he very generously offers to pay off the $15,000 debt she has incurred from graduate school, an offer that she gratefully accepts. When she loses her job, he immediately offers to help finance her own catering business. As it happens, he has decided at the same time to give up his own lucrative publicity job to set up a firm of his own.

Todd McCarthy of Variety suggests that it’s a weakness of the film that Stuart never discusses his celebrity-filled job with Nicole, and never seems to include her in what must be a busy social life. Indeed, Stuart seems to be something of a loner in a field that thrives on making social contacts. For her part, Nicole constantly complains that he is unwilling to make friends with the neighbors in their high-rise apartment building, or even to help entertain her outside friends. She complains that he is a good talker but a bad listener.

Matters strangely reach a head when she asks if they can have a dog, and Stuart flatly refuses. It is over such little things that marital battle lines are drawn in the sand. Early on, when Nicole watches the movie of their wedding, she notices that Stuart has never actually uttered the obligatory words “I do”—which, as she confides to her best friend Elizabeth, shows that he was reluctant to undertake a permanent commitment. Still, the beauty and marvel of the film is that we can understand both points of view and sympathize with both characters. This can be attributed equally to Mr. Lipsky’s well-balanced screenplay and the excellent performances of the two leads. Mr. Kirk, most familiar to us from television as one of the stars of Angels in America, makes Stuart a contradictory mixture of limitless self-confidence and supplicating helplessness in trying to keep the love of his life from drifting inexorably away from him. In this latter regard, he reminded me of the Michel Piccoli character in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963). Ms. Nicholson has been most memorable as one of Calista Flockhart’s many rivals in the television series Ally McBeal, and currently as one of the detectives in Law and Order: Criminal Intent. As for her underappreciated screen appearances, I hope that Flannel Pajamas will redress the balance. If you miss it in theaters, try by all means to get the DVD.

Marching On

George Miller’s Happy Feet, from a screenplay by Mr. Miller, John Collee, Judy Morris and Warren Coleman, with contributions from over 1,000 other people, outgrossed Casino Royale, and I can see why. Happy Feet may be the most ambitious animated fusion of images, sounds and music ever undertaken anywhere—I am not an expert in the field, so I can’t say for sure. Was I enchanted, entertained or even diverted for its 108-minute running time? Not really. But then, of course, I am not the targeted viewer, either demographically or temperamentally. Even in the more limited realm of penguin movies, I couldn’t help thinking as I watched Happy Feet how much more moved and enthralled I was by the recent French nonfiction film, March of the Penguins. I doubt that Happy Feet would ever have been made if March of the Penguins hadn’t stirred audiences first—though they certainly were not as large as the audiences that have greeted Happy Feet.

According to the credits, such actors as Elijah Wood (Mumble), Robin Williams (Ramón/Lovelace), Brittany Murphy (Gloria), Hugh Jackman (Memphis), Nicole Kidman (Norma Jean), Hugo Weaving (Noah the Elder), Anthony La Paglia (Boss Skua), E.G. Daly (baby Mumble), Magda Szubanski (Miss Viola), Miriam Margolyes (Mrs. Astrakhan) and the late Steve Irwin (Trev) provide voices for the penguins and the other creatures they encounter in a complicated travel-and-quest plot that might have been entitled Mumble on the March. I hope the actors were paid handsomely for their labors, but I must say that all the trick voices employed, with their variety of inner-city accents, plus all the pop, rap and gospel-like singing and pounding instrumentation, distracted me somewhat from the visual reality of all the penguins, looking as much alike as the Radio City Rockettes—particularly in the final, massive musical number, which features a multitude of tap-dancing penguins supposedly responding to some beat from somewhere on high.

The subtexts are many and somewhat obvious. We elders must learn to take the musical tastes of our young people more seriously, no matter how cacophonous the new music may sound to our untutored ears. From jazz and swing in the 30’s to rock and rap in the last half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st, a minor movie-musical subgenre has arisen about the gap in musical taste between the old and the young. An even more banal movie subtext is that a young person must follow his or her dream—to the ends of the earth, if need be.

What this has to do with the movingly peculiar lives of penguins illuminated in March of the Penguins, I don’t know. These real-life penguins respond to some unfathomable genetic code for their survival that impels them to sacrifice their natural aptitude for swimming in the sea—where their most dangerous and numerous predators abound—to waddle and crawl awkwardly to their nesting place in an icy wasteland. There, the male penguins flock together to guard the precious eggs, while the female penguins reverse the trek to search for food in the sea, after which they struggle back to their mates. This was the awesomely anguished existence of the real-life penguins on display in March of the Penguins, and it has little to do with the fake-penguin vaudeville show on display in Happy Feet, however prodigiously produced.

Depressing Darren

Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, from his own screenplay, based on a story by Mr. Aronofsky and Art Handel, was reportedly booed at this year’s Venice Film Festival—and I’m afraid I can see why. Mr. Aronofsky has brought three films to fruition in eight years, from the mathematically and cosmically low-budget, avant-garde-with-a-vengeance Pi (1998), to the more expensively produced Requiem for a Dream (2000). The latter was a wildly expressionistic, terminally depressing dirge-like drama of drug addiction, with name performers like Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly playing deluded characters mercilessly mangled by their various addictions and humiliations. A broadly caricatured version of a TV quiz show, complete with wildly cheering audience, maintains a heavily anti-establishment irony until the hellish depths are finally reached by each of the major characters with a maximum amount of physical energy.

The Fountain is, by contrast, terminally spiritual and ethereal as it follows man’s quest for eternal life via a tree from the Garden of Eden—said to have been transplanted by God to the jungles of Mexico for Tomas to discover in the 16th century while on a mission for Queen Isabella of Spain. Bearded Tomas is one of three characters played by Hugh Jackman in the film, the other two being a 21st-century beardless Tommy seeking a cure for his wife Izzi’s fatal brain tumor, and a completely bald Tom, centuries later, living inside a space bubble traveling toward the Xibalda Nebula, an astrological body believed by the Mayans to be the location of the underworld. A very wan Rachel Weisz plays Queen Isabella, the living Izzi and the ghost of Izzi. All three periods are interchangeable, but Mr. Aronofsky’s outlook on life remains too constantly pessimistic for my taste, and too completely joyless as well.

Amin for All Seasons

Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland, from a screenplay by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Giles Foden, has lingered in local theaters largely on the strength of Forest Whitaker’s uncanny incarnation of Uganda’s President Idi Amin, who quickly evolved in the 1970’s into a brutal leader and mass murderer. The film and Mr. Whitaker both owe a debt to Barbet Schroeder’s remarkable nonfiction portrayal of the blood-soaked dictator in Idi Amin Dada (1974). The story of this real-life monster is told largely from the point of view of his young Scottish physician, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), reportedly rewritten from the book’s older and duller counterpart to make a more adventurous and not entirely sympathetic character. Garrigan becomes a lavishly rewarded flunky to the Ugandan dictator—until Garrigan’s own excesses and his belated recognition of Amin’s treachery force him to flee for his life at the site of the hijacked Air France jetliner in Entebbe. (The daring Israeli rescue of the Jewish hostages held for ransom in the airliner isn’t shown; nor is Amin’s flight to a sumptuous exile in Saudi Arabia after being overthrown.)

Arriving in Uganda with his new medical degree almost on a whim, Garrigan immediately makes a pass at an older woman, Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson), the attractive wife of an industrious British doctor (Adam Kotz). The year is 1971, and Uganda has been “liberated” in pre-Bush fashion from the rule of left-leaning leader Milton Obote. Garrigan and Sarah attend Amin’s victory celebration. Garrigan is more impressed with Amin’s boisterous personality than is the skeptical Sarah, and the next day there’s a final parting of the ways for the Merrits and Garrigan when the young Scottish doctor is hired by the Scotland-fetishizing Amin—who once served with the King’s African Rifles—after the young Scot performs some simple first aid on the dictator’s injured hand.

Garrigan is quickly installed in a posh apartment in the presidential compound; he is also given a Mercedes convertible and a bevy of women selected by Amin himself for Garrigan’s pleasure. Even so, Garrigan’s lusts remain unsatisfied. Having been easily rebuffed by Sarah in his first attempt at sexual conquest in Africa, he turns next to Kay Amin (Kerry Washington), the mother of an epileptic boy patient and one of Amin’s out-of-favor-wives. After unwisely seducing her, Garrigan tries unsuccessfully to help her escape Amin’s wrath. He has already been approached by a British Foreign Service Officer named Stone (Simon McBurney) to provide information on Amin’s death squads so that the dictator can be exposed to the outside world as the butcher he is. Garrigan remains reluctant to betray his benefactor for too long a time—well after the enormity of Amin’s crimes should have become undeniable. But when Garrigan tries to escape from Uganda, he discovers that it’s not so easy: Amin’s henchmen are everywhere, and they are not averse to torturing and executing even Amin’s closest advisors when the dictator’s paranoid fantasies so impel him. Mr. Whitaker and Mr. McAvoy head a first-rate cast that helps The Last King of Scotland to illuminate one of the many dark chapters in recent African history.