Diane Keaton graces the screen so rarely that when she makes an appearance of any kind, attention must be paid. But it’s a sure sign of how desperate the current state of movies has become when you pack up your hope and anticipation, head for a brand-new Diane Keaton vehicle called Because I Said So, and find your affection for this unique and enchanting icon smashed with a sledgehammer.
In this vulgar, stupid mess, one of the few actresses over 50 who can do nothing wrong ends up doing nothing right—proving, as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett did before her, that even a mega-gifted comedienne of the first rank is only as funny as her material, her director and her cameraman. In Because I Said So, a great star is abandoned by all three and left for Hollywood road kill.
The number of contemporary directors who know anything about comedy today (not to mention two things called talent and taste) can be counted on one hand, and Michael Lehmann is not one of them. (His career was jump-started by something called Beaver Gets a Boner. Your move.) The scriptwriters, Karen Leigh Hopkins and Jessie Nelson, are two women who wrote Stepmom, which nobody liked but me. None of them is the next Billy Wilder, but that’s no reason for all three to turn into hopeless, humdrum hacks.
Into their hands, which are like lethal weapons, now falls the remarkable Ms. Keaton. The audience sits aghast with horror as they run her through one embarrassing torture after another, hoping she’ll escape and wondering how she’ll save herself. Watching her reduced to sitcom one-liners and bombastic sight gags that would make Betty Hutton retch, I found my skin crawl with humiliation. Even in an age when just about everything on the screen has hit rock bottom, this is still not the reaction I was taught to expect from a lifetime of growing up in the movies.
For starters, Ms. Keaton is relegated to a meddling mother-from-hell role that in the old days would have been rejected by Gertrude Berg. In the kind of movie that defies logic, she’s the kind of obnoxious old bag (she looks younger than her three daughters put together, which I guess makes her an obnoxious young bag) who poses for a smiling family portrait and asks the photographer, “Maybe it’s just me, but why ‘cheese’?”
These are the jokes, and they don’t improve as the film drags on. Nothing about the characters is what you might call clear, but Daphne (Ms. Keaton) appears to be a designer of exotic, impractical cakes, which nobody eats, but which give the star a number of props to drop, burn and smash her face into like Lou Costello. When she’s not flat on her face in the butter-cream frosting, she’s on the Internet combing mate-finder Web sites, neurotically obsessed with drumming up a husband for her youngest daughter, Milly (Mandy Moore), who has given up on men after a series of disastrous affairs with guys who are married, gay or narcissistic jerks.
In a montage of freaks from Central Casting, Mom interviews ventriloquists, xenophobes and conjoined twins, until two dreamboats show up: Jason the architect (Tom Everett Scott) and Johnny the guitar player (Gabriel Macht). Jason knows the romantic inns in the hills of Tuscany and the price of fine wine, while Johnny is saddled with an uncertain career future, a horny father, and a maddeningly hyperactive little son with a case of the child-actor cutes who suffers from diarrhea of the mouth and attention-deficit disorder. Which isn’t all that unusual, since everyone else in the movie seems to have been diagnosed with the same thing. But where did the alleged “filmmakers” get the idea that it’s funny watching a golden retriever that watches Internet porn, or a child who asks adults an endless array of penis-vagina questions?
The entire movie is written, directed and performed at a bullet-train speed of contrived jabberwocky rapidly approaching a nervous breakdown—moving furniture, knocking over candles, smashing crockery. Even the golden retriever humps the ottoman. It’s heartbreaking to watch Diane Keaton get mangled in the traffic. She finally screeches herself into laryngitis, and instead of waving her arms like a spastic scarecrow, she is forced to write her lines down (“There’s turkey meat loaf in the fridge …. What does an orgasm feel like?”). The dialogue is no funnier written than spoken, but I found myself grateful for the silence.
After an hour and 10 minutes, Because I Said So switches gears from exasperating to endearing when Ms. Keaton finally goes to bed with the guitar player’s father (Stephen Collins). The daughters feel betrayed by Mom’s lies, the guys feel deceived by Milly’s double dating, and everybody stops speaking except Mom, who wears out her cake pans and her cell phones. Which guy will Milly choose? Will her sisters (Lauren Graham and Piper Perabo) make up and find their own moral center? Will Mom finally have her own orgasm? Will Mandy Moore ever learn how to act? Will this holocaust ever end? You find yourself asking questions you shouldn’t even be thinking about. I am still the self-appointed president of the unofficial Diane Keaton Fan Club, but it’s a triple-decker disappointment to watch her knock herself out in wreckage silly and hysterical enough to cause acid reflux.
Here is an actress of great charm and versatility who is too easy, open, appealing, free, witty, smart, pulled together and tightly wrapped to appear in dross. It grieves me to see her in something that eats her time and talent and gives her nothing back but mortified fans and bad reviews. She’s so special I’m tempted to ignore how appalling this movie is and just let her warmth and giggle get me through it.
But movies as dumb and expensive as Because I Said So should neither be ignored nor encouraged. They give the whole industry a black eye. Diane Keaton does everything she can to breathe life into a movie that is D.O.A., but the script is so bad that it just makes her look spastic. The entire project seems like a diabolical conspiracy to destroy one of the few icons we’ve got left, but luckily that’s where it fails most of all. Ms. Keaton still has Carole Lombard’s glamour, Sandy Dennis’ stuttering twinkle and a smile warm enough to melt February. She may never find another Annie Hall, but long after this fiasco is forgotten, my money is still on the icon.
From Germany, the first powerful, engrossing and unforgettable film of 2007 has arrived. The Lives of Others, an Oscar contender in this year’s foreign-film category, is one of those rare two-hour-plus films with subtitles that runs long but seems absorbingly, rivetingly short. Set in East Berlin under Communist rule in 1983, six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it traces the final days of the dreaded secret police in the German Democratic Republic called the Stasi. The Nazis were gone, but the Stasi introduced a new word synonymous with terror. With a subtle script, a superb cast and sensitive direction by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (a remarkable debut), The Lives of Others is a political thriller that covers the same ground as those incomprehensible Cold War spy novels by John Le Carré in which secret intelligence officers roamed freely, surrounded by checkpoints and barriers and villains galore, and got away with everything.
This one is more of a human drama, about a dull bureaucratic Communist henchman for the Stasi, aptly named Wiesler (fantastic performance by the nugget-faced Ulrich Mühe), who becomes so obsessed with his prey that his infatuation has disruptive, life-altering effects on all their lives. Drilled by his superiors to “Know everything about the lives of others,” the doggedly determined and avid Socialist is assigned the duty of spying on a celebrated theatrical couple—writer Georg Dreyman, an apolitical but controversial playwright (dashing Sebstian Koch, who in a dramatic reversal will soon be seen as a Nazi S.S. officer in Paul Verhoeven’s fabulous Black Book), and his mistress Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), a beautiful stage star and audience favorite of the German people. Wiesler wires their apartment, taps their phone, listens to them make love, and slowly changes from a solitary, impassive drone to a man awakened to the passions of sex and love that he has never experienced before.
In his metamorphosis, his undeterred search for nonexistent treachery leads to such disillusionment with the very principles of the socialism he worships that he eventually falsifies records and hides evidence without their knowing it. As the byzantine plot unfolds, tragedy ensues, combining the frigid intrigue of Francis Coppola’s The Conversation with the cruel inquisitorial tactics of Orson Welles’ The Trial. The film ends in 1991, in free West Berlin, with a devastating finale in which the once-powerful Wiesler, demoted to the status of a janitor, experiences his ultimate epiphany. It would be dastardly to reveal more (part of the masterful hypnosis of this movie is finding out what happens to the hunter and the hunted alike), but prepare yourself for a jolt that is original and deeply moving.
Mr. von Donnersmarck’s confident, atmospheric direction creates a claustrophobia that is oddly rapturous—as peaceful as it is frightening—and the performances by Mr. Koch, as the government-approved author targeted as a possible subversive, and Ms. Gedeck, as the alluring actress whose composure cracks under surveillance, are both wonderful. But it is the ghoulish Mr. Mühe—wiry and balding, with gray skin and bloodless eyes—whose profound discovery of the link between art and politics informs the film with an overwhelming impact.
His captivating story is reminiscent of Werner Stiller, the spy who turned over 20,000 pages of microfilmed documents to the West before his defection and forced the unmasking of Stasi uber-director Markus Wolf, “the spy without a face,” who orchestrated the downfall of Chancellor Willy Brandt. Wolf died in 2006. It’s mesmerizing to see how master spies worked, invading the privacy and exploiting the affairs of innocent citizens for personal career gains. But instead of nostalgia for a time of political turmoil and cultural censorship in the East Berlin of yesteryear, The Lives of Others is a blistering indictment of Germany’s substitution of one Kafkaesque regime for another, as well as a human reminder of how some reviled instruments of repression turned out to be more complex than we ever dreamed about. A great and seminal work, and the most acclaimed film to come out of Germany in a decade, it is not to be missed.