A Subway Story, Too Good to Be True

James Gray’s The Yards , from a screenplay by Mr. Gray and Matt Reeves, continues on the soulful, downbeat path across the outer boroughs that the then 24-year-old Mr. Gray marked back in 1994 with his first film, Little Odessa . In that one, his locale was Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach with its largely Russian population. For The Yards , the now 30-year-old Mr. Gray has moved over to Queens and its subway yards with the same dour and depressing mood. The idea, I suppose, is that if we are ever going to have a conscientiously realistic cinema, this is the price we have to pay.

Actually, the plot of The Yards , and particularly its ultimate resolution, reminds me of nothing so much as Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront , in which the act of snitching on the gang is defended as a moral act. Mr. Gray and Mr. Reeves have made their “gang” of corrupt corporate and municipal government officials especially easy to despise. There is a reference in the film to the Donald Manes scandal in Queens, which ended in Mr. Manes’ spectacular suicide.

The ultimate hero of civic betterment here is Leo Handler (Mark Wahlberg), an ex-con who comes home to his old neighborhood and to his widowed mother, Val Handler (Ellen Burstyn). Leo has done time for stealing cars without ratting on his buddies, and for this his friend, Willie Gutierrez (Joaquin Phoenix), is so grateful that he offers to help Leo fit in at a big firm owned by Leo’s uncle, Frank Olchin (James Caan).

These various decisions are all made at family gatherings, which do not allow for complicated negotiations. Willie is on the verge of becoming engaged to Erica Stoltz (Charlize Theron), the daughter of the widowed Kitty Olchin (Faye Dunaway) and the stepdaughter of Frank, who also has a younger stepson, Bernard Stoltz (Chad Aaron). There are already tensions between Erica and her stepfather, and curious intimations of a previous relationship between her and Leo. This enforced conviviality makes each of the characters loom large in the others’ lives without going one-on-one until the film reaches its violently unsatisfying climax.

I can’t remember when a film so well-acted and so well-rendered visually was also so oppressive to sit through. For the longest time, we are made to believe that Leo is being set up as the fall guy for a crime he did not commit, and this time he could be up for a life sentence. It would be bad enough if Leo were really on the run, but here the movie begins wallowing in improbability. After the police have raided Leo’s mother’s apartment in full battle gear searching for him, she suffers a heart attack. Erica cares for her stricken aunt (inasmuch as Leo’s mother and hers are closely bound sisters), and Leo makes frequent visits to his mother and Erica without the police being any the wiser. But why wouldn’t they keep a watch on his mother’s apartment, especially when they are looking for him so desperately everywhere else?

The only explanation I can come up with is that Mr. Gray and his associates could not find any other way to shoot the scenes with Mr. Wahlberg, Ms. Theron and Mr. Phoenix in direct confrontation without rushing the final disastrous revelation that Erica and Leo once slept with each other long before he went to prison. Fearful of what Leo’s capture would mean to his corrupt organization, Frank goads Willie into a jealous rage that is intended to make him kill Leo.

As I watched all these Othello -like machinations play themselves out, I decided that Mr. Gray and company were biting off more than they could chew. When the plot took an unexpected turn, with seemingly the wrong person dying in an accident fueled by jealousy, I turned against the picture and what I perceived as its old-fashioned star mentality. Through all the carnage and havoc, Leo survives and thrives to testify (and testify, and testify) with a semi-literate, self-conscious pomposity about honesty, public responsibility and malfeasance in office. Leo becomes a virtuous citizen and a boring character.

I suppose it was too much to expect The Yards to take on a Stendhalian irony. After all, Leo was gotten off the hook by a breathtakingly Machiavellian maneuver executed by the bad guys in concert with the not-so-bad guys. Couldn’t Leo have just smiled and accepted this lesson in life? No, he was just too boringly good for that. Still, I liked most of Mr. Wahlberg’s performance, and even more those delivered by Ms. Theron, Mr. Phoenix, Ms. Burstyn, Ms. Dunaway and Mr. Caan.

A Class Struggle Within a Family

Leos Carax’s Pola X , from a screenplay by Mr. Carax, Lauren Sedofsky and Jean-Paul Fargeau, is based on Herman Melville’s novel, Pierre, or the Ambiguities . And if you should happen to think that Mr. Carax’s movie is wildly melodramatic, Melville’s very strange novel of innocence confounded is even more so. Mr. Carax’s Pierre (played by Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gérard Depardieu) is an upper-class young man engaged to Lucie (Delphine Chuillot), a young woman of his own class. Pierre also indulges a peculiarly quasi-incestuous relationship with his mother Marie (Catherine Deneuve), calling her his sister and she never objecting. So far Mr. Carax is following the Melville novel, except for having Pierre ride a motorcycle incessantly as if he were a Jean Cocteau figure from Orphée (1949). Mr. Carax’s Pierre is also a successful (though superficial) novelist, whereas Melville’s Pierre was simply an heir to his mother’s fortune.

One day Pierre encounters a strange, barely literate creature who introduces herself as his half-sister Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubyova). In the book, we gather that Isabelle is much prettier than Lucie, but this is not the case in the movie. Here Pierre seems to be attracted out of bourgeois guilt over her Third World markings. He immediately proposes that they move to Paris to live together as man and wife. The problem is that once his best friend Thibault rejects him, Pierre finds that he has no place to live with Isabelle.

Isabelle leads Pierre to a strange workers’ factory in which a metallically dissonant orchestra evokes much of Mr. Carax’s surreal grandiosity with spectacle, previously presented in Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991). Pierre tries to write more “honestly” in his new surroundings, but a succession of rejection slips drives him ever deeper into despair. Meanwhile, Lucie has left her own bourgeois surroundings to join the unhappy couple, thus forming a bizarre ménage à trois . Thibault and a friend invade the factory to “rescue” Lucie, but are driven off by the factory’s armed workers.

The film ends in a spasm of violence. Pierre kills Thibault, Isabelle commits suicide by stepping in front of a bus and Pierre is taken away in a police wagon. In the film’s one spectacular visual coup, Pierre has a hallucination in which the buildings of Paris are transformed into the beloved trees of the forest of his youth. This is the reverse of Emmanuelle Riva’s imaginings, in Georges Franju’s Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962), that she had loved all the trees in the despised countryside because they resembled the crowds of people in her beloved Paris.

Dog Owners On a Leash

Christopher Guest’s Best in Show , from a screenplay by Mr. Guest and Eugene Levy, combines the broadest caricatures imaginable of an assortment of pet owners with a straight-faced documentation of a dog show. The result is irony, an affliction limited to homo sapiens among the world’s mammals. Dogs, fortunately, are not ironic in any way. Their emotions are clear and direct, and they keep the motley crew made up by their masters and mistresses from going off the deep end altogether.

This is to say that Best in Show is a delightfully chucklesome entertainment largely because the leashes on the dogs also work in reverse, to rein in the excesses of the owners and trainers. Mr. Guest, in addition to directing and co-writing this deadpan spoof, gets more than his share of chuckles as Harlan Pepper, a cracker-barrel North Carolinian with an inordinate fondness for his pet bloodhound. Pepper also sells bait to fishermen, and is only a few lessons away from becoming a professional ventriloquist. As it is, he has already reached the point where he can make his slobbering bloodhound seem to “talk” like a comic-strip character.

The film actually begins, however, with a neurotic couple, Meg and Hamilton Swan (played by Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), visiting a psychiatrist to help them make peace with their pooch Beatrice’s temperamental outbursts; there is a happy ending of sorts for the Swans, if not for the ultimately-too-demanding Beatrice.

Another troubled couple are Gerry and Cookie Fleck, played by co-writer Mr. Levy and Catherine O’Hara. The Flecks have less of a problem with their darling little Norwich terrier, Winky, than with Cookie’s checkered past, embarrassingly confirmed by former bedmates popping up at every stop from Fern City, Fla., to the dog show in Philadelphia. Her unprepossessing husband, literally born with two left feet, is not amused by the zest with which Cookie’s charms are described by her past loves. Here, too, Gerry is given his one great moment of triumph and vindication, suggesting the strategy of generosity that pervades the film.

Scott Donlan, played by John Michael Higgins, and Stefan Vanderhoof, played by Michael McKean, cut loose with the most outrageously stereotypical gay antics I have seen on the screen in ages, and yet both characters are witty as well as funny, particularly when we learn that their pampered Shih Tzu is named Agnes in honor of Agnes Moorehead. What would-be hipster would not guffaw at that bit of camp?

Less amusing, I am afraid, are the ancient auto magnate Leslie Cabot (Patrick Cranshaw), his curvaceous trophy wife Sherri Ann Ward Cabot (Jennifer Coolidge) and lesbian trainer Christy Cummings (Jane Lynch), who tends the Cabots’ standard poodle, Rhapsody in White. The humor here is cold and cruel.

Rounding out the whole shebang are the foul-minded American announcer, Buck Laughlin (Fred Willard), and his more seriously attuned British colleague, Trevor Beckwith (John Piddock). Much of the satire, as you may have gathered, is built into the nomenclature. What is truly amazing is how the silliness and the seriousness coalesce-like Buck and Trevor-into one steady stream of affectionate humor. The dogs do the rest, with their impeccable lovability. A Subway Story, Too Good to Be True