Detachment is the latest curiosity from London-born singer-songwriter-painter-film director Tony Kaye, whose first film, a violent exposé of neo-Nazism called American History X, caused a minor sensation in 1998. This one is about a month in the life of a different kind of tortured, alienated soul—the substitute teacher. It opens March 16 but like a flight to nowhere, it’s already available for preboarding on television, where you can catch it anytime on Video on Demand.
Adrien Brody, one of the weirdest looking actors of the millennium, plays Henry Barthes, a man so emotionally blocked by a lifetime of disillusion that he cannot connect with any other human being. He hides from life by moving from teaching job to unemployment check, never stopping long enough in one place to become attached to students, colleagues or even an occasional one-night stand. The title of the film comes from Camus (“Never have I felt so detached yet so one with myself”). He is a metaphor for the restless souls who can’t do, they teach. Sometimes they drift into classrooms to fill something missing in themselves. Some think they can make a difference in others. In a series of brief documentary-style interviews, one man confesses he wanted to be a rock star until reality said otherwise, while another tried giving it a year’s try and stayed for years. For Henry, teaching is a reason to not go home to a bleak, antiseptic apartment with an empty refrigerator. We catch up with him in a school that makes the setting of Blackboard Jungle look like Kukla, Fran and Ollie, where a distinguished cast is largely wasted as various cynical faculty members. Marcia Gay Harden is the hard-boiled, sarcastic principal who went from being an educator to being a cop. James Caan is a wretch who pops amphetamines to get through the day. Blythe Danner stops at the water cooler on her way to staff meetings but doesn’t seem to know what she’s doing there. Lucy Liu is a burnout. Tim Blake Nelson has a nervous breakdown. The students spit in their faces and threaten them with gang rape. You get the picture.
Although Mr. Brody plays a lost, unfocused, blank blackboard of a man who structures his lesson plans to avoid contact with real life, he somehow manages to touch the lives of his students—and one fat, suicidally depressed girl in particular, played by the director’s sister, Betty Kaye. Her predicament elicits sympathy, but he has too many problems of his own to offer much help—no relationships, no furniture, no music, no feelings and no nutritious home-cooked meals, but only the memory of a mother who committed suicide, a grandfather with Alzheimer’s who is being neglected in a retirement home, and a homeless, underage prostitute with AIDS he rescues from the streets. In the dreary screenplay by Carl Lund, all of these episodes are fragmented, like shards of broken glass, adding up to nothing more than a shoebox of corrosive decay.
Maybe dedicated teachers can occasionally save the future of the world from hopeless despair, if they don’t end up in a straitjacket first. But I doubt if real teachers will find much to identify with here. Detachment drives a coffin nail through a noble profession with such ruthless virulence that it makes no point at all.
Running Time 97 minutes
Written by Carl Lund
Directed by Tony Kaye
Starring Adrien Brody, Betty Kaye and Marcia Gay Harden