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The Late Show:
Coppola’s Tetro and Allen’s Whatever Works

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Monday, June 22, 2009


Tetro
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
(American Zoetrope)

Whatever Works
Directed by Woody Allen
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

*****

Tetro
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

“Courage” in art is generally overstated, most glaringly when it’s movie actors being credited (“Anne Hathaway’s brave emotional rawness in Rachel Getting Married…”). When riskiness itself is what gains attention, a brave choice can just mean a bankable one; standing still with confidence would show actual courage. Yet there’s something to what has become the standard critical line about Francis Ford Coppola’s two most recent films — they don’t work so well, but God bless the man for making them. It’s foolhardy to condescend like that to a legend, but under the circumstances (a decade elapsed between The Rainmaker and Youth Without Youth), their mere existence as such big, personal art objects is their most fascinating feature. It’d take a callous viewer indeed, assuming he is at all familiar with the résumé, to not be at least partially in awe of Coppola’s recent rebirth.

One explanation for the “novelty of a new Coppola movie” approach when discussing Youth Without Youth and Tetro is that both films are ponderous and difficult to penetrate as stand-alone works, though you’re confident that they made perfect sense to the director. Bringing in biography is even more natural with Tetro, which is about family, genius, artistic inertia, and other concerns near to Coppola, who has called Tetro highly personal (obvious to anyone who’s seen it). Even a favorable review like J. Hoberman’s seeks clues outside of the frame, in his case a Louis Vuitton ad with an Annie Leibovitz photo of the director schooling daughter Sofia in some Elysian meadow. It’s natural to want to know what Coppola is so floridly passionate about in Tetro, because it isn’t always clear.

The movie is befuddling, but not because of plot convolutions — its familiar fraternal and Oedipal hinges look to the Greeks. It keeps you at a distance when it seems singly concerned with the particular plight of the “art family.” This is especially a problem when the patriarch, Carlo, the father of Vincent Gallo’s title character and brother Bennie, becomes a central focus. He’s a symphony conductor. Tetro and Bennie are writers. The father, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, intellectually bullies Tetro (“There’s room for only one genius in this family”), while Tetro sabotages his own talent (he abandoned writing years ago to live as an anonymous failure in Buenos Aires, where Bennie tracks him down). Scenes with Brandauer’s cold, villainous Carlo — a kind of evil warlord of Art — are grandiloquent, but with a specificity of subject matter so limited to Coppola’s personal province that it’s like trade journal jargon set to opera.

The first character we meet is Bennie, fresh off a service job on a boat. A guileless boy of 17 when he appears, Bennie innocently semi-flirts with his sister-in-law (Y Tu Mama Tambien’s Maribel Verdú) as he waits to reunite with Tetro, who remains stubbornly locked in his room. From the second Vincent Gallo bursts loudly from that room in the morning on crutches (a grand entrance), immediately griping (“I hate the word nice. Especially the sound of it — nice.”), Bennie’s innocence begins its slow melting process. Unwilling to accept Tetro’s retirement from writing, Bennie steals his brother’s sooty manuscript (a tortured family epic, natch), hidden in the apartment, and translates it from the scrawled, reverse-image text. He reworks it into a play with his own name on it, enraging Tetro but delighting the cultural elite, particularly the rock star-popular drama critic, Alone (Carmen Maura). It’s a testament to the sustained art-centric tone of Coppola’s world that a drama critic being this shit-hot (the paparazzi follow her) seems plausible.

Several things along the way work to dull the impact of the central fraternal relationship that should feel so potent. Plot twists, unexpected shocks of violence, the father (and uncle) muddle, peculiar switches to color, Powell and Pressburger clips that aren’t quite earned, and an overreaching performance by the angularly handsome Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie all distract more than enrich. For all of its eccentric flourishes, the director’s Rumble Fish is affecting because of the grounding effect of Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke’s rapport and S.E. Hinton’s clean storytelling. The dialogue here is far more novelistic and stilted, despite it being Coppola’s original screenplay. Tetro’s narrative and visual jumble serves mostly its director’s whims and pet preoccupations. This might not be a drawback, but unlike the late Fellini to which the boldest bits seem to aspire, it’s too haphazardly laid out.

When Peter Bogdanovich told his friend Jean Renoir he was going to shoot Saint Jack in Singapore, in black and white, Renoir replied, “I think if people know the film was shot in Singapore, they would like to see the colors of Singapore.” Argentina is a new, exotic location for Coppola, and his choice of digital black and white for all but the flashbacks is a bit puzzling. Young cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s contrast is jacked up, and there are many striking frames (the look reminded me of Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion), but it’s quite two-dimensional — there’s no lushness. The digi-stridency wears your eyes out over the course of 127 minutes. I’m curious to see how Tetro ages, but the most intriguing story it contains now is not about brothers, but about the motivations of the 70-year-old filmmaker who made it.

******

Whatever Works
Directed by Woody Allen

The stock dodge in defense of oversimplified and patronizing modern stories is that they’re “updated fables,” rejiggered for our times. Most plots are reworkings of some old story or other, but the new folk tales often take less care in justifying their own existence. Whatever Works has this and other defenses built into it. The shrugged-off execution of this Beauty and the Beast story functions to excuse its original lazinesses. The lead female character (a small town southern girl in New York) is apologized for early with Larry David’s line, “you, a character out of Faulkner not unlike Benji.” It’s maybe the movie’s best quip, although (and because) it encapsulates the unbelievability of a character the movie asks us to actually care about. David’s Boris Yellnikoff is an outspoken opponent of clichés who eventually comes to acknowledge their usefulness — another of Whatever Works’ self-exonerating admissions of guilt.

Is it a virtue that Woody Allen seems to know his movie’s lousy? From the first scene, as Boris steps away from his friends to address the audience (as the friends, blind to the camera, ask each other in whispers who he’s talking to), we’re already off the rails. The rant assumes audience interest outright, and drags on endlessly, punctuated by mugging reaction shots from the table. A persistent flaw is apparent straightaway — for Whatever Works to work, Boris’ dialogue needs to punch and sting, both to match the conceit of the character and to live up to Curb Your Enthusiasm, where we’re accustomed to hearing David rant. You can’t cast David as a curmudgeon and not expect to shoulder the comparison. The Woody of Husbands and Wives or the underrated Celebrity could easily hang, but the 2009 model weighs in a little light. It never becomes satisfying to see one of the most singular comic talents of our time mouthing the second-rate toss-offs of another. The grumpiness he offers here (opining that people are inherently bad, dusty observations about the difficulties blacks have getting cabs in New York) feels forced, when it needs to be vitriolic or penetrating to justify the “suicidal genius” tag Boris has been given.

Boris is miserable and living alone in a Mott Street loft (decorated and lit like a Friends interior). His marriage, which looked good on paper, died early because “life isn’t on paper,” though it seems the main problem was that Boris’s ego crowded the wife out. His routine (declaring the death of civilization by day, waking up with death-panics at night) is upended with the chance arrival of off-the-bus and homeless Melody, the Mississippi girl, who he reluctantly boards at his place. The friction is immediate — she likes rock and techno, he likes Beethoven! Once the plucky, wide-eyed belle inevitably thaws Boris’s cold heart, he’s left to marvel at the mysteries of chance. The contrivances, you see, make the film’s point. She cracks him by inviting him onto the couch to watch a Fred Astaire movie on TV. In very familiar Allen fashion, it is the healing power of teenage girls in their underwear and classic cinema (Woody’s Mickey Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters was cured of depression by a Duck Soup viewing) that saves the hero.

Oddly, Melody and Boris marry, and all’s well until her divorced parents arrive. Mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) is naturally horrified by the old grouch who’s now her son-in-law, but she loosens up when one of Boris’s friends convinces her she’s a talented photographer and helps turn her into a threeway-having, black-clad art star. Arriving later, Melody’s father (Ed Begley Jr.) is more horrified by Marietta’s transformation, but he too is liberated when New York City duly morphs him from a repressed preacher to an out-and-proud antique shop owner in Chelsea. Still seeing her daughter’s marriage as youthful folly, Marietta arranges the swooping in of a young, wholesome hunk, a Brit looking and sounding exactly like Matthew Goode’s Match Point joyboy.

Allen is better here than in his career-low one-two whiff of Hollywood Ending and Anything Else, but it’s asking too much for the intermittent good cracks and snatches of philosophy to redeem the generics of this fairy tale. He’s poured any feeling he might have had for the material into Boris. He’s an individual; everyone else is a type. Evan Rachel Wood does about all she can with her role, which, though idiotic, isn’t as bad as Henry Cavill’s Brit boyfriend, who lives on a boat because he’s “very romantic by nature,” likes to “read and think,” and plays the flute. The flute! It’s as if he’s the living embodiment of the most formidable, nauseating rival Boris could conjure.

I’m not the first to note the downsides of Allen’s envied one-every-year contract. It serves the dramas poorly because they end up bloated and under-edited, like 2007’s still-gripping Cassandra’s Dream. He probably thinks that the rush keeps the comedies loose and fresh, but it’s hard to argue that stuff like Scoop and Whatever Works wouldn’t have been improved with more precision during the writing stage. Compared to the less rigid prolificacy of a Mike Leigh, whose Naked found true hilarity and profundity in a misanthrope somewhat like Boris, Allen’s lets him down. He too often seems content to merely fulfill his contract every year with whatever works, even though we’ve all seen that he’s capable of more.

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