A blog about movies and filmmaking.

And you thought your family was crazy…

In comedy, drama on March 11, 2009 at 11:48 pm

If there’s a movie with, or about, a family – more than likely, it’s going to be a dysfunctional one. (The family, that is, not the movie.) Whether it’s the strain of having your sister come stay with you (A Streetcar Named Desire), or meeting your future in-laws for the first time (Meet The Parents, or one of any other number of these sorts of movies), chances are there will be misunderstandings, abuses (either funny or traumatic) and maybe a tear shed (also either in laughter or in pain) for some reason audiences love to see the mirror reflections of our own families played out on the big screen. Or, the small screen as today’s independent filmmakers are just as apt to make a movie about a character coming home to their family for some event – wedding, funeral, take your pick – as they are to make one about “friends taking a road trip to discover the meaning of life”. Two these movies, which came out in 2008, are what I’ve got to talk about now. Both revolve around a character who has to deal with family and their inability to really connect, while also having to deal with their own issues, involving addiction and rehab.  

CHOKE, an adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk book of the same name, is about Victor – a, sometimes, colonial-era re-enactor and a full-time sex addict, played to perfection by Sam Rockwell. He also makes a living by going into restaurants and forcing himself  to choke on food in order to gain sympathy and money from unsuspecting patrons. Most of the money, we learn, is used to help keep his mother in a nice private hospital to help her with her dementia. Whenever he comes to visit, she always mistakes him for one of the many lawyers she’s had over her lifetime – as she spent most of her life as a thief, trouble-maker and con-woman. In one flashback, we see her teaching young Victor code words to listen for over loud speakers in stores and airports. 

We soon discover that Victor’s main goal is for the one clear moment in his mother’s memory so that she can tell him who his father was. He’s looking for an explanation, or even a confirmation that this woman isn’t what he’s destined to be and that there has to be someone that he’s related to that might not use him as a ploy or part of a scheme. It’s only with the help of a strange and not-quite-conventional “doctor”  – played by Kelly MacDonald – and his best-friend, Denny – played by Brad William Henke – who is also a sex-addict, although seemingly his vice was chronic masturbation, that we are lead to a diary of Victor’s mother’s – who is played by the always fun Angelica Huston. The diary, having been written in Italian is left in the hands of the doctor, Paige Marshall (MacDonald), for her to translate it. In the meantime, we see Victor not only gain more notches on his belt, but we also get playbacks of his former conquests – including the majority of the nurses at the hospital his mother is in.

Hijinks ensues, with a lot of dark humor – many of the older women in the hospital accost Victor and one in particular, repeatedly accuses him of touching her “woo-woo” – some deep, and meaningful moments – like when Huston’s character is about to tell Fred (an unrecognized in her eyes Victor) who his father is, when she says she’s not even sure who he is. It’s a moment wherein the question of “whether a crazy person knows they’re crazy” is brought to mind and we’re left feeling for this woman lost in her own memories. Sam Rockwell, playing Victor, goes back and forth from gaining our sympathy to making us really not like him. Whether it’s a scene where he’s actually choking, but he’s cried wolf so many times that no one believes him, or berating his friend for attempting to be happy with his new (stripper) girlfriend, Victor is a complex character, that shows all the traits that we do and is as capable of good as evil. And this becomes and even more important ideal, after a plot detail is brought up about his origin of birth – and whether he might actually be of a mix of emaculate and scientific engineering. In his quest to do bad, he answers an online request to perform a fetishistic rape – in a hilarious scene with a woman played by Heather Burns – only to not be able to go through with it (not really because he can’t but because of the insane restrictions by the woman). And then he finds in trying to do good – after the doctor, played by MacDonald, suggests that there’s an experimental procedure that could help his mom, but is has to come from a fetus of similar blood type – she says they need to have sex, only because he might actually like her – he isn’t able to perform. 

I have not read the book that the movie is based on, but the movie has a similar feel as the previous adaptation – FIGHT CLUB – of one of his books. There’s the nihilistic, separate main character who doesn’t/can’t relate to other people on an intimate level, unless it’s through the most intimate of situations (in FIGHT CLUB, it’s the narrator’s going to group therapy sessions, and in CHOKE it’s Victor’s having meaningless sex) and then the feelings are only momentary. But, in this, doesn’t it show us how we all kind of search out these small, insignificant ways in trying to connect with other people. Whether it’s going to the same coffee shop, or online-dating or by just trying to be the “funny guy” at parties or in social situations, we all do need that. And in Victor’s case, he’s not happy, maybe because of his childhood – being repeatedly forced to break the law with his mother, and then put in a foster home; only to eventually have her find him and take him away again – or maybe, just from not having anyone else to give him that parental support and hence his search for his father. The twist in this solution is pretty jaw-dropping, and while I’m sure creating a gaping wound in Victor’s head (and heart) probably answers a lot more questions than it might raise. And then in the end of the movie, we have a flashback to the moment when Victor was introduced to the vice, that has turned into an addiction for him, and it all comes about by opening an unlocked bathroom door on an airplane. 

The performances in this are all top notch. Huston is brilliant in her role as Victor’s mother. Whether she’s the delusional, older woman stuck in a hospital bed, or the younger firecracker, cool mom that we all kind of wished we’d had – but in the end are probably glad we didn’t. Her interaction with young Victor – played by Jonah Bobo – is both sweet and at times, off-putting; bordering on incestuous and child-like. She very well, shows the kind of mentality of a demented person and one that never fully grew up, so she takes advantage of wanting to do child-like things, only with the advantage of an adult body. 

Henke as Denny, is a true friend to Victor. Assisting in his scams of choking, and being there to try and keep Victor on his “steps to recovery”. The small arc that we get of Denny, both being kicked out of his parent’s house (given the most subtle of clues of them wanting him out, by placing an ad renting out his room – while he still lives in it) and moving into Victor’s house; to falling in love with their local, friendly stripper, Cherry Daiquiri – played by Gillian Jacobs. (She dyes her hair red, from blonde – not because that makes more sense for the name “Cherry” but because Victor tells her that blondes are more likely to get cancer.) 

Kelly MacDonald has a hard role to pull of, playing the Doctor, Paige Marshall. Mostly, in that she has to play the whole movie pretending to be someone that’s pretending to be someone. While still seeming sane and empathetic. We can see that she not only cares for Victor’s mom, but for Victor as well. But, we know that something isn’t quite right with her, in some of the practices she suggests and also in her almost “Sixth Sense” sort of presence in the home. (No, she’s not a ghost.) In the end, she does a great job and impressively plays an American very well. (She’s Scottish, and if you’ve not seen her in TRAINSPOTTING, she’s also great at manipulating the main character in that as well.)

The last role to discuss is the man that is sort of in charge of the Colonial Re-enactment group, played by Clark Gregg, who also wrote and directed the movie. Who might be most familiar in his role this past summer in IRON MAN, as the agent for the organization with the really long name (S.H.I.E.L.D), but has also been on The West Wing, The New Adventures of Old Christine and numerous other roles. In the movie, itself, he plays Lord High Charlie, and he has a real problem with both Victor and Denny. Putting Denny’s “Character” in the stocks almost every day, for some infraction – either not wearing his wig, or possessing some artifact that would not exist in colonial America (like marker-writing on his hand, or a newspaper). He also has the hots for the same milk maid – played by Bijou Phillips – that Victor (and possibly every guy in the “village”) does, and in an incredibly funny (and awkward) scene, Victor tells Charlie how he totally just has to put himself out there and the milk maid is his. It’s very sweet, even though, as he’s saying this she has fallen asleep after giving Victor a hand-job, and still has his penis in her hand.

Clark also does a good job, with the direction of the movie. It’s not too stylized and handles the humor very well. We’re introduced to Victor’s fantasies of seeing women topless through their clothes, then in a “breaking of the fourth wall” moment, in the narration, he tells us that one such “fantasy” actually did happen, with the nurse that had just given him a nasty look. Again, having not read the book, I can’t comment on the faithfulness to novel. But, if the book version of CHOKE is like FIGHT CLUB, then it seems that Palahniuk’s prose is perfect for adapting to the screen. The witty dialogue, some of the insane ideas presented and the connections that the characters have are perfectly created by the actors – who I would imagine could only have done such a great job, by having a great script. 

This is Gregg’s first directorial movie – and only second screenwriting credit, after 2000’s WHAT LIES BENEATH, directed by Robert Zemekis and starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer – and I look forward to what he might do in  the future, both onscreen and off.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED is about a character named, now get this, Kym, played by Anne Hathaway. Kym starts out the movie, outside of a rehabilitation center, waiting to be picked up by her father – played by Bill Irwin – for her sister’s wedding. (Guess, which character that is) We pretty much learn all we need to about Kym in the first couple minutes that she’s with her family. She’s brash and confrontational and even when she’s attacking – she’s on the defensive. We learn that she was a child-model, and was sent to rehab this last time after a fatal incident involving the family car. So, coming home is strained enough as it is, with her father hovering over her and offering her food and to drive her places, and then with her sister, Rachel – played by the wonderful Rosemary DeWitt – and her best friend Emma (Anisa George, in her first acting role), primping and prodding in preparation for the wedding. 

After seeing the house overrun with people, that we’re not really ever introduced to – and that Kym doesn’t seem to know – she heads out on a bicycle to take her initial drug test and sit in for her first NA meeting. She walks in, causing a ruckus and interrupting the story of Kieran – played by Mather Zickel – who fortuitously is revealed to be the best man in her sister’s wedding. When she gets back home, and the introduction is made between these two, they sneak away to the basement for a quick “getting to know you” romp and then we get treated to a twenty minute rehearsal dinner scene, where we have stand-up comedians, multiple musical performances and a few speeches and then toasts at the dinner table and the inroduction to Kym and Rachel’s mother, played by Debra Winger. All presented to us in detail and taking it’s own time to continue the story. The movie continues on this lackadaisical journey through a weekend of wedding planning, and familial blow-outs and the ever-impending moment where Kym will be tempted to use again. 

We get from the characters, what their roles are, pretty much as soon as we meet them. The father is the doting parent who cares – obsesses over – Kym, more than Rachel (in one moment, Rachel calls him on this by saying that she can only get him to engage with her, by asking him how Kym is doing, or what she’s up to), Rachel is the sister (I kept getting the feeling that she’s supposed to be younger, but Rosemarie DeWitt, is definitely older than Hathaway, and looks it) who is vying for attention from both her parents, by doing everything that is considered the “right thing to do”, whether it’s graduating college with her PHD, getting married to a wonderful man and whatever else is in line with that; but is always over-shadowed by the trouble-maker, Kym. Winger, as the mother, is kept at an arm’s distance from her daughters and shows no real emotion or inclination in even wanting any sort of part in the wedding, other than making the bouquets, even when Rachel is essentially pleading with her to do so. We don’t really get a sense, whether this is a life-long thing with the mother, or something that is recent and lead to the divorce between her and Irwin’s character as a result of the accident with Kym. 

There are a number of people in this movie, names and faces that might be familiar – not only from movies but musicians as well. Considering who the director is behind the movie, it’s not surprising to see such a varied and interesting cast, Jonathan Demme – perhaps most well-known for directing such spectacular movies like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PHILADELPHIA and numerous musical documentaries and videos – has put together. It’s also surprising though, to see such an unorthodox and what to me seemed completely self-indulgent movie created by a filmmaker of this caliber. The hand-held camera shaking about catching the drama and the endless scenes of people toasting and performing and dancing and putting dishes in the dishwasher. The movie seems more like a home-video, of an actual family at an actual wedding than it does a major motion picture. 

The movie itself, is one put together of moments of extreme emotion. Going from laughing to anger to sadness to laughing again all in moments – just as get-to-gether’s with family can be. There’s a few key scenes with both parents, as they are confronted with the tragedy that has loomed over this family and most heart-breaking to me is the one with Bill Irwin’s character silently dealing with holding a plate that has significant meaning and being frozen amidst his family and friends during a fun little competition. The moment with Winger, as she unleashes an emotional fury on Kym – which might be her dealing with her own culpability in the accident as it was Kym’s – is very strong. And the only things that keep these moments from being more powerful, is the fact that you’re so lulled into boredom and tedium with the monotonous way the movie plays out. 

The performances by the key cast are very good. I just mentioned Irwin’s and Winger’s key moments. Dewitt’s Rachel has a couple of moments where she puts her heart on the line to try and feel complete with her mother and her sister and neither are ever really able to completely give themselves to the moment. Anne Hathaway, who received the Best Actress nominee for her role as Kym, does a pretty good job. I do think that she has spent so much of her career playing the sweet, innocent that it is shocking and strange to see her play these darker and fore-boding characters (for another risky, and risque, role see the movie HAVOC), and it’s because of this, her acting sometimes seems just that. And, while yes there are even moments – particularly towards the beginning of the movie where we’re still getting to know who this character is – where this playing against type is refreshing and a shock, ultimately, she still has the “Snow White, princess” look to her. I do think that she’s a very good actress though, and she does a fine job. 

The screenplay, written by Jenny Lumet, might have as much to do with the style of the movie as does the director. The concept of the movie is a good one, and as I originally said, not too unexpected from a first-time screen-writer. And I have a feeling that the movie is based on some very real-life moments (although possibly the main character’s rehab and accident, are made up for dramatic purposes) and perhaps that is what gives us the feeling of it being a ‘home-video’. But, it also comes from the viewpoint of a very affluent, and privileged family and I can see how that causes a disconnect between a major audience. Most of these movies, by first time filmmakers, that tend to cover this same kind of topic are usually just starting out and don’t have the resources that an established pro like Demme, and the daughter of esteemed director Sidney Lumet would have. And I don’t mean to deride anyone for having that privilege – where I in that position, I would grab those opportunities as well – but, there is a sort of feeling of, “why should I care about these yuppies?” when in the end, they’ve had their tragedies – left off-screen – but everything seems to work out alright in the end. 

I hope I don’t spoil it for anyone, when I say that Rachel does indeed get married, and we have a never-ending panorama of the guests dancing, the live band(s) playing, the belly-dancers performing, people laughing and drinking and being merry and then in the end, as we are preparing to leave the movie, Kym is quietly sneaking out of the house, without having said goodbye to anyone other than the stranger she met at her meeting earlier that weekend and she’s back in a car heading somewhere else. Maybe the feeling of the movie is that we’re supposed to feel as Kym does – disconnected from everyone. Having perhaps at one time been accepted into this inner-circle but now finding ourselves, either unwillingly or by choice, forever separated from the people that are usually considered to be closest to us. Maybe that’s why this movie, with its jarring, headache-inducing camera movements, and irritatingly long takes of people doing nothing and celebrating mundane things that people shouldn’t care about, is made the way it is. We’re supposed to hate being in this house, with these people – on what is supposedly, at least two of the people’s most happiest memories. And maybe, it’s our own inability to recognize that we’re being petty, and it’s our own inner-prejudices – either right or wrong – that keep us from being part of the group.  

It’s for these questions that I respect this movie, but I didn’t really like it. It does ask questions and put us in uncomfortable situations, but in a way that doesn’t give us that “audience”-buffer. We’re dragged into this kicking and screaming, and to quit watching/participating would be like Kym going and getting her next fix and just forgetting about all this. 

Also Recommended:

GARDEN STATE
BUFFALO ’66
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
PSYCHO

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