Now that the Fussbal has gone away, the Tour de France is finally over and the mad cyclist has repaired to Italy to go conquer himself some Alps, I get the telly all to myself. In a house with three children and a sport fanatic this does not happen a lot. So, courtesy of Amazon.de, I’ve had my own little DVD-fest this weekend (cultural ref: in Germany, all fests are accompanied by beer and sausage; disclaimer: mine was not).
First up was The Human Stain with Ant Hopkins and Nic Kidman. I had been wondering why this film, based on Phillip Roth’s book of the same name, with these two good actors in it, had not received great heaps of praise and prizes. Now I know why. It’s darn dreary. I loved the book and the movie is true to it, but it somehow doesn’t satisfy. Director Robert Benton (Superman, Kramer vs Kramer) is a Hollywood heavyweight, the two leads are the same and the cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier was apparently famous. Ed Harris and Gary Sinise play supporting roles. And yet, and yet. It’s trying really hard to be a great film, and it just isn’t.
Kidman does damaged again (as in The Hours, Birth and Dogville), and while her reading of Faunia’s tragic life should have moved me, it didn’t. Hopkins blusters well as distinguished academic Coleman Silk, who has fallen foul of political correctness, but he seems miscast as a white-skinned African American. The drama of their liaison, their joint tragedy, is about as poignant as a stale sandwich. You just don’t care. The best part of the film was Wentworth Miller, who plays the young Coleman – extremely pretty, he is totally believeable as someone struggling with his racial identity and he brings Coleman’s history to life. What a pity such good raw material came to naught. Over on Rotten Tomatoes, it gets this consensus: good acting, pity about the miscasting, less powerful than the book.
My Saturday night viewing, however, was in a whole different league. I saw Jim Jarmusch’s funny, delightful and properly poignant Broken Flowers. This movie is an object lesson in how to have a light touch (Bloglily has been talking about this recently in her posts about showing rather than telling); something completely missing in my previous night’s viewing. It features a stellar cast – Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy, Chloe Sevigny – and tells the story of Don, played by Murray, who visits a series of old girlfriends trying to ascertain which of them could be author of a letter he received telling him she gave birth to his son twenty years before. In the end, he does not find out, and no son appears, so it is a story about the journey.
Bill Murray continues to plough the furrow he started in Lost in Translation – that of a man depleted by his life. He does this so well, with not a smile, and barely a change of expression. Occasionally something flickers across his face. It’s a great performance and I wondered at the cheek of Jarmusch, casting Bill Murray, and not allowing him to be funny, not even once. There is a shot where Murray sits bolt upright on a sofa, a glass of champagne on a coffee table in front of him and does not move for the entire duration of one song. This happens in life – but isn’t often reflected in films. This film is not scared of silences, stillness and moments where people say nothing.
Don’s blank shell is offset by co-actor Jeffrey Wright, who plays Winston, Don’s neighbour and amateur sleuth. Winston maps out Don’s strategy, rides roughshod over his protests, ignores his occasional fits of temper and moaning. His large family, messy home and lovely wife provide sharp contrast to the designer emptiness of Don’s house.
I loved the way Jarmusch cast various famous and/or wonderful actors in the bit parts: Julie Delpy briefly appears as the girlfriend who is busy leaving Don and Chloe Sevigny plays a receptionist. Sharon Stone’s a professional declutterer with a jailbait daughter called Lolita, Jessica Lange is an animal communicator, Tilda Swinton’s living on a farm in bovver boots. She has about three lines – imagine, getting Tilda all the way over from Scotland to look moody and say three lines.
This film won prizes and it deserved them. Jarmusch says in the outtakes that he likes the randomness, the chaos in life. Broken Flowers seems to celebrate the random, while at the same time pointing to the detail with which people fill their lives. I loved it: it made me laugh, it made me sad, it made me think.