Tony Kaye has a lot to say in “Detachment” and all the wrong tools to say it. It’s a shrill and didactic melodrama about the pratfalls of the education system, rendered in shockingly amateur terms. However, there’s a certain backwards entertainment value in seeing a top-tier cast assembled for such a deeply awful production.
Adrian Brody stars as Henry Barthes, a downtrodden substitute teacher nursing the psychological wounds of his mother’s suicide. Briefly assigned to a particularly troublesome public high school, Henry tries to tamp down the angrier students’ hostility while defending ostracized Meredith (Betty Kaye). At home, he hesitantly allows an underage prostitute (Sami Gayle) to crash on his couch when she chases him home. In between these endeavors, he visits his ailing grandfather (Louis Zorich), whose death is imminent.
The plot fundamentals take their cues from “Half Nelson,” although Henry has fewer problems than the teacher in that legitimately moving work. Played by Brody with eternally sad eyes and eyebrows that reach for the sky, Henry is basically a classroom Christ, deeply torn by the disarray surrounding him and dedicated to changing it. He’s as hopelessly righteous as the movie itself.
Brody acts circles around this material, but he can’t transcend dreadful writing and amateurish direction. Stylistically, “Detachment” is all over the place. It opens with a quote from Albert Camus before segueing into apparent real-world interviews with high school teachers explaining how they got their starts, which leads into a mock interview with Brody in character. This becomes a recurring device that allows Brody to pontificate for the camera about the futility of his job.
That might work if Kaye were going the satiric route, and “Detachment” were “The Office” of high school comedies. But he wants to explore profoundly disturbing ideas about the futility of school system, and Carl Lund’s screenplay doesn’t have sufficient credibility to pull it off. “How do you teach kids about literature if they don’t believe?” Henry moans. Other characters offer equally shallow pronouncements, including Lucy Liu as a frustrated guidance counselor who calls one student — with very little justification — “a shallow and disgusting creature” before unloading statistics that suggest she won’t go far in life.
The most remarkable aspect of “Detachment” is that it contains so many first-rate actors in an utterly mediocre product. These include a stern Marcia Gay Harden as the school principal and James Caan, whose hilarious pill-popper briefly transcends the movie, although he would fit better fit a flat-out comedy.
If Kaye wanted to achieve a certain surreality, “Detachment” is a batshit insane indictment of American high school curriculum, one that argues against the administrative forces tasked with determining the trajectory of so many students’ lives. But the vessel for that assertion is simply too messy and incoherent for any significant takeaway, except that Brody deserves a far better outlet.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its low production values and wildly uneven, experimental design, it’s hard to imagine that “Detachment” will go far, even with the big names in its cast. If somebody picks it up, it will likely come and go from theaters without much notice.
criticWIRE grade: D