By Eric Kohn | Indiewire December 7, 2011 at 1:17PM
Editor's Note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire's Criticwire network (currently in hibernation while we prepare its new design) discuss new releases with Indiewire's chief film critic, Eric Kohn. This week, we turn to Movieline Chief Film Critic Stephanie Zacharek and Film Society of Lincoln Center associate programmer Scott Foundas (also a contributing editor to Film Comment) for their takes on two new movies opening on Friday: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Young Adult."
Since Criticwire is currently undergoing renovation, no average grades are available for films this week, but links to individual film pages for new releases follow after the discussion.
ERIC KOHN: Stephanie, when "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" premiered at Venice, you called it a "beautifully constructed thriller," but what I found particularly interesting about your review was that you mainly focused on the non-thriller components — Gary Olman's deeply felt performance, the nuanced concoction of moods. Given that this is, after all, a spy movie, what do you make that incredibly dense plot? Is director Tomas Alfredson merely paying lip service to John le Carré's novel while focusing on performance and atmosphere, or does the movie actually thrill? Is it even fair to call it a spy movie when the identity of the double agent is beside the point?
STEPHANIE ZACHAREK: Though you can't truly know what's going on in the minds of filmmakers, I suspect Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, faced with adapting le Carré's labyrinthine novel (which I haven't finished yet -- I've still got a few days, right?), felt they had to have another focus rather than just condensing the plot. Even though Alfredson works a small miracle keeping that plot so streamlined, it's still not particularly easy to follow. I've seen the movie twice and after the second time, a gent sitting next to me at the screening groused, "This thing's going to tank at the box office! Who in this day and age can follow something so complicated?"
Well, my first response was, and is, tough nuts to anyone who doesn't even try to follow it. First of all, by following the plot, or at least making an effort to do so, you're being an actual grown-up at the movies. There are few enough chances for us to do that these days, so just run with it.
Second, as you work your way through the mechanical intricacies of the story, you become drawn into the emotional intricacies of the characters. I think that's just the way the movie works; it's actually rather simple and ingenious. Alfredson has created this incredible ensemble playground for the actors. There's something interesting for everyone to do, and certain actors that we've seen quite a bit of over the years emerge in a new way. I'm thinking particularly of Benedict Cumberbatch, who's always been pretty good. (In addition to having one of the most amazing names among all English actors.) But he usually plays those "head boy" roles and in "Tinker, Tailor" he reveals a whole new set of angles. His character is charming and bright and loyal, but you also see there's a person there. The same with Mark Strong, who's also terrific. He's been around for years, but I always just think of him as a villain in tights for some reason. And the first time I saw him here, I asked myself, "Who is that?" He's clearly slipped right into the world of this movie.
And Gary Oldman, as the deposed spy Smiley, gives one of my favorite performances of the year. You just look at this guy, worn-out and cautious-looking, and he's wearing each and every mistake he's made over the years as if it were a heavy Harris Tweed coat. But there's still a spark about him; this guy desperately wants to be alive, in every way.
So in answer to your question, Eric, about whether or not the movie actually thrills -- for me, it does, just because I loved watching every minute of what these actors were doing and Alfredson clearly created the environment for that and helped orchestrate it. I wasn't all that wowed by [Alfredson's previous film] "Let the Right One In" -- its sensibility is just too relentlessly, almost artificially, dour for me -- but I think "Tinker, Tailor" is an extraordinary piece of work. I love it when filmmakers, and actors, surprise me. It's just the most exciting thing in the world -- better than car chases and explosions! As much as I love those things.
EK: Scott, you were a fan of Alfredson's last feature, "Let the Right One In." How does "Tinker, Tailor" stack up? The movies appear to address vastly different issues and may even appeal to entirely separate audiences. Of course, there are neither vampires nor children in "Tinker, Tailor," but I wonder if you can see any stylistic or thematic connections between the two?
SCOTT FOUNDAS: I agree almost point by point with everything you say, Stephanie, about "Tinker Tailor," especially the part about how simple and ingenious the mechanics of the movie are if you really pay attention to what’s going on. You could tell from the early buzz on the movie emanating from Venice (and some of the awards-season blogger folks) that “it’s too complicated” was going to be a convenient label to slap on this one, even if I don’t think the film is particularly more difficult to follow than (and I mean this as a compliment to both movies) "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" —another one of my favorites this year.
Actually, John le Carré hasn’t been as well served by cinema over the decades as J.K. Rowling has (one notable exception being Fred Schepisi’s fine, underrated version of "The Russia House"), and one of the things about "Tinker Tailor" that grabs you right from the opening frames is a sense of just how well Alfredson and the screenwriters understand Le Carré’s world, by which I mean both the look and the feel of it.
The “Circus,” the MI6 headquarters where so much of the movie’s action takes place, is one of the great locations of the year—a triumph of the kind of non-ostentatious production design that rarely gets noticed by Academy voters and other awards-giving groups, but which is so immaculately realized down to the last metallic file cabinet and square inch of linoleum floor (It recalls the newsroom from David Fincher’s "Zodiac") that it immediately sets the emotional tone for the entire film; it tells you you’re going to see a story about people who are cogs in some larger machine.
And this, I suppose, is where I see a connection to "Let the Right One In," children and vampires notwithstanding. Like so much of Le Carré’s work, "Tinker Tailor" is a story of people living double lives, torn—in the case of the mole whose pursuit sets the film in motion—between two nations, or simply between their chosen careers and all of the messy personal relationships they are expected to suppress (but often fail to do) in the name of queen and country. All of that duplicity and deception may pale by comparison to a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be human so that no one will know he/she’s really a vampire, but in both cases Alfredson very skillfully taps into the emotional and psychological damage these characters cause to themselves and those around them, which is a big part of what makes both films seem so much more than the “genre” movies they might sound like on the surface. (At one point in recent years, Alfredson was also set to direct a film adaptation of "The Danish Girl," David Ebershoff’s novel about Einar Wegener, the world’s first post-op transsexual—so clearly there is a certain psychosexual pattern emerging here.)
Finally, I’ll just add a few words about Gary Oldman, who’s been one of the great things in movies for a couple of decades now and who has a number of scenes here that can stand shoulder to shoulder with anything he’s done before. There’s one, in particular, in which Smiley recounts his long-ago meeting with his Soviet doppelganger, Karla, in a lounge of the Cairo airport. Alfredson keeps the camera squarely on Oldman as he tells the tale, and as he does—his mind drifting back, his face weary with regret—we imagine the whole encounter more vividly than any traditional flashback could ever accomplish. There are some truly formidable star turns on screen right now, from Brad Pitt in "Moneyball" to George Clooney in "The Descendants," but I dare say a scene like this is in a class by itself.
EK: Stephanie, your point about being an actual grown-up at the movies is well-taken. But what kind of perspective is necessary for "Young Adult"? Of Jason Reitman's previous movie, "Up in the Air," you wrote that it "pretends with a vengeance to be about the 'little' people." Clearly, you were left nonplussed.
On the other hand, you loved "Juno." Given that that "Young Adult" marks the second teaming of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody since "Juno," and that it's less openly political than "Up in the Air," do you think this marks a rebound for Reitman? And what do you make of the movie's sad, scheming protagonist?
SZ: I think "Young Adult" is less a rebound for Reitman, and for Cody, than proof that "Juno" was a fluke! I enjoyed "Juno" greatly -- I liked the energy of it, and I admired the way it acknowledged that life often demands the making of serious choices, things no one else can decide for you. (I know some people thought the movie had a conservative anti-abortion agenda, but you know -- the movement is called "pro-choice" for a reason.) But I was less fond of "Thank You for Smoking" and "Up in the Air," both of which seemed excessively self-conscious and pleased with themselves. And I think "Young Adult" is even worse, notwithstanding a pretty game performance by Charlize Theron.
I just saw this movie last night, and I have to say, the awfulness of it is still settling in. Where to begin? I get that the character played by Theron, the heavy-drinking, deeply unhappy, misanthropic young-adult author, is supposed to be a complicated, unlikable character. In theory, unlikable characters are what make the world, and art and literature, go around: You couldn't have Madame Bovary without them or much of Thomas Hardy, or Shakespeare. Difficult people are everywhere, in art and in life, so you'd better get used to them, but even beyond that, being nicey-nice is never what makes people wonderful. People are so much more complicated than that.
But there's something about Theron's character -- the combination of her being mindlessly nasty plus a delusional stalker -- that just strikes me as a writer's conceit. This character seems to grow from the idea of wanting to shock people, not from the impulse to put something genuinely human on the screen. And I think Reitman and Cody together make the whole thing far too slick. Even the Patton Oswalt character, the victim of a long-ago hate crime -- I think what Oswalt does with the material is pretty amazing, but there's still something about the conception of that character that doesn't sit right with me. Everyone in this movie seems invented from the outside in, rather than the other way around.
And instead of having sympathy for Theron's character, even the grudging kind, I found her repellent -- not because she was mean to people. I like people to be mean in the movies. Richard Widmark pushing an old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs? Bring it on! But again, it seemed to me to be conceptual meanness, for the story's sake, not for the character's. And I got no pleasure out of watching her stalk boring old Patrick Wilson. It didn't even make me uncomfortable. I just kept thinking, Why doesn't someone call the police on her? And then we're supposed to feel sorry for her because she has that habit of pulling her hair out -- so we can see that, deep inside, she's filled with existential pain. Puh-leeze. The whole thing reeked of calculation, and even though I generally love Theron, I just don't think she ever breaks out of the mirror-world of this role. She can't.
Yes, all the while I kept wishing I was watching "Tinker, Tailor" again instead -- now those are some conflicted characters. Scott, I'm so glad you mentioned the production design. I kept looking at those offices, those rooms, so dismal in that staid, 1970s-England way -- maybe not as dismal as what you'd find in the Eastern Bloc, but probably pretty close. And yet the orange baffling in that central Circus meeting room looks almost like a design element -- unintentionally groovy, almost cheerful, and it works beautifully as a setup for that great, final shot of Oldman. It's one of the most exhilarating finales of the year. Now that's the sort of thing that really restores my faith in humankind.
EK: I'm more or less on the same page as you, Stephanie. When I reviewed "Young Adult" earlier this week, I focused on Reitman and Cody's apparent attempt to make the audience uncomfortable -- not by relating to the character, but by allowing them to feel superior to her, like drive-by witnesses to a car crash in progress. I don't believe that's what the filmmakers were going for, but it seems to be the unfortunate result of trying so hard to make their heroine unlikable.
Scott, you're up. You were a big fan of "Up in the Air," writing in Film Comment that it was "Reitman's most accomplished film to date." Do you think "Young Adult" continues Reitman's progress? Or do you relate to some of the issues Stephanie has raised about Theron's character?
SF: Well, I did find the characters in "Young Adult" to be human (if not “likable”), especially Theron’s Mavis, who has a few wonderfully vulnerable scenes in which you see how psychologically fragile she is, how much she’s failed to live up to a certain glamorous image she has of herself—and that the people in her hometown have of her—and how the nondescript suburban life she outwardly mocks secretly appeals to her. Having myself grown up in a suburban town where the vast majority of my high-school classmates seemed to harbor no greater ambition in life than to grow up to become exactly like their parents, I more than once felt a tinge of recognition watching this movie.
And Cody’s very smart script—as smart, I would say, as "Juno," without feeling the same need to keep reminding us how smart it is—conveys all of this without feeling the need to explain or apologize for the characters’ sometimes deplorable behavior. Though both Mavis and Patton Oswalt’s Matt have suffered traumatic incidents in their past (and it’s intimated that Mavis may fall somewhere on the autism spectrum), the movie doesn’t resort to the reductive, “if A then B” reasoning we’ve come to expect from most Hollywood movies. (Indeed, in the case of Oswalt’s character, the movie makes it pretty clear that he was a self-pitying sad-sack long before incurring his physical disability.)
Reitman’s films haven’t lacked for complex characters, but whereas Aaron Eckhart’s fast-talking lobbyist in "Thank You For Smoking" and George Clooney’s globe-trotting hatchet man in "Up in the Air" ultimately seemed like nice guys caught up in careers that demanded a certain Teflon exterior, Mavis is cut from a completely different cloth. American movies, be they mainstream or indie, rarely revolve around a central character this coarse and abrasive, who inflicts this much damage (or tries to) on others, and who evolves so little over the course of the story—the Nicole Kidman character in Noah Baumbach’s "Margot at the Wedding" comes to mind, along with Reese Witherspoon’s win-at-any-cost candidate in "Election" and the college roommates played by Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel in "Carnal Knowledge," one of the all-time great movies about people doing nasty things to one another. But they’re few and far between, and when they appear, they tend to make audiences uncomfortable, because they expose the fraudulence of the smooth, carefully balanced pseudo-reality that the vast majority of movies so aggressively spoon-feed us. And "Young Adult" will, I think, make a lot of audiences uncomfortable, not least of all those who go in expecting to see "Juno 2."
That said, I resist the notion that Reitman and Cody make Mavis mean just for “conceptual” reasons. I found the character compelling not in a voyeuristic, car-crash kind of way, but because her every action—no matter how unsettling—seemed to spring from a place of real emotional necessity. A good deal of that is due to Theron’s fearless, high-wire performance. We know from "Monster," of course, that she’s good at finding the human side of ostensible psychos, but there she had pounds of body fat and facial makeup to help her “disappear” into the role, while here she has nothing of the sort, even playing some scenes without any makeup at all, slothing about her apartment in unkempt hair and sweatpants, guzzling Diet Coke from a large plastic bottle. Very few actresses still young and attractive enough to be on Hollywood’s A list would be willing to expose themselves—emotionally and physically—in the way this role demands, but Theron is up for the challenge and then some.
Films opening this week:
Young Adult (IW Film Page)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (IW Film Page)
London River (IW Film Page)
The Sitter (IW Film Page)
I Melt With You (IW Film Page)
KNUCKLE (IW Film Page)