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by Eric Kohn
April 26, 2011 1:30 AM
28 Comments
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TRIBECA REVIEW | Tony Kaye's "Detachment": Great Cast, Awful Movie

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 here is an element of sheer spectacle 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

28 Comments

  • Dev | March 19, 2013 6:06 PMReply

    This review just belittles without much justification, it seems like Mr. Kohn was just out to get the movie. To the average viewer if you make claims that production and writing were so terrible you must substantiate yourself.

  • dimitri papastavrou | September 24, 2012 8:18 AMReply

    A great film, aspecially if you havea similar professional experience or kids of your own or both. Mr. Kohn`s review is shallow, arrogant and unfeeling and in denial of what happens on screen. But I do admit: there were no car chases, no invading Aliens or superheroes and, obviously, this flick is not popcorn friendly. Fair is fair.


    TRIBECA REVIEW | Tony Kaye's

  • Bee | January 17, 2013 6:10 PM

    I 100% agree with your comment.

  • StephenM | March 14, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    I don't understand the hate expressed by the commenters here. Mr. Kohn saw the film, found it to be bad, and explained why here. What more do you want from him? You can certainly disagree, but all these accusations that he has no idea what he's doing and his review is incoherent make no sense to me. I haven't seen the film, but the other reviews I saw didn't like it either. I don't presume to judge the film based on other people's opinions, but what is so controversial about saying a movie was bad?

  • Batman | June 10, 2012 11:28 PM

    I kind of do understand why, but you're right in the sense that there's no real point in pouring hate on someone with a differing opinion.

    Personally I wholeheartedly disagree with this review(in fact I consider this one of the best films I've ever seen - and I'm what one probably would call a cinephile), but opinions differ between people and the internet would be a far superior place if more people were able to accept that.

  • JNB | March 14, 2012 9:47 AMReply

    Wow, some people (critics mostly), just love to see their thoughts on a page in order to prove how uber cool they are. So Eric, what scripts do you have in the chute right now?

  • johnnyC | March 11, 2012 6:02 AMReply

    The purpose of a movie review is to tell readers the qualities -good or bad- of the movie in question. It is most decidedly not an opportunity for a writer to demonstrate to the world, with much snugness, that he is above the fray. This is an adult movie with adult themes and anyone who has suffered a loss, lost their way or held a child's hand in a time of need will understand what this movie is about. That the editors of Indiewire felt this worthy of publication on just about any level is quite beyond comprehension.

  • kingharvest | March 11, 2012 5:11 AMReply

    >>> It's a shrill and didactic melodrama about the pratfalls of the education system, rendered in shockingly amateur terms.

    Well, I hope the author enjoyed reading his review to the gang at the pub after work because that is about the only thing worthwhile that will come of this so-called review.

    I am sure there were big laughs all around, replete with pats on the back for this turn of a phrase and that scintillating sentence.

    Seriously, if the author has such an overwhelming desire to shit on people for the hell of it he should buy himself a journal and a pen and a scented candle and retire to the back forty.

  • MJ | March 2, 2012 9:25 AMReply

    Film Critics are assholes.

  • Bee | January 17, 2013 6:11 PM

    Indeed.

  • SteveDenver | March 7, 2012 10:06 AM

    In this instance, I have to agree that SOME critics take their "expertise" too far. Parts of this film were difficult to follow or swallow, but the overall effect of the piece is jolting and deeply moving. This review begs the question: "What to critics CREATE, anyway?"

  • Joc | February 25, 2012 10:28 PMReply

    This movie was so inspirational, beautiful, and true. The cinematography was so gorgeous and the story and symbolisim was outstanding. Deffentley not a film for everyone but it speaks so loudly to me.

  • nic | February 6, 2012 11:30 PMReply

    the underaged girl on the bus part is so sexy. watch the trailer evidently she trys to get it on with him funny stuff.
    gotta love those prostitutes

  • Dave Neve | February 5, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    Sorry Mr Khon but you are in the wrong job.

    Even if you don't like a film, you have to be at least able to see that it could well be appealing to others and my god, this is an appealing film.

  • Unnamed | November 20, 2011 2:47 PMReply

    I saw the movie and was AWESOME. But i want to remember de quote of the beginning of Albert Camus. I searched every where but cant find it. Could someone tell me what was the quote?. Please. Thx

  • J. Burns | November 9, 2011 4:30 AMReply

    This is an astonishing review simply because the film is so good. What film did Mr. Kohn see?
    Does anyone think that the script is as bad as he says it is when these great actors have their choice of material?

  • tony kaye | May 22, 2011 12:29 PMReply

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFBlokRR6CY

  • Annabel | April 27, 2011 8:27 AMReply

    I was in it. and I think it was an amazing film! The premiere was a success, and the talk about it as people left was all positive.
    GO SEE IT

  • Film Student | April 27, 2011 4:18 AMReply

    It seems that other critics disagree with you strongly Mr. Kohn. Your review lacks subtlety and sophistication and may belie that you're just as cynical as the students in the film. I think the inventive & artistic approach sets it apart from other films about the school system (i.e. the traditional hero teacher saving the poor savage inner city student students cliché) and sparks a healthy debate. It is no doubt a polarizing film but it's apparent that your end of the pole may be lightly weighted.

  • SteveDenver | March 7, 2012 10:09 AM

    Kohn doesn't use a scalpel to examine the film, but wields a linguistic machete as if his opinion is right and sacred. He's a very imperious writer.

  • David Warren | April 27, 2011 1:08 AMReply

    Sorry couldn't resist:
    Courtesy of the Hollyood Reporter:
    "Detachment" is clearly the work of a powerhouse filmmaker trying to shake audiences up.

    NEW YORK — Movies have been depicting the horrors of the American educational system for more than half a century, from The Blackboard Jungle to Dangerous Minds and others too numerous to mention. But none has reached quite the nightmarish depths of Detachment, the latest effort from cinematic provocateur Tony Kaye. This film depicting the hellish experiences of a high school substitute teacher makes such previous works by the filmmaker as American History X seem positively lighthearted by comparison. Commercial prospects look dicey, but there’s sure to be kudos for the film, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

    Adrien Brody, delivering his finest performance since The Pianist, plays the central role of the disaffected Henry Barthes.
    Henry’s latest gig is at an inner-city public school that is clearly falling apart. Its principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is about to be forced out due to abysmal test scores, the teachers and other staff members all seem to be floundering, and the vast majority of students display zero interest in learning.
    But the kids do respond positively to Henry’s stoic demeanor, his refusal to back down in the face of their taunts and his uncommon degree of empathy. Among those who blossom under his tutelage is Meredith (Betty Kaye, the director’s daughter), an emotionally fragile young woman who displays a genuine talent for photography.
    While attempting to handle his demanding work duties, Henry must also contend with a grandfather (Louis Zorich) suffering from dementia and — representing the film’s most clichéd element — a teenage prostitute (Sami Gayle) who he takes under his wing.
    As usual, the director injects intense visual stylization into the proceedings to frequently arresting effect. The film begins with stark, black- and-white filmed interviews with presumably real teachers describing their experiences and also includes brief animated snippets commenting on the action and a series of sepia-toned flashbacks depicting a traumatic event from Henry’s childhood.
    Carl Lund’s screenplay is most effective in its depictions of the charged interactions between the students and teachers, which could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky in his prime. Among the powerful performers in the terrific ensemble are James Caan as a wisecracking older teacher who’s seen it all, Christina Hendricks as a colleague who takes a shine to Henry, Lucy Liu as a guidance counselor reduced to verbally abusing her charges, and Tim Blake Nelson as a teacher on the verge of cracking.
    The younger performers make equally strong impressions, and Brody delivers an award-caliber turn that is all the more effective for the quiet restraint he exhibits for most of the film’s running time.
    It could certainly be argued that Detachment is ultimately more sensationalistic than it is enlightening. But there’s no denying that it’s the work of a powerhouse filmmaker trying to shake audiences up. Here he succeeds handily.

  • billy bob | April 26, 2011 8:43 AMReply

    This review is spot on. One of the most artlessly made films I've ever seen, it's unbearable to watch, and so heavy handed that you wonder if Kaye knows the meaning of the word "subtle". The production value and the writing are laughable, if you think otherwise well...you can't teach taste. You angry commentors need to differentiate between subject matter and the quality of the film (is it a necessary condition that all Holocaust movies are good movies?) As for the teachers in this forum coming to the film's defense, I hope you are teaching something other than the arts. Otherwise our future generations are even more screwed then they are in this movie.

    Eric Kohn shouldn't apologize for a single word of this review.

  • Eric Kohn | April 26, 2011 7:55 AMReply

    There are some good arguments here. While I don't think "Detachment" holds together in any regard, it is a movie about a topic that evokes passionate responses from a large number of people, as evidenced by a few of these comments (although cowardly drive-by trolls like "eric con" ought to take their anonymous antics elsewhere). I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for Kaye, whose "Lake of Fire" was one of my favorite movies of 2006. But I stand by the assertion that this movie is constantly weighed down by preachy monologues and sloppy narrative devices. I'm about to give it a pass just because Kaye means well, even though he obviously does. He worked the room wonderfully at the premiere last night. Maybe he should take that show on the road.

  • Loved this | April 26, 2011 7:12 AMReply

    hey eric...what are you paying attention to in these films, praytell? Your review of BLACK RAINBOW sets it in 1984. This is wrong. The first thing that pops up on screen is "1983." Pretty easy stuff...It's one of the few things that the director gives the audience and you got that wrong, guy???????

    What films are you watching when in the theater?

    Great insights!

  • eric con | April 26, 2011 7:06 AMReply

    this review is idiotic...seriously idiotic

  • Michael Kleba | April 26, 2011 5:24 AMReply

    I'm a public school teacher in NY. I can't agree with you, Mr. Kohn. This piece is remarkably spot on. Here's what I have to say about it.

    The truth about high school is that it's worse than you remember it.

    Watching Tony Kaye's enthralling “Detachment,” you can't help compare your high school to the one on screen. You remember the terrible teachers you had, the sterile hallways, the asinine classmates, and the absurd assignments. You can remember the “weight that presses on everyone” as Mr. Henry Barthes, played by Adrien Brody, tells his class.

    “If you can just hang on, everything will be alright.” Mr. Barthes is that hero teacher that we love tell stories about. He's the Christ, the Buddha. He's meant to save us from ourselves.

    The problem? Mr. Barthes is a great teacher because he has no life outside of teaching. Like countless other mythologized teachers, Barthes is a detached island to himself, without spouse, children, or personal life. He's a lonely dude.

    As a public school teacher sitting in the audience at the world premiere last night in Tribeca, I have mixed feelings about telling you that Tony Kaye has masterfully succeeded in capturing public school in a macabre and beautiful chalkboard sketch. His lush, mannerist portrait brings a gorgeous but searing light to the lonely reality of the teaching profession. Mr. Kaye's “Detachment” presents school the way so many of us on the inside see it: a windswept wasteland scourged of its humanity by a culture that burdens its underfunded and unfairly censured teachers with rearing, policing, and institutionalizing our children.

    I hate to say it: public school really is this bad. The few great teachers that our system manages to attract are barely hanging on from year to year, knocked senseless by a society that demands way too much from them.

    Adrien Brody is riveting as a seemingly serene but deeply damaged substitute teacher. His sloping eyebrows, sometimes treacly or overwrought in other performances, here convey an-inch-from-the-cliff hopelessness without ever becoming a mask. Mr. Brody's Henry Barthes is sweetly but searingly honest with his students as he sadly skulks the halls of his school. Barthes is also furious enough to throw desks in his classroom and scream at a late night nurse at his grandfather's assisted care facility. In close-up, documentary-style interviews, Mr. Brody's eyes flash like lightning one moment and then become as dull as concrete the next, daring us to try to understand how one can care so much and so little. It's a career performance.

    Barthes' determination to be disconnected keeps him the perennial substitute-- in the classroom and in his personal life. Barthes tends to his grandfather but has more than enough time to help out two young girls, a young prostitute and an overweight loner. Despite his earnest efforts, almost none of it works out well. The complicating plot lines, all involving family surrogacy around Barthes, serve the notion that teachers must be dispassionate and alone in order to perform their jobs. The story survives its few yet regrettable school cliches by sticking to this thesis.

    Despite the fact that the number of big names threatens to make the movie look like a cameo-fest (Lucy Liu? Christina Hendricks? Marcia Gay Harden? Blythe Danner? James Caan? Really?), the ensemble gels together surprisingly well. After all, weren't your teachers an impossible cast of characters? The performances are just fine, largely, but two are particularly successful. While Mr. Caan's grinning jester provides a refreshingly necessary gallows' humor in some of the film's darkest moments, it's Ms. Liu's imploding truth-teller that lends undeniable heft to the story. As a guidance counselor faced with yet another unreachable know-it-all teen, Ms. Liu's character finally breaks down, berating the student with a bleak prophecy of the child's future. “You will NOT be a model! You will forever be on a carousel, competing with 80% of the country for a minimum wage job for the rest of your life!” the guidance counselor screams uselessly at the apathetic teen.

    It's grim stuff, made more grave by the undeniable ring of truth.

    The ancient Greeks tell us "we suffer our way to wisdom." By the end of the film, you'll hope that is true for most of these characters. Somewhere on screen, between a silent hug and the opening lines to Poe's “Fall of the House of Usher,” you will find a glimmer of hope. But you have to work for it.

    School, as the film has drawn it, is a Munch-esque desert of detachment where the best anyone (teachers and students) can do is survive. But the fact that Barthes, and teachers like him, won't give up-- and the fact that Mr. Kaye made this movie-- tells us that hope is alive, if not well.

    The hope rests almost entirely in our lonely, detached teachers.

  • jim fouratt | April 26, 2011 5:18 AMReply

    what an ugly detached review by Eric. Really he must come out of the dark screening rooms and the computer screen and seen what is actually happening in public education right here in New York City, I had a totally different experience viewing DETACHMENT

    DETACHMENT a sensitive powder keg of a film with an engaged script that is powerfully directed by Tony Kaye and acted by a superb ensemble cast with top-of-their-game performances from Adrian Brody, James Caan and Marcia Gay Harden. A forceful answer-back to liberal embraced Waiting for Superman. DETACHMENT captures the desperate position that budget cutting, fast-lane test scores criteria of teaching success, the amoral drenching of young people in false marketing fantasy of who they should be and the further break down in family structure fueled now by economy collapse. Kaye sets a character landscape that more fully dimensions the effect on all aspects of life of teachers and students the collapse of the public education system and humanizes the almost cliche emotional dysfunction that results. Kaye never stoops to exploitation or easy violence in his frank depiction. This allows the audience to resonate not simply in shock but with more complicated emotions. Brody fleshes out how an adult can make choices despite the pain that kids are just not capable of making because their life experience has not conditioned them yet to make. I suggest it is a must see film if you care about an America that still believes every citizen is entitled to an a quality, free education. And it s about time some one shows just how complicated the life of teachers are today. Life is complicated and there are no real heroes in this films but the humanity of each character is vividly displayed onscreen. Each performance especially Bordie is wonderfully nuanced. DETACHMENT is a film that both teenagers and teachers and parents can identify with and one that should make smooth talking politicians sweat. Note: it is also entertaining in a way that narrative films can be with serious subjects that documentaries by form can not.

    jim fouratt
    reel deal

  • Catherine Holmes | April 26, 2011 4:25 AMReply

    I was privileged to be in the audience last night to watch the riveting performances by these truly talented actors. From the beginning the audience was riveted on the screen and the dialogue as well as the techniques employed by the director to deliver his message. The subject matter is of concern to everyone who is a parent in this country, or at least it should be. Did anyone hear about those two high school girls in CA who committed suicide at a slumber party? It's a brilliant film that should be watched by every high school parent, student and teacher everywhere. I think you need to give this film a chance to be seen.