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VIFF ’11: Johnnie To’s ‘Life Without Principle’ An Uneven, All Too Familiar Financial Crisis Drama

VIFF '11: Johnnie To's 'Life Without Principle' An Uneven, All Too Familiar Financial Crisis Drama

While movies are primarily considered a form of entertainment, they do have the ability to inform, especially to a mass audience. But that’s a slippery slope. All too easily, the audience can be taken right out of the story if things get too didactic. We at the secret Playlist headquarters (which is, naturally, surrounded by a piranha-filled moat where we toss in haters of the movie “Drive”) tend to like our cinema focused more on organic storytelling, not issue-driven diatribes.

It’s not surprising that the movies have taken an interest of late in the ongoing financial crisis, and why not? The last few years have been rife with drama, and nearly everybody knows somebody (or is somebody), that has been affected by the bubble bursting. As a result, we’ve seen quite a few films in recent years tackle this ongoing subject matter, in the form of serious, hard-hitting documentaries (Oscar winner “Inside Job”), faux-indies with big name casts (“Margin Call”) and unnecessary sequels (“Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps”).

Prolific Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To (“Vengeance,” “Exiled”), sometimes unfairly relegated to a “poor man’s John Woo,” has decided to graft one of these movies onto the type of thing he normally does. Known for exorbitant, fetishistic gun play and generally sticking to the gangster milieu where he seems most comfortable (though he can be fun when stepping out of his wheelhouse, with something like “Mad Detective” or the romance “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart“), To seems unable, or at least uninterested in delivering a straight up serious drama with his latest, “Life Without Principle.”

And, for the most part, that’s just fine, as the film is more of a success than a failure overall, and realistically it’s probably as good as something like this could be. But anyone who listens to NPR, especially “This American Life,” or follows the news, or has seen some of the aforementioned titles, will find nothing new in To’s take on the financial meltdown. Unfortunately, when the film presents familiar scenarios – a bank teller forced to push high-risk securities on her customers in order to reach her sales goals; a low-level thug who gets into futures market betting; a good, middle class cop in fiscal hot water when his pushy wife makes a down payment on a luxury apartment they can’t really afford – things tend to err on the side of conventional wisdom (i.e. banks and corporations are evil, people shouldn’t buy things they can’t afford). Don’t expect to see any challenging polemics here.

At its worst moments, “Life Without Principle” (no doubt inspired and named after the Henry David Thoreau essay) is pedantic and boring, offering broad oversimplifications, and lame archetypal caricatures in place of living, breathing human beings (there’s never any doubt who the real slimy, bad guys are because they either have terrible, Bill Murray in “Kingpin”-esque comb-overs or they’re puffing on expensive cigars). At its best moments, the film is hilarious and goofy (one very funny scene sees a man who’s been stabbed through the chest driving himself to the hospital, even though he’s with someone else perfectly capable of taking the wheel).

With this ensemble, multi-threaded narrative, To achieves something along the quality of say, Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” when the film is working. Actually, it’s even more similar to that director’s latest, “Contagion,” but instead of focusing on the fast-moving dissemination of information and the rapid spreading of a lethal virus, ‘Principle’ shows the fluidity and rapidity of money changing hands, always in flux. One minute you’re rich, the next you’re dirt poor. But when things aren’t working so well in the film, it’s more akin to “Crash,” with sometimes-laughable coincidences in place of solid storytelling. It’s certainly a mixed bag effort, but one that we do actually recommend if you’re either a fan of To or haven’t seen any other movies dealing with this subject matter. [C+]

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