It is my absolute joy and privilege to be accompanied by Nick Davis over the remaining days of this festival, and my lasting shame that he will continue to produce brilliant reviews out of thin air, seemingly while I’m fixing breakfast. I beg to differ with that piece on two specific points: Nick isn’t the only one who thought James Gray’s We Own the Night was one of the most satisfying and technically distinctive American films of last year, and at least two of us (if you check the comments on his blog) raced to it, and loved it, precisely on his say-so.
My disappointment with Gray’s follow-up, an uncertain though nagging sensation throughout its initial stretches, is quite a lot milder than Nick's – for me the movie has something clear to say on that very feeling, and my early resistance fell away as it seemed to push itself ever further into the arena of desperate and deluded pseudo-romantic impulses that so few movies about contemporary relationships ever risk exploring. Lo and behold, this is an insane downer, even for Gray – only he could begin with a suicide attempt on Brighton Beach and proceed to allow Joaquin Phoenix’s life to deteriorate yet further, as he dithers between the sure, steady girlfriend his parents want to foist on him (Vinessa Shaw) and the neurotic, homewrecking flirt in the apartment opposite (Gwyneth Paltrow).
It’s true that neither actress fully succeeds in complicating these rather primitive stereotypes, but Gray and Phoenix have a bold bead on the traits of male squirming and borderline-stalker behaviour, particularly in a splendidly composed, edited and acted sequence when Phoenix finds every possible means to prolong a chance encounter with Paltrow on her commuter route, while trying to maintain a moment-by-moment façade of rumpled obliviousness. Letdown lurks around every corner in this too-neat diagram of Selfish Love, but I think Gray remains a heroic poet of disappointment even on an off day – a poet trying out a new metrical scheme (look – no guns!) and stumbling his way towards a bitter, broken destination that’s just about worth the climb. B
Michael Winterbottom talks nineteen to the dozen and turns out movies at roughly the same per-annum ratio, which is great when the urgency and passion click (In This World, A Mighty Heart) and less good, as we find here, when you feel he’s barrelled his way into a scenario that neither springs from nor reaches any especial point. Little about Genova, including the screenplay from Winterbottom’s normally excellent collaborator Laurence Coriat (Wonderland), suggests an awareness of what that point might be, save the technical achievement of filming down the constricted and sloping alleyways of its chosen city, and the balancing act of depending like crazy for plot tension on Don’t Look Now while coyly eschewing any overt homage. I’ll grant that there’s some simple, direct force to the film’s visceral moments of grief, when Colin Firth’s bawling daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) continues to blame herself for the car accident that kills her mum (Hope Davis) in the opening sequence. But Winterbottom and Coriat can’t decide how to map that grief into the abstract (let alone specific) menace of a foreign urban geography, and just go through the motions, reprising Wonderland’s core motif of an untended child exposed to danger, without even plunging us particularly into her damaged and parent-haunted headspace (in the bolder, freakier manner of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, for instance). As drama, and as filmmaking, too much of Genova comes off as flustered and arbitrary, an exercise in “fixing” broken family dynamics with a strange premium on emotional development, and a dismayingly thin role for Catherine Keener as one of Firth’s academic colleagues, a virtual tour guide popping up with choice little nuggets of Genoese history. If you’re interested, these tell us quite a lot about Genova as a 16th century Spanish trading post, but not much about why this movie needed to be set there – or indeed, anywhere. C