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Saddle up, pardner: (l-r) Gyllenaal and Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

Heartbreak Ridge
By Ann Morrow

Brokeback Mountain

Directed by Ang Lee

Even before its release, Broke-back Mountain was getting attention for its subject matter: two cowboys in love, an idea that strikes at the very heart of American masculinity. Then there were the tittering reports of the love scene between stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, two of the most rugged and promising hunks in Hollywood. Since its release, the film has moved audiences, critics, and awards committees, and deservedly so. Adapted by Larry McMurtry (with Diane Ossana) from the E. Annie Proulx short story, and directed by Ang Lee with a sensitivity that establishes him as the great romantic director of his generation, Brokeback Mountain is an overwhelmingly evocative and heartbreaking experience.

The cowboys are Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) and Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal). They meet in Wyoming in 1963, when they are hired to herd sheep together on isolated Brokeback Mountain. Ennis, who has plans to marry after the season ends, is quiet and grim. Jack is more spontaneous and draws Ennis out of himself. One bitterly cold night, they share a tent, and their simmering attraction erupts with almost violent urgency. The next day, Ennis angrily tells Jack, “I ain’t queer.” To which Jack replies nonchalantly, “Me neither.”

At the end of their summer idyll, they go their separate ways, and Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams). Four years later, he receives a postcard from Jack, who comes for a visit that’s spent mostly in a motel. They get together for “fishing trips” year after year, and their love affair is undiminished by marriages, fatherhood, or changes in their status: Ennis struggles while Jack becomes prosperous.

The sexuality of the two men is less important than their feelings for each other—it’s likely that at least one of them wouldn’t be gay if he hadn’t fallen in love with another man—but that doesn’t mitigate the danger of their situation, and the film is searing in its casual portrayal of homophobia. At one point, Ennis describes how two tough old ranchers who lived together in his hometown were murdered and mutilated. But if Ennis and Jack weren’t cowboys (Jack never gives up his dream of making a go of his father’s ranch), they wouldn’t be who they are, and it’s the freedom of being their real, rough-hewn, and undomesticated selves that sustains the relationship. Lee’s restraint is pitch-perfect; he illuminates the story with nuance (the sense of time, place, and way of life is haunting) and then lets it unfold with utter naturalism. The spare dialogue is as striking as the windswept terrain: When Jack tries to express his frustration at seeing Ennis so infrequently, Ennis tells him, “If you can’t fix it, then you got to stand it.”

Unsatisfied longing quietly takes its toll on both men in different ways, and on those around them, especially their wives. Lee is delicately astute and sympathetic with the portrayals of Alma and Jack’s wife, Lureen (Anne Hathaway), and it’s noticeable that Ennis has difficulties with being married that have little to do with his affair. While the acting from all the principals is deeply moving, it’s Ledger who carries the film. With mere hints of expression—pursed lips, a pained gaze—he communicates a vista of repressed emotion. Williams as the determined Alma is nearly his equal in depth, and Hathaway is spot-on in her brief appearances as Lureen, who gradually hardens into a façade of oblivious propriety.

Brokeback Mountain is that rare kind of film that transcends its own acclaim.

We’re OK, You’re Not

The Family Stone

Directed by Thomas Bezucha

The fact that The Family Stone is still hanging around the multiplex is a testament, maybe, to two factors. One, a well-crafted comedy-drama that isn’t completely insulting can, on occasion, find an audience. Two, people love to watch other people have a miserable Christmas.

Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney)—geez, what a WASP name—brings fiancée Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for Christmas to meet his comfortably upper-middle-class family. This includes testy mom Sybil (Diane Keaton) and courtly dad Kelly (Craig T. Nelson); delightfully bitchy sister Amy (Rachel McAdams); deaf brother Thad (Ty Giordano) and his partner, Patrick (Brian White); pregnant earth-mom sis Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser); and, finally, laid-back brother Ben (Luke Wilson).

The conflict is immediately apparent, as the close-knit clan is obviously less than enamored with the brittle Meredith. Hell, the audience doesn’t like her: When first seen, she’s forcing her assistant to work late on Christmas Eve. (What a Grinch.) Of course, Meredith and the family—and the audience—must be reconciled. But how?

The answer to this is what’s really fun about The Family Stone. Aside from coming up with acidic one-liners and a general tone of WASP nastiness, writer-director Thomas Bezucha reverses the dynamic of the standard “home for the holidays” flick. Usually, a dysfunctional family suffers through tears and recriminations, and finds redemption through the arrival of an outsider—like Cary Grant as the angel in The Bishop’s Wife or Dennis Leary’s thief in The Ref. Not here. While the Stones can be unpleasant, they’re not dysfunctional. It’s Meredith who is totally fucked-up. She has to change—they just have to be a little nicer.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t the requisite portions of melodrama, including a family member’s illness that’s telegraphed early on. It’s just that the reversed narrative expectations give Bezucha room to take the characters in unexpected directions. And everyone in the ensemble is engaging and makes their mark, with Parker, Keaton and McAdams first among equals. Special props, also, to Wilson, the 21st-century George Brent, for bringing a certain slacker dignity to his usual boyfriend-of-the-leading-lady role. If there’s any fault, it’s that the character of Meredith’s sister (Claire Danes) is, one, an insufficiently disguised deus ex machina, and, two, not on screen enough.

That said, as seasonal confections go, The Family Stone is a rich, tasty serving of schadenfreude.

—Shawn Stone

Bungled Seduction

Casanova

Directed by Lasse Hallström

Given the fact that Heath Ledger’s gorgeously low voice, which combines a sort of he-man authority with a purring sensuality, is so, well, sexy, it’s hard to imagine that such an instrument is not put to good use in Lasse Hallström’s Casanova. Then again, it’s not just the actor’s voice, but, strangely, his virility, that’s put to waste in this curiously unsexy romp about how the famous rake is reformed through the love of a good feminist woman, Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller).

Copping countless Shakespearian tales—not to mention screwball-comedy plots—of mistaken identity, Casanova is about how such mistakes wreak havoc with, or make magic out of, true love. The action begins as our hero attempts to escape the justice of a wrathful Catholic Church, personified by the nasty Inquisitor Pucci (Jeremy Irons). Since Casanova can’t just leave Venice, he becomes engaged to the virginal Victoria (Natalie Dormer). Victoria is in turn loved by her neighbor, the doltish Giovanni (Charlie Cox), whose sister Francesca fancies dressing up as a man and writing, under a nom de plume, heretical treatises on the rights of women. Meanwhile, Francesca’s never-before-seen affianced, Paprizzio (Oliver Platt in excessively horrible prostheses), the lard king of Genoa, is set to arrive to take her as his wife, a lucrative arrangement much looked forward to by the debt-ridden Senora Bruni (Lena Olin). Once Casanova has cast his lot with Victoria, he discovers the challenge of Francesca, and so begins a series of complicated presumed identities, culminating in a lavish carnival in which the lothario’s various machinations threaten to expose him to the Inquisitor—not to mention his lady loves.

Put simply, what should be funny is decidedly not, and what should be effervescent and sexy is flat. A crucial failing is the utter lack of chemistry between Ledger and Miller, but even beyond that, the movie is burdened with an incomprehensible leadenness. An early scene in which Casanova has to escape a nunnery from a clutch of the Inquisitor’s enforcers should be comical and light, but instead it is joyless and clumsy. With the exceptions of Irons and Omid Djalili, as Casanova’s trusted manservant, the performances are lifeless, as if having to wear tightly laced corsets or heavy waistcoats has left the cast with no energy or verve. Hallström has done this sort of thing before—taken a thoroughly competent cast and set them adrift in a well-meaning but thoroughly mediocre undertaking (Chocolat, anyone?). With Casanova, he gets the period pieces right, but all else bombs with resounding force.

—Laura Leon

No They Can’t

The Ringer

Directed by Barry W. Blaustein

Perhaps it’s because the movie’s a Farrelly Brothers production; perhaps it’s because there’s been some controversy about the originality of the idea (screenwriter Ricky Blitt and the creators of South Park have exchanged some public words about the similarity of the flick and an already-aired episode of the animated hit). More likely it’s the combination of the above with the potentially offensive premise of the movie: Underachiever poses as a mentally challenged athlete to fix the Special Olympics. But, whatever the cause, The Ringer has already gotten way more attention and print than it deserves.

Which is not to say that the print is inaccurate. To the extent that the publicity has insisted that the movie is respectful of the Special Olympians and the larger community of the mentally challenged, it’s right on. Congratulations to the filmmakers for that. The movie does not condescend to the group it depicts—only to those it purports to entertain.

Johnny Knoxville plays Steve, a low-level corporate drone slaving away in a cubicle forest. Through a plot contrivance too stupid to get into, Steve finds himself responsible for the $28,000 medical bill of a friendly, uninsured and undocumented alien; he then contacts his ne’er-do-well Uncle Gary (Brian Cox) looking for funds. Gary, deep in gambling debt himself, cooks up the Special Olympics scam. Gary figures that Steve’s high school experience as a track-and-field star and his unrealized dreams of being an actor make him a perfect candidate to unseat Jimmy Washington (Leonard Flowers), the reigning champ—who is, coincidentally, a hero of the thug to whom Gary owes $40k.

So, Steve ’tards it up, completely pulling the wool over the eyes of the Special Olympics organizers and longtime volunteers, which group includes—inevitably—the good-hearted and betrothed-to-an-asshole hottie, Lynn (Katherine Heigl). Yeah, OK. Apparently, all that’s needed to fool these experienced folks is a silly voice and pants worn too high above the waist. In fact, the only people who don’t buy the shtick are the other Olympians, who are played warmly as perceptive, funny and talented individuals. (It’s got to be noted, though, that while the movie features a number of very minor parts and extra roles for the mentally challenged, only one of the core group is played by such an actor. The others are played by actor- comedians, who—though generally respectful—can be a little too knowing.)

You can guess the rest: Steve wrestles with his conscience and his increasing attraction to the cute volunteer (with whom he has absolutely zero on-screen chemistry, by the way), bonds with the other athletes, and learns some kind of lesson about honesty, heart, perseverance and following one’s dreams. He also falls down and gets hit in the nuts a lot.

Knoxville’s a likeable enough actor; some of the group interaction between him and the Olympians is amusing. But overall the film comes across like Caddyshack without a performance as strong and weird as Bill Murray’s Carl. The filmmakers would have done better to play it less safe with their premise. Like why not have Steve fall not for the attractive and forgiving volunteer, but for another Olympian? That’d take the wind right out of the sails of that Brokeback Mountain, I’ll tell ya.

—John Rodat


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