Just like Judith Miller: Streep in Lions
by Robert Redford
Redford spends much of his onscreen time in Lions for Lambs,
which he also directed, trying desperately to inspire slacker
student Todd (Andrew Garfield) to engage. In life. In anything.
His cheerleading is also a none-too-veiled effort to rouse
the audience out of its collective stupor, a catatonia induced
by years of McNews, pop-star obsessions, lifestyle trade-ups
and plain old creature comforts. Undoubtedly, many viewers
will agree or accept the premises of his arguments; indeed,
much of what he (along with screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan)
states vividly underlines the fact that—as another character,
the reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), notes—this is one
of the five worst times to raise the stars and stripes. However,
the overall delivery and, ultimately, the result of this movie
is akin to the most excruciating lecture delivered by the
most pedantic prof that has ever lucked into tenure.
is the kind of movie that immediately presupposes its importance
by telling the audience, with typewriter-like fonts printed
at the bottom of the screen, what we’re looking at, even when
it’s abundantly obvious. When Janine enters through the office
door clearly labeled “Senator Jasper Irving,” the screen dutifully
offers up the label “Senator Jasper Irving’s office, Washington,
D.C.,” and when Todd knocks on the door of Redford’s instructor,
one Dr. Stephen Malloy, we’re treated to the same elucidation.
(Thank goodness for those visual aids, or we might not realize
when we’re in battle-torn Afghanistan.) Carnahan’s script
clumsily weaves three strands of the story together, simultaneously,
so that while Malloy is lecturing Todd, Irving (Tom Cruise)
is trying to sell a new war strategy to Roth, while that same
strategy is being played out, with disastrous effect, for
two former students of Malloy in snowy Bagram. While the battle
scenes, employing college buddies Ernest (Michael Peña) and
Arian (Derek Luke), are effective by dint of the fact that
they involve real life-and-death decisions and enormous peril,
the other two storylines unwittingly evoke Malloy’s concern
about fiddling while Rome burns. All this talk, talk, talk,
just to prove how honorable and disgusted the filmmakers are.
The academic sit-down is, perhaps, the worst thing in the
film, with Garfield, with his tousled hair and shabby-chic
wardrobe, forced to represent spoiled American youth while
Redford brings up lost optimism, Vietnam and Watergate. Flashbacks
show him being impressed by Ernest and Arian, who unlike their
more privileged (and therefore lazier) fellow students, actually
bust their butts in class, specifically in a valiant effort
to convince the class to engage in the world around them.
The script does a clumsy job of connecting the dots between
Ernest’s and Arian’s impoverished backgrounds and their willingness
to fight for that same country which allowed them to exist
in such conditions—one of many instances in the film when
the lack-of-personal-commitment theme is conveniently set
aside in favor of the idea that a bureaucracy can solve everything.
The closest that the utterly stagnant Lions for Lambs
comes to having any sort of spark or vitality is in the cagy
exchange between the suave Irving and the jaded, faded Roth.
Cruise is a natural in the role of snake-oil salesman, to
the point that, like Janine, you almost feel yourself getting
sucked into his wacky plan to salvage the war. He gives a
bombastic, colorful performance that is perfectly suited to
the role, but he shows genuine, subtle menace when a phone
call relaying the disastrous news from Bagram takes some of
the wind out of his sails. Streep has the harder role, having
to mostly listen and jot down notes, but she masterfully uses
a nod of the head, or a shift in her seat, to convey growing
unease and a latent intelligence resurrecting itself after
years of doing lite news for a cable channel. Although highly
stagy, this evolving conversation is the only thing in the
movie that gives us something in which to sink our teeth.
It is here, perhaps more so than the Afghanistan scenes, where
decisions will be made and fate cast, and as we watch a flustered,
overwhelmed Janine flee from the Senate building into the
haven of a taxi, we can’t help but wonder what great drama
might have been made. Instead, we get a highly self-righteous,
by David Dobkin
Several hundred years ago, Nicho las Claus was born in the
Black Forest. Fred Claus was delighted to have a baby brother,
but as the cherubic baby grew into a paragon of virtue, and
the apple of their parents’ eyes, Fred became morose. When
young Nick cuts down a pine tree and scares off a bluebird
that Fred was coaxing to his birdhouse, Fred turns resentful
and peevish. And he stays that way for a really long time,
because, as the narration of Fred Claus explains, Nick
is sainted, and saints, and their family members, are immortal.
This mildly charming sequence—Kathy Bates as a long-haired
hausfrau is a hoot—is a poor indication of what follows: Directed
by David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), who should’ve done
better, Fred Claus is boring and ill-conceived, and
has the worst lighting of any film this year.
Fast-forward to the present. Fred (Vince Vaughn) is a repo
man who prattles incessantly, about almost nothing, for most
of the movie. Improbably enough, his girlfriend is a beautiful
British meter maid (Rachel Weisz), who finds his inconsiderate
blather somehow appealing. After Fred is imprisoned for impersonating
a charity street- corner Santa and absconding with the kettle,
he tries to wheedle bail money out of his younger brother
(Paul Giamatti), and is required to fly, via reindeer sleigh,
to the North Pole to pitch in at Santa’s workshop.
Though lavishly detailed (and reportedly expensive), the toy
factory looks chintzy and confusedly modernized, and some
of the elf characters, such as a trio of ninja midgets, are
depressing. So is the film’s take on a corporatized Christmas
spirit: Nick has a hottie numbers cruncher and a production-
tracking station, and is subjected to a corrupt efficiency
expert (Kevin Spacey) who wants to put Santa out of business.
Vaughn talks in the ironically unhip inflection of his generation
of comedic actors, without a speck of originality to his delivery.
Spacey uses the same tone with his character’s touchy-feely
scheming. Miranda Richardson is wasted as Mrs. Claus, who
scolds Nick about his weight, while Giamatti looks understandably
woeful while forced to ho-ho-ho in exasperated response. Though
the plot is bland enough to put a toddler to sleep, there
are some obnoxious bits—such as an intervention for Fred’s
bad attitude and a creepy siblings recovery group—that kids
won’t get, and their parents won’t laugh at.