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Just like Judith Miller: Streep in Lions for Lambs.

Talked to Death

By Laura Leon

Lions for Lambs

Directed by Robert Redford

 

Robert 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.

Lions 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, ponderous talking-to.

No Ho Ho

Fred Claus

Directed 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. Blah, humbug.

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.

—Ann Morrow


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