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Killer instinct: Depp in Public Enemies.

This Charming Man

By Laura Leon

Public Enemies

Directed by Michael Mann

In real life, as in the new movie Public Enemies, the Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger met his end following a summer night’s showing of Manhattan Melodrama. In that movie, Clark Gable played a hardened criminal who can’t be saved by the love of Myrna Loy or by the decency of friend William Powell—but being Gable, he exudes class, cunning and cool. It can’t be too much of a coincidence that the director of Public Enemies, Michael Mann, pegged Johnny Depp to play Dillinger, since who else now possesses those Gable-esque qualities to such degree? When Depp, playing Dillinger, watches Gable onscreen, we get a glimpse into the soul of a man who believed in his own star power.

For a while, at least, that star power, that overt confidence, trumped the machinations of both the nascent FBI, lead by corrupt J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), and the burgeoning stranglehold of organized crime. While playing fast and loose with many of the facts, Public Enemies presents the rise and fall of John Dillinger as the story of a plucky independent retailer fighting Wal-Mart. There’s a rugged individualism to Dillinger’s methods; he refuses to play it safe. He tells frightened customers, mid-robbery, that he’s not after their money, just the bank’s.

I’m not one to split hairs, but what is the difference, really?

Filmed digitally by the cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Public Enemies has a lush feel that fits in perfectly with a soundtrack pulsating with the tremulous sounds of Billie Holiday and Diana Krall. Each set and costume is lovingly re-created with the kind of authenticity that the script itself often lacks, and great care was given to casting actors who look of the era. For all its cat-and-mouse business with FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) leading the charge against Dillinger, the movie lacks a sense of urgency. This is its fatal flaw, and, given the fact that it’s Michael Mann at the helm, I’m somewhat surprised.

Nevertheless, there are moments of great cinematic poetry, notably the bank robberies themselves, in which Dillinger and gang flaunt their long coats almost like Armani models on the runways. A scene in which Dillinger woos a stunned Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) is soft and sexy, seductive in both its actual chemistry between the two leads as well as in the way it reminds us just how Dillinger and his legendary antics, trumpeted on the radio, intrigued a segment of the Depression audience. My own mother remembers vividly the delight her family and neighbors took in hearing of his, and other criminals like Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits, because in their mind “the banks” were the reason for their poverty.

It’s Johnny Depp’s show, from beginning to end. No one else can evoke so much simply by staring, silent, from the screen, and nobody can evoke utter coolness with such subtle body language. Though Depp’s Dillinger is more Belmondo than Cagney, somehow it works. There’s a chilling, yet humorous, moment when Dillinger saunters into Purvis’ offices and gazes at all the photographic evidence against him, while a handful of oblivious agents listen to a ballgame on the radio.

And yet, I found the most believably “American legend” prototype, in both performance and persona, to be Purvis’ second in command, the Texas Ranger Charles Winstead (Stephen Lang), who laconically corrects his superior’s mistakes and potential blunders. (He’s the one who casually figures out that of two possible movies showing that fateful night, Dillinger certainly wouldn’t be attending the Shirley Temple picture.) Whereas Purvis is one-dimensionally righteous, Winstead has us wondering about his motivations. I can’t help but wonder what the movie would have been like had it been a cat-and-mouse between him and Dillinger. And why not, since the script already played so fast and loose with the historical facts?

Anomie? Ya Hardly Even Know Me!

Whatever Works

Directed by Woody Allen

Deeply despairing, pessimistic, outright misanthropic films have their appeal for a certain type of filmgoer. Let’s, for the moment, call such a filmgoer “me.”

I’m not referring to those films that use the great crises of human history—the Holocaust, say—as bleak settings to highlight the stubborn perseverance of human hope and dignity. Rather, those that do something like the opposite: portray the mundane routine of human activity as filthy, clumsy and unrewarding—even crushing. (An example, par excellence, would be Mike Leigh’s Naked. )

Love ’em.

Why then, did I find the negative nattering of Woody Allen’s Whatever Works so intolerably annoying?

In great part, it’s Allen’s stand-in star, Larry David. I’ve enjoyed David’s work before; and he’s a far sight better than previous Allen substitutes, such as Kenneth Branagh. But in Whatever Works, David is robbed of irascible charm by the meta-filmic quirk of having David’s character—the cranky and failed-genius physicist Boris Yelnikov—address the audience directly. It fails miserably. In part, because in the dialogue of the asides he suggests a depth and a heart David cannot remotely imbue in the role. Allen, the actor, could have carried this off. David cannot. And Allen, the director, doesn’t realize this.

That’s what’s sadder than the poor casting, which is thoroughly bad: the evidence that Allen can’t get a handle on his own material anymore. Too many scenes in Whatever Works exist only in service of weak punch lines and end without any consequence or development, at all.

If every scene in which David’s character speaks to the audience had been cut (along with every scene in which the ingenue, played by Evan Rachel Wood, acts by flipping her pigtails—but that’s another matter), this would have been a vastly more depressing movie.

And vastly superior. Though, probably still not that good.

Those aforementioned, punishingly bleak movies work because the connection with the audience is implicit. In Naked, or Midnight Cowboy, or Requiem for a Dream, or Dancer in the Dark, or anything made by Werner Herzog, the despair is offset by the very fact of the movie’s existence. Someone loved enough to make the film—a film, any film—as a rebuke to despair.

By comparison, Whatever Works is like being asked by an untalented comedian to participate in a marathon “I know a man who’s soo cranky . . .” session.

—John Rodat

So This Is Paris?

Chéri

Directed by Stephen Frears

This is complicated, so bear with me. Stephen Frears is an Englishman. Here, he has directed an adaptation of two stories by French writer Colette set in 1890s France. The film stars two American actresses, Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates, and an English actor, Rupert Friend. For some reason, this quintessentially French story and setting is brought to life with English accents—including those affected by the aforementioned Americans. And the rest of the cast list is, in fact, lousy with Brits.

Why? Why make Americans adopt questionable accents if the accents are wrong? Are they afraid that every faux French accent will sound comical, like Peter Sellers doing Inspector Closeau?

This isn’t the biggest problem with Chéri, but it’s the most continually annoying. The real problem is that Frears never finds the right tragicomic tone, nor does the script (by Christopher Hampton) find a satisfying way to tell in a deceptively light, Colette-esque manner, a love story that ends tragically.

Lea (Pfeiffer) and Charlotte (Kathy Bates) are wealthy, retired whores enjoying the art-moderne glories of belle époque France. (Glorious, indeed, are the film’s luminous sets, costumes and outdoor settings.) Charlotte is unhappy with her mopey, foppish son Fred (Friend), better known as Chéri, and so fobs him off on Lea. Despite a 25-year age difference, Lea and Chéri fall in love, and into a six-year domestic bliss that is shattered by an abruptly arranged marriage that separates them.

Both are made miserable by Charlotte’s meddling: Lea, with a new young lover at a coastal resort, and Chéri, honeymooning with his bride in the Italian lake country. Suffering never looked so sumptuous.

Pfeiffer can be a wonderfully expressive actress, and she is a perfect Lea—except for that damn English accent. Bates has an easier time of it in an essentially comic part, but she’s not going to win any Olivier prize for sounding British, either.

The era depicted in the film was a time of industrial rapaciousness and decadent excess, poised between France’s twin geopolitical catastrophes, the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. (Oh, right: This is about France, isn’t it?) One couldn’t help waiting for the film, between the catty conversations and bed-hopping antics, to introduce this feeling; when Frears finally does tie the larger societal doom to the personal tragedy of Lea and Chéri, it’s too late, and too abrupt.

—Shawn Stone


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