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Love’s labors: Lane and Gere in Unfaithful.

In the Wrong Bedroom
By Laura Leon

Unfaithful
Directed by Adrian Lyne

With Adrian Lyne directing, you just know that Unfaithful will be punctuated with scenes of wild sex, dreamily shot amid backdrops that are oh-so glamorous, even if in a shabby-chic sort of way. What you don’t know, and what surprises, is how, er, meaty this movie is, and how much more deeply and soberly it cuts across the idea of sex-as-casual-hobby—as something no more earth- rattling, potentially dangerous or destined to muck up your happy home than, say, switching from regular to decaf.

Constance Sumner (Diane Lane), a Westchester housewife in her late 30s, putters between managing her nifty suburban home, playing mom to 9-year-old Charlie, and doing volunteer work for his school. Husband Edward (Richard Gere) operates some kind of trucking conglomerate and, be it at home or in the office, spends much of his time engrossed in paperwork. Uh-oh. . . .

Sparks fly when Connie literally blows into French book dealer Paul (Olivier Martinez), and before long, she is commuting almost daily to the city to stoke the fires of her new consuming passion. Of course, Edward soon figures something’s screwy: He makes the completely unbelievable observation (for most American men, that is) that, suddenly, his wife is buying a lot of new undies, spending inordinate amounts of time bubble-bathing, and burning dinner. He hires an investigator and soon has proof positive, in the form of several black-and-white photos, that Connie is, indeed, unfaithful.

What happens next harkens to the explosive climax of In the Bedroom, and as in that movie, the actions are believable, in the way they express a character’s consuming rage, and fantastic, in the way they cause the viewer to only hope that he or she would never cross that particular line. But Lyne is a master at revealing the thin line that separates movie characters from supposedly rational folk like his audience. While touted by some as a mystery, Unfaithful in actuality is a serious examination of just what happens to a relationship when one partner takes that step into the forbidden. No matter if Edward and Connie are at the point at which they barely converse, except for the rudimentaries of “how was your day,” and inquiries about Charlie’s life. Their even keel is irreversibly tilted by Connie’s affair and its aftermath.

Some critics, most noticeably Jessica Winter of The Village Voice, have called Unfaithful Lyne’s tribute to the Alliance for Marriage. I think that’s being ridiculously simplistic, not to mention insulting to anybody for whom marriage involves any questioning, however occasional, or reexamination of what the relationship is supposed to be like as it evolves over time. Too often, movies depict affairs as just something mom or dad did, like that summer one of them took up waterskiing, and with about that level of emotional impact on the household.

What’s particularly refreshing about Unfaithful is how it deals squarely with the fact that an affair can have devastating repercussions. So what if at times we can’t help but think how convenient it is for Connie to have that 24-7 housekeeper/ babysitter, or wonder if the NYPD has forgotten about fingerprinting and DNA testing? The trappings of melodrama and crime story aside, Unfaithful dares to take us onto that questionable moral ground that demands we take stock and figure out what matters, even if that comes without the bells and whistles of high passion. In a weird yet exhilarating sense, Unfaithful concludes on a note much more reminiscent of the best film noir, in which feelings and expectations are turned upside down, and morality is something much more complex than that which we learned in Sunday School.

Grim Tales

Storytelling
Directed by Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) has established himself as a filmmaker as distinctive and disturbing as David Lynch. While Lynch uses elements of the fantastic to create his peculiar vision, Solondz prefers the mundane milieu of the white, suburban middle class.

Storytelling is divided into two parts. The first, and shorter section of the film is “Fiction.” The setting is a college creative-writing course taught by a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American novelist, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). Coolly dismissive of his students’ work, Scott doesn’t mince words with them. When one named Vi (Selma Blair) meets him by accident in a bar, she asks if she has any future as a writer. “No,” he replies quietly and bluntly. She goes home with him. The result is a traumatic sexual encounter that she promptly turns into a story for the class, with predictably brutal, unintended consequences.

The remainder of the film is “Nonfiction,” the story of neophyte documentary filmmaker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), and his attempt to turn the life of hapless Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a high school senior in suburban New Jersey, into a coherent film about “high schools after Columbine.” Scooby has no goals, no passions, and no plans. His fantasies are comically banal: He imagines his parents dying while begging his forgiveness, and dreams of himself as a late-night talk-show host. His parents, Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagerty), worry that he might be gay, while his football-playing brother, Brady (Noah Fleiss), worries that Scooby’s weird behavior is ruining his own reputation as a “cool” kid.

Just as the opening scenes of Mulholland Dr., with their glossy textures, shocking violence and overwhelming paranoia were unmistakably Lynchian, Storytelling begins with a sexual coupling only Todd Solondz would dare, between a pink-haired coed and her disabled boyfriend. Sex involving someone with cerebral palsy is presented as no big deal; yet, we know it is because we’ve hardly ever seen it before on screen. (The differently abled may have children, as with Sean Penn’s character in the recent I Am Sam, but the manner in which they are often presented makes the stork seem the most likely source of their offspring.) The criticism of Solondz is that scenes like this are exploitative, especially when placed in the context of his stories, which are about characters ranging from the neurotic to the perverted. Like Lynch, Solondz has been accused of being grotesque simply for the sake of shocking the audience.

In Storytelling, the writer-director seems to be replying to this criticism. The saga of the student and the professor may be his defense of presenting episodes of extreme cruelty. It admirably avoids being exploitative by its careful calibrations of class, race, and ironic view of “truth.” The main part of the film is more deceptive. At first it seems to be Toby’s story, but it’s really about storytelling itself. Toby’s a loser, but his commercial instincts prove to be true. He really does fashion a crowd-pleasing film, but does so at the expense of what’s going on in his subjects’ lives. It’s as if Solondz is saying, “You think I’m shallow, here’s a really shallow storyteller.”

The film makes its points, and is also quite entertaining. It has some familiar Solondz bits, such as making the most monstrous creature a precocious little kid, and giving a main character exactly what he dreams of, without the satisfaction the character anticipated. The performances are uniformly good, including a couple of entertaining cameos by Steve Railsback (as a jaded high school principle) and Franka Potente (as a film editor with a conscience). If it isn’t exactly a feel-good movie, it has a clarity of thought behind it that is bracing.

—Shawn Stone

All the Old Dudes

Last Orders
Directed by Fred Schepisi

This sentimental look back at the life of one man and his loyal friends shouldn’t play as well as it does. The source novel (by Graham Swift) may have been a prizewinner in England, but it isn’t exactly packed with narrative surprises or striking characters. English working-class blokes live and love through the last century, surviving its wars and tumultuous social changes with pluck and heart. This isn’t new territory, but the film manages to make it fresh and engaging nonetheless.

Jack Dodds (Michael Caine) is dead and cremated, and his friends are going to honor his “last orders” by scattering his ashes into the sea. There is Vic (Tom Courtenay) the undertaker; Lenny (David Hemmings) the former boxer; Ray (Bob Hoskins) the horse player; and Jack’s son Vince (Ray Winstone), a car dealer. It’s a long drive to the coast from London, offering the men the chance to share their memories of the man who brought them together.

Notably absent from the journey is Jack’s widow, Amy (Helen Mirren). She is instead on her weekly pilgrimage to visit June, the severely disabled daughter Jack refused to acknowledge. This turns out to have been the core problem in their marriage; the lingering bitterness of which is manifested in revealing and unexpected ways.

The acting is uniformly excellent. It may seem tiresome to read the praises of English actors, but it’s unavoidable. It isn’t just the quality of the individual performances, but the appealing manner in which the actors work together. There is a problem in some of the flashbacks, as no amount of makeup or bad fake hair could make David Hemmings or Tom Courtenay appear even 20 years younger—but even if they don’t look the part, they at least act it convincingly.

The film is structured as a series of flashbacks, varying in length from long, elaborate scenes to brief flashes that last only few seconds on screen. Director Fred Schepisi, who also wrote the script, does a masterful job of integrating the time shifts smoothly into the film. The flashbacks never confuse, and consistently illuminate.

The film’s only notable fault lies with its portrayal of Jack. We are told a number of times, primarily by his wife, of Jack’s cold, dark side. But it is dramatized only once, in one of the flashbacks, with a younger actor playing Jack. (Even this scene isn’t totally unflattering.) Michael Caine’s Jack is written for sympathy, whether as the good-time companion of the pub, or when he is the man left behind by the times and rejected by his son. In contrast, Vince is given a fascinating depth, a mix of pride, selfishness, rage, alienation, and love that provides Winstone the opportunity to give the film’s most intriguing performance. Caine, however, is given slight chance to use the full range of his talent.

Comparatively, however, this is a minor problem. In the end, the film isn’t really about Jack, but rather the people who loved him. The pleasure given by the performances and the skill in the direction is such that even such small complaints fade away.

—S.S.


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