up after the man: (l-r) Ejiofor and Tautou in Dirty
Curse of the Starving Class
Directed by Stephen Frears
nothing so dangerous as a virtuous man.”
That’s what Sneaky (Sergi López), a sleazy hotel manager,
tells Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), his too-honest night clerk.
Okwe discovers horrifying evidence of a crime, and feels compelled
to report it to the police; Sneaky offers to make the call,
but not-so-subtly reminds his clerk of his immigration status.
Okwe, like many of the bottom-rung workers in London’s Baltic
Hotel, is an illegal immigrant.
Sneaky is just the first—and, in his slimy-but-direct way,
the most honest—of a long line of exploiters of immigrants
in Stephen Frears’ dark thriller Dirty Pretty Things.
The title refers, directly, to Sneaky’s jaded explanation
of the function of a hotel: People do dirty things at night,
and it’s up to the staff to make them clean and pretty in
the morning. Frears and screenwriter Steve Knight intend it
to mean more than that, however. Immigrants do the dirty work
that keeps a shiny, pretty market economy going, and are expected
to remain invisible and accept their miserable lot; in return,
they won’t be deported back to the even worse Third World
misery they’ve escaped.
Almost every character in the film is a first-generation immigrant,
except Juliette (Sophie Okonedo). She’s second- or third-generation,
however, and has found her place in British society as a whore.
That’s the less-than-optimistic subtext on which the film
Okwe is a haunted man, a Nigerian doctor with a murky past,
spending his days driving a cab and his nights in the hotel.
He never sleeps (and chews an unidentified root to keep himself
from sleep). He has two friends, cynical hospital morgue attendant
Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) and demure hotel maid Senay (Audrey
Tautou). Okwe rents couch space from Senay, a Turkish immigrant
who dreams of joining her sister in the States. Everyone at
the hotel thinks they’re “nesting,” as sarcastic hotel doorman
Ivan (Zlatko Buric) puts it. Ivan’s half-right. The two are
in love, but chastely—she’s a good Muslim girl and he’s a
man of honor. In the world of this film, however, this doesn’t
make them admirable. It makes them doomed.
In this film, an immigrant’s life is akin to running a gauntlet.
There are exploitative employers, indifferent coworkers and
vicious cops. When one thing goes wrong for an illegal (someone
informs the police, or finds out your deepest secret), everything
goes wrong. Senay gets in trouble with the authorities: She’s
caught in the catch-22 of possessing a six-month visa, which
allows her to “reside,” but not work. Okwe discovers that
there’s an underground trade in human organs going on at the
hotel. He knows that if he goes to the police, he’ll be deported.
The film is a dirty pretty thing in itself. It may have a
dim view of Western capitalist society, but it’s not a downer.
Whether the setting is the hotel, the taxicab garage or a
sweatshop, the atmosphere of desperation is rendered with
mordant humor and a stylish, world-weary cinematic élan.
The cast is perfect. Tautou is a nuanced mix of innocence
and peasant determination; López (the psychopath from With
a Friend Like Harry) is boozy, smug thuggishness
personified; Wong is droll, but sympathetic. It’s Ejiofor’s
film, however. He shows the pain and conflict inside him in
small but devastating gestures and expressions. When Okwe
finally resolves his past and present—proving, in the process,
that Sneaky was right—the sense of release is overwhelming.
Secret Lives of Dentists
Directed by Alan Rudolph
I’d be hard-pressed to guess what my unmarried, childless
friends and associates would think of Alan Rudolph’s tale
of marital disharmony, The Secret Lives of Dentists.
On the other hand, I’d bet anything that married people, especially
those with children, will laugh, cry and just plain wonder
how their lives got on screen.
Based on the Jane Smiley book The Age of Grief, and
adroitly scripted by Craig Lucas, the movie chronicles the
often banal day-to-day of a longtime married couple, dentists
Dave (Campbell Scott) and Dana (Hope Davis) Hurst, who share
a practice, a spacious Westchester home and an upstate mountain
cottage, and three lively daughters. In a voiceover, Dave
admits that “the social aspect of the dental situation is
the hardest for me,” and indeed, this is a man who, despite
his easy rapport with his children, doesn’t seem to have much
to say, nor any interests outside of work and home. Dana,
on the other hand, gabs nonstop to her patients, dabbles in
the local opera company, and flits in and out of the house
on any number of real or imagined errands. The Hursts’ differences
are so pronounced, to others, that the office staff gossips
about it, and when eldest daughter Lizzie complains repeatedly
of stomach ailments, her pediatrician—to Dave’s consternation—counsels
her on internalizing the stress of her parents.
The obvious joke running through The Secret Lives of Dentists
is that here we have a professional couple who spend their
days probing the inner recesses of their patients oral cavity,
but who never stop to examine their own, or share each other’s,
inner desires or demons. When Dave happens upon what could
be evidence of Dana’s infidelity, his reaction is to keep
quiet, for fear that bringing the issue out in the open will
mean the end of his entire domestic and professional existence.
As a result, he avoids any possibility of real discussion
with his wife, who meanwhile laments “I thought marriage would
be like Cinerama. It would get wider and wider. It doesn’t.
It gets smaller and smaller.”
Despite Dave’s outward cool, inside he’s tormented, so much
so that he internalizes his most obnoxious patient, Slater
(Denis Leary). Like the old Bugs Bunny cartoons in which Bugs
or Daffy wrestles with the angel imagined on one shoulder
and the devil on the other, Slater appears in Dave’s imagination
at times when he most wants to snap at his philandering wife.
Scott’s ability to go from “everything’s OK” daddy to man
on the edge of a very nasty precipice—and back again at the
beckoning of a toddler—is chilling, yet hysterical.
In fact, much of The Secret Lives of Dentists is remarkably
funny, although the filmmakers never see fit to make fun of
the state of matrimony, which would have been an all-too-obvious
target. Nor do they sanitize or romanticize family life. Indeed,
there is a moment when the Hurst family is felled by a virulent
stomach flu, with everybody vomiting and running to the bathroom.
Dave, having overcome the worst of his illness, is forced
to run from room to room, nursing his family, barely having
time to wipe his daughter’s puke from his pajama top, and
Slater wonders why in the world Dave is fighting so hard to
hang on to this existence. And yet the viewer—at least the
married-with-children viewer—plainly knows that the reason
is so much more, and sometimes so much less, than what’s visible
to the outside observer.
While the movie toys with the idea of Dana’s infidelity, it
really centers around the much more prevalent and serious
issue of loneliness within marriage. For all the time they
spend together, the Hursts barely have an opportunity for
quiet conversation; Rudolph brilliantly depicts the chaos
of life without a nanny, in which at least one child is always
needy of a parent’s attention, there’s always dinner to be
made or some such “home essential” task. This is the kind
of marital quagmire that, because it is based in ho-hum reality,
is so rare for big-screen stories. Let’s face it—where is
the knife-wielding adulteress or the thought-dead-but-not
Hollywood has long avoided producing movies like The Secret
Lives of Dentists, which deal sharply and yet affectionately
with love and living, probably because they suggest that,
contrary to countless self-help books and Style network testimonials,
people don’t always remain the daring babe or dashing wit
they may have been at one time. The problems with the Hurst
marriage won’t be solved if Dave gets a makeover, say, and
the movie goes on to suggest that people quietly, often passively,
adapt to many levels of marriage—levels that may change depending
on circumstances, age, and need. One senses, at the end of
The Secret Lives of Dentists, that the Hursts will
go on, and that they will experience moments that are deep
and fulfilling, as well as others in which they mutual loneliness
seems overbearing—and that in the end, it will all work out
Fence Him In
Directed by Kevin Costner
Range, the new Western epic from Kevin Costner, does not
mark a return to the 1990 greatness of his Dances With
Wolves. In fact, coming after the box office bombs of
Waterworld and The Postman, the film can be
regarded as Costner’s Last Stand. Set in the Midwest during
the late 1800s, Open Range is purportedly about the
vanishing freedoms of the country’s wide-open spaces, as represented
by a small band of cowpokes who run into trouble with a powerful
landowner. However, the evocative setup, which presents the
prairie in all its lonesome glory, serves mostly as canvas
for a hokey, pokey and muddled fable of good versus tyranny.
Though the film revels in Costner’s tendency to sentimental
morality, the real offender here is the cut-rate script.
Adapted by Craig Storpor, a first-time screenwriter (and not
coincidentally, the film’s executive producer), the story
has very little grasp of how to show motivation, how to reveal
personality in a compelling fashion, or to how move the action
from one sequence to the next. The film opens with a heavy
dose of corn as the four cowhands pitch camp and display their
adorable eccentricities. Costner is Charlie, a laconic Civil
War veteran who is devoted to his boss. Boss Spearman is played
by Robert Duvall as a vintage Duvall curmudgeon; kindly but
with a dangerous edge of self-righteousness. The paternal
bantering between the two men may be kind of silly for two
actors who are 48 and 72 respectively, but with better dialogue,
it would’ve worked.
The crew’s younger members are the bearlike Mose (ER’s
Abraham Benrubi) and hapless Button (Diego Luna from Y
tu Mamá También). On a trip to town for supplies, Mose
gets in a brawl and is beaten close to death by the sheriff,
who takes orders from the town patriarch, a cattle baron named
Baxter (Michael Gambon, sporting a god-awful brogue). Baxter
won’t abide free grazers trespassing on his land, and doesn’t
mind resorting to murder to keep them off. Boss is willing
to fight for his right to herd his cattle wherever he pleases,
while Charlie becomes increasingly vengeful as his past life
as a bloodthirsty soldier takes hold of him.
Fatally slowing the escalating incidents between the free
rangers and Baxter’s minions are long interludes of the cowpokes
just hanging out, and seemingly getting to know each other
even though Boss and Charlie have been riding together for
a decade. Costner is obviously in thrall to the Sergio Leone-Clint
Eastwood canon here, especially Eastwood’s death-of-the-West
masterpiece, Unforgiven, but the clumsily portentous
dialogue doesn’t add anything except tedium. While building
to the climactic showdown in town, Boss and Charlie pay innumerable
visits to the local doctor to check on Mose, and then Button,
who is waylaid back at the wagon. (Button, who appears to
be at least 17, is continually referred to as “just a boy,”
even though by the standards of the time he’d have been considered
as being well into adulthood).
Charlie takes a shine to the doc’s assistant, Sue (Annette
Bening), a woman who is no longer young and is brassily frank
about her diminished expectations. This potentially intriguing
romance—that Sue is willing to settle for a violent man with
few prospects simply because he loves her—is turned into a
laughable exercise in gobbledygooky, forward-thinking-speak.
Their hamfisted romance is not helped by the nostalgic set
design, which gives the town the idealized veneer of an old-timey
Throughout, characters state the obvious with annoying pomposity
(“They broke the mold after him,” says Charlie of the tough-talking
boss). Meanwhile, Boss dilutes any romance regarding the imminent
end of an unfettered way of life by complaining about cowherding
and stating his intentions to buy a saloon. By the time the
big shoot-out finally occurs (the delays encompass a mawkish
trip to the candy store), the conflict has lost so much momentum
that the resulting carnage comes off as a bloodbath rather
than a battle for freedom. We barely see the oppression the
townspeople have endured under Baxter; apparently, viewers
are supposed to fill in the blank by recalling Gene Hackman’s
very similar character in The Quick and the Dead. Open
Range is distractingly stranded between the pulp fiction
of that film and the high-minded fatalism of classic Westerns
from High Noon on; the meandering result may leave
some viewers believing that those wide open spaces didn’t
disappear fast enough.
Directed by Boaz Yakin
Mostly a showcase for the physical charms of Brittany Murphy,
who mugs shamelessly as the camera ogles her every ditzy turn,
Uptown Girls has a redeeming bit of grit within its
confectionery concept of a script. Directed by Boaz Yakin,
the fall and fairy-tale rise of a self-centered trust-fund
baby manages to work in a real issue—that of how unacknowledged
loss can warp the development of children of any age.
Murphy is Molly Gunn, a party girl in New York City whose
mother and rock-star father died when she was a child. Molly
has existed in perpetual childhood ever since, and receives
a rude awakening when her manager makes off with her money.
Having just turned 22, she is faced with realities like rent,
employment, and household chores for the first time. Through
a connection in her rock-industry social circle (presented
with pathetic inauthenticity), Molly lands a job as nanny
to Lorraine, called “Ray” (Dakota Fanning), the tyrannical
8-year-old daughter of a hotshot agent (Heather Locklear).
Ray occupies about as much time on her mother’s mind as her
Left on her own in a penthouse with a fleet of servants, Ray
is preternaturally grown-up and sarcastic, and it’s hatred
at first day for the two pampered princesses. But not for
long, of course, and the scenes where they argue, play, and
compare their experiences are the best in the film, with Murphy
displaying a genuine warmth that the rest of the story ignores
in favor of brainless pratfalls. She also holds her own with
Fanning (I Am Sam), a formidable pint-size thespian
with Mamet-style delivery.
Yakin, auteur of the critical smash Fresh, which centered
on a savvy 12-year-old drug runner, has an acute understanding
of the trials of being a child in a relentlessly adult world.
But unfortunately, Yakin is not the screenwriter here, and
the rest of the film concerns Molly’s unfulfilling romance
with a mopey, Morrissey-style rocker (bland Jesse Spencer),
whose musical sequences are wincingly awful. Tack on a saccharine
ending tied to the cheesiest dance routine in film history,
and the best that can be said for Uptown Girls is that
teen audiences could do worse.