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Communion of the doomed: (l-r) Girard and Croze in The Barbarian Invasions.

Twilight of the Godless
By Shawn Stone

The Barbarian Invasions
Directed by Denys Arcand

Filmmaker Denys Arcand is a thinking man’s smartass. In The Barbarian Invasions, he trots out for our amusement, in turn, endearing liberalism, caustic social comment, philosophical babble and rank sentiment. That he makes it all work proves that while he may not be as profound an artist as he’d like us to think, he is a master entertainer.

The film begins with a close-up of communion wafers being placed in a small tin, followed by a long, single-take tracking shot as the camera follows a nun through a hospital’s corridors. She’s on an errand of spiritual mercy, delivering the Eucharist to the suffering. It’s a devastating sequence on multiple levels. We see that every available room is filled, and the poorly lit, dingy halls are lined with “homeless” patients; Canada’s national health system is obviously a train wreck. (The Palestinian hospital in last year’s Divine Intervention was in better shape.) Out of this mass of humanity, only two patients take communion; this, in what used to be solidly Roman Catholic Quebec, is another shock. Canada may be godless, Arcand seems to say, but it’s no socialist paradise either. Oh, and the filmmaking itself is brilliant—I was so dazzled by the dense visual information and brutal wit, I didn’t even notice the credits flashing by.

Lefty college professor and ex-libertine Rémy (Rémy Girard) is dying of cancer in this miserable place. His loyal-but-still- suffering ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman) guilts their high-flying, uber-capitalist son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) into flying home from London to take charge of things. Sébastien knows how to cut through the bureaucratic bullshit—with fistfulls of cash. He knows whom to bribe, and in what order: first, a barely human, jargon-spewing administrator, followed by the thuggish union guys. (Arcand himself has an amusing cameo as one of the union goons.) When he finds out that morphine is a poor painkiller compared to heroin, Sébastien goes straight to the cops to find out where to obtain the best dope to ease his dad’s intense pain. To cheer his father up, he gets a group of pop’s old friends to come to Montreal to hang out, drink wine and reminisce about the good old days of wild sex and endless talk.

Lest you think The Barbarian Invasions is some kind of anti-liberal rant, Arcand lets his dying hero have his say. A historian, Rémy has spirited arguments with his son, the nun and his ex-wife about capitalism, socialism and the bloody, imperialist history of Western man. His blistering tirade on how the conquest of the Americas makes the 20th century seem comparatively peaceful is worth seeing the film for; as Rémy finishes, he looks out of his hospital window on a scene of aimless urban blight: a freeway and a maze of gray, characterless office blocks.

The rest of the film is a Big Chill-style gathering of old friends sizing up their current prospects (not great) and colorful past (glorious but dead). The Barbarian Invasions is measurably smarter than its American counterpart, and much more moving. Even a subplot involving a young junkie (Marie-Josée Croze) who gives Rémy his shots and bonds with him, has unexpected resonance. One of the film’s better jokes is in the contrast between the randy, if tired, oldsters and the comparatively prim Sébastien, his girlfriend and the rest of the younger generation.

Most surprising, however, is the ending. If the geezers come to terms with their past because they’ve outgrown the lures of the flesh, the seemingly more sober younger generation seems doomed to repeat the same mistakes. This is an unexpected note of melancholy, and the film’s final bit of grace.

Once More Without Feeling

The Ladykillers
Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

I’m one of those viewers who immediately wrinkles her nose in distaste when I see a preview for a remake of a movie whose original I still find perfectly good and worthy of repeat viewings. My misgivings are unerringly correct. I mean, did anybody really think that Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton could make us forget the Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade? Or that Harrison Ford, Greg Kinnear and Julia Ormond could outcharm the original Sabrina trio of Humphrey Bogart, William Holden and, again, Hepburn? Even those originals that did not feature the divine Audrey, such as Little Women and My Favorite Wife, are just far more enjoyable than their remakes.

So, admittedly, I wasn’t too excited to learn that the Coen brothers were remaking the great 1955 Alec Guiness-Peter Sellers caper, The Ladykillers. But then, well, I liked the previews.

By transplanting the story from an English boarding house to the Mississippi delta, the Coens have completely Americanized it, infusing it with a rich aural quality that is equally musical (with T-Bone Burnett presiding over a combination of Negro spirituals and urban hiphop) as it is conversational. The latter comes dually, first by way of Irma P. Hall’s husky, Bible-referencing intonations as the stout-hearted church widow Mrs. Munson, and secondly by her tenant, Professor G.H. Dorr (Tom Hanks). Shedding his everyman persona for yet another accent, this time a rolling-voweled, mesmerizing and often hilarious invocation of KFC’s Col. Sanders, Hanks creates a character who is equal parts Southern buffoon and tragic Poe persona. Ostensibly, Dorr is in town to rehearse with his band of Renaissance musicians, but in reality, they’re attempting to tunnel through the Munson cellar, straight into the money room of a nearby gambling boat. Rounding out the gang are the taciturn General (Tzi Ma), the former footballer and current “blunt instrument” Lump (Ryan Hurst), inside man Gawain (Marlon Wayans) and jack-of-all-trades Pancake (J.K. Simmons).

As has become too often the case, the Coen brothers can’t seem to figure out what kind of movie they want to make. At times, The Ladykillers purrs like, well, Mrs. Munson’s mischievous feline Pickles, who, in the course of the film, fashions a cat toy out of one of the robber’s inopportunely detached digits. Too often, however, the movie lurches from one style to another. At one point it’s David Mamet-like conversation at the Waffle Hut, in which Gawain can’t get beyond the fact that Mr. Pancake brought his “f-ing bitch” Mountain Girl along, thereby somehow weakening the all-male, and none-too-virile, esprit de corps. Then it’s something out of the WB, with Wayans doing agonizingly vulgar riffs that make not just Mr. Pancake wonder why he went to all the trouble, back in the ’60s, of being a freedom rider. Too little time is spent building up rapport between the characters; indeed, two, Lump and the General, seem to be around only to up the body count at the film’s finale.

While Hanks has sublime moments, his character seems more often like a stand-alone, a finely developed performance piece for a graduate dramatics thesis or, at best, a rehearsal bit for a one-man show about Mark Twain. It is a pleasure to hear him wrap his tongue around flowery literature, not to mention those dingy prosthetic teeth, but none of this conveys how he came to collect his motley crew, or how he came to amass his knowledge of the illegal. Hall alone really feels at home in the movie, and one wishes that she had better material to work with. By the movie’s end, the Coens have resorted to sight gags of the old lady’s dentures and of the sounds of her nocturnal snoring, so much so that the band members’ final comeuppances feel not so much like divine retribution as like desperate efforts to find closure to yet another insipid, uninspired remake.

—Laura Leon

Kevin Strikes Out

Jersey Girl
Directed by Kevin Smith

When filmmaker Kevin Smith was a clerk in a convenience mart, he was inspired to make Clerks, a no-budget original that mined the wage-slave zeitgeist with a sense of humor as warped as its hapless protagonists. But that was several movies ago, and as Smith somewhat satirized in his last comedy, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Hollywood can have a negative impact even on outsiders. Even, it seems, Smith himself, whose latest, Jersey Girl is a trite, contrived, and mostly unfunny dramedy. Jersey Girl was inspired by Smith’s own young fatherhood, yet even so, it shows the maverick filmmaker has gone Hollywood in the worst way.

Smith stand-in Ben Affleck stars as Ollie Trinke, a career-driven egotist (yawn) who is tamed by the love of a good woman. As anyone who has seen one of Smith’s many interviews downplaying the Bennifer factor knows, the good woman, played by Jennifer Lopez, dies in childbirth in the first 10 minutes, leaving Ollie to raise their infant daughter alone. Stressed out and inexplicably unable to afford a nanny, Ollie snaps at a press conference and loses his job as a high-level publicist. Also inexplicably, he doesn’t seem to have an investment portfolio, and so he and baby Gertie leave Manhattan and move in with his cantankerous, blue-collar Pop (George Carlin) in New Jersey.

Fast forward seven years: Ollie is still doing menial labor alongside Pop and dreaming of his big comeback as a glamorous publicist. He’s still living in Pop’s tract house; inexplicably, there’s a dearth of apartments as well as white-collar jobs in the ’burbs of Jersey. The film’s phony construction is far more dismaying than having J.Lo in the credits (Lopez may be intolerable as tabloid fodder, but she’s not a bad actress). But Jersey Girl isn’t just phony, it’s also yucky when it means to be down-to-earth. Ollie, as Smith clues us in every other scene, is smarter than everyone else, especially his grouchy but supportive father—Pop is supposedly too ignorant to know that Cats is a Broadway show (the miscast Carlin does his best with this thankless, witless role). More than once, Ollie tries to impress upon Gertie (Raquel Castro), who adores her unpretentious grandfather, that Pop is just an old dummy (and this is Smith’s homage to his own recently deceased father?).

The only person Ollie can relate to is Maya (Liv Tyler), an assertive psychology student working at the local video store. Somehow, Maya goes from being a quickie lunch date to an integral part of the Trinke family, and just in time for the film’s big domestic conflict, which erupts like a can of cheap grape soda. Sentimental doesn’t bring out the best in Smith: Jersey Girl is noticeably lacking in his usual garrulous humor and absurdly prickly situations, Ollie’s intrusion on Gertie’s show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine play date with a polite neighbor boy excepted. In fact, the film’s only redeeming element is—surprise—Affleck, who is appealingly comic as an easily embarrassed daddy. He also has a natural rapport with Tyler. Now if Ollie had been, oh, say, a clerk instead of a cliché, they might’ve really had something.

—Ann Morrow


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