Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Cassavetes: "Minnie and Moskowitz"

After mediations on race relations (Shadows) and suburban ennui (Faces) and the nature of machismo (Husbands), we get a different kind of Cassavetes for his 1972 “romantic comedy” Minnie and Moskowitz; while the quotation marks around the genre may be necessary (this is certainly not Nora Ephron, or even Woody Allen), he is clearly enjoying the freedom to be loose and funky with an odd story in a minor key.

Gena Rowlands (Mrs. Cassavetes) and Seymour Cassel are Minnie and Moskowitz, a museum curator and a parking-lot attendant who meet and fall into a strange, hyper-emotional, often confrontational love over the course of four long days and nights. They don’t even meet until around the 50-minute mark; the opening section could be trimmer, though the opening scenes, with Moskowitz in his native New York (most of the film takes place after he moves to L.A.) have a wonderful sense of time and place (his encounter with a strange, lonely man in a Times Square coffee shop is peculiar but effective).

Rowlands’ performance is the best one in the film. She’s flat-out terrific (this was her first real showcase role in one of her husband’s films, and he would seldom make another one in which she was not front and center), skillfully navigating her character’s impossible complexities, even seeming, in places, to change her physical appearance before our very eyes—he tells her she’s beautiful, and she certainly is, and then a moment or two later when she says she’s too old for him, she suddenly looks old. “Everything used to make me smile,” she says sadly, in a key (and wonderful) scene, “I’ve noticed I don’t smile as much as I used to.” A lot of the movie is held in that scene; the two of them don’t make any sense together, not a lick, but he makes her smile and laugh and feel alive, and some people reach a point in their lives where that’s good enough. What Rowlands does, fearlessly, is show us a woman who has just reached that point.

The trouble with Minnie and Moskowitz is that, outside of her work, there’s precious little modulation in it. Cassel, an actor I’ve often admired, is certainly likable and interesting at first, with his walrus mustache and long hair and heart on his sleeve, but by the two-thirds mark, you realize that his performance is all him pounding the same shrill note, over and over, at the same volume. Many of the supporting characters have the same problem; they’re too damned broad, particularly Val Avery’s screeching Zelmo and Katherine Cassavetes (yes, his mom) as a painfully stereotypical Jewish mother. There are things to like in Minnie and Moskowitz—Rowlands’ work, the steady pacing, the slightly sprung editing that ends some scenes in midsentence or even mid-word—but it’s so pushy and loud that we get precious few of the moments of quiet revelation that made less accessible pictures like Faces and Husbands worth the effort.

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