Thursday, April 1, 2010

In Theaters: "The Greatest"

Back in 2003, not enough people saw a wonderful, heartfelt drama called Moonlight Mile, in which Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon played grieving parents who develop a relationship with the lover (Jake Gyllenhaal) of their deceased child. It didn’t make much money, but a few critics liked it, and apparently Sarandon did too, because now she’s gone and done a gender-swap remake. Shana Feste’s The Greatest doesn’t match the quiet elegance or emotional impact of the earlier picture, but it has its moments—mainly thanks to the fine performances at its core.

It starts with a wallop, giving us a shock open in which Bennett Brewer (Aaron Johnson) and his girlfriend Rose (Carey Mulligan)’s lovey-dovey dialogue is interrupted by a freak car accident that kills Bennett. His family—father Allen (Pierce Brosnan), mother Grace (Susan Sarandon), and brother Ryan (Johnny Simmons)—is shattered. Each of them deal with the loss in their own ineffective way; Allen tries to ignore the pain, Grace wallows in inconsequential details, and Ryan self-medicates. Then Rose shows up on their doorstep, and announces that she’s pregnant with Bennett’s baby and has nowhere to go.

Some of the early expositional dialogue is pretty stiff, but once the story gets going, it sails along pretty smoothly—perhaps a little too smoothly. It mostly unfolds as you’d expect; there’s resistance and communication issues at first, but slowly each of the family members breaks through to Rose, and to each other, etc. For much of the running time, however, the details and small touches carry the show: the subtle, mature way that they handle Allen’s “friendship” with a school colleague, the sly passive-aggressiveness of Grace’s hospital visits, or the small, lovely scene where Rose makes her strange bedroom her own.

Mostly, though, it’s a showcase for the actors. Sarandon isn’t doing much here she hasn’t done before, but I’ll tell ya what, when you want this kind of thing done, she’s the one to do it; her late scene with the invaluable Michael Shannon is tough, powerful stuff. Mulligan doesn’t have the kind of show-off role that she had in An Education, but her tremendous charisma and warmth are a huge asset for the picture, and her American accent is mostly credible (though it slips occasionally—how did she say “bananas” again?). And she has one great scene, in which she dodges Allen’s obstruction by telling him “a story about a boy.” But the most interesting performance in the film is Brosnan’s, and that’s no surprise—it’s kind of wonderful how he’s slowly segued out of his Bond persona to become something of an indie godfather, surprising and engaging us with his complex characterizations in films like The Matador and The Ghost Writer. He grabs us from his first scene here—a long, unbroken take of father, mother, and son sitting in the back of the funeral procession limo—and his eventual breakdown (the money shot for this kind of character) is a killer. Simmons handles his subplots well, and adds a welcome, wry sense of humor to the proceedings.

Now, there’s plenty that doesn’t work. The scene where Rose takes Allen to a wild party makes a play for easy laughs that smells like desperation, and I’m not quite sure if those flashbacks work. Feste also never quite figure out how to mine the relationship between Rose and Ryan for much of anything. The third act conflicts and confrontations feel a little pat; the story starts out with some refreshing openness and frankness, but slowly falls into some fairly predictable story patterns. And yes, I know that ending this story with anything other than a childbirth scene is like bringing a gun onstage and never firing it, but good lord am I tired of childbirth scenes.

But even at its most trite and predictable, it does work. It gets an emotional response from us, even though it gets it in a somewhat mechanized, obvious way. Some viewers resist being manipulated like that; for others, well, that’s exactly the kind of thing they go to the movies for. I’m somewhere in the middle—I don’t mind being maneuvered emotionally, as long as it’s done with some intelligence and finesse. The Greatest does that, and with some fine performances to boot.

"The Greatest" opens Friday, April 2nd in limited release.

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