Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 03, 2011 3:47 pm 
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Neurotic family wedding drama is a showcase for the thespian talents of Ellen Barkin and Ezra Miller

How can you compete with a marriage-party-gone-wrong movie that ends with the end of the world? Sam Levinson's timing isn't ideal since his first feature, Another Happy Day, with its somewhat lamely ironic title, comes only a matter of months after Lars Von Traier's gloriously sad epic, Melancholia. Levinson, mind you, has put together an excellent cast for his overpopulated portrait of family dysfunctionality, but this can't possibly compete (to use a fairer comparison) with Jonathan Demme's overdone but nonetheless glorous Rachel Getting Married. Demme too poured on the drama. And how he poured it on! But his film was suffused with a great humanity. More was really going on, the portraiture was richer and more specific, and the redemption was more authentic and satisfying. Levinson's cliché-ridden (but Sundance-awarded) screenplay is scattered, neurotically rambling, mostly a collection of little scenes involving pairs of characters delivering formulaic dialogue, with issues either left dangling or resolved in too-obvious ways.

The setting, at least, is lovely: a big, beautiful Maryland colonial house near Annapolis set by a quiet offshoot of the Chesapeake Bay. After that it gets complicated. The guests may be supposed to know each other, but we need name tags. First of all there are the two Ellens, Barkin and Burstyn. Barkin is Lynn, whose sobby speeches hold the spotlight. Burstyn (who looks great in her late seventies) is Doris, Lynn's disapproving mother. Lynn and Paul (Thomas Haden Church) split up years ago, dividing up their offspring, and Doris blames Lynn for anything that went wrong thereafter. We must be meant to pity Lynn, but Doris isn't proven wrong. In fact Paul and his flashy and feisty new younger wife Patty (Demi Moore) seem indeed to have done relatively well with the task of raising the bland bridegroom, Dylan (Michael Nardelli).

Lynn was not so successful with now grown-up Alice (Kate Bosworth), a therapist-in-training who has a history of cutting herself and is now uneasily on her own, not having seen Paul for years. And that's to say nothing of the two boys in Lynn's charge, the middle son, Eliot (Ezra Miller), who has Tourette tendencies and a vile tongue and is a rampant abuser of multiple substances who's been four times in rehab -- at seventeen; and the little one, Ben (Daniel Yelsky), a perpetually insecure kid who has mild Asperger's, is the butt, along with Lynn, of some of Eliot's cruelest verbal assaults, and detaches himself from people by periodically filming family members, especially Eliot, who is happy to oblige with sardonic riffs.

That's not all, of course. Doris' husband, hulking grandpa Joe (George Kennedy) has multiple health problems and may be on the way out. He doesn't talk much and is no longer really present for his wife but he has not lost his capacity to cause drama. Lynn has two sisters, Bonnie and Donna (Siobhan Fallon and Diana Scarwid), who're like an occasional, wackily malicius Greek chorus. Then there's Brandon and Charlie and Tommy and Ted and Heather and Taylor and Bobby, and Lynn's innocuous second husband Lee (Jeffrey DeMunn). It becomes ridiculous after a while. You can spend much of your time watching this movie just trying to keep track of the characters. The bride and groom are nonentities and hardly count at all.

The two Ellens get their big scene together and Barkin, who is the producer and not surprisingly has been alloted generous amounts of screen time, has ample opportunity to manipulate her big weepy eyes and her wide smear of a mouth. George Kennedy gets to stage several wordless coups de théâtre, including one final big one that helps draw the meandering drama to a close in some fashion. Before that, during the post-wedding party, Alice gets to tell Paul to fuck off, after he has made several awkward efforts to stage a reunion following his years of neglect, and this is one of the film's only satisfying moments, though it's over in seconds, while Lynn's self-pity goes on for hours.

The big scene-stealer is Ezra Miller, as the tall boy with cheekbones, perfect skin, and an infinite capacity to be rude and insulting while simultaneously imbibing astonishing quantities of every form of opiate, cannabis, and alcohol in sight, seemingly without ill effect. Makes you wish you were seventeen again. It has been charged that Miller is type-cast now, his bad-boy image rigidified by his playing the monstrous son in Lynne Ramsey's disturbing and rigorous film, We Need to Talk About Kevin. This may be a valid criticism. But it remains true that few actors have ever played a malicious and sophisticated young person with more verve than Miller, and he has shown an ability to do different roles in Afterschool and City Island. Unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool Ellen Barkin fan like Rex Reed ("I tend to forget how marvelous Ellen Barkin can be until she gets the rare chance to pull out all the stops in a movie like this"), Ezra Miller is the chief reason to watch this fairly disastrous film. It will be interesting to see if Miller will drift more and more into horror-show territory ("just another bad-seed horror villain," one critic has written of Kevin), or will take up residence in the more subtle Salingeresque world inhabited so ably by the Culkin brothers.

Another Happy Day debuted at Sundance in Jaunary 2011 (nabbing the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award), has shown at international film festivals, and was released theatrically in NYC and LA on November 18, 2011. Elsewhere in the US it comes out on December 9. French release date: February 1, 2012. We Need to Talk About Kevin (based on the Lionel Shriver novel and starring Tilda Swinton as Kevin's unfortunate mother) is likely to bring Ezra Miller greater attention. It caused a stir at its May Cannes debut. It opened in France in September (I screened and reviewed it there) and the UK in October, and has a one-week NYC and LA Oscar-qualifying release (by Oscilloscope) December 9, 2011 and limited US release January 27, 2012.

One could also compare Levinson's new film to Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding (NYFF 2007), not as successful as Rachel Getting Married but still more original than this.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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