Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 06, 2016 11:38 am 
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Male mistakes after a death in the family

I've been a big fan of the talented Norwegian director Joachim Trier (a cousin of Lars, not pretentious enough to add a "von" to his name), and find especially his first film, the exciting, brilliant Reprise, so amusingly written and cunningly crafted it rewards multiple viewings. The second one, the compulsive and heartbreaking Oslo, Aug. 31, is almost too powerful to bear. Both hover on a very Scandinavian edge between verve and despair. Both, like this new one, were co-scripted with Trier's pal and collaborator, Eskil Vogt. A great team -- but not so great this time.

Trier's third movie isn't just a flop but a classy one -- but is that any better? It's in English instead of Norwegian, set outside New York City instead of in Oslo, and the first thing lost in translation is a feeling of authenticity. The second is characters we can sympathize with. It focuses on a weak and ineffectual father, Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne) and his two obnoxious sons, Jonah and Conrad (Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid), who are struggling to cope with the death of their wife and mother, a famous globe-trotting photojournalist. It's an impressive occupation for Isabelle Huppert that, like Juliette Binoche's similar role in A Thousand Times Goodnight, is a cloyingly fake-feeling kind of "importance" to tack onto any film. Hotshot photojournalists who haunt the world's most dangerous and tragic places, particularly of the feminine kind, are a dangerous device in a movie. Drenching them in importance through New York Times mockups and fake interviews with the real Charlie Rose has an aura of kitsch about it.

Isabelle Reed (the actress gets to keep her first name) actually died some years ago, but the pot has been stirred again. There is to be a big retrospective exhibition of her photographs. And on the occasion, a big piece is to be published in the New York Times, penned by one of her closest colleagues, Richard Weissman (David Strathairn), who has warned Gene he's going to have to mention that Isabelle's death in a car accident near home was likely suicide, something the younger son Conrad, who's in high school, was never told. With the old wounds this exhibition opens, neither Gene, an actor turned high school teacher; his older son Jonah; nor the sullen teen Conrad is coping, communicating, or living well.

This is a three-way meltdown, and also an exploration of the three males' relations with Isabelle, flashbacks of whom are scattered throughout. For the most part it is hard to care about these three guys. Jonah comes off as an absolute shit, and in the Eisenberg style, chilly and neurotic. Trier plays around with time and the film is edited to shift focus among the guys. Our attention and sympathy settle at the end on Conrad, the boy, who has an extended, rather touching scene after a party -- one of the movie's few memorable and felt passages -- in which he walks home a girl with a hurt arm, Melanie (Ruby Jerins) who's "out of his league" (she's a cheerleader; he's a gangly nerd), and the mood is such that for a moment they might be soul-mates. This could be an outtake from Gia Copola's excellent Palo Alto.

Earlier Conrad has acted pretty nasty toward his dad, Gene. Gene's efforts to communicate with Conrad about the suicide, or anything else, have been ineffectual. Jonah temporarily abandons his wife just after she's had a baby and has sympathy-sex with an ex-girlfriend he runs into in the hospital whom he's allowed to assume his wife has cancer. This episode is rich in black ironies, but in Jonah, what's not to dislike? It's the initially sullen and unreachable Conrad who awakens our pity and sympathy. By association this may make us see some good, after all, in Gene, who's trying to be a good father, even if his covert affair with Conrad's English teacher (Amy Ryan) shows both his poor judgment and his weakness. Maybe we'll hope, as Gene does, that Jonah will get back to his wife and do his job as a father; still, caring about him is more of a stretch. We are meant to understand all this misbehavior is the guys' ways of expressing how messed up Isabelle's death has made them. But Vogt and Trier jump around too much, and the movie completely lacks the dynamism and drive of their two earlier ones.

It's also tiresome and obvious in having both Isabelle and her writing colleague (Strathairn) repeat how addictive their work is and how tricky the pull of home vs frontline is. We get that without being told. The more we think about this movie the more artificial and pretentious it feels. And that's a pity -- because it does contain vivid and original scenes for all three guys. The tall, gangly, superficially repulsive Devin Druid is an actor to watch. There are further interesting details involving his character, a computer war game in which Gene tries to connect with him, disastrously; and a weird, brilliant piece of writing by Conrad that causes Jonah to begin grudgingly to recognize his worth. All this stuff would work a lot better without all the pretentious machinery of the famous photojournalist's tragic and ironic demise, in a movie more in the vein of Gia Coppola's.

Putting Gabriel Byrne and David Strathairn in the same scene is a pretty bad idea. That's too much handsome, distinguished, of-a-certain-age sensitive actorishness for one screen to bear.

Louder Than Bombs 109 mins., debuted at Cannes 18 May 2015; in over a dozen other international festivals. It opened in France 9 Dec. 2015, neutrally retitled after the terrorist attacks Back Home and greeted by critics with wan enthusiasm, accorded a bland AlloCiné press rating of 3.2; Cahiers' comment is devastating. US release comes 8 Apr. 2016 (NYC at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. SF Bay Area: 22 Apr. Clay Theatre and San Rafael Film Center.

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