Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 15, 2006 12:11 am 
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Half success

Ryan Gosling, the twenty-five-year-old Canadian-born actor remembered for the Mickey Mouse Club, Murder by Numbers, and The Notebook, gave such a memorable performance as the Jewish Nazi skinhead in Henry Bean's The Believer that it was a pity a technicality kept him from getting an Oscar nomination for it. By reputation Gosling is one of America's young actors most willing to delve deeply into a role and thoroughly commit to it, and The Believer amply proves that. But some of his performances and choices since have aroused doubt about his depth, his range, and his wisdom in choosing roles. Perhaps one of his drawbacks is his unprepossessing appearance. As a junior high teacher in a ghetto school in his new film, Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson, Gosling looks like a reedy student himself and his bland expression and his small, too-close-together eyes hardly hint at the torment that might result from living a double life as upright politically committed history teacher and off-duty full-time cokehead. What are the demons that drove him to such an addiction? All we can see are the weakness and laziness that keep him in it. When not addressing the class he can barely stay awake, so you wonder how he landed the additional job of girls' basketball coach. Gosling may have gotten into the theme of dialectic that he emphasizes in his classes enough to be able to improvise his teaching sessions, but they're mostly so simple they're embarrassing. The role is problematic. As an addict, Dan Dunne, his character, is shut down emotionally. Under those circumstances how do you convey the presence of masked feelings? There is more to Gosling and to Dunne than meets the eye here, but the movie is a disappointment.

The other actors can't support Gosling or his character either. None of the ghetto people or scenes presented in this movie -- regardless of how authentic the sets or actors -- comes across as real. Frank (Antony Mackie) is a handsome drug dealer who looks after Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of Dunne's students and a member of his basketball team whom he makes friends with after she discovers him doing crack in the girls' restroom. Mackie's Frank is too charismatic for a dealer in the hood. Drey (Shareeka Epps), a non-actress, has fresh moments, but her relationship with her teacher (Gosling) never takes off as it should because their scenes are as underwritten as the classroom sequences are pretentious. The competition between Frank and Dan to be Drey's mentor seems fatuous. Drey's brother is in jail because of working for Frank, so Frank is responsible for Drey? Dan is Drey's cokehead teacher, so he can be a role model for her? How does all that work?

Late in the movie inter-cutting between a gathering at Frank's house and an alcoholic evening for Dan at his parents', though obvious, introduces some complexity. But for the most part one can only wonder where the film is going, and the conclusion has to be it's setting up a situation, but has no where to go with it. Dan's dull bleary expression every time he enters the classroom looks real enough, but you wonder how he can convince the class that he's a good teacher. He is painfully sincere, but he hardly convinces us. The dinner with the parents show they are old lefties who were antiwar activists in the Sixties. But they don't know anything about Dan, and they're in a wine haze themselves. These scenes need to be carried further to carry emotional weight.

There are imbedded political messages in the movie. First come the important little history lessons (Attica, the CIA overthrow of Allende, Brown vs. Board of Education) delivered periodically by Dan's students that concern race and class and America's transnational political machinery. Then there's Dan's exchange with a Latina teacher he likes (Monique Curnen) about Marx and Hitler. And there's Drey's discovery of Frank's collection of humiliating blackface figurines. All these are moments that provide commentary on the relationship Dan and Drey are trying to establish, which may somehow be about to save Dan at the film's end. But director Fleck is too timid to push these points into a real shape, and what Half Nelson gives us remains only a situation, not a statement. Jittery camera-work and improvisation don't help much. Gosling may have gotten an interesting role again this time; this is not only a well-meaning movie but a pretty smart one, with its political awareness and its avoidance of classroom drama clich├ęs. But outside the environs of Sundance mere savvy and unconventionality will only get you so far, and however well he prepared, Gosling doesn't inhabit the role of Dan and bring us to the edge of our seats the way he did with the role of Danny Balint in The Believer.

Sun, Apr 30 / 6:15 / Kabuki / HALF30K
Tue, May 02 / 9:00 / Kabuki / HALF02K

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