Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jan 06, 2022 7:20 am 
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Mike Mills' indirect, labored look at fatherhood

My heart sank when I saw the opening scenes of Mike Mills' new film, Cmon Cmon. The black and white imagery from Irish dp Robbie Ryan is really faded gray, drained of life or hope, and also self-consciously stylish. The classical music is overly loud and intrusive. The text-introduced readings from books are pretentious and unnecessary, as are all the taped voiceover inner ponderings. We drift from Detroit to Los Angeles with a man called Johnny (played by Joaquin Phoenix) apparently childless and unattached and working on a vague radio project interviewing school kids about a subject nobody knows about, least of all kids: the future. Things look up when Johnny is called to LA by his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) to take care of his mop-head 9-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) so Viv can care for her husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), who's having a "mental health crisis," which is how we say "going crazy" now. (He's bipolar and having a severe manic episode.)

In the bathtub after an outing where Jesse gets to try out Johnny's sound recording kit on the boardwalk and beach at Pacific Palisades - a sign of how much Johnny's going to indulge him, Jesse says "mom tells me stories. They can be fiction or non-fiction." The boy actor - Woody Norman is a famous charmer - provides some good light moments that mitigate Phoenix's actor-y self-importance. But the film is weighed down by its jump-around editing, its distinctive "look," and its attempts at improvisational vérité that make everything seem self-conscious and false. (In her many phone consults with Johnny, Viv, as played by Gaby Hoffmann, adds a lot of superfluous F-words.)

But Mills has a knack for making things seem specific and his people appealing. We sympathize with Johnny's pride at being a good temporary surrogate dad for Jesse and his and Viv's enjoyment of being back in close touch now after a recent estrangement following their mother's death (the flashbacks of that, though, are another distracting complication). Norman as Jesse goes on being charming, and the adult-child relationship Norman and Phoenix create together, made of many little improvisational moments, is an appealing one. It just goes on a bit longer than necessary, without including any genuine development or crisis. They get along! These two actors play so well off each other all the rest of the world vanishes - except in a couple of disturbing crowd scenes when Johnny loses Jesse for a terrifying moment.

When Jesse's dad gets better and Viv can take Jesse back, Jesse and Johnny are best friends and splitting is a big deal. Why isn't Jesse in school? He's emerged as a challenge, half a Shakespearean hyper sophisticated child and half a contemporary spoiled American brat. The trouble his parents are having may explain his erratic behavior, but he might have benefitted from more discipline than Johnny provides. Norman, in any case, is a good foil for a labored and (again the word) self-conscious actor like Phoenix (the opposite of his talented late brother River, with his luminous natural gifts). Spurred by Norman, Phoenix seems more natural.

Cmon Cmon continues with Johnny taking Jesse with him for work in New York, where he continues his radio interviews with high schoolers. Later they go on to New Orleans together for more interviews with additional crew. This movie is another chapter in Mills' hit-or-miss running autobiography: its about his relationship with his son. (It's interesting that this is done through a pretend-son, a surrogate-father period.)

The faded black and white, the ponderous - and touching, because real - kid interviews, even the casting of Joaquin Phoenix, too heavy a hitter for a mere babysitting role, are clear hints at what Manohla Dargis in her Times review calls this movie's "precious and self-regarding" quality. I had this feeling at the beginning of Beginners; I didn't have it watching Thumbsucker or 20th Century Woman. Cmon Cmon is a self-consciously classy film that as Bradshaw in his Guardian review says "has something a bit self-congratulatory" about it and, as he also points out, is exploitive (like, one may add, Chloé Zhao's extravagantly praised Nomadland) in its blending in real people (the interviewed teenagers) with its fictional ones to make the lead actors seem more authentic, to make the movie seem more serious with the questions about "the future,"* and to give Johnny an activity beside full-time, star-quality babysitting.

Unlike most critics, I liked the 2005 Thumbsucker, which I gave an eight out of ten on IMDb and admired for its subtlety in approaching adolescence and its dry humor. Mills' next movie Beginners (2010) is more dreary than subtle, weighted down by the son played by Ewan McGregor who's writing a "history of sad" and only briefly enlivened by Christopher Plummer as his elderly father who becomes a late-blooming openly gay man.

It seems evident Mike Mills in his features is selectively tracing the lineaments of his life. Though the results for me are hit or miss, at this point I would not ever want to miss the next one. While he focused on his young self, then on his father, after a documentary detour about depression in Japan he turned to his mother in 20th Century Woman, which I've said went down easier than the paternal portrait, and was enlivened by the main role being played by Annette Benning: who could want more? The film hasn't much happening but it's full of dates and age-spans to locate itself and the characters.

The central young male character in these movies is undeveloped because he isn't doing much of anything. Mills doesn't find much of a storyline except in Thumbsucker - the Ritalin, the debate team victory.

As he presents himself, perhaps accurately, Mills considers making these movies just one thing he does. His IMDb self-description begins "He works as a filmmaker, graphic designer and artist," and lists documentaries, videos, and a graphic line. He comes off as a bit of a dilettante.

There is a telling moment when Johnny and Jesse argue over whether they'll remember this time together. Jesse insists he will and Johnny insists only he will. Logically, it would wind up being a vaguer memory for the boy when he grows up. But the question is, will we remember this movie? One is likely to remember the texture of the two actors' scenes together but not their content. This movie, so busy with devices, has less plot and fewer characters than Mills' three earlier autobiographical features. But it looks different, that's for sure.

*Jesse undercuts the ponderous interview questions, and provides the film with its oddball title, in a private answer recording himself, where he says you can't ever know the future and just have to say "cmon cmon cmon" - take whatever happens.

Cmon Cmon, 109 mins., debuted at Telluride Sept. 2, 2021 and was subsequently included in nearly two dozen other festivals including New York, the Hamptons, and Mill Valley. An A24 film, it went into limited US theatrical release Nov. 19, and became available on digital platforms, at first for $19.99, from Dec. 23. Watched online for this review Jan. 5, 2022. Metacritic rating: 81%.

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