Saturday 3 April 2010

Dead end (ST 10 January 2010)

The Road (15) 111 mins ***
It’s Complicated (15) 118 mins ***
sex&drugs&rock&roll (15) 115 mins ***

“Cheer up, it might never happen” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as The Road unfurled before me. Those who’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s novel will, of course, know “it” already has: director John Hillcoat is merely being faithful to the book’s post-apocalyptic tenor. As the absence of wildlife and women, the thick covering of ash on the ground and Viggo Mortensen’s enfeebled, exhausted narration makes clear, this is a world burned out: there is no spark left, and only the tiniest flicker of hope upon which to warm ourselves.

Pop Mortensen and boy Kodi Smit-McPhee comb this dead Earth, seeing exactly the extent of the devastation, and what may yet be salvaged. Early on, dad finds a revolver with two bullets in the chamber. “One for me, one for you,” he remarks, and it’s the closest Mortensen gets to happy. Elsewhere, they spend their time dodging the gangs preying upon vulnerable travellers - and these aren’t even the worst of our heroes’ fears; later, the pair find in the basement of an outwardly respectable mansion the homeowners’ personal stash of live human flesh.

Mass destruction, suicide, cannibalism: suffice to say The Road makes the last screen McCarthy adaptation, 2007’s No Country for Old Men, resemble a Joe Pasquale vehicle. As 2006’s outback Western The Proposition demonstrated, Hillcoat favours heavy-set, somewhat self-conscious glumness, the kind many admire in the music of the director’s regular collaborator Nick Cave: handing him this material is as coals to Newcastle, or prescribing Mogadon to a depressive.

There are advantages to the Hillcoat approach. The filmmaker never sentimentalises the relationship between man and boy, and - while possessed of the budget to do large-scale social breakdown - mostly foregoes Roland Emmerich-style spectacle to keep the disaster intimate and real. We inhabit abandoned interiors cast in flickering candlelight. Cave and Warren Ellis’ score floats in like a distant memory of better times. After months of trudging, father and son finally take a bath, and the camera clocks the grime left around the tub.

The problem is one of adaptation: that Joe Penhall’s script makes specific what the book had down as mythic and poetic. For all its assumed gravitas, The Road really isn’t that more abstract than the recent Zombieland or Carriers, offering another very American apocalypse: one of guns and men, fathers and sons, joy through consumption. Until our heroes discover a bunker larded with comestibles, the closest The Road gets to an affirming sign of life is a can of Coca-Cola; and while I’d love to report it inspires the cast into a stirring rendition of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”, this really isn’t that film.

How complicated is Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated? Not very, is the answer. Divorcee Meryl Streep picks up where she left off after a drunken fling with ex Alec Baldwin, only for typically sensitive screen architect Steve Martin to show up, offering a complete overhaul of her home, gardens and romantic life. All the characters wear romcom smiles, live in romcom houses, and do romcom things like hiding out in flowerbeds to spy on one another. Meryl has a group of friends of a similar vintage who sit around cackling about vaginaplasty; Meyers cuts to a garden sprinkler coming on as a visual analogy for sex.

It is, in brief, the sort of thing that would normally have me poking my own eyes out with my Biro; instead, I found myself jotting such thoughts as “how rare it is to see characters with genuine history, played by performers entirely comfortable in their own skin”. It’s Complicated appears to date from an age before body dysmorphia: Leo Sayer on the soundtrack and references to The Graduate are as contemporary as it gets. Meryl is foxy and having a lot of fun, again; Baldwin - rejuvenated by TV’s 30 Rock - goes topless, bottomless, and eats up everything in sight, including most of the laughs.

Pulsing almost unnoticed beneath the appealing retro vibe is a deep vein of conservatism. The women cook, while the men come round to change the lightbulbs; hardline feminists won’t be alone in cringing when a post-coital Baldwin places his hand over the Streep crotch, contentedly exclaiming “Home sweet home!”. The movie equivalent of a tipsy aunt at a wedding, It’s Complicated often makes a fool of itself. Still, those staggering multitudes who enjoyed Mamma Mia! can’t fail to enjoy it; as for me, well, I knew the HRT had to kick in sooner or later.

What the Ian Dury biopic sex&drugs&rock&roll conveys is a personality forged in the furnace of pub rock. Mat Whitecross’s film honours the grating noise that accompanied its polio-surviving protagonist’s life: crockery-shattering rows, drumkits in front rooms, the click of a leg brace. That raucousness sometimes drowns out Dury’s lyrical wit, and the father-son business remains unconvincing, requiring Ray Winstone’s Dury Sr. only to mouth maxims in flashbacks. Yet Andy Serkis has Dury’s junkyard-dog growl down pat, and the whole remains raggedly true to the spirit of its subject: persistently picking itself up and hauling itself across the line, kicking up an almighty racket when so inclined.

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