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Loserpalooza

Depressed wine drinkers! Midlife-crisis-stricken superheroes! Men who never grew up! Is this weekend's movie lineup the first sign of a newly mature cinema?

By Richard von Busack

LET ME tell you what was going on in the minds of serious film fans during the past few years. There we were, flotsam in the red tide of the evening news. We watched the body count rise and the stock market plummet. We watched the jobs flee overseas. And sick at heart, we thought: Well, at least maybe we'll get some good movies out of all this.

Being movie fans, we could recite from memory a speech Orson Welles' Harry Lime made in the 1949 classic The Third Man: "In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Certainly, that's glib. This ex-history major knows that there exists somewhere a crotchety professor of Swiss studies who seethes every time he watches The Third Man. What about the hidden fault lines in Helvetican society, the strife among the cantons and the need for agrarian reform, circa 1715-1900? You call that peace? Eh? Eh? And indeed, angst and turmoil are sometimes overrated as catalysts for art. Bach, Matisse and Mozart created art without anxiety.

Still, in the breathing spaces between wars and recessions, American movies tended to lose their edge. Recall the Reagan years: an era of calm and good feeling (as long as you had the money to enjoy it). American cinema of the 1980s is a suitable monument to the Gipper: 10 years of what Harry Lime might refer to as cuckoo-clock art, full of CGI critters as fake as the wooden bird that chirps the hours, overburdened with picturesque cows and haystacks (The River, Country, Places in the Heart), cast with actresses and actors as whistle-clean as dirndl-clad milkmaids and farm boys of the Alps. Not a good time to go to the movies, those 1980s.

And was the American cinema of the peaceful Eisenhower '50s any better? The giant insects, space monsters, Singin' in the Rain, Brando and Dean, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray—all are just exceptions that prove the rule. Look at the box office. Jerry Lewis owned the 1950s, and what was left belonged to Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Better to stay home and watch I Love Lucy, and that's just what most people did.

But when a depression, a world war or a Vietnam War comes along, movies suddenly get interesting. Two very turbulent decades, the 1930s and '40s, are widely declared a golden era of American movies. And as for 1968-77: ah, those were 10 mucky years. Enough terror, murder and bloodshed to make Mr. Lime's eyes shine. And look at the movies: The Godfather, Chinatown, Night Moves, Dog Day Afternoon.

It's too early to predict what effect the misfortunes and misadventures of the 21st century will exert on feature films. Terror and counterterror, Abu Ghraib, the insurgency and car bombs in Iraq—these and all the other catastrophes of the time may produce films about picked-on men going violent.

But what we're seeing right now is something more introspective, more aware of human limits and the failure of good intentions. Raging films may come later—new Taxi Drivers, new Rambos. There's a tipping point when the ambient level of violence in the outside world becomes so high that the characters onscreen start killing—instead of dying inside. Take it from someone who was soaked in the movies of the Vietnam era: if things get worse in Iraq, start expecting films in which the hero always dies in the last reel.

Four Ages

We can look at what's on tap this very weekend, let alone this coming winter, for some hints about how the movies are responding to dire events.

What do we see? Soulful losers galore; men demonstrating impotence and clumsiness and lying to the ones they love. Even the escapism looks more mature than ever. The best line in the new animated feature The Incredibles: Mrs. Incredible looking at her husband's supersuit and realizing he's been out fighting crime without her: "Is this rubble on his collar?"

This weekend's cinematic lineup plays like a schematic of the "four ages of male losers"—a variation of Shakespeare's "seven ages of man."

At first, the loser is a foolish comic-book fanboy: the juvenile villain Syndrome of the animated The Incredibles.

Later, he evolves into a different kind of no-hoper: the self-destructive promiscuous lover played by Jude Law in the remake of Alfie.

Then, he morphs into the depressed family man: Mr. Incredible himself, called "Bob" in his unhappy civilian life.

Lastly, he is seen as a divorced-and-hating-it middle-aged guy in the form of Paul Giamatti's Miles, the wine-darkened lovable loser in Alexander Payne's comedy-drama Sideways.

Sour Grapes

Breathes there a man with soul so dead that he hasn't looked into a mirror and hissed, "You fucking loser!"?

In Sideways, Paul Giamatti's marvelously mordant follow-up to his performance as comic-book author Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, slouchy, touchy Miles gets to do the mirror scene about midway through the movie. Crimped in the jaws of a wrathful hangover, he lets his reflection have it. My heart rose. It's my favorite song, and one rarely hears it so well performed. Woody Allen can't hit those notes anymore, or make them sound authentic ever since he hit the jackpot.

Giamatti, with his vulture's posture and his narrow, panic-stricken eyes, evokes a grim certainty that today will be worse than yesterday, and tomorrow worse than both. He is the screen's reigning Mr. Negativity.

Miles leads a life of abasement. His apparently unpublishable 700-page novel, The Day After Yesterday (contained in two dismayingly large boxes), is languishing at the publisher's office. He teaches eighth-grade English. He dwells in a crap-shack divorce apartment.

In his cave, we see but one trophy: a repro cast-stone souvenir Cycladean statue, like the ones they sell at the Louvre gift shop—proof, when everything else argues to the contrary, that he did make it to Paris once.

Sideways takes place during a weeklong road trip Miles takes with his old buddy Jack (the craggy Thomas Haden Church); the two are heading up to visit the wineries of Santa Barbara County, taste some pinot noirs and play some golf.

Jack, a leathery semiactor akin in looks, fame and talent to The Simpsons' Troy McClure, is ignorant of wine, but he's all for the drinking part of the expedition. A few days in, though, he makes his motives clear. Jack seriously, desperately wants to get laid before settling into that long good night of marriage. And he wants Miles to get some, too.

This will be a logistical problem. It is only a scant two years since Miles endured a divorce so bitter that he still winces every time he looks at a woman. But they do meet a pair of ladies conveniently close to the windmill-themed motel where they are staying. Sandra Oh, in the part her fans have been awaiting forever since Double Happiness, turns up as a salty single mom who works as a "pour girl" at a winery. Jack lands Stephanie in record time and pushes Miles in the direction of Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress the would-be novelist knows casually from previous visits up north.

In this movie about wines, it is not mean or wrong to say that Madsen has aged into her potential. All the Oscar gossip suggests that Madsen will be competing against Laura Linney (in P.S. and Kinsey) and Annette Bening (in Being Julia).

It's a constant complaint among actresses that, once they pass 30, playing moms is all that's left to them. Seeing this small wave of actresses showing how much sensual magic is left in them is more than encouraging. While we're all for youth, freshness and idealism in an actress, it's so refreshing to see one who smokes a cigarette like she knows how.

One of the happiest sights onscreen this year is watching Madsen's Maya lean forward to talk with Miles, late at night, right when the evening could go either way; she talks to him with a candor and equality that has nothing to do with the wine they've both drunk. It's a situation that can't be screwed up, but seeing Miles, you'll know he'll find a way.

The prime loser scene in Sideways will make the men wince. Under the influence, Miles decides to make a drunken phone call to his ex. Flash-forwards let us know he will do the wrong thing, even as he is dining and drinking with two very nice women. When he lumbers to the pay phone, the camera stays fixed on him; Miles, swaying a little, gets in and out of focus as he drunkenly pleads for a normal conversation with the woman who used to love him.

The French Paradox

Sideways resembles the best of French cinema, not just because it boasts an unconventional leading man. In French culture, good conversation does as much to advance a man's case as his looks or money in the bank. You know the cliché: in France, knowing how to live means a lot more than how one makes a living. Miles is like an aristocrat on the skids. He only has his taste left. And he may be a loser, but he still knows his wine.

Yes, Payne satirizes the rites of oenophila with inside jokes that frequent travelers on the road to Napa and Sonoma will relish. "The faintest soupçon of asparagus," Miles claims of one glass, in which he has just plunged his nose. Still, at the end, we see where Payne stands. Miles receives the publisher's verdict on his novel at Frass Canyon ("Crass" is the word we're supposed to hear). It's a winery that Miles despises and got dragged to by Jack.

Outside the faux-Tuscan walls, stainless-steel tankers sluice purple plonk into vats next to milling tourist busloads who'd never know the difference. And in the finest detail of ersatz swank, a musician plucks a classical guitar softly in the tasting room. Here at this wine-tourist purgatory, Miles turns from whipped whelp to raging bull, and it is a transformation to cheer for.

Rabbit Is a Superhero

The Incredibles, a beautiful and thrilling Pixar cartoon, isn't the dumb superhero satire you'd expect. Director Brad Bird gives all signs of having created a movie to please himself; this may be the most handmade of all of Pixar's releases.

This digital cartoon mixes epochal James Bond plots and decades of superhero myths; there is plenty to sate a kid, but at the same time Bird has captured the essential mystery and adventure of the superhero fantasy.

Comic-book fans will need an after-movie coffee session to count the ways Bird has reshuffled the powers of the Fantastic Four among this superfamily, the Incredibles. Hidden Jack Kirby/Stan Lee references are littered throughout The Incredibles. Bird was inspired by the Marvel Comics gimmick of superheroes with serious problems, troubled figures who were meant to lose sometimes. The director has also helped himself to portions of the plot of Alan Moore's famous mid-1980s book The Watchmen—the Gravity's Rainbow of graphic novels. Moore's tale of "masks" outlawed by the government dwells on their feelings of inadequacy and impotence.

Mr. Incredible (the voice of Craig T. Nelson), a mighty bruiser in a leotard, was hit with a series of lawsuits. Now in the witness-relocation program, he is raising his family and working for a crooked insurance company (probably an HMO). At his desk, this oversized clerk emotes feelings of wistfulness that I found more pungent than anything Kevin Spacey was going through in American Beauty.

The ex-superhero is ignored by his out-of-control family—the mercurial Kid Flash speedster Dashiell (Dash for short), and his self-erasing daughter, Violet (voiced by NPR's nasal sweetheart Sarah Vowell). Holly Hunter does the voice of the former Mrs. Incredible, the retired rubber-woman Elastigirl. There's enough steel in Hunter's voice that you believe the old sitcom joke of the husband terrified of the wife.

Watching the discontented Mr. Incredible ("Bob" as he's called in civilian drag) sadly looking over his trophies of happier days, I scribbled the name "Rabbit Angstrom" in my notes—John Updike's unhappy ex-athlete, Loserus Americanus, whose life has been downhill since his triumphs on the high school basketball team.

Unlike Rabbit, Mr. Incredible earns a second chance when he lands what seems to be a private consulting job on an island stronghold belonging to a brand-new nemesis.

The villain, Syndrome, has the same problem Mr. Incredible does: A lack of recognition and a need to be admired. Here's a quick lesson in that old dramatic principle that the villain and the hero want the same goals, only they go about attaining them in different ways.

The egg-shaped archenemy flaunts his inadequacies in his name alone. He also wears an overcompensating Superman "S" that stretches from his knees to his neck.

Note the earlier detail of Mr. Incredible being put out of business by those torts that supposedly need reforming; expect conservative writers to make something out of that matter. Those commentators won't go farther; if they did, they'd note that Syndrome has severe father issues, and that he's hatched a fiendish plan to capitalize on public terror and remake himself as a hero. Now, imagine the big "S" on Syndrome's chest as a big "W."

Sex and the City

One of the first things we see in the peeling Manhattan apartment where Alfie Elkin lives is a toy statue of Superman. The reference might be to Jerry Seinfeld's totem object, but it is also apparent that Alfie is a boy who never grew up.

Part of the appeal of the 1966 film version of Alfie is the device of having Michael Caine addressing the camera. The idea works in Laurence Olivier's Richard III, where the well-spoken villain includes us in his thoughts, teases us, leads us on his treacherous rounds. It takes a particularly skilled actor to make this confessional gambit work.

While Jude Law isn't the actor Olivier was, this post-Maxim remake of Alfie is a near perfect match of player and part. Law's sometimes arrogant way with women is forgivable, thanks to the barely hidden doubt in his face and voice.

Alfie Elkin is a limo driver drifting through life in Manhattan. He is a chameleon, hiding amid a New York in which the colors are always electric and always changing. And he changes his style slightly for every tryst. Seeing Law slide into an embrace in a pool hall, as a big curl of cigarette smoke wraps around him, is like seeing the old romantic movies brought back, with a newer, more downbeat edge.

This updated version stresses Alfie as a loser, feeling his gambler's luck with women fading over the course of a long New York winter. The women he chased elude him. Still, there are liaisons: Nia Long, as Lonette, his best friend's girlfriend; Sienna Miller as the ostensibly perfect but totally unbalanced girl he picks up during the holidays; and Susan Sarandon as the wealthy older woman he tries in earnest to impress.

The 2004 Alfie is a lot more judgmental about the boy-man's promiscuousness. Indeed, the movie grows a little preachy about the responsibilities Alfie ought to embrace. In The Incredibles and Sideways, the punishment for keeping secrets from a loved one are also severe—both Mr. Incredible and Sideways' Jack are thrashed for concealing the truth. Still, Alfie gets it the worst: he gets a lecture. An elderly widower talks turkey to him: "Find someone you love, and then live every day like it was your last."

This advice demonstrates why young people are best off ignoring old people's advice. Once you fall in love seriously, your responsibilities begin in earnest: living each day like it was your last is pretty much out of the question.

The reforming of the handsome loser Alfie seems like a mistake. As the Cowboy almost says in The Big Lebowski, it would have been good to know Alfie was out there taking it easy for the rest of us.

2004: The New 1974

In the coming months, we will see more hard-edged stories of men coming apart: a starved Christian Bale going nuts in his apartment in The Mechanic, Sean Penn going nuts in his apartment in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Rhys Ifans going nuts outside the apartment of Daniel Craig in the insufferable Enduring Love.

Lastly and best, Al Pacino as the antagonist Shylock in The Merchant of Venice: He goes nuts, too, only in iambic pentameter. Over the centuries there have been many ways to interpret Shylock, from bloodthirsty villain to comic relief. Seeing Pacino's towering performance, I agreed with the 19th-century lady Heinrich Heine observed at the theater, who wept at Edmund Kean's Shylock, exclaiming "The poor man is wronged!" Shylock, who loses everything, makes matters worse by trying to revenge himself.

In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sean Penn plays Samuel Bicke, a would-be assassin of 1974 who plotted to crash a plane into the Nixon White House. Bicke is modeled on a real character, a Baltimore hijacker named Samuel Byck. (Apparently, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver got his name from Byck.)

In Mystic River, Penn's gangster hero is told by his wife, "You're a king." In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Bicke says to himself, "Certainty is the virtue of kings, and I am not a king." Bicke is transformed from nebbish to killer because of the broken promises of the American life. His marriage and his job didn't pan out. His hopes of individual fulfillment are dashed, and Bicke fixates on Nixon's misdeeds (which we see in TV clips) as the original loss of America's innocence. Howard Zinn and his readers can point to earlier losses during earlier scandals and wars, but let it pass; perhaps each new generation needs its own political loss of innocence.

Penn, last of the die-hard method actors, gives every shivering inch to the performance. It's apparent that what is really frustrating the actor is the Iraq war and the presidential lying of today, not the long-dead Nixon.

Similarly, a sobered-up and pessimistic public may be soured enough by current events to want to see films that study failure, just as they once might have promoted heroism. While Alfie, The Incredibles and Sideways all come out in favor of heroism, they haven't ignored the sense of loss we are experiencing outside the theater. That's what gives them their depth, even as they display a great talent to entertain.


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From the November 3-9, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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