Living "in the Sticks" of Red America, I see the
end of the year/residual beginning of the year as an opportunity
to see what the press calls "important cinema."
And when I say "press", I really mean Elvis Mitchell
and members of The National Board of Review. Not merely content
to wait for the mother studio to drop the nipple nectar known
as the screener, these enterprising journalists venture out
to the junkets of film festivals to officially dictate which
unknown, smaller films should be recognized by the larger
pop culture universe. Very many times, they stumble upon something
sublime and wonderful despite their instincts. Without fail,
several underwhelming works fly in under the radar and are
declared "quirky", "daring" or "beyond
our traditional notions of film" by these forerunners
of the Miramax buffet. Once these words have stuck, they spread
through the countryside like wildfire. Despite occasional
flourishes of unique images or nonlinear character development,
these films are as flat and predictable as studio fare with
an added touch of pretension for good measure. At this point,
the damage is done. The one thing keeping these films from
sweeping the Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award is yours
truly angrily spilling over a drink in the back room of McCoy's
Grill on Westport. Not that I've done this. Within the past
week. Two films that have benefited from the upper echelon
of film buzz-sters are Todd McCarthy's The Station Agent
and Wayne Kramer's The Cooler. Both films feature
an indie-approved group of oddballs that develop intimate
relationships despite any close resemblance to the existence
of logic or nature. Both are set upon templates familiar to
the eye but isolated from any emotional connection. Both use
painfully obvious symbolism. Both feature performances that
we - the public - are assured will stand the test of time.
And both of them suck.
The Station Agent has been out longer in other parts
of the country so the critical mass has absorbed a bit more.
This "quirky" film that transcends "beyond
our traditional notions" centers on Fin (Peter Dinklage),
a wee little fella who's obsessed with trains. And when I
say "little fella", I mean he's a midget. And when
I say obsessed, he's so obsessed that he works at a miniature
train shop. Miniature, like he is. But more on obvious symbolism
in a minute. A friend of his dies and he's left a train station
in NEWFOUNDLAND, New Jersey. Note: ALL CAPS represents important
symbolism. Fin moves to NEWFOUNDLAND and he spends a lot of
his day watching trains and walking down the train tracks.
In this odyssey of nothingness, Fin starts hanging out with
his neighbor, Joe (Bobby Cannavale). Joe runs a snack cart
on a road with no foot traffic. Why does he do this? Because
he's WACKY, that's why. (Sorry, that shouldn't be capped.
No symbolism implied.) And because he's a funny guy with a
funny accent. Cannavale mugs so much that you wonder if he's
trying to claim title to the Marx Brother estate as a bastard
great grandson. Then, there's Olivia (KCFCC winner Patricia
Clarkson), an older woman who almost runs over Fin. Twice.
Because he's short. And she's absent-minded. But I will say
this. For a film claiming to make a serious story about the
vertically-challenged, watching Fin fly off the road is absolutely
hilarious. It could have only been cooler if she tossed him.
She would be absent-minded enough to do this. A mild distraction
forms at the local library is Emily (Michelle Williams), who
has a crush on Fin. Why? Why not? The film has little interest
in explaining this so why should I? Mainly, she's a nice love
interest because she's white trash and she can bring Fin down
when he gets too close. These characters have nothing in common
except for that they're all quirky and lonely. So they hang
out and walk down the train tracks all day. Why is this film
so obsessed with train?. Because they're stuck in this NEW
FOUND LAND and can't go anywhere. All they can do is watch
the trains GOING OTHER PLACES. They are stationary. Kind of
like a STATION AGENT. Which is good because that's the name
of the film.
Nothing much happens in The Station Agent and that's
largely the point. I can only assume that McCarthy hoped to
draw the audience into a study of lonely and isolated characters.
That would have been fine if the characters would have been
worth studying. Fin, as played by Dinklage, is meant to create
sympathy because he's angry about being treated differently.
Fine, but it's kind of hard to feel sorry for a moody, withdrawn,
alcoholic prick. No matter how small they are. Perhaps he
can be excused for acting this way, so please excuse me if
I don't want to sit through a film that centers around a character
like this. Cannavale treats the duty of comic relief primarily
as showing up to the set, talking in an accent, and making
faces. The film tries to develop a sad story line about how
he takes care of his father, but script limitations mainly
focuses on Joe being annoying and clownish for the other characters.
Perhaps no one in the film is more baffling than Olivia. She
starts out as a high-strung and somewhat foolish character.
Then, without announcement or plot device, she shifts into
a manic-depressive slump who reaches a tragic level of near-suicide
and matriarchal collapse. Where did this come from? The script
seemingly assumed an actor could make this sort of transfer
graceful. But Clarkson seems to read it right off the page
and go from there. I've seen Clarkson now in three critically-acclaimed
films (Far From Heaven and Pieces of April)
and I have to concede to bafflement. Her delivery is flat
and I haven't seen her add anything to a character that wasn't
in the dialogue. Perhaps this is why she's so appealing to
failed screenwriters. And when I mean failed screenwriters,
I mean film critics. Oops, shouldn't have let that one slip.
The only character of interest is Emily, but William's positive
presence is hampered by a script interested in making her
into a white-trash melodrama. Even if these characters were
better drawn, The Station Agent gives them no reason
to find comfort in one another except for furthering the eccentric
nature of the piece. Why then have critics flocked to it so
generously? Based on face value, they seem to embrace the
film because the story doesn't subject Dinklage to Sandlerian
mockery. And it's an indie that doesn't use a short person
as a fantastical metaphor. (As Dinklage so perfectly spoofed
in 1995's Living in Oblivion) Is this repressed guilt
or art house masturbation? I contend that it doesn't matter
A film that's all plot when perhaps it should have been all
about the characters (maybe) is the "quirky" and
"daring" The Cooler. Set in an old-school
Las Vegas casino called Shangra-La, the film focuses on Bernie
(William H. Macy), a man whose job is to give gambler's bad
luck. He's a "cooler" and his mere presence seems
to doom the luck of any high or low roller. The opening of
the film follows Bernie around the pit as his touch curses
tables and a brush of his shoulder loeses thousands of dollars.
It seems that Bernie's job as the bearer of bad luck was formed
when - in a situation of bad luck for himself - he had to
pay off debts owed to Shelly (Alec Baldwin), the casino's
owner. Shelly is a rather nasty character who sheds a lot
of a tears over his destruction. He may feed herion to his
aging lounge siner (Paul Sorvino) but he laments the drug's
lasting impact. This promises an interesting scenario: Bernie
the Angel with his spiritual, negative powers affecting everyone
he touches serving the dark Lord of greed and violence. Unfortunately,
this film would rather tell the story of Bernie falling for
Natalie (Maria Bello), a hard-talking cocktail waitress. Their
affair is a busy one, requiring high drama and high romance
in the final few days of Bernie's service to Shangra-La. This
involves Bernie trying to help out his son Mike (Shawn Hatosy)
and his pregnant wife who so conveinantly show up to make
things even busier. The film is very interested in the idea
of Bernie and Natalie's romance despite its implausibilities.
Yes, they are both desperate at bad points of their life.
But the film gets so involved with creating this relationship
with such urgency as a way of furthering the plot. As it turns
out, Shelly hired Natalie to seduce Bernie in an attempt to
keep him in Shangra-La. Oh, was that a spolier? Honestly,
if you couldn't see it coming a mile away, you'll have forgotten
my utterance by the time you see the film. But when this romance
propels Bernie to move further away from PARADISE, Shelly
gets more violent and threatens to destroy everything that
Bernie cares about.
In other words, The Cooler is about the Devil using
lust to tempt his Servant and the Servant rising up to banish
him from Shangra-La. Which, as the film reminds us, mean "paradise."
No need to reference your Bible's on this one, children. That's
what it could have been, and the scenes that directly focus
on Macy and Baldwin's character suggest this could have been
interesting if proper care had been given to forming this
relationship. But the film places most of its time and energy
on Bernie and Natalie. And this is a desperate and vulnerable
pair. Since the chemistry between Macy and Bello doesn't do
the trick, director Kramer decides to rely on the symbolism
of full-frontal nudity to convey the proper emotions. Why,
Bernie's so vulnerable in the presence of true love that we
get to see Macy's saggy ass and his pubic hair. He cares so
much about Natalie that we get to see him eat her out. This
act is normally misogynist shorthand to express a man who
really loves a woman. Why else would they drop down
to the nappy dugout? (Make V-formation with fingers, place
at mouth, jut forth tongue and make that blah-blah-blah
noise) There's just something about graphic sex between two
movie star made up to look as bad as possible that doesn't
move me to tears. The Cooler is so busy to get to the
dephts of this relationship that there's never a proper establishment.
This is also the fault of a film that wants to surprise us
with that big spoiler I blew earlier. Why is this used as
a catalyst for the plot when it's such an obvious issue? You're
Wayne Kramer and you want the audience to see the raw emotion
of these characters. You know that no one buys this relationship
as legit so it's going to be no surprise when the surprise
is sprung. Why not reveal this hand at the beginning so Bello
can turn Natalie into something more than an unbelievable
love interest? I don't know if this would make The Cooler
any better, but it might have been a start. After that,
I would have taken off Baldwin's shackles and let him treat
Shelly like an SNL skit gone bad. Baldwin, for as much
shit as he takes from a lot of critics, is a pretty interesting
actor that never hurts a film for a lack of enthusiasm. His
Shelly feels like a bull on sedatives: An actor wanting to
take on the full impact of Lucifer as Sam Rothstein. But The
Cooler is just as confused about Shelly as it is about
everything else. In the end, I learned that I never want to
see William H. Macy's carpet ever again.
But what do I know? I think Renee Zellwegger is better than
Clarkson.I thought Eugene Levy did a better job than Baldwin.
I think the schedule at the AMC 30 in Olathe, KS may be more
enlightened that any of the art houses throughout my hometown.
And I don't even have a Pultizer.