Possession

Starring:
  • Erin Brockovich's Abused Boyfriend
  • Gwyneth Looking as Anorexic as Ever
  • Jeremy Northam Being Stuffy and British

 

 
Directed by a Guy I Would Never Wish to be My Friend of Neighbor

A few months after selling the Harley, shaving the beard, and landing a job at a local bank, George finally gets a apology letter from Erin Brockovich.

Love, Is Best, Served Cold

The movie begins with a hushed conversation at Sotheby's: "You're that American who's over here." "There must be others. After all, you are our favorite colony." Such trash talk might descend mere mortal Brits into a maelstrom of hissy fits, but these are poetry scholars—those custodians of culture before movies, keeping score of all the moonlit romps that have always plagued the beautiful and artsy. They appreciate a good barb now and again, and it's good to see one delivered so impishly by Aaron Eckhart, dressed in earth tones, precision stubble, and a voice a touch too gravelly for a reed-slender literary scholar. Neil LaBute may be apologizing for his past fun at Eckhart's expense: two misogynist yuppies and Nurse Betty's husband, a mulleted car salesman who declares that bowling "is a sport." In fact, Eckhart's proletariat past at first renders him miscast—I kept expecting him to invite the Victorian scholars out to the lanes or, at any moment, to pull his Harley right in between the stacks. He looks and sounds like minor leaguer who somehow slipped into poetry—like the bookish son of Dennis Quaid. It turns out well, though; Eckhart enjoys his time as the cocksure American who "just takes things," shows up late for work at a moment past 4:00 a.m., melts icy British women, and now and then rankles the stuffed shirts with a condescending "old sport" or announcing them, GASP!, "boring."

Eckhart and his Maxim "Just For Men" highlights set out to unravel the true mystery of one Randolph Henry Ash—the very sound of his name eschewing Romanticism—and, in turn, unraveling the centuries-old riddles of tight-lipped British chicks. Leg one of his journey stops at Gwyneth Paltrow's museum—surprisingly not the custodian of any Oscars or fat suits—and he invites himself for the night, proposing a lovely night at some musty castle, checking out eighteenth century love letters by candlelight. You see, this Ash character is thought of as some sort of Tennyson, a noble character of a great popularity and, later in life, comfort, not to mention an admirably pragmatic marriage to someone who is probably meant to be Emily Sellwood. Eckhart sets out with the Butlerian task of chopping the good poet down to further his own career and give value to this set of letters he swiped dirt cheap back at Sotheby's. Anyway, I found Eckhart not the sort to fancy a gal named Maud(e?), but considering his Tennyson-ian leanings, he indeed makes Maude his bliss. Helping his cause, Eckhart's name is Rowland, and also furthering the cause, Maude is not seventeen, but she is the tall and stately Gwyneth Paltrow, hidden in a black ice dress and hair pulled nearly over her scalp and clean off her head.

So Rowland and Maude head out on a sort of Yorkshire scavenger hunt, tracking down clues about the mistresses of Randolph Henry Ash with the urgency of British tabloids uncovering childhood playmates of Camilla Bowles. Once they find the juicy stuff, LaBute jumps back and forth between the couples. Even in the 1800's, Jeremy Northam still wears his usual uniform, the svelte suit; he is the randy poet and ---his muse. As things warm up for Ash and ---, they also heat up for Maud and Rowland—but there's a problem with the parallel narratives. The last time Gwyneth wrapped her legs around some British poetry, she was charged with squeezing it from the Bard himself. Such a task requires a little more hands-on dedication; here she's merely dusting off brittle love letters. That cloud hangs over the movie—too much of it is Paltrow merely recounting the poet's gush over his muse in sub-Browning simplicities ("I've called you my muse, and so you are."), rather than tackling the muse duties herself. This might work itself to an impressive pay off, but LaBute has never been interested in the steam of surreptitious sex, and for either couple to consummate their poetry too heavily might offend the blue-hairs at which this film is probably aimed. The source material doesn't exactly scorch, either—Northam is a True Brit, completely unfazed by the fact that his undercover lover gets it on with her gown still tastefully hiding her flesh.

This film needs a lighter touch. LaBute upsets the romance by offering his usual men-are-pigs fare, and rather than layer the movie with complexity, he keeps us at a distance; we are as disconnected from the screen as Maude and Rowland are to Mr. Ash and company. As LaBute might translate Browning, love is best served cold. To compare, Shakespeare in Love kept the parallel stories in the same dimension and let Paltrow's muse transcend all time; here, LaBute forces morality upon a guy who bravely strips off his cardigan to investigate divine make-out spots behind waterfalls. Usually while in the company of LaBute's men, you can feel the flames of hell lap at the screen; here, Rowland's most egregious offenses violate the English language, in the form of "you know" and "and all." I'm not really convinced, though he's an American and all, that he's a, you know, bad guy. Sure, Rowland's a bit of cowboy, in the sense that rustling up Victorian poetry from museums is buckaroo activity, but he suffers for his work, and he's much concerned about feeling dirty for reaching out and touching Ms. Paltrow. Such pleasures come only sporadically in LaBute's movie; I began to snooze during the third act, but ears perked at Ash's mythological compliment, "You take my breath away." I began to dream that Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis were steaming up the cockpit of a fighter jet, but then I realized that the dull roar of XXX had seeped in from next door. And there I was, still battling Possession. I could have really used the soaring aria release of Berlin right then; the movie had damn near sucked all the oxygen from the theater. Especially on stage, LaBute is fun in that perverse, masochistic way, a certain pleasure taken in watching his men's blatant disregard for humanity, but here, we're supposed to pass judgment on a guy who dares make out, ever so briefly, with Gwyneth Paltrow, even when forced beyond their will to share a bed. I shall not let Neil LaBute hang that on my conscious.

The Pitch:
 
1 In the Company of Men
Plus
 
1 Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Plus
 
Viola De Lesseps
Equals
 
2 Possession
See It For:
Gwyneth's reaction to her private screening of Daredevil.