Disney's The Kid Directed by Jon Turteltaub
The people who cast the lead child role in Disney's The Kid came up aces once more. The title character, Rusty, is a pudgy, lisping eight-year-old version of Willis' troubled hero, Russ, a hard-charging 40-year-old image consultant; in other words, the kid is what Russ spent his whole life trying not to be. Rusty is played by Spencer Breslin, and he's one of the more authentic kids I've seen in Hollywood movies recently. In The Sixth Sense, Osment was ferociously convincing in a virtually unplayable part, but he definitely came off as a prodigy, because he is a prodigy: according to an interview on the Sixth Sense DVD, Osment was the only auditionee who showed up in a suit with the entire script memorized. The press notes on The Kid say Breslin brought toys to the interview and gave Willis a picture of a guitar. The same goofy likability he apparently exuded offscreen permeates the movie?he seems like he got pulled off a playground someplace. Breslin uses his physical and vocal awkwardness tactically, and the contrast between these qualities and Willis' eloquent, hardassed smoothness gives their scenes together surprising comic zip.
If only The Kid weren't such a treacly, overblown, underimagined piece of assembly-line product?a pandering "package" designed to wring cheap tears from boomer parents who feel nostalgic for childhood or guilty over the morally questionable stuff they're involved in right this second. The concept is very late 80s-early 90s: The kid Rusty mystically appears in Russ' life along with other weird visitations?a ghostly biplane, a disappearing and reappearing pre-fab 40s diner. Rusty is first introduced to Russ as a near-apparition, trundling quickly past the edges of the older man's vision like a sweet version of the ghostly child in Don't Look Now. Pretty soon Russ and Rusty sit down, talk and figure out that they're different incarnations of the same person. It's like we're watching a comic, family-friendly, cloyingly Up with People version of The Sixth Sense, minus the maimed and vomiting ghosts.
Willis and Breslin are quite good?solid, amusing, striking the right balance between performance and naturalism. The supporting cast, which includes Lily Tomlin as Russ' secretary and Jean Smart as a local news anchor who seeks Russ' advice, is also topnotch. But they're swimming against a surging current of Velveeta?a perfect storm of cheese. The script (by Audrey Wells, who wrote and directed the rough-edged but smart and charming Guinevere) is larded with the cliches of wealthy California entertainment industry self-help: finding your inner child in order to become a happy adult, making peace with the past by examining it, jettisoning the single, rich, jetset lifestyle for a bit of domesticity. Russ is smart, handsome, well-dressed, well-off and highly sought-after; his clients include the owner of a baseball team and a governor, and he bosses them around as if they were his employees rather than the other way around. Russ thinks young Rusty is a loser: fat, goofy, dumb. Rusty thinks the same of Russ: he lives alone, he works all the time, he has few real friends. He doesn't even own a dog. He's an 80s-style icon of white male yuppie success, and you know that by the end, he'll be married to that cute British assistant (Emily Mortimer, so charming in Love's Labour's Lost), and he'll have realized his long-deferred childhood dream of flying planes, and all these wonderful developments will flow from revisiting a key incident in Russ' (Rusty's) childhood.
You've seen this movie, or parts of it, many times before, in The Doctor, Regarding Henry, Boomerang and a zillion other Soulless-Yuppie-Workaholic Rediscovers-What-Really-Matters movies. Another lingering shadow is the kid-adult body-switching picture circa 1988, of which Big is the most successful (and only watchable) example. All these films, while superficially different, share certain core qualities: a romanticized view of boomer childhood; a determination to make adult boomers feel mildly guilty for turning into acquisitive assholes while reassuring them that if they decide to be nice for a change, everybody will forgive them and they'll become happy and perhaps even more successful and privileged.
The director of The Kid is Jon Turteltaub, who, with thoroughly mediocre films like Phenomeon and Instinct to his credit, has established himself as a nearly perfect Hollywood filmmaker: an enthusiastic craftsman whose films look great and flatter their stars but are as nonsensically conceived and ignorant of real human experience as the films of Ed Wood. I'm still confused as to why Russ behaves not like a professional image consultant?firm but polite, full of strategic flattery, empathy and guile?but some stereotypical corporate raider, Hollywood studio boss, high-priced lawyer or other standard-issue movie jerk who's used to telling everyone when to jump and how high. The film intentionally confuses manners and behavior with a man's deep-seated worldview; in other words, it says that the symptoms of Russ' jerkishness are the same as the cause, and that once his symptoms are decoded and treated, he can be whole again, and happy. It's a typical Hollywood bullshit assumption: unhappiness is repairable in the way that a car is repairable. Just take the ol' noggin into the shop (the shrink's office, AA, a magic zone of childhood visitations) and presto, everybody will love you again?or love you, period.
Turteltaub compounds the film's obnoxiousness by laying on the sentimental filmmaking tricks. Moments that would have played just fine without monstrous closeups and loud, soupy music go lacking. The director's mantra seems to be, "Better obvious than subtle." In that regard, it's impossible to overemphasize the soul-wracking awfulness of Marc Shaiman's frantic, overwrought, viscously gooey score, which actually outdoes his evil work on Mr. Saturday Night. It's hard to believe the same jaunty spirit who wrote the music for South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut could still churn out this kind of bilge and live with himself. Whether he seized the creative initiative or merely did what Turteltaub demanded is immaterial; what matters is that his music makes Alan Silvestri's music for the Back to the Future films sound sophisticated and restrained in comparison. The actors can barely cross a room without a 90-piece orchestra shifting into overdrive. It's as if the conductor has a machine gun instead of a baton and is shrieking, "Play, goddamn you, play!" The effect is akin to being trapped on a plane next to an obliviously chipper senior citizen with a busted hearing aid who regales you with every detail of his family's progress through the world, shouting the whole time to be heard over the din of jet engines. If you cry, it's not because the film moved you, it's because the director and his composer got you in an emotional headlock and refused to let go. Uncle, for crying out loud.
Two Women Directed by Tahmineh Milani
Intensely involving and appealingly classical in style, Two Women, which opens Friday at Cinema Village, tells the tale of a couple of female friends at Tehran University in the early 80s who are pushed into very different lives due to religious and political pressures. It's a feminist movie through and through. And while its themes are expressed too blatantly and insistently?more on this in a moment?it's impossible not to admire its simplicity and directness, and writer-director Tahmineh Milani's very Iranian determination to keep the drama rooted in the real world. I'm consistently amazed by the social relevance of dramas from Iran, not just because of the religious and political tensions swirling around that nation's film industry, but also because American cinema, both at the Hollywood and indie level, has all but abandoned similar terrain to television.
A framing device introduces us to Roya (Marila Zare'i), a successful young professional who runs an architecture firm with her husband. Our first image of her is striking: she's perched high on a beam at a construction site, clad in a hard hat, sunglasses and a traditional feminine headdress, telling the men what to do. She gets a phone call from her old schoolmate, Fereshteh (Niki Karimi), who's just suffered a misfortune. This is the cue for an extended flashback showing how Roya and Fereshteh became close and why their friendship was torn apart.
The reasons are mostly cultural. Roya comes from a privileged, fairly progressive family; she's an independent-minded woman who was raised to respect tradition without being afraid of the changing times. Fereshteh comes from a more humble and traditional family, yet she's even more independent. She wants to form a campus feminist group, she's such a great student that she pays her way through college by tutoring, and she speaks English so well she could probably pass for someone raised in the West. She knows what she wants (education, respect) and she doesn't take guff from anybody?not teachers, not family members and especially not domineering men. "If you were born in Britain or the U.S.," Roya tells her, "you'd be turning cartwheels at Oxford by now."
But Iran in the early 80s was not hospitable to such women, and Fereshteh, who's more blunt and assertive than Roya, pays the price for backbone. She's stalked by a macho maniac who claims to be in love with her; the motorcycle-riding thug is as persistent and sadistic as Max Cady, attacking Fereshteh's cousin with acid and pushing her into a disastrous chase through narrow Tehranian streets. I don't want to be too detailed or specific here, but suffice to say that what happens to Fereshteh amounts to a worst-case scenario for any independent-minded woman. She turns to enforced domesticity for the same reason that a slave toils in the fields: because she has no choice.
Karimi, one of Iran's most accomplished actresses, is terrific in the lead: her confidence and toughness aren't a screenwriter's conceits, but the natural outgrowth of intellectual and moral certitude. She has sort of a doppelganger relationship with her best friend Roya, who pursued her dream partly because Fereshteh inspired her to do so. Roya is the woman Fereshteh would like to be, and has every right to be, only male-dominated society won't hear of it. She's hit by one misfortune after another, few of which could even remotely be considered her fault, yet the men in her orbit?her conservative dad, the police, the court system and, later, her insecure bully of a husband?are quick to assume that she deserves whatever tragedies come her way.
Though Milani tells this story with great speed, economy and thoroughness, Two Women feels a bit too much like a polemic. The men are so one-dimensional, so generally insecure, manipulative and dangerous, that the script's steadily mounting tally of outrages might beggar credulity from Western audiences, who are used to seeing tough female heroines applauded for their guts rather than brutally punished. And Babak Bayat's score is too reminiscent of a horror movie or an early-70s urban thriller; at certain points it sounds like Rosemary's Baby. Fortunately, the performances and direction override most of the missteps. This is unabashedly a feminist drama, perhaps a melodrama?closer in tone and intent to a 1940s Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck picture than to anything being done today, in Iran or Hollywood. And overzealous rhetoric notwithstanding, I suspect most thinking people will concede the fundamental truth of the movie's message: It's a man's world.