GQ Remembers Paul Newman

Monday  September 29, 2008


In our January 1995 issue, Paul Newman spoke candidly with correspondent Peter Richmond about manhood, aging, stardom, and mortality.

the man behind the curtain

He answers the door in slippers, a polite and questioning half-smile set off by tortoiseshell bifocals perched on the bridge of his nose. He offers toast in the kitchen of his prewar penthouse late on a Sunday morning when the New York autumn is chilled by October showers and the sky is as absent of color as the froth of hair on top of his head. He is slicing a stick of butter, very carefully, with a serrated knife, peering over his spectacles so as not to cut off his fingertips. He is talking about the weather.

“I love it,” he says. “I just think the cold is blissful”—a pause for an inside-joke smile—“in my antiquity.”

It would seem, at best, an uneasy fit: Paul Newman and his seventieth birthday, this month. But spend more time with him and it’s clear that the man and the age are a good and comfortable match.

Eddie Felson, Cool Hand Luke, all the cons in search of the angle—maybe they’d fight it, fighting the roll of the seasons. But Paul Newman—who now, finally, is none of these people—is clearly at home with his current circumstance: as no one but himself.

You knew him for the color of his eyes and the chiseled perfection of his torso, but in fact you knew nothing but the way Paul Newman looked. You have never been on familiar terms with Paul Newman the symbol, the symbol of whatever it was you wanted him to be: the defiant youth, perhaps, but without the darker currents of James Dean, or the outcast, but without the bluster of Brando, or, eventually and most memorably, the cad thief or villain eternally redeemed by a beatific smile.

But he is no symbol now. Paul Newman’s physical presence is no longer overwhelmingly compelling, a fact that leaves us—and him—with much more of the essence of the man. In his new movie, the story of nothing but the quiet emotions of an aging man, his looks are irrelevant, and he seems entirely suited to the role.


He does not pretend to have all of the answers. Questions remain. He asks them gently, in a low voice, using measured words and separated by long pauses, all of it punctuated by frequent glances at the rain patting the terrace outside the living-room windows.

“I am thoroughly and predictably concerned about what was my accomplishment and what was the accomplishment of my appearance, which I have no control over,” he says. “What was attributable to me? And what is the difference between a truly creative artist and an interpretive artist? I have not concluded anything about that, but it’s fair to ask the question.”

It’s not the usual rope-skip one expects from people of note who deign to cede a few minutes of their days to an interviewer. This is a deliberative conversation, and he tries to get as much meaning into as few words as possible. He’s never had any love for the interview process, but he is nonetheless polite enough to want to convey something substantial in a short time. Envision, if you can, a weight attached to every phrase.

“And everybody shakes their head and says ‘Oh, isn’t it too bad that he doesn’t enjoy…more of a sense of accomplishment,’ and so forth,” he continues. “But it’s not a false sense of modesty or self-deprecation. It’s really just looking at it and saying ‘Where did it come from? What do you owe it to?’”

So it should come as no surprise that the definitive question Paul Newman poses about his life is whether an entire career was forged on the pigment of his eyes.

“You’re constantly reminded,” he says. “There are places you go and they say ‘Take off your dark glasses so we can see your beautiful blue eyes.’ And you just want to…you just want to…I dunno, um…thump them.”

He holds up his right hand—“A short chop right above the bridge of the nose”—and gives up a laugh.

“They could say, ‘Hey its very nice to meet you’—that’s great. Or ‘Thanks for a bunch of great performances,’ and you can feed off that for a week and a half. But the other thing, which is always there, is a never-ending reminder.”

The eyes. He proposes that if we insist on putting his picture on GQ’s cover, we eschew the usual mug of shot and run one simply of his eye. His right eye. Close up. Just the eye.

“This bloodshot blue eye,” he says, and he laughs. And then he says, “Or take the engine out of a stock Ford. Have the hood up. I’ll just be sleeping in there.”

The last is not a non sequitar. It’s an allusion—a comic allusion—to an arena in which Paul Newman answered the question of how much of his success was die to talent and hard work. He was a champion race-car driver. He was good at driving; his looks didn’t matter. But that time is over now too. Newman raced just once last year. The previous year, he’s raced in six events and crashed in five of them.

“Driver error,” he says now. “The teeth get longer. The hair gets thinner. The eyes and ears don’t sense danger as quickly as they did before. You can’t go fast, so you try and go faster.”

Madness lies that way, of course. And so on a Sunday morning when two years ago he might have been up on the track and Lime Rock, in Connecticut, he’s wending his way through The Times instead. His wife is in another part of the apartment, listening to opera. An aria winds out of the room and finds us. Newman falls silent; the conversation pauses.

But it is the most welcome of silences, too; fifteen stories above the Central Park reservoir, amid books and family photographs and very old paintings. It is so peaceful that time feels if it’s not even passing.

“Bette Davis said it best of all: ‘Getting’ old ain’t for sissies,’ “ he said eventually. “I mean—suppose, to do it right, it ain’t for sissies.”

How do you do it right?

“Stay in the thick of it, I guess…I’ve been working on this thing on and off for seven years.”

I need a moment to make the connection: The “thing” is his current project—not Nobody’s Fool, the movie just out, but the next one—he assumes that I know what he’s talking about because it’s on his mind all of the time; it’s what binds his professional life now. It’s the script he’s been writing for the past year and a half. The film he’ll direct.

The writing is what drives him. It’s easier than getting in front of the camera, where the way he used to look has become an issue. “Which is part of why I’m directing this next film,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it. I wouldn’t worry about it. But other people worry about it. And I’m at that point where…it just takes too much effort.”


They never seemed effortless, the men in Paul Newman’s catalogue. They were all highly complicated, not a flat-out, clear cut hero among them—pool hustler, grifter, alcoholic lawyer and now, in Nobody’s Fool, a man who abandoned his family because it was the easy thing to do. They were flawed and beautiful men in circuitous search of redemption, and Newman wore the characters effortlessly.

This was not luck or fortuitous casting. He did the foundation work for years, on the stage and in bad films, but so did any number of pretty young men. What Newman brought to the screen, what allowed him to blossom, was his ability to make Hud and Harper and Fast Eddie so familiar. So identifiable. Their troubles were always, somehow, real.

“I had some troubling years,” Newman says.

Newman did what many young men do. He drank; he fought. He should have known better, he says now. After combat duty in the Pacific, he put in four years at Kenyon College and a year at Yale Drama. He was kicked off the football team at Kenyon for taking part in a tavern rumble between college kids and townies—a particularly embarrassing episode, given that Newman hadn’t even been rounded up with the original arrestees; it was only when he showed up at the jail to give the quarterback his car keys that a cop saw the second-stringer’s scuffed knuckles and locked him up, too. Several years later, there was an arest for leaving the scene of an accident in which no one had been hurt. “A mistake,” he admits. “Dumb.”

“I barely made it in my time,” he says. “And don’t forget that the acceleration of everything was much slower. We only had booze in our day—which was bad and ugly enough. We didn’t have crack.”

In the kitchen, two empty beer cans stand upside down, side by side, in the dish rack, rinsed for the recyclers—aligned in orderly fashion, in defiance of any hint of impropriety.

Did his drinking ever come close to derailing what he had going?

After a moment’s thought, he nods and nods and nods. The silence stretches on and on. Then he says, “Fortunately, that was back in the Stone Age.” Silence again. “So.”

It is neither the time nor the place to ask for elaboration. Not in Paul Newman’s living room. That is a given. The overriding theme of the hundreds of interviews Newman had granted is his discretion. He saves a special disdain for the public’s gutter curiosities. Several years ago, amid the flowering of tabloid journalism, Newman announced that he’d adopted a personal theme: Fuck Candor.


His father was the successful proprietor of a sporting-goods store in Cleveland, and when Newman speaks of him, it is with respect for nothing so much as Arthur S. Newman’s integrity: “In the Depression,” he says, leaning a little closer over his coffee, “[he] got $200,000 worth of consignment from Spalding and Rawlings because [his] reputation for paying, [his] honesty, was so impeccable.” Arthur Newman, his son says, was many things: ethical, moral funny. And distant. Newman once spoke of his anger and frustration at never being able to earn his father’s approval.

He met and married his first wife, Jacqueline Witte, in 1949, when they were members of an acting troupe in Illinois. Upon his father’s death, in 1950, Newman moved his wife and infant son back to Cleveland but couldn’t put his heart into selling sports goods. He turned the business over to his brother and took his family to New Haven, for his year at Yale; soon afterward, he was working in New York. But his ascent on the stage coincided with a muddying of emotional waters: He met Joanne Woodward in 1952, worked with her frequently and found himself being pulled toward her. Newman and Jacqueline had three children by the time they divorced. In 1958, he married Woodward, and they subsequently had three daughters of their own. His career took flight.

In 1978, Scott Newman, his 28-year-old son, died of an accidental drug and alcohol overdose. The family endowed a drug-education foundation in his name. Several years later, Newman started a Connecticut camp for seriously ill children, and now his charity work had become the stuff of legend. He has gone into the food business and has been wildly successful in it. It’s typical refutation by Newman the person of Newman the Hollywood icon: Matinee idol joins the merchant class.

“I worked in the [sporting goods] store every Saturday as a kid,” he says. “And now I’m hustling salad dressing. What is the circularity of things?’

But the answer doesn’t seem too difficult to divine. The success of his food endeavor made Newman a businessman of good refute—someone his father could admire—and by donating his considerable profits ($56 million, so far) to various charities, he has equaled his father’s reputation for integrity.

More: He derives genuine pleasure from watching something he created flourish. “I can understand the romance of it,” he says. “Where you create something. It’s kind of like writing, in a way…where you say [to your creation] ‘Just stay right there’ and it says ‘I got other plans,’ and it goes shooting off in other areas. And you say ‘Look at that little fucker go.’ “

Clearly, the greatest joy he derives from the business these days is in designing the labels—fanciful, nonsensical, joyous paeans to the simple goodness of good food, Whitmanesque in spirit: “Terrifico! Magnifico...share with guys on the streetcar…ah, me, immortal!”

He writes the copy himself. On the new Caesar salad-dressing bottle, the government has co-opted three-fifths of his label for the mandatory nutritional data, robbing him of the space needed for what he wanted to write—an apocryphal story of the time he played Caesar at a regional theater and how, after he was stabbed, an offstage phone rang and another actor ad-libbed “I hope it wasn’t for Caesar.” Instead, he settled for a sketch of the morally wounded emperor, a bloody dagger pointing to the ingredients, and Caesar saying “Don’t dilute us, Brutus.”

Newman laughs at that one. Then he pauses again. Half of the morning in pauses.

Writing—the next movie, the labels—is a sensible thing for a man grown distrustful of the camera to do. He has found, in the scripting of a very personal film, a new creative surge. “I could have given up on this thing,” he says, “a long time ago.”

Did people tell him to?

“Oh boy—writers and friends. But I really am pleased with it. The wait it turned out. It has the same kind of emotional progression as Nobody’s Fool. But much more personal.”

Nobody’s Fool is personal too. As written, the character of Sully—an underachieving, good-natured, down-on-his-luck handyman in a depressed, snow-locked upstate-New York town—allowed for a great deal of invention on Newman’s part. “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of plot progression,” he admits. “[I] had to create the progression of where he was emotionally.”

In giving Sully a life, he gave the character some of his own life. And after a couple of intentionally over-the-top roles—Governor Earl Long in Blaze, a corporate shark in The Hustler Proxy—he may have finally come up with a way to quiet his own questions about how much of his success is the result of a craft he worked hard to perfect.

At first glance, Sully appears to be a man who finds a small nobility in living a life that requires nothing but getting through each day with his circle of small-town friends. But his story is tangled when, by chance, he meets the son he abandoned when the boy was a year old and the grandchildren he’s never met and has never particularly wanted to meet. Thereafter he is forced to examine his life: simple and reassuringly placid on the surface but rooted in irresponsibility and neglect. Sully decides to face the truth of what his negligence has sown. And to make amends.

“His bravery,” Newman says, “was that he was at that point in his life when he did not want to…deny it anymore. He no longer tries to keep his own…accessibility...away from himself. [He finally] accepts his sense of family. And the incredible magnetism of that.

“I don’t know whether the audience will get that,” he says. “They may get something else. I don’t know that they’ll get all of the things this film means to me…[the] secrets between me and the character. They are tiny discoveries. And they’re mine. I don’t know if they’ll be visible.”

It is an oblique soliloquy. The gist of it seems to be that in Sully, Paul Newman had finally found a man who has made the right decision: to face himself in his waning years.

I begin to observe that it sounds as if Sully is in microcosm what Newman himself…but that is as far as I get.

“Yeah,” he says, interrupting me. “Painfully close. As this next film will be.”

His wife has taken the dog for a walk. The radio is silent. The rain has stopped. The coffee is cold.

“The nice thing about the picture was that you didn’t have to discover where the money was—you had to discover where he was,” Newman says. “It’s an examination of the good in ordinary people. But maybe in order to be good [in movies] you have to kill fifty-three people. Used to be you only had to kill three or four. Now everything has escalated. The insistence on sexual, visceral gratification has become so intense…The human animal is an escalating beast.”

His expression makes it obvious that he is reluctant to be led into this old swamp, into routine condemnation of the modern age, but it would hardly be right to talk with Paul Newman without getting his take on the social pulse. He was a Connecticut delegate in the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and a member of a U.S. delegation to a 1978 United Nations session on disarmament. He was No. 19 on Nixon’s enemies list. But his activism has since been reined in. “The Sixties—I had to have me foot in everything then,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing now but through an intermediary. You know. The food company. Maybe that’s the way to go about it. You go right straight into the inferno, and when you get older, you pull back. You don’t really give up your responsibilities, but you find some less exhausting way.”

Still, when he’s led into conversation about the mores of our time, his hands tap a drumbeat on the arms of his antique wooden chair.

“It’s kind of like those little electric bumper cars where you drive around and see if you can hit the other guy. That’s exactly what the country is like now. You no longer have the sense of community. Of loyalty. It’s lost its sense of group. It has nothing to do with leadership. Everybody’s out there alone, getting his own whacks. Instead of deifying the community, they’ve deified the individual. Maybe that’s necessary in principle. In the Bill of Rights. But…’What’s good for the individual is good for the country’? It simply is not true. What is food for the community is good for the country. Once you put the individual on a pedestal, it’s at the expense of everything else.

“What I would really like to put on my tombstone is that I was part of my time,” he says. “And that I’m, satisfied with that. And that’s comforting. I did okay. It’s been good. It’s nice to finally…get it as you get into your mid-sixties. It’s better than not getting it at all. And I have seen a lot of people who go to their graves without ever…without ever getting in touch with what it is that’s the core of them. It’s very easy as an actor…you can just walk around as Hud all day long, have people marvel at your grace, your manliness, your quick-wittedness. [But] it all eats away at whatever is at the core of…your own humanity. At getting in touch with that, and being satisfied with it, and comfortable.”

Being satisfied. Being comfortable. Getting it. We’re talking about him now, right?

“Yeah,” he says.

A moment later, en route to the elevator, he amplifies. Only a bit. But enough.

“I don’t have to worry,” he says, “about being something for somebody.”

The other half of the thought doesn’t need to be spoken: Now it’s time to be him for him.

Which is why, finally, the smile at the end of the morning—back at the apartment door, in the foyer, the elevator summoned—is different from the one that greeted me. It’s not just on his lips. It’s in his eyes.

The difference is not in their color. Their color is just sort of pale-blue.

It’s the light behind them. Maybe the light I want to see behind them. The light I do see behind them. The particularly brilliant light of winter.

peter richmond was a gq correspondent.

Click here to see Paul Newman and GQ's 49 other most stylish men of the past 50 years.

"Larry Platt for Congress." Not

Monday  September 29, 2008


Last fall, I was called to serve. I was recruited to run for congress in Pennsylvania's prized sixth district, the suburbs of Philly. I accepted. I met Bill Clinton. I talked strategy with Steny Hoyer. I hitched myself to a grizzled, street-fighting campaign manager, asked all my friends for money, and came clean on the skeletons in my closet. And then I decided I couldn't go through with it. Here's why

by larry platt

Not My Freakin' Bag

as he approached, he was actually biting his lower lip. Just like on TV, I remember thinking. When Bill Clinton was up in my face, I extended my hand; we shook as his eyes darted out over my shoulder, surveying the room. We turned to face the photographer.

“Mr. President, I’m thinking of running for Congress in the Sixth District here,” I said as the photographer snapped away. This was it: my moment of inspiration, my chance to pick the brain of the greatest politician of my generation. For the past three months, I’d been a magazine editor turned all-but-declared candidate for Congress, yet lately I’d become increasingly aware of a burning ball of tension in my gut. That’s not figurative; all day, every day, I had this tightness in my stomach. Was it fear? Second thoughts about running? Or was it something deeper? I couldn’t be sure. But I was hoping that, upon meeting Bill Clinton at this fund-raiser last December, he’d say something so inspiring, so Clintonian, that my doubts about running would be forever quelled.

“That’s nice,” the president said. And then, with considerably more enthusiasm: “That’s a great bag.”

I turned to him, puzzled; he removed his arm from around my shoulder, subtly boxing me out. He was talking to a lanky blond who stood next to the photographer, holding a Louis Vuitton handbag.

“That is a great bag,” he said again, and now he was on a roll. He couldn’t stop talking about the freakin’ bag. “Come on over here and get your picture taken with that bag. That is a terrific bag.”

And then the blond was next to him, and his arm was around her, and he was still babbling about the bag…and I was out of the picture, staring into my drink. That’s his line? The bag? That was my big moment?

I immediately thought of something my political consultant had told me at the start of this process: “Politics is all about wearing a mask.” The Clinton interaction left me with a queasy, undigested feeling—a malaise—and its only tonic was the answer to the question that haunted me: After a career of unmasking others, could I bring myself to wear one?

A Public Servant Is Born

there are three types of people in this world, Tommy Lasorda used to tell his players: those who make things happen, those who watch what happens, and those who wonder what the hell just happened.

On a clear September day in 2007, I began to wonder if I, as a longtime professional journalist, was in Lasorda’s second category—watching what happens—with nowhere to go but into his third. I’d been invited to the swearing-in ceremony for my friend Pat Dugan, who had just been appointed a municipal-court judge in Philadelphia. Talk about someone who makes things happen: Dugan was a Philly lawyer and an army vet who, upon watching CNN at the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003, decided to get off the couch and reenlist. Three months later, he was in Mosul, teaching locals the ins and outs of a fledgling democracy. Governor Ed Rendell wanted him to come back and run for judge. No thanks, Pat said. Instead, he went to Afghanistan for a year.

Now, back home, Dugan was finally a judge. He spoke about his buddies still over there, he singled out other vets in the room, he talked about honor and duty and the call to service. Me, I’d spent my entire adult life as a writer and an editor; for the past six years, I’d been at the helm of Philadelphia magazine. Most of my friends and colleagues, like me, trucked in detached, wiseass irony; Dugan’s sentiments were unfamiliar concepts. But his words had a strange effect on me: Allergic to earnestness as I’ve always been, he had me thinking about serving something bigger than the orbit of my own ego.

After the speech, Congressman Bob Brady sidled up to me. Brady is the last of the big-city bosses. Head of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, Brady was a carpenter who rose to power in the carpenters’ union. He’s six feet, 250 pounds, with the square jaw of a street tough, and he makes no bones about believing in the smoke-filled backroom deal. In the magazine, we’d railed against Brady’s antiquated, old-school views; we’d championed reform and transparency.

Still, I couldn’t help but love the guy. In politics the rogues are always more interesting than the goo-goos—the good-government types. Brady’s word was his bond, and he couldn’t help but be honest about his crass manipulations. “I’ve never done anything illegal in this job,” he confided to me once, years ago. “But you do do things that are wrong.”

It was in that conversation that I shared with him my nascent, almost flip desire to maybe “run for something someday.” Maybe something like Congress. Now here it was, a couple of years after that conversation, and Brady hadn’t forgotten.

He approached me with a self-conscious grin. “I know you kick the shit out of me in your magazine,” he said. “But you should think about running for Congress in the Sixth.”

“I live in the Sixth,” I said. “I grew up in the Sixth.”

Brady’s eyes widened. “Would you take a call about it?” he asked.

The next day, I got a call from Ken Smukler, Brady’s political consultant. From their perspective, Smukler said, I was someone who, by dint of the magazine’s influence, had local name recognition and a good Rolodex for fund-raising. When I hung up, I broached the subject of such a life change to Bet, my wife, a second-grade schoolteacher. “So after twenty years as a journalist,” she said, “you want to be a politician? What’s next, used-car salesman?”

Bet and I just happened to have scheduled a dinner the following evening with Neil Oxman, an old friend and one of the best and strangest political media strategists in the country. A big, blustery man with a booming voice and the posture of a question mark, Oxman spends odd-number years caddying for Tom Watson on the senior tour and even-number years electing Democrats to Congress and governorships around the country. His commercials elected Ed Rendell mayor of Philadelphia and then, when all the smart money counted him out, governor of Pennsylvania. Most recently, his ads had elected reformer Michael Nutter mayor of Philadelphia. Now here he was, like Brady, pitching me on running for Congress—in typical Oxman fashion.

“You’re the editor of Philadelphia magazine, and that gives you cachet,” he said. “See, I know you’re retarded, but if you don’t talk, if you just say you’re the editor of Philly mag, you’ve written books, you can raise millions of dollars, and you’ll do this full-time, people will say, ‘Gee, I met this really interesting guy.’ If you start talking about the war or saving Social Security, they’ll know you’re a retard. This is a process, okay, and this part of the process is about building personal relationships. If you can keep your big mouth shut, you can become a member of Congress.”

In Oxman’s estimation, this election was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Jim Gerlach, the terrifyingly bland three-term incumbent, had won by only 3,000 votes in 2006, besting Lois Murphy, a subpar Democratic challenger. And 2008 was shaping up to be a watershed year for Democrats; that it would be a presidential year only added to Oxman’s optimism.

He laid out a basic game plan. Under his tutelage, I’d meet the local politicos in the district and let them hear themselves talk; I’d go to rubber-chicken dinners with local power players, many of whom I already knew; then, with the locals behind me, I’d go to Washington and put on a show for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Once I’d lined up the local and national support, I’d start soliciting pledges for contributions—pledges I’d convert into donations when I formally announced. Did I mention that the Sixth Congressional District was among the most expensive races in the country in 2006? So it promised to be again. All indications were that I’d have to raise $3 million.

I told Oxman I’d commit to a three-month due-diligence process; by mid-December, I’d make my final decision, with an eye toward officially announcing my candidacy in January. But it wouldn’t take me nearly that long to realize that while journalists are outwardly cynical and inwardly idealistic, politicians are just the opposite: They master the rhetoric of high ideals while covertly plotting and scheming and manipulating. That’s called pragmatism, in political parlance. I’d spent much of my adult life writing about politics. Now I was going to see the sausage-making up close and personal.

Welcome to Boot Camp

before my first round of meetings, Oxman called me with Lesson Number One in his Campaigning for Dummies curriculum. “You ready?” he barked. “Write this down: ‘Neil Oxman is fucking brilliant.’ ” Lesson Number Two was what Oxman called “the key.” “The candidate who succeeds in doing three things wins,” he said. “Define yourself, define your opponent, define the stakes of the election.”

As Oxman saw it, this election would be all about George Bush; we’d try to define Gerlach as Bush’s proxy. Gerlach, in turn, would try to define me as a risky novice. To counteract that, I’d have to get up to speed—and fast. “What’s your position on the Farm Bill?” Oxman asked accusatorily. “There are farms in your district.”

“There are farms in my district?”

I could feel the glare through the phone. “You’re going to be a fucking nightmare.” Pause. “What kind of car do you drive?”

“A BMW.”

“Jesus,” Oxman sighed. “Okay, the campaign will have to rent you an American car.”


“Fucking nightmare,” he mumbled. “And you’ve got to get some schlubby-looking suits. You’re a stylish guy—people don’t vote for stylish. They vote for schlubby.”

“You’re serious? Really?”

“STOP SAYING THAT!” he raged. This was just the first of what would become routine Oxman bitch slaps; at least once a day for the next three months, I’d get a full-throated tongue-lashing in which I’d invariably be called a “fucking dilettante” or a “fucking nightmare.” His outbursts were part shtick, part calculated motivation. Sometimes he’d interrupt a particularly vituperative name-calling tirade by screaming, “I SCREAM BECAUSE I LOVE!” And then he’d call me a fucking dilettante again.

In Which I Try the Middle Way

one of my first formal sit-downs was with Montgomery County party chairman Marcel Groen. The political world is full of players like Groen, a local power broker to whom national party leaders defer. He wasn’t well-known, and he liked it that way. But to both national and local politicos, if you had Groen’s support, it meant you were, as Oxman put it, “real.”

The goal of this meeting was to show Groen that I had a plan to deal with the Sixth District’s array of competing interests. (The Sixth is an odd amalgam of three areas, from the opulent Main Line to the more rural Chester County to the Reagan Democrat terrain of Berks County.) So I riffed about how the Democrats had twice lost heartbreakers there because they hadn’t learned the lessons of Clintonism: that the political center can be active and dynamic. In 2006, I said, Lois Murphy allowed Gerlach to portray her as “Liberal Lois”; Gerlach, who had voted for the war countless times, was vulnerable all right—but he was vulnerable to attack from the reasonable center, not the left. He’d been with Bush on our rising deficits, and he’d been with him on giving up on finding Osama. That argued for a fiscally conservative, tough-on-terror platform—which, conveniently, fit my worldview. That I’m also socially libertarian, like many in our district, would be an added benefit. Plus, Gerlach was a career politician. By all accounts, Murphy had run a poor campaign in 2006 and almost won; in an election that promised to be driven by anti-incumbency, I argued that an atypical outsider who had roots in the district could win.

“I like your story,” Groen said. “And I have no doubt you can raise a ton of money.” He agreed to support me and offered to take me to D.C. to meet with national party officials in the next month. Then he came back to the key topic: money. We’d be needing some. We’d be needing a lot. The national party would kick in anywhere from $1 to $2 million, he said, but only after I proved that I could raise that much by myself.

It was the first inkling of what would become a stark realization: My fantasy of running—giving speeches, connecting with voters, talking issues, solving problems—was just that. Campaigning was about fund-raising, and fund-raising—because of the deadening repetition, because of the hack-like feeling of subservience, because of the rejection—was about being made to feel like shit.

My New Middle Name

in these early days, I spent my nights reading things like Matthew Miller’s Two Percent Solution, an inspiring tome about how, for just 2 percent of our GDP, we could enact universal health care and fix our public schools. I became obsessed with Tony Blair’s sui generis idea for “baby bonds”: Each baby born would get a government bond and, through the miracle of compound interest, could cash in the bond for a considerable sum—but only to pay for things like tuition, buying a home, or starting a business. I was thrilled about the possibility of exploring these kinds of ideas, ideas that political conventional wisdom had already conspired to label “impractical.” And this is where I ran into the gulf between campaigning and governing, a difference the consultants had long ago recognized.

New ideas are seen as risky. Experts like Oxman say their job is to get the candidate to 50 percent—plus one. That’s it. After that, the candidate is free to govern as he or she sees fit. So airing ideas like baby bonds and public-school reform did nothing but get the blankest of stares in return from those inside the bubble.

In fact, of all the meetings I had over the course of my fledgling candidacy, I can remember only one time when someone asked for my opinion on a political issue. When I went to woo State Senator Connie Williams, she asked me where I stood on abortion and guns. “I’m anti-abortion but pro-choice,” I replied, relieved to be talking about a matter of substance instead of strategy or fund-raising. “We should bring down the number of abortions while preserving the right to choose.” As for guns, I said I supported the Second Amendment—and reasonable gun legislation, like background checks.

Williams seemed pleased with my answers; she said she’d support me, sit on my finance committee, donate the maximum amount to my campaign. But when I reported the exchange to Oxman, he wasn’t impressed.

“That’s interesting,” he said. “Both questions, your response started with the conservative position. Why? Let me ask you something. What’s Connie Williams?”

“What is she?”

“Philosophically, what is she?” he asked, his voice rising.

“A liberal?”

“A liberal. So why would you start with the conservative answer? You’re supposed to be a big-shot editor. Can’t you read your audience?”

He wasn’t upset with the way the meeting had gone. He was upset that I’d talked about anything other than my background—that, in running the magazine, I’ve run “one of the most successful small businesses in the region’s history, blah blah blah.” He went on to berate me for talking about any issues at all. “Your name from this moment forward is Larry ‘Reasonable Alternative’ Platt, got it?” he said. “Anytime you open your mouth, you have nowhere to go but down in people’s estimation. Say it out loud: ‘My name is Larry “Reasonable Alternative” Platt.’ ”

“Um, my name is Larry ‘Reasonable Alternative’ Platt,” I said, and laughed—which only enraged him more.

“YOU THINK THIS IS A JOKE?” he screamed.

Yup, I’m a Candidate

i arrived at my office early one morning in late October to a stack of messages from reporters:, a Web site for and by political junkies in my state, was reporting that I was the leading candidate to square off against Gerlach and that I was scheduled to visit party leaders in Washington the following week. I’d been outed. Before I could collect my thoughts, the phone rang. Oxman.

“You want your comment to be all about Jim Gerlach,” he advised. “Just say that you’re looking at it because Gerlach is a bad congressman.”

The other line rang. Ken Smukler, Bob Brady’s political consultant. “You want your comment to be all about Larry Platt,” he said. “You have to give a reason as to why you’d want to do this, so people start seeing you as a candidate.”

What was the line from the William Goldman book about Hollywood? Ah, yes: Nobody knows anything. Candidates talk about being inside the bubble, accosted by an echo chamber of advice, and I was starting to get a sense of that. You have all these people advising you, telling you what to do, and yet you’re totally alone. I decided to split the difference between Oxman and Smukler. I jotted down some sound bites that I hoped would, all at once, define Gerlach, the stakes, and me. The next day, the Philadelphia Inquirer quoted me: “As journalists we wring our hands and point out problems, but at a certain point, you say to yourself, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ It’s hard for me to stay on the sidelines when my congressman is enabling the war in Iraq and some of the biggest deficits ever. Someone’s got to hold these guys accountable, so it might as well be a constituent.” I promptly got an encouraging e-mail from Rodd McLeod, the political operative at the DCCC. “Nice messaging,” he wrote. “Accountability is big.”

And Now, a Word About My Baggage

it was time to come clean to Oxman.

In 2000, I told him, I’d written in George magazine about smoking some really good weed with comedian Bill Maher. In 1996, I’d written about selling some not-so-good pot brownies at my high school German Club bake sale. Years ago I’d caused, uh, pain in my marriage. In 2004, I gave a videotaped address to the incoming freshman class of my alma mater, telling them they’d “experiment with drugs and drinking and sex while in college—and you should have fun, it’s a rite of passage—but you can take that same hell-bent, radical approach to the life of the mind here…”

Oxman cut me off.

“Who the fuck are you, Timothy Leary? When was the last time you smoked pot?”

“It was a youthful indiscretion,” I replied. Then: “Six months ago.” But how about offering up the truth, I asked. The truth is, I don’t smoke pot anymore (unless, of course, I’m at a party and someone passes me a bowl), because, where it used to make me smarter, it now makes me real, real dumb. Can’t I just say that?

“DON’T SAY THAT!” Oxman roared.

Meantime, the top-secret “opposition research” report on me that I’d commissioned had come in. (Yes, candidates hire people to investigate them and write up not only what they find but also how their opponent is likely to use the damaging information.) After interviewing me and digging up nearly everything I’d ever written, my investigator concluded that my “strengths far outweigh” my weaknesses. “Larry Platt is not merely a journalist or writer,” he wrote. “For the last several years, he has also been a manager of a large, profit-driven enterprise where he learned to watch the bottom line.… He understands the possibilities and limitations of today’s economy in a way that no career politician could.”

Then I came to the “Summary of Vulnerabilities” section.

“Larry Platt was a sports writer who got tired of hanging around Allen Iverson [about whom he wrote a book] and now wants to ‘play’ in Congress,” he wrote. “He’s never held elective office before and doesn’t even vote in every election.… He’s been a drug user for most of his life, but what’s even worse, he has actually encouraged drug use and belittled anti-drug laws in print and in speeches before students.… He calls himself a reformer, but he hangs around Philadelphia Democratic party boss Bob Brady.” Perhaps most damning of all: “Larry Platt is having a midlife crisis. He tried an earring, writing about rap music, Zen meditation, Indian sweat lodges, and even a Marine-boot-camp fitness course (he failed). But now he wants to do something really cool—hang out in Congress for a while at your expense.”

Reading the report, and its quite believable cartooning of me, I suddenly realized, “Hey, I might not vote for this guy. And I am this guy!”

Mr. Platt Goes to Washington

steny hoyer, the House Majority Leader, is a serious, formal man. He’s not the kind of guy you want to drink a beer with. He’s more the kind of guy who oversees the licensing of those who would serve you beer.

Groen and I had come down to D.C. to schmooze national party leaders. So here I was, sitting on a sofa in Hoyer’s spacious Capitol Hill office. After introductory pleasantries, there was an awkward silence. I decided to fill it with my by-now practiced routine. “When you’re a journalist,” I began, “you’re on the sidelines. At some point, you want to get in the game.”

I paused. Hoyer didn’t jump in.

I babbled on. I pulled out a Bobby Kennedy quote. Hoyer was impassive. I talked about how I knew the Sixth District to be politically moderate and yet populist. Nada. I said that if elected, I would refuse the House’s health coverage. Zip. I made the mistake of saying a local radio talk-show host, Michael Smerconish, a well-known Republican, has his finger on the pulse of my district: fiscally conservative, tough on terror, libertarian on social issues. At which point my chaperone, Groen, interrupted: “Well, he’s a bit conservative to our liking, but what Larry’s saying is there’s an opening against Gerlach in terms of the war on terror.” With this, Groen saved me from appearing to actually like a Republican. (Little did I know that inside the way-too-partisan Beltway, that’s a capital offense.)

When I was done, Hoyer leaned forward and dispensed his words of wisdom. “If Bob Brady vouches for you, that’s good enough for me,” he said.

That was it?

Next up on our list was Representative Chris Van Hollen, the head of the DCCC. We met for half an hour, and he let it be known that I was their favored candidate. Finally, we headed to Bob Brady’s office. He was on his way to the House floor to vote to support something called National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week. I asked what it was, why in the world it was on the federal docket, and why he was voting for it.

“The sponsor’s my buddy,” Brady said.

Dialing for Dollars

“now you’re going to start calling friends and family and asking for money,” Oxman barked one day in early November. “If you’re afraid to do that, or you’d rather be at one of your fancy restaurants in one of your $5,000 suits—”

“I don’t wear $5,000 suits—”

“SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” he screamed. “YOU KNOW THAT I KNOW THAT YOU KNOW YOU’RE A FUCKING DILETTANTE! If you can’t ask for money, I’ll end this with one phone call to the DCCC and tell them you’re a fraud, okay?”

Between insults, Oxman explained that the plan was to collect pledges that I could convert into hundreds of thousands of dollars when I announced my candidacy around the first of the year—thereby dissuading anyone else from getting in the race.

I got out the Rolodex and started drawing up my list.

Any politician will tell you that dialing for dollars is the worst part of the job. The good ones convince themselves that the hell of asking people for money is worth it, that the ends justify the means. Doing it right requires incredible discipline, which is why there is a job in politics called “call-time manager.” The call-time manager sits with the candidate in a spare office (no distractions) and, watch in hand, oversees the candidate’s fund-raising calls. In that room, the call-time manager is in charge, even to the point of doling out the occasional two-minute bathroom break. In that room, the candidate works for him or her. In that room, the candidate is little more than a dancing monkey, trained to beg for money.

The newly elected mayor of Philadelphia had a superstar call-time manager, a twentysomething named Keri, who had deep knowledge of the Sixth District, having worked on Murphy’s campaign in 2006. She agreed to help me; a lawyer friend gave me an office with a phone. Every day, instead of taking lunch, I’d meet Keri for a couple hours of intensive calls.

Here’s how it works: If the conversation ever swerved toward the personal—some of these calls were with friends from college whom I hadn’t caught up with in years—she’d bang the desk and point to her watch. If I ignored her, she’d reach for the phone, threatening to hang it up. Keri explained that there was a formula—each call should be no longer than three minutes; when a call went over that time limit, it was invariably because the candidate was afraid to get to “the ask”—and the ask should always be for a specific dollar amount. “Hi, I’ve been recruited to run for Congress,” I’d begin each call, not pausing for interruptions. “And I’m pretty sure I’m going to do it if I can raise the money. So I’m calling people like you for your advice and support. I’m hoping you’d make a pledge to contribute, keeping in mind that the legal limit for a contribution is $4,600.” The goal was to raise an average of $10,000 to $15,000 a day.

Amazingly, it worked; one friend I called said, “count me in for $25,000.” (I had to explain that that would be illegal, that the legal limit per individual is $4,600.) Some friends said, “Put me down for the max” before I could even finish my spiel. Others would hem and haw; a few never called back. One friend traveled to New York and put together a group of eight old college buddies, all pledging large sums. Another friend hosted a group at her house, a crowd of about thirty young urbanites with some connection to local politics. (After I got done with my stump speech about why I was considering running, I took questions. One person asked me whose health care plan I supported, Hillary’s or Obama’s? “I’m going to say something you haven’t heard many candidates say,” I said. “I don’t know.” I explained that I hadn’t read either plan, but I think my reasoning went deeper. The argument over the nuances of this or that health care plan is folly; once a president is elected and Congress and the special interests weigh in, we won’t be able to recognize the plans from the campaign anyway. I’d be running not because I had any answers but because, as a journalist, I knew how to ask questions and see my way through bullshit. My attempt at straight talk didn’t seem to go over. They wanted answers.) Again, virtually everyone made a pledge of support.

Each Friday, I provided Oxman with a list of pledges; after six weeks of calls, I was over $200,000. I was humbled; Oxman was encouraged. Only one time did someone utterly disappoint me: One longtime acquaintance, a lawyer, said, “I’ve got to tell you, I’ve given to a lot of politicians through the years, and I’ve never gotten anything for it. How is a donation to you going to help me?”

We haven’t spoken since; not because he didn’t pledge, but because the reason he didn’t pledge felt so…transactional. I remember thinking, Do people really speak this way?

Can Someone Please Pour Fire Ants All Over My Body to Keep Me from Saying the Same Crap Over and Over Again?

the pennsylvania Society is the annual gathering at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria of my state’s officeholders and wannabes, the hacks and the wonks, the enablers and the reformers. It consists of a dizzying weekend of crowded cocktail parties; this is where I’d be trotted out for all the bigwigs and big-money types to poke and prod. At one point, I passed Governor Rendell in a crowded hallway.

“Hey, Larry,” he said, smiling, extending his hand, but never breaking stride. “Is this a clusterfuck or what?”

I was paraded from party to party, shaking hands, making small talk. Every conversation, I noticed that my eyes would inevitably wander over the shoulder of whomever I was speaking to—in search of whomever else I needed to meet. And even when I was making eye contact, I was never focused on the conversation. I was heeding the advice of one of my advisers, a onetime candidate, who told me not to worry about what people said to me. Instead, he said, just repeat each person’s first name in your head over and over while they babble away. In politics, knowing a name always trumps real connection.

Larry Ceisler, a well-connected insider, took me around, feeding me pertinent facts about whomever he deemed important for me to meet. He’d hustle someone more important over to interrupt the conversation he’d just had me start. Around the hundredth time that I heard myself say, “As a journalist, you’re by definition on the sidelines; when the stakes are so high, you’ve got to get in the game,” a concern took hold: Did I believe this stuff, or was I reading from a script? Was I becoming an asshole?

Please Pass the Malaise

do you remember the “Malaise” speech from 1979? I was 15 when Jimmy Carter delivered it, but I remember it as the best political speech I’d ever heard; I remember watching it with my dad and my dad calling Carter the “conscience of America.”

After the whirlwind of the Pennsylvania Society, and just hours after watching Bill Clinton put the moves on the blond with the bag, I printed out Carter’s speech and sat down to read.

In the speech, Carter predicted the oncoming me-first-ism of the Reagan ’80s: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” he said. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” He went on to unveil bold, specific policies intended to—get this—cut American dependence on foreign oil by half within ten years. “So the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country,” he said. “It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.”

Thirty years later, it’s easy to see how prescient Carter was. At the time, though, something interesting happened. In the aftermath of his speech, his poll ratings actually rose. But then Teddy Kennedy, from his left, and Ronald Reagan, from his right, started harping on Carter’s straight talk: He was blaming the people, blaming America, they said, a conclusion that remains conventional wisdom today. Their rhetoric not only doomed Carter’s presidency; it served notice upon those leaders who’d have the temerity to try to tackle big problems. The era of political denial had dawned.

So there I was, late at night, reading about one of the last times a politician tried to tell the truth. I thought of the congressman who told me, during my visit to D.C.: “You don’t think there are actually votes of conscience down here, do you?” I thought of the response one congressional aide had when I said I favored gay marriage instead of the calculated position of “civil unions”; gay marriage, I argued—borrowing from Andrew Sullivan—was consistent with conservative principles because society ought to support loving, committed relationships. The response? “Oh, so you want to lose?” And I thought about the reality of being a backbencher freshman congressman in an institution based on seniority; you have to wait ten years to get anything done at all.

So what the hell was I doing? If I can’t say what I believe, if my main goal is to be a “reasonable alternative,” and if I won’t have much of an effect if I win…precisely why was I asking people who mean the world to me for thousands of dollars?

I don’t know when it turned—probably with Reagan, the ultimate actor—but to be a politician in America is to be this essentially unknowable breed, this blank slate, this toxic mix of insecurity and self-regard. When his adultery came to light this past summer, John Edwards said he’d fallen prey to narcissism. It’s not hard to understand why; for three months, literally every conversation I found myself in was all about me. As a journalist, I’d tried to elicit people’s stories because I was legitimately curious about them. As a politician, I tried to sell people on my story—by any means necessary.

The next day, I called Oxman. “I can’t do this,” I said, preparing for the explosion. I told him I was sick of hearing myself talk. I’m as egocentric as the next guy, I said, but even I might not be enough of a narcissist to believe the Republic won’t survive without me in Congress.

There was a pause. “I’m proud of you,” he said, barely whispering. “I’m proud of you because you’ve refused to become one of them. It’s a sick, sick life, wearing a mask all the time.”

“I was afraid I was going to disappoint you,” I said.

“You’ve risen in my estimation,” he said.

The minute I hung up the phone, the tension in my gut released.

It’s now nine months later, Gerlach appears to be cruising to reelection, and I continue to go back and forth on whether, as Oxman would suggest, I took a moral stand—or if I just took the easy way out. But I know two things. The only thing I miss from my brief political career is Neil Oxman, who just weeks after my withdrawal sent me a note. “So you’re not going to be a politician,” it read. “Why don’t you start writing real books? You have a great eye and can smell bullshit. Or would that get in the way of another lunch at The Palm?”

And I know that the whole experience reenergized my passion for journalism: With all its faults and messiness, there is value in unmasking.

Why Obama Should Meet Baseball's Biggest Numbers Geek

Wednesday  September 24, 2008


How a hardball freak turned his calculator on politics—and beat the nation’s biggest pollsters at their own game

by nate penn

Last fall, when an Internet commentator calling himself “Poblano” began posting highly sophisticated primary-election predictions—first at, then at his own site,—you had to wonder: Why the pseudonym? Because the dude just kept getting things right. By the time his balls-out, stunningly accurate predictions for the North Carolina and Indiana Democratic primaries (based on an algorithm incorporating sixteen variables) hit the Web in early May, he’d become the most compelling anonymous Beltway observer since the Primary Colors guy.

“Poblano,” it turns out, is Nate Silver, creator of PECOTA, the revolutionary statistical tool for evaluating…baseball players. The 30-year-old wanted to keep his name out of the pollster mix until he was sure he had something legit to add, which he most certainly does. Chat with him for half an hour and he’ll explain how Obama is “the Billy Beane of politics” because “his campaign is clearly very data-driven. If you look at the cities he visited, you’ll find a lot of times he’d purposely straddle two congressional districts, to swing votes in both.” He’ll explain that certain beloved articles of faith in both baseball and politics ought to be reevaluated: For the former, it’s the value of stats like batting average and RBIs; for the latter, it’s “the whole notion of red states and blue states, which is conditioned solely on the last two elections.” Fans of his work include Obama-campaign operatives: After Silver suggested that the senator go to Alaska in the lead-up to the general election, they booked the flights. And in case you’re curious, his simulations currently have Barack winning the election more than 60 percent of the time, though “it’s not going to be a blowout victory.”

Come November, Silver will be crunching both 2009 PECOTA numbers and 2008 election returns. He won’t sleep much. “Alaska is a swing state this year,” he sighs, “and you can conjure scenarios where you wait for the results to be moosed in from Nome.

Hey, Boston, Shut the F#%* Up!

Wednesday  September 24, 2008


Boston, I used to like you. I used to visit every couple of years, go for a long run along the Charles, eat some chowder down on the Fish Pier. But this year, something began to curdle inside me. The slobbery tears at midcourt (this was for Red!), the icy Papelbon glare (ooh, we’re scared!), the creepy cult of (the genius) Bill Belichick and (the golden) Theo Epstein and (the dashing) Tom Brady and (the extremely fucking annoying) Yoooooooook… Enough. We get it. You rule the universe. Yes, it’s quite an impressive run you’re on here. (For a small city.) But remember, fifteen years ago, your teams sucked large donkey balls (Pats: 5-11; Celtics: 32-50; Red Sox: 80-82). And because sports go in cycles, they will soon suck again. So relax. Try some humility. It becomes you.—bob finch

The Man Who Would Be Obama

Wednesday  September 24, 2008


interview by mickey rapkin

On SNL, Fred Armisen has played Ahmadinejad, Steve Jobs, and Camilla Parker Bowles. But he never got into trouble until he did Obama. In blackface. With SNL going prime-time with a series of half-hour election-themed episodes, he speaks.

Why are comedians soft on Obama?
Race. Also, more than race, he’s so beloved.

You played New York governor David Paterson. Any flak?
No! And he’s blind! I’ve done Prince—an African-American. And nothing. There’s something about this guy.

What’s the key to doing Obama?
He is an intense listener. I thought, What is that? Now I’m learning little things as I go. Some of his blinks are longer than others. Also, he moves his head from side to side when he talks. Like quickly, left right left right. It’s brand-new!

You do a fantastic Ahmadinejad, too.
There’s something about his suits that makes me laugh. It’s like, “Wow, that’s an off-white beige suit.” 

McCain has been on SNL. But the cast is so liberal. Awkward?
All of that goes out the window. There’s that little kid in you who goes, “There’s that guy from the government.” He’s a senator. He knows stuff we don’t.

Politics aside, you hope Obama wins? It’s a plum role.
Yes. And politically? Yes, also.

Whatever You Do, Don't Say "Born-Again Christian," Okay?

Monday  September 22, 2008

Okay, we won't, and he's not, or at least not in the religious sense. He is something of a reborn man, though—free of alcohol and cocaine and heroin, aggressively chomping his Nicorette, and feeling no shame (not that he should) about his new life on TV

by marshall sella; photographs by martin schoeller


it’s an almost perfectly uneventful spring day at the Casa Del Mar hotel in Santa Monica. The temperature is government-issue Southern California seventy-two degrees. The most compelling thing visible from the hotel’s posh restaurant is a pair of middle-aged guys on Segways who manage to make the once futuristic transports appear a bit like those scooters the elderly seem to enjoy so much in television commercials. Even the ocean seems a little pale, as if its roiling mysteries have taken the day off.

Christian Slater turns his foxlike features and shakes his head at the guys on the Segways. He is drinking his fourth of what will be many glasses of ice water; this is part of his regimen. In Slater’s life, words like uneventful—and, for that matter, regimen—have not been a prominent feature. Since his first police car chase in 1989, and with the fury of arrests, brawls, and other drug-induced misadventures that have followed, he’s had more than his share of extremely eventful days, never mind that he himself cannot recall many of them.

But the man sitting here is not that Christian Slater. Nighttime Slater, by all evidence, has surrendered to this clean-living, Nicorette-chewing father of two who has somehow pulled his life and his career together. He is lucid and measured and looks ten years younger than he did ten years ago. “You come to a point where you get a little bit clearer on the things that work for you, who you are, what you wanna represent, what you stand for,” he says equably. “You stop trying to take on other kinds of personae: people you’ve observed or people you’ve worked with.”

It’s hard for most people to imagine the life of someone who’s been in the industry for just slightly less time than he’s been alive. Slater was acting on the soap opera One Life to Live at age 7, toured in The Music Man with Dick Van Dyke a few years later, and—even despite the interruptions—has acted in fifty-eight movies. “I’ve been in this business for thirty-one years,” he says. “And it’s been a phenomenal roller-coaster ride, you know—with its highs and its lows. I’ve gone through moments that have been confusing, and I’ve had moments when I lost interest entirely in the acting profession, to be perfectly honest.”

And now—at the top of his form, but not foolish enough to claim that he will stay there—he is a film star on the verge of becoming a star of television.

The show is called My Own Worst Enemy (set to premiere October 13 on NBC), and it is aptly named. Shorn of spoilers, here’s the concept. Slater plays an efficiency expert named Henry Spivey; Henry is nothing if not average. He and the missus live in the suburbs with their two kids, drive a minivan, and essentially live the workaday American dream. No frills, not a trace of danger. Enter one Mr. Edward Albright, a pathologically well-trained operative for some Unnamed Government Agency. Albright speaks ten languages and can handle himself in any situation, in any climate, against any adversary. “Drop him in the middle of the ocean,” his handler wryly says, “and he’ll reorganize the food chain.”

Henry, by contrast, speaks at best one language and contracts nosebleeds at high altitudes. He’s as much like Edward as, say, a Brillo pad is like the Apollo program.

Which makes it disconcerting when Henry and Edward learn that, by dint of implants in the brain, they are the same person—or at least share the same body. (See the Jekyll and Hyde reference? Henry and Edward?) A flick of the switch and Henry becomes Edward, and vice versa. How this comes to pass—well, that would be telling. The two men cannot coexist. So they actively start to subvert each other, leaving video messages like codes tapped out through the metaphorical wall that separates them. Camaraderie does not ensue.

Jason Smilovic, the creator and executive producer of My Own Worst Enemy, is by Hollywood standards an outlandishly literary man. Talk to him about his concept for even an hour and he’ll veer off into existential themes: how, in a sense, we’re all hypocrites deep down, striving to present a flawless surface; how humans by nature are composites of incompatible ideas.

Smilovic has thought and overthought these themes, and he could not have found a better vessel than Christian Slater. “At its core, this is a story about two men who inhabit the same body but who live with the consequences of each other’s actions,” Smilovic says. “They’re pitted against each other but need to move together in this three-legged race they’re trapped in. It’s two fish-out-of-water stories told at the same time, in which neither persona can really function in the other man’s world.” Smilovic is thrilled with the blend, especially since he needs both Slaters to carry off his show. “Christian is a guy who’s had so many experiences in his own life, and a lot of them are contradictory,” he adds. “He personally has lived on both sides of the tracks. And when you get someone who has seen it all, he can dial back from characters who are worldly to characters who live like the rest of us.”

christian michael Leonard Slater, born in 1969, is one of those actors who were destined to end up in the industry no matter what. His father was an actor; his mother, a casting director. By age 5, when his father was appearing in the John Wood version of Sherlock Holmes on Broadway, the boy Christian was hooked for good.

“I begged to go to work with my father,” he says. “I always knew I loved that. And it was ideal, because I later did Frank Langella’s Sherlock Holmes in Williamstown. I loved every aspect of it. I loved learning the lines for school plays—well, I didn’t exactly love learning the lines, but I loved it once I got them. And I loved when other kids wouldn’t know their lines. I thought that was fantastic!

But the story of Slater’s life so far, quite famously, has not been entirely dappled with sunshine. Through it all, the same themes seem to appear: deep insecurity and a sometimes crazed search for identity—which, coupled with what he often refers to as the “arrogance and entitlement issues” that are the natural companion of the child actor, can so easily result in self-obliteration.

I ask Slater when all the madness in his life began—that is, when he first got drunk or high. Very matter-of-factly, he tells me that his hard living did not begin with a spate of high school partying but rather that he was already getting drunk during his tour of The Music Man.

He was 9 years old at the time.

“I didn’t get high, but I got drunk,” he says. “Oh yeah. We were traveling around, hitting every state. And every time we would go to a different place, we’d have an opening-night party. And it was cute to put me in a little tuxedo and run me around—this is the world we were in. I was in a little tuxedo, and there were glasses of champagne floating around, and four glasses of champagne later…”

As he became more established as an actor yet remained out of reach of legal adulthood, Slater moved to Los Angeles. It seemed like a good idea at the time. By age 17, he had already gained significant attention for his role in The Legend of Billie Jean and for The Name of the Rose. The next few years brought some television work, as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. But it was Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, when Slater had turned 20, that really set the match to his stardom.

Still, the marriage of ego fulfillment and youth is nothing if not founded on risk, and Slater does not exaggerate when he admits that he is genuinely lucky to be alive.

The legal troubles began in 1989, the year Heathers was released. Slater “led police,” as the strange expression has it, on an alcohol-induced car chase through West Hollywood, eventually crashing into a telephone pole and kicking the cops who came to arrest him. The charges included assault with a deadly weapon—his cowboy boots—which slightly baffles even the contrite Slater to this day. “It seems that I fall into the ‘I’m special’ category,” he says ruefully.

I gingerly ask Slater if he was doing coke at the time of the incident. “No, in ’89, I don’t recall that being the case,” he says, seeming to rifle through his memory. “I was goin’ down Santa Monica Boulevard and heard the sirens behind me; then, instead of stepping on the brake, I stepped on the gas. My best thinking was, I can lose ’em! I think at that age, with the entitlement issues and the delusional thinking that I was possessing, it seemed the best possible thing. Add alcohol into the equation and you can make choices that don’t necessarily serve your best interest.

“At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to be caught,” he adds, laughing. “You want to think you can get away with it. You make your move and you step on the gas, like a moron. Then what inevitably happens, God forbid, is that you kill yourself, kill somebody else, or you hit a telephone pole, which is what I did. And you get out of the car and make your mad dash for the fence and try to get away with murder. Fortunately, the cops were there to intervene, and I will always be grateful.”

“You didn’t feel that way at the time,” I offer. “You kicked at ’em!”

“Well, listen, retrospect is a wonderful thing,” he says, laughing again. Slater has a curious way of laughing at pain. He goes all high-pitched and laconic. It’s either an old man’s laugh—Isn’t it absurd, this life?—or a very young one’s. In Slater’s case, it’s the former, unmistakably. “That’s how God works,” he adds. “In retrospect.”

The next five or six years, as far as the courts are concerned, were relatively Slater-free. His career, by all the marks, was flourishing. He was a notable in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Murder in the First, and the wildly popular True Romance. But somehow the tumult and the insecurity and the crippling self-doubt remained an implacable force. Slater lived with his then girlfriend, Nina Huang, and today makes the match sound as dangerous as heroin.

“It consisted of all the tools that I had for a relationship—jealousy and insecurity,” he recalls. “Like, what need can you fill for me? Then throw in success and ego and arrogance, and that leads to a recipe for a very dysfunctional relationship.”

In all of this, Slater is surprisingly candid and one might even say brave. As convivial as he remains, he can’t possibly enjoy discussing this. He has commented about his troubles sporadically over the years, but this is the frankest interview to which he has ever agreed. The reason we’re even delving into the history is to see how this grounded, affable guy got here from there. Without knowing what he’s been, it’s impossible to understand what he is now, and what a rarity that is.

So we slog on to another notorious incident. The next time Slater offered any real red meat to the tabloids was in 1994, when he was arrested at JFK airport for trying to check a loaded handgun onto a plane. The oddity of this story is that, to this day, it’s commonly portrayed that he was trying to spirit a weapon into a passenger cabin, when in reality he’d checked it in his baggage. Still, it’s a little peculiar that Slater felt he was the sort of guy who should be packing heat at all, really.

“That’s just more fantasyland delusional thinking,” he says—“a James Bond mentality. Looking for an identity, I figured I should be a guy who has guns. I should be a guy who drives motorcycles. At the same time, I’m trying to be this cool guy, but I’d pull up to a stop sign and fall over. That’s the truth of it, man!”

Slater’s most infamous arrest came in 1997. In what The New York Times was pleased to call a “drug party brawl,” he was arrested for assaulting an officer and a few other people, then sentenced to ninety days of hard jail time. The public narrative (part of which Slater says is simply inaccurate) was, and remains, the following: In a Wilshire Boulevard condominium, where Slater had indulged in drinks, cocaine, and heroin, a huge fracas broke out in which his then girlfriend, the fashion editor Michelle Jonas, was assaulted and “her protector” was bitten by Slater. Under grave delusions, Slater made a desperate attempt to quit the apartment and flee to his car.

He never got there. Police found him in a stairwell, where Slater was reportedly shouting, “The Germans are coming, and they are going to kill us!”Knowing this won’t be his Dream Topic, I try to lighten the mood before broaching this particular crime. “Let’s go to the granddaddy of ’em,” I suggest. “You know what I mean.”

“The granddaddy as far as you know,” he says, chortling.

“So…you bit the guy, did you?”

“Yeah. I did.”

As Slater discusses this part of his life, some of the joviality falters and his voice drops half an octave. He sounds weary. It was, he says, “one of the low-self-worth points of my existence.” He’d been sober for such a long time but had broken up with Huang. Nothing was working. And as an added kick to the jaw, he now felt he’d made some of his most insane choices during the sober years.

“I was in such a state of mental confusion and disarray. I figured, I’m not happy sober and I’m not happy drunk, but I need to get out of the pain that I’m feeling,” he recalls. “So I found myself at home one night with a bottle of champagne. Usually I would’ve gotten rid of it. But a friend of mine had started drinking again, and it seemed to be workin’ well for him! So I thought, God, keep an eye on me; here we go! I proceeded to go out and tear up the world for a good two-year run. I mean, I was insane.

“Eventually, as these things do, you feel lower and lower, you begin to do more and more. Because you need to escape—and you wind up at a place where you shouldn’t be, on Wilshire Boulevard with a group of people you shouldn’t be with.”

According to Slater, the “protector” of Michelle Jonas was hardly that. “This guy Jacques made an advance on me that I was not comfortable with. And I ended up acting out in a much more drug-induced violent capacity than I would have if I were actually thinking clearly and rationally.”

“But Michelle got hit as well, didn’t she?”

Here, Slater struggles a bit and, unusually, resorts to the passive voice in his recount. “In the… Listen, I can only report, because I was in a blackout. In my attempt to get out and to leave this apartment, the girl grabbing hold of me—and that is her description.… Look, I would never in my existence harm another human being, let alone a woman! So. This was a source of great shame for me—that in leaving, in my head, thinking I’m trying to save my life, she was…hit…in the process of me exiting.

“I was stopped in the stairwell,” he adds. “I didn’t know who the cops were, what the cops were. From what I’m told, I thought they were Germans and that they were comin’ after me. But as far as I know, I did try to grab the cop’s gun. There’s no question I’m very fortunate to be alive.”

Sentenced to ninety days, Slater promptly moved into Promises, the now famous rehab facility, and spent a full 118 days there before being bused off to California’s LaVerne Jail. He thinks of the rehab time as an extraordinarily happy period in his life; first off, he’d been expecting a hospital wing, and yet here was “this gorgeous house in Malibu where they cook the food for you and you meet nice people.” And back in those days, he points out cryptically, “there were some very funny people there,” adding that some of those very funny people have since died.

The rehab, in a curious way, braced him for his jail time—which itself was lonely and confusing. Still, there was some structure. He liked his cellmate. He performed his duties: picking up spent shells off the shooting range; cleaning vomit out of cells and off the backseats of police cars; getting spiritual. He was released from LaVerne after fifty-nine days for “good behavior,” which he defines as “all about humility—really, about not being an asshole in there.”

Back at Promises, Slater was still able to work. Nights, he’d go off and shoot Very Bad Things, which explains so much about the psychopathic character he plays in that film. “One of the things I liked about the character was that he had a Tony Robbins quality about him,” he recalls. “So I listened to a bunch of Tony Robbins’s tapes. And I was on cloud nine after listening to these things! I would walk into a room like I had a Superman cape on. That’s one of the things he says in there. And it really played well with the character. It’s a complete and utter perversion of what Tony Robbins’s teachings are, but at the time, it was fantastic.”

“Did you walk out of LaVerne thinking, I’ll never touch anything ever again?” I ask. “Have you been sober ever since?”

Slater doesn’t miss a beat and counters with a remorseful lilt: “Nope!”

So there have been the relapses, and the occasional strange mentions in the press of Slater misbehaviors. There was a 2004 incident in which the actor was ejected from a London strip club because he refused to take off a Nixon mask; there was no arrest. He was just creeping out the dancers.

The next year, in the wee hours one morning, he was arguing with his then girlfriend in Manhattan when, inexplicably, he groped a 52-year-old woman.

“Chances are I did it,” he says. “But I can’t confirm it, because I was in a blackout. If I did it, I certainly apologize to the lady I was inappropriate with. In my right mind, which I was clearly not in, I would never behave that way.”

Like every nightmare, this one had its punch line. The police released Slater in time to make his curtain for The Glass Menagerie, in which he was starring across from Jessica Lange at the time (having had only nine days to prepare after the original actor took leave). Slater is certain that several members of the audience showed up just to see if he could weather it and speak the opening lines about having “tricks in my pocket” and “things up my sleeve.”

In this mad rain forest of detail Slater offers now about his misdeeds, he’s equally insistent that the man he’s describing is not the man sitting across from you. To reduce him to a rap sheet would be to reduce him. “I don’t want to leave you with the idea that this is the culmination of my life,” he insists. “We talk about this stuff, we can focus on this, but I can also say that havin’ those experiences, they’re an infinitesimal part of my experiences.”

aside from Slater’s public demons—the ones that are too easily set into tabloid type—there were always demons too gray to make the daily sheets. “Why do I feel so lost?” he recalls thinking. “I saw that one of the things I really particularly felt most insecure about was education. You know, especially after having two children. I want them to go to high school, I want them to go to college—and if I was going to insist on that, I needed to at least graduate high school, which I had never done! When I would do interviews and the subject of education would come up, I would feel insecure and uncomfortable.” So he hired a tutor, sat in this classroom with a bunch of 16-year-old kids, took his GED test over three days, and did rather well, except for the math category.

And until six or eight years ago (he’s not so good on the dates), he says he felt like he’d been “getting away with murder in my career all this time—just being instinctual, showing up for work, having a good time.” The rap on him was that he was less an actor than an impressionist. That the Hollywood black hearts couldn’t hoard enough Jack Nicholson and so were trying to sell off a spare. Oh, he was talented and charismatic, but he was a Backup Jack all the same. It was a cheap shot, but that was the accusation.

So he found an acting coach—and after getting torn to shreds a few times, he learned about immersing himself in a role. The most delicious irony for Slater, one to which he won’t fully own up, is that the Nicholson tag has been cut from around his neck at long last—because of Slater’s two highly successful runs in, of all things on this earth, a 2004 West End production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, playing Randle P. McMurphy.

Slater tells me he still occasionally gets the Nicholson comment. “The funny thing is,” he says, “when I now tell people I did a production of Cuckoo’s Nest, they ask me what part I played! That’s what surprises me the most.”

The production was hardly free of complications. The original director left after a week, reasons not given, and never returned. To make matters worse, in an art form where collaboration is the key, Slater contracted chicken pox and spent weeks in quarantine, rehearsing with a bunch of chairs in a Leith hotel room and hoping to be ready to open at the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

“For an adult, chicken pox isn’t just a problem because of the vanity of the spots,” he says. “You really feel like hell. You’re sweating—dying! The producer came to me and said, ‘We’ve got to open the show, maybe put the understudy on.’ I said, ‘If you’ve got to put it on, no way are you using the understudy.’ So I suited up. Everyone hit their marks, and it worked great. At the curtain call, I was drenched. I was thrilled to get to the end of it.”

“Not only that,” he adds, “but we came back and did it again a year later at the Garrick in London. At the end of the last performance, I did a stage dive into the audience! All the people carried me around. I trusted ’em. Just took my boots off and dove out there. I know I could be sued, whatever. I’ve got to be the first actor in the history of London theater ever to have done a stage dive.”

the education of Christian Slater, late in coming, seems to have worked a wonder. The study of acting grounded him, after many years of feeling like an impostor, and opened his eyes to what his friends and his father had been doing all this time. “I remember four or five months into acting in Cuckoo’s Nest, and backstage hearing actors saying, ‘We’ve got to do this again,’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘You know what? We get to do this again!’ So I was finally passionate about it in the right way. Which pretty much brings me to where I am today.”

And so after two years in Britain, Christian Slater is local again and glad for it. He doesn’t need to communicate with his children on iChat. He’s going to be working twelve-hour days on a show that many smart people have bled for. So his plan is to show up prepared, to eat right—and to drink masses of water.
“Speaking of which, I’ve got to use the loo,” he says urgently. “It’s been eighteen glasses, and my bladder really hurts.”

After a few more words between us, Slater is standing a few feet away and, to the secret delight of the other patrons, he is actually twisting one leg around the other as if he simply can’t hold it any longer. He’s not two personalities but a matured double helix of a man putting his best foot forward and aiming it squarely at the men’s room.

“Is it that bad?” I call out.

Slater, squirming upright, replies, “It’s that bad.”

A few lazy minutes later, having paid our tab, I pop into the lavatory myself. To my surprise, Christian Slater is only now on his way out, very much relieved of his troubles. “Ha!” he says, jabbing an accusing finger at me. “I knew you’d end with this! Oh well. It’s cute.”

marshall sella is a GQ correspondent.


Toronto Film Festival: Thursday, September 11

Friday  September 12, 2008

Toronto Film Festival: Thursday, September 11

Since I'm pretty much mumbling my way to the exits at this point—Air Canada? My home and native land, please—it made sense to me to wrap things up with a zombie movie. Well, two, but Richard (Notes on a Scandal) Eyre’s The Other Man only qualifies inadvertently.

Looking as haggard as if he’s whittled himself from his own coffin before setting off to kill and eat his agent, Liam Neeson plays the embittered husband of a sensational parody of Laura Linney—played, I’m afraid, by Laura Linney—who discovers that his loving better half’s been sporking it up with Antonio Banderas for years on the sly after wifey goes mysteriously missing from their swank London abode. In a modest footnote to film history, this must be the only time Banderas has ever been cast as somebody named Ralph. He pronounces it “Rafe,” but that’s just another clever hint that he too is actually lurching at us from the land of the Hollywood undead.

Once he’s tracked Banderas to his lair in Milan—c’mon, where’d you expect the Other Man to live, Poughkeepsie?—Neeson plays a complicated game of chess with his quarry. You innocents probably think I don’t mean that literally, but guess again. “Is dat the Queen’s Indian Defense?” Ralph asks in a café where our avenging hubby’s grimly working on his knight moves, then sits down to have it out rook to rook. Of course, poor Ralph doesn’t, y’know, Know. But the coffin splinters in Neeson’s eyes get all spiky.

Even though you keep hoping you’ll spot Linney’s own agent’s brains dribbling out of a corner of her mouth, the real horror is that being undead has apparently wiped out her human memories. She no longer remembers that she’s played this part about 15 freaking times in the past decade, so she gets busy cranking up that chain-yanking smile and those trembly mood-ring eyes as if somebody’s just explained to her for the first time what “a Laura Linney part” is like and she thinks it sounds spiffy.

One brief moment of relief comes when we get to see her topless (and blessedly mute) in a snapshot commemorating her languid days with Ralph in Poughkeepsie—sorry, Lake Como. But I’d already gnawed off my own leg by then. It wasn’t even in a trap, I just felt like it.

Named for the Ontario backwater where it’s set, which was apparently settled by French semioticians, Bruce McDonald’s wonderful Pontypool is a very different kettle of flesh-eaters. Not only is it a for-real zombie flick, and a somehow ultra-Canadian zombie flick to boot. It’s one that you and your weird kid sis the linguistics major can both get off on, and definitely the wittiest movie I’ve seen here all week.

Steven McHattie plays grizzled talk-radio host Grant Mazzy—think Rip Torn doing Don Imus—who’s manning the microphone on a snowbound Valentine’s Day when weird reports of riots and berserk behavior start to filter through. (Among other things, the local ice-fishing contest has turned out badly.) And oh, yeah: the perps are all speaking gibberish, too.

Except for one brief, very funny Wisconsin Death Trip sequence illustrating Mazzy’s reading of the day’s obituaries—which go on and on—we never leave the station’s confines, which keeps most (not all) of the carnage no more than terrifying hearsay. That’s also the right word for it, since Mazzy and his producer (Lisa Houie) eventually get clued in that the cause of the dementia is the English language itself, which has gone viral and now makes random words—especially endearments—trigger gory insanity.

In one hilarious bit, they resort to speaking rusty French to throw the oncoming ghouls off the track. But then “O Canada” bursts from the station’s loudspeakers—and, well, so much for that. It’s a joke that even McDonald’s fellow Canadian, Guy Maddin, wouldn’t turn up his nose at. And to think that when I called our northern neighbor “the other white-meat country” a day or two back, I was under the impression I was joking.

And that’s about it. If you care, my picks for the cream of the festival’s crop, besides Pontypool, run as follows: Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Desplechin’s Un Conte de Noel, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The one whose likely slew of glowing reviews I’d advise you to mistrust is Rachel Getting Married. The one the good-hearted, eternally hopeful people of Toronto are still sitting through as I write, wondering what they did to deserve this and whether their grandchildren will have to take over before the hero finally meets his (film-) maker, is Che. Damn, but I hope they make it to lunch. Just not in Pontypool, though.

Toronto Film Festival: Wednesday, September 10

Thursday  September 11, 2008

Toronto Film Festival: Wednesday, September 10

About the only thing that Spike Lee’s bewildering new World War II epic isn’t is a musical, and you come out wondering why he didn’t just toss in a couple of Puccini arias or clap-your-hands gospel singalongs for the hell of it. Neither insert would violate the premise. From where I sit, one reason Miracle at St. Anna clocks in at a distended 166 minutes is that it’s at least three movies.

None of them is much good or displays more than a bus-stop level of acquaintance with the other two. The jump-off material about an African-American infantry unit with frothing-redneck officers in Tuscany in 1944 is just Spike in pure dogmatic mode, too steamed at white racism to tell us a single interesting thing about it. The interlarded episodes involving Germans and Italian partisans are a cue-the-Puccini version of neorealist master Roberto Rossellini’s much rawer Open City and (especially) Paisan. As for the “miracle” of the title, which I never did figure out—the message seems to be that if you befriend an adorable war orphan, you’d better hope he’s rich as Croesus when you get in trouble 40-odd years later—it could just as easily fit an all-white unit in Normandy or on Alpha Centauri in an episode of, respectively, Combat or The Twilight Zone. But Rod Serling would never have been this Capracorny about it.

Just two years ago, Lee’s expertly New Yorkified thriller Inside Man seemed to indicate that he’d finally settled for being the very smart director he can be when he isn’t thumping a tub. (If that sounds like a comedown to you, let me point out that there are many worse contributions to our common happiness.) But in Miracle at St. Anna, he thinks he’s making some kind of Oscar-friendly big statement, and the basics of his craft seem to have eluded him. Not only is the staging often baroquely flat-footed, but the characterizations and mood are full of baffling little discrepancies that you expect will be dramatically resolved until you realize he’s just selling the moment.

Since he wouldn’t be the Spike we know if he didn’t also take full advantage of the opportunity to give black audiences the kind of World War II movie he’s still angry they were deprived of in, oh, 1962—and doesn’t realize that just means he’s showing his age—the corn hits your eye like a big pizza pie. That includes the venerable rule (I think it was in Ike’s D-Day message) that whenever our GIs barge into a European town, large or small, the sexiest girl they lay eyes on is also guaranteed to be the only local who happens to have brushed up on her English and can help them reach their goal in her sorrowful, cryptically tragic way. As one of Lee’s near contemporaries, I might as well admit that I started rolling my eyes at that chick around 1965, but I hadn’t hit puberty yet.

Spike sure does plan ahead, though. When he got into his public pissing match with Clint Eastwood this spring over the short shrift given African-Americans’ wartime role in Flags of Our Fathers—a movie that hasn’t exactly been festering in the public’s consciousness since its 2006 release—few people can have caught on that he was just making sure we’d watch his own upcoming war flick in a suitably cowed frame of mind. (Not that I thought much of Clint’s “He should shut his face” reply; you expect more tone from him, if nothing else.) Now Spike’s already telling interviewers that the spat may cost him an Oscar nomination for Miracle, and I only wish he’d shown half as much cunning making the movie as he is in hyping it. Still, you’ve got to hand it to him for being a real gentleman—he says he’s just quoting his wife.

Other than that, though, the festival is winding down, leaving dutiful dudes like me scouring the screening schedule for any leavings we can use to justify our per diems. I struck out this morning with Kelly Reichhardt’s Wendy and Lucy, 80 minutes of Amerindie anomie starring Michelle Williams as a doleful vagabond who loses her dog in a small Oregon town. Some reviewers love it, but I think it’s stilted from start to finish—one of those movies where the heroine’s behavior is full of unexplained arrogance, the result of the filmmakers having internalized the idea that she’s the only character who matters and everyone else is a stooge. The ending is fairly effective in an Old Yeller kind of way, but a lot of people had walked out by then. I watched them go with sullen envy, trying to imagine the heaven it would be to actually have something better to do.

Far more promising, which is the only judgment I can make—it’s still officially a “work in progress”—is Jean-Francois Richet’s Public Enemy Number One: The Origins. The first half of a two-part epic about France’s legendary Seventies gangster, Jacques Mesrine, who was gunned down in a Bonnie and Clyde-style ambush by Paris cops in 1979, at one level the movie would really like to be a French Scarface. But since I’m no admirer of the de Palma Scarface—yeah, so frigging sue me, jerkoff—I’m glad to report that it’s better than that. For one thing, I can watch Vincent Cassel, whom you know best but shouldn’t as the baddie in Ocean’s Twelve, in damn near anything. And Gerard Depardieu—who wanted to play Mesrine himself in leaner days, but in his rotundity has settled for playing the hero’s mentor in crime instead—is more commanding than he’s been in years.

One big entry that I’d already seen at Cannes was Synecdoche, New York, the directorial debut of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman. Because Charlie the director turns out to be predictably over-indulgent of Charlie the writer’s ideas, it rambles and divagates all over the map, but it’s got more sharp jokes and affecting moments than many a more shapely movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director who wins a MacArthur while staging Death of a Salesman and devotes the next couple of decades to mounting a vast play regurgitating the story of his life—also Death of a Salesman, but he doesn’t know that until the final frames. It’s a sign of Kaufman’s erratic control that he lets Hoffman get too monotonous, but people like Catherine Keener and Hope Davis keep popping up to poke things along. All I can say is that, flaws or no flaws, I’d rather sit through Synecdoche again than 8 ½.

Toronto Film Festival: Tuesday, September 9

Wednesday  September 10, 2008

Toronto Film Festival: Tuesday, September 9

“ELECTION ENVY?” a headline in some Canadian paper wondered yesterday. In case you don’t know, the Other-White-Meat Country is currently ramping up to an election of its own—pitting incumbent Conservative Stephen Harper, who looks like he once played Sandy Duncan’s boyfriend on a forgotten sitcom, against Liberal Stephane Dion, who apparently is not related to Celine. Even here, though, they’d rather talk about ours, which I’m starting to seriously miss myself—the buzz, those punting pundits, the way Cindy McCain looks as if she spends her spare time watching Dynasty reruns and snickering at how much they got wrong. But enough of asking for your pity.

The box-office jinx on movies that deal with the Iraq war is so notorious by now that Kathryn Bigelow’s terrific The Hurt Locker has all the odds stacked against it for other reasons besides its terrible title. Anyone who’s ever seen Bigelow’s work can probably tell you that protest flicks aren’t her thing. With her old-fashioned belief that the point of action is to expose character, she’s just drawn to hard but flawed people in high-risk situations, and lucky her for stumbling across journalist Mark Boal’s embedded reports on life with an army bomb-disposal squad. There can’t be many jobs more stressful than dismantling IEDs in the streets outside Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Jeremy Renner, who in this role is a whiz at treating his own dialogue as a mere impediment to eloquently showing us how masculinity works, plays Sgt. Will James, the new team leader in a three-man unit with just 38 days left to go until their company is rotated back Stateside. As the calendar counts down, we watch them coping with one nerve-wracking crisis after another, from defusing a car bomb to defusing a human one. They’re the go-to guys in an environment where literally anything can explode.

Each episode is a marvel of protracted tension—one sequence of a desert ambush, especially, is about as expertly staged as these things get, with no visual information aside from what the characters themselves can spot—and yet the point is always to peel away another layer of the men’s psychologies. As the nerves of first one and then the other of his teammates (Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie, both first-rate) start to fray under the strain, we’re left to ponder the enigma of what makes taciturn solitaries like James seem born for this line of work—even at the price, which they themselves may regret but can’t do much about, of being shut out from what most of the rest of us think makes life worth living.

At one level, Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) is J.D. Salinger on steroids, all about a dysfunctional—but musical—upper-bourgeois family in a provincial French city whose members gather for a Yuletide reunion after Maman (Catherine Deneuve) announces she’s about to kick the bucket. But Desplechin is a filmmaker who can reinvent the ordinary, and the movie is a smorgasbord of inventive direction and ensemble acting, full of odd hops and surprise jokes and off-kilter confrontations out of the blue. One standout in the first-rate cast is Desplechin’s favorite actor and the paralyzed antihero of Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Matthieu Almaric, who plays the scapegrace son and will be soon coming to a few thousand screens near you as the new Bond villain. The other is (duh) Deneuve, who at 65 has been a movie legend for over four decades and still effortlessly slips into behaving as if she doesn’t know it.

After the misfire of Where the Truth Lies, Atom Egoyan is clearly eager to get back in people’s good graces by setting up in business at the old stand, and Adoration is the result. The muddled story of a Middle East-born French teacher (Arsinee Khanjian, aka Mrs. Egoyan) and her disturbed star pupil is an almost puppyishly hopeful blend of contemporary touchstones: not only does Egoyan want say something about Islam vs. the West, but he’s panting to let us know he’s up to speed on today’s hip kids and their Internets. It’s pretty much balderdash, but the whole thing does slide by fairly painlessly.

American Swing is a documentary by Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart about Plato’s Retreat, New York City’s notorious swingers’ palace back in the anything-goes 1970s, and its nice-Jewish-boy founder, Larry Levenson. Despite the (often none too comely) naked bodies writhing in the grubby period footage, the tone isn’t prurient but touching; the filmmakers are smart enough to recognize that this was essentially Long Island and the Jersey suburbs’ way of clambering aboard the sexual-revolution bandwagon, with chats about carpooling and bar mitzvahs between orgies. Levenson himself, who was driving a cab by the time he died at 62, is pretty touching, too—one more of those pathetic would-be Gatsbys that America’s entrepreneurial culture tosses up like flotsam. If someone doesn’t seize on the doc as material for an acted feature, I’ll be surprised.

Last up today was Religulous, Bill Maher’s satiric doc on the asininity of religion, with Larry Charles—who did Borat—behind the camera. It stays very funny for a good hour or so, as Bill genially spars with all sorts of believers (the beefy congregation at a truckers’ chapel, the amiable dude who plays Jesus at a Bible-oriented theme park). He’s especially charmed, as I was myself, by a couple of cranky priests at the Vatican who share his contempt for fundamentalism. But then, all too predictably, he gets solemn and starts to fight fire and brimstone with fire and brimstone, announcing (from a hilltop!) that we need to “grow up—or die” right after he’s attacked the way Christian and Islamic extremists both hunger for Armageddon. When even atheists start warning us about the End Times, you know the virus is catching.

Toronto Film Festival: Monday, September 8

Wednesday  September 10, 2008

Toronto Film Festival: Monday, September 8

Sample dialogue between two movie critics with very different sets of synapses after a mammoth screening of Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, 4-1/2 hour biopic of Ernesto “Che” Guevara at Cannes four months ago: “But it was so uninvolving,” I moaned, at which my doughty pal Glenn looked reproachful. “Except cinematically,” sez he.

That’s pretty much Che in a nutshell. Not, mind you, that anyone who sat through it either back in May or here in Toronto is betting U.S. theatergoers are likely to see the thing the uncommercial way Soderbergh planned: as two separate releases, at least making a bathroom break (yes, we poor bastards got one at both festivals) unnecessary. Part one, The Argentine, follows Che from skirmish to skirmish during his time as Fidel Castro’s left-hand man in the fight to overthrow Batista. The sequel, The Guerilla, deals with his doomed attempt to ignite a revolt in Bolivia in 1967.

As a few hordes of commentators have already noted, the most convenient thing about this structure is how casually it skips over the most murderous period of Che’s career: the years he spent helping Castro transform Cuba into the dictatorship we still know today, overseeing hundreds of executions that cost the revolution the world’s good will and helping to push the country into the USSR’s orbit. That was whenever, in his ostensible role as finance minister, he wasn’t too busy shredding the island’s long-suffering economy into tatters. Most historians agree that even Fidel, if not especially Fidel, wasn’t sorry to see the back of him.

All the same, to accuse Soderbergh of sanitizing history assumes that he’s got any special interest, rooting or otherwise, in Guevara as a political figure or even a character. What’s most bizarre about the movie is the evidence that he doesn’t. Instead, it’s one of his most maddeningly abstract exercises in filmmaking for filmmaking’s sake, all about how meticulously he can stage and cut scenes whose human dimension he plainly doesn’t give a damn about.

Always Soderbergh’s least attractive side, this blinkered, tech-happy approach is especially perverse when his subject is Che Guevara—a 20th-century totem, after all, even to those of us who despise him. (If you’re curious, democracy-minded lefties like me despise him more intimately than right-wingers ever could.) The director clearly has no investment in Cuba, the cold war, the Sixties or even his hero’s personality, which means you’ve got to feel for Benicio del Toro.

For better or worse, del Toro has wanted to play this idiot part for a decade. Now he’s stuck doing it for a director who can’t be bothered with so much as giving Che a single interesting attitude, let alone illuminating whatever made him tick. Doing his best to compensate, the actor has to settle for occasionally flashing an impish grin during Che’s speeches to rifle-clutching sad sacks between hikes. The great and maybe unconscious joke is that the movie’s Castro, who’s depicted as a cold-hearted shrewdie skilfully manipulating his enthusiastic lieutenant, looks and acts quite a bit like Soderbergh himself.

For whatever it’s worth, Part II is better than Part I, turning Che’s Bolivian misadventure into a left-wing version of Walkabout that doesn’t gloss over the peasants’ indifference to his summons or mythologize his shamble toward death. Still, you’ve got to wonder some about the priorities of a moviemaker who brightens up in interviews about Che whenever he gets to yammer on about the miraculous new camera whose invention solved his technical quandaries in the nick of time.

But life does go on, and so do critics—in my case, off to Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom while my colleagues endured all 262 minutes of Soderbergh's arid guided tour. Wouldn’t it be swell if I could tell you it was everything Che wasn’t? Yeah, well. An encyclopedia couldn’t fit in everything Che wasn’t. What’s wrong with Brothers Bloom could fit on a postcard.

Adrien Brody and poor Charlie Brown—I mean, Mark Ruffalo (see yesterday’s entry)—play the title roles, two con-artist siblings whose plan for their ultimate caper is to trick an eccentric millionairess (Rachel Weisz) into parting with a ton of her spare Benjamins. Geez, do you suppose one of them could fall in love with her for real, messing up the perfect score? Movies like this are nearly always too archly pleased with themselves for me to feel much like joining in, but it would sure help to cast actors who’ve got a a sense of high style and are under no illusion they’ve been hired to play human beings. Ruffalo will likely cling to that illusion until CSI: Spokane comes a-knocking and makes his agent happy, and Brody, you know: he won an Oscar for playing a Holocaust survivor, for Christ’s sake. The difference is that now he suffers smugly—or smuffers, as one colleague put it.

Since this is only director Rian Johnson’s second outing (he did the well-regarded Brick in 2005), it does seem a bit unhealthy for him to be indulging himself this way. Not only does he Wes Anderson things up with twee chapter titles and visual gambols in costly tourist locales, but the whole tale is a thuddingly over-explicit equation of con artists with creative ones—not the freshest idea—that ends up as the most self-flattering mea culpa imaginable for the director’s own gamesmanship. Full of uninviting nostalgia for a twelve-year-old’s idea of sophistication, this is basically The Sting gone arty, and it’s so sure it’s charming that you may want to pull a birthday cake over your head until somebody whispers it’s safe to come out.

Miles better is Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, whose Golden Lion win at Venice last week helped turn it into one of the festival’s most mobbed screenings. Mickey Rourke, who can probably identify but doesn’t lean on our awareness of the fact, plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who’s a good quarter-century past his Eighties prime but still climbs into the ring to give his bloody but undaunted all for the loyalists who remember him. His love interest is Marisa Tomei as a stripper who’s getting too long in the tooth to keep flaunting it; Evan Rachel Wood is his estranged daughter.

The material is familiar, but the treatment has uncommon integrity and the setting is fresh. (It’s no surprise that the real wrestlers who appear opposite Rourke have terrific camera presence and a camaraderie he’s got no trouble fitting into.) The movie plays out as a straight character study right up to the end, when The Ram’s final bout—against a baddie stage-named “The Ayatollah” whom he bested at the Garden back in Ronald Reagan’s day— turns the story into a surprisingly affecting, non-triumphalist tribute to a battered but game American generation. Aronofsky’s last film, The Fountain, was pure fantasy; this one is solid all the way through, even as it reminds us that solid ain’t necessarily the same thing as earthbound.

Toronto Film Festival: Sunday, September 7

Monday  September 08, 2008

Toronto Film Festival: Sunday, September 7

Jersey Girl aside, it’s been years since Kevin Smith has made a movie that wasn’t derived from his own career—a process of fanboy-friendly creative inbreeding that first reared its head as early as 1997’s Chasing Amy, which was only his third time at bat. The big exception was Dogma, which I know was a mess but I still hoped marked Kevin’s discovery that the great big world out there is just full of subjects for screenplays—including, perish the thought, ontology. Fat chance.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno is no exception. At one level, this comedy about two old high-school non-sweethearts who do what the title says they do does betray a certain, um, anxiety about reminding us that Smith used to be Judd Apatow, from the dialogue’s bid to out-raunch Superbad to borrowing the Apatow gang’s poster boy, Seth Rogen, and 40-Year-Old Virgin alum Elizabeth Banks as the male and female leads. But it isn’t really about raunch, and it definitely isn’t about sex—a topic that leaves Kevin, though he tries, as inhibited as ever. For the record, even the movie’s grossest visual gag isn’t, technically speaking, a sex joke; it’s a poop joke.

Instead, Zack and Miri is blatantly about Smith’s barely disguised sentimental memories of making Clerks without a budget back in the day—a day he already revisited just two years ago with Clerks II. It’s about Kevin the movie nerd and Star Wars freak (the gang’s first try is a takeoff called Star Whores, which a skeptic might protest is a mite, you know, passé). And of course, it’s about what a big softy he is not so far deep down: If hearing that Zack and Miri discover they’re each other’s one and only counts as a spoiler in your book, you’ve led a sheltered life. On top of that, when Zack is in low spirits at one point, Darryl Robinson even delivers a speech reminding him of the new lease on life he’s given the sorry bunch of losers he’s recruited.

I know that Rogen is everybody’s favorite shlub these days, but the downside is that now he’s aware of it—and it’s making him less relaxed. This is the first project he’s tackled in the full knowledge that he’s a big star, and behaving as if he knows he’s under pressure to deliver is the opposite of what we like him for. As for Banks, she’s very winning, and the movie does include some funny bits along the way. But it doesn’t get Smith out of his own fuzzy head, which is good news for the fanboys but not so hot for the rest of us.

All the same, Zack and Miri is a lot less egregious than Fernando Meirelles’s Blindness, based on Jose Saramago’s novel and this year’s version of the Big Enigmatic Statement About Our Modern Confusions that no self-respecting film festival can do without nowadays. They could if they were me-respecting, but that’s just the cranky side of my festivalitis coming out.

In an unnamed city—actually Toronto itself plus São Paulo, a combination for the ages—a mysterious epidemic (of festivalitis, you could say) leaves saintly Julianne Moore as the only sighted person still standing. Danny Glover, Sandra Oh, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Lucy-with-the-football specialist Mark Ruffalo—watching the hope of stardom die in his face year after year would bring out the Charles M. Schultz in anybody—turn up as various stick-figure stand-ins representing our time’s hypocrisy, brutality, wise Negritude, etc. Welcome to The Incredible Journey—but with people, who blather on a lot more about the meaning of it all than Disney’s practical-minded animals ever did.

The movie does look impressive if you’re impressionable, since Meirelles does have an eye (he did City of God). But what’s interesting is that even the people who fell for, say, Babel aren’t falling for this one: It’s too self-importantly vapid even for them. But since I’ve been loyally boosting Julianne Moore for years, I felt kind of a dirty thrill when I realized about midway through that now I think she’s excruciating. When she falls in love with her own glow in one of these masochistic Joan of Arc parts, she’s as cuckoo as Joan Crawford—and even more convinced that she’s doing the movie a favor by lending it her ethereal greatness. It makes her damn near unwatchable.

Meirelles’s fellow Brazilian, Bruno Baretto, is here with Last Stop 174, which invents a back story for the five-hour standoff between a crazed hostage-taker on a bus and Rio’s cops that transfixed the country back in 2000. Since Baretto is kind of a simp, said back story is loaded with Meaning, telegraphed by repeated shots of the famous statue of Christ getting ready to take home the gold for Brazil’s Olympic diving team that overlooks the city (I have to admit I never knew he sported such a natty little crown of thorns). But the mean-streets incidents are absorbing, and the performances, by some uncommonly talented and magnetic Brazilian actors—especially Chris Vianna as the hero’s long-suffering mother and City of God alum Marcello Meles, Jr., as his give-us-Barabbas doppelganger—are excellent.

My last film for the day was Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, starring Sally Hawkins as an insouciant London schoolteacher who drives more crabbed folks up the wall with her chipper outlook on life. Leigh has never been a huge favorite of mine, and the movie of his I like best—the Gilbert and Sullivan-inspired Topsy Turvy—is his least typical. As renowned as he is for his open-ended work methods—generating a script from group improvs with his cast—the contradiction is that he’s a despot at imposing his point of view, which is the opposite of freewheeling. Though Hawkins is often fetching, she isn’t really playing a character; she’s playing an attribute, designed to come into conflict with other, more lugubrious windup toys—including the heroine’s killjoy sister, who pops up in one deadly sequence to reprise every cliché about this sibling’s uptight adulthood vs. that one’s giddy live-for-today outlook in something like 10 minutes flat. Our gal proves she’s the smart one by ending up with a hunk with impeccable Leigh-land credentials (he’s a kindly, thoughtful social worker) for a boyfriend, which turns the movie into Bridget Jones’s Diary without the Shavian ironies.

Toronto Film Festival: Saturday, September 6

Monday  September 08, 2008

Toronto Film Festival: Saturday, September 6

Today we’re going international, by which I do not mean Canada. My kickoff screening this morning had me reflecting, not for the first time, that India has the most photogenic poverty in the world. That’s because, like the rest of the country, it can’t help teeming with cultural energy. Take it from a State Department brat who remembers when Mumbai was Bombay that a lot of first-time Western visitors end up too agog to remember they ought to feel appalled.

It’s also what gives the first hour or so of director Danny (Trainspotting) Boyle’s new Slumdog Millionaire a genuinely Dickensian momentum. The social critic in Dickens always got stuck playing second fiddle to his appetite for zesty events and characters, and the same thing happens here. The hero is an orphaned slum kid from one of Mumbai’s humongous shantytowns who ends up as an unlikely contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? When he keeps getting the answers right, the producers arrange to have him charged with fraud and tossed into lockup.

But flashbacks while he’s being interrogated show us how he knows what he knows. Each question he’s answered successfully on the air triggers another learning moment from his turbulent formative years—and if you think there might be a metaphor lurking here for India’s 21st-century transformation from a country with more beggars than cars into a hi-tech get-rich-quick society, you’d be right. It’s not an accident that the picaresque protagonist has grown up to work as a gofer at one of those lilting-voiced telemarketing firms that the age of outsourcing has made us all familiar with.

The drawback of the clever—and hugely entertaining—flashback structure is that the movie loses not only steam but brains once we catch up to the present tense. Then all the plot strands get tied up in a commercial-minded climax that’s a lot more Gumpily effusive than India’s still far from idyllic reality deserves. Even so, most of what leads up to it is so flavorful that it’s hard to complain too much when Boyle finally comes out and admits he’s telling a fairy tale.

In Mexico, by contrast, it still seems just about impossible for any serious filmmaker to tackle his or her society without raising the topic of class privilege, no matter how obliquely. Despite its in-your-face title, Gerardo Naranjo’s Voy a Explotar (translated as I’m Gonna Explode) may do so a tad too obliquely for audiences to get the drift until they’ve had a chance to think about it. The real point of this Romeo and Juliet update is that the boy—a wealthy right-wing legislator’s son—is only playing at rebellion before he ends up just like Dad. The girl, who comes from less cushy surroundings, thinks he really means it—and that’s her tragedy. The problem is that Naranjo is a lot better at working out this theme through subtle visual cues and parallels than he is at figuring out incidents likely to keep us interested in the plot, such as it is. For long stretches, the movie is just too static for its own good. It sure is fun to talk about afterward, though.

Since it starts with one mob rubout and builds to another whose pathetic victims leave us heartsick, with a thoroughgoing expose of the Mafia’s operations in modern-day Naples in between, holding our interest is not a big worry for Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. Derived from a fact-based novel by a journalist who spent time under police protection for all the beans he spilled, it’s very much in the vein of Traffic, with multiple storylines that break down each stage of how organized crime does its thing. But for my money, it’s much better than Traffic; despite the reportorial clarity of Garrone’s hard-edged visual style, it’s epic enough under the skin to qualify as the ultimate anti-Godfather. If and when it gets the U.S. release it deserves, make tracks.

If Gomorrah puts today’s Italy under a microscope, Michael Winterbottom’s Genova is just the good old Italy where glum movie characters go to work out problems that wouldn’t seem anywhere near as picturesque if they’d just stayed the hell home in Chicago. Colin Firth, who’s gotten less tense on camera now that he’s started to age past being the perfect dreamboat for women frightened of rowing, plays some sort of academic—about all I’m sure of is that he doesn’t teach screenplay writing—who relocates his two cute daughters to the title city after their mother is killed in a car crash, confirming yet again that your best bet to have both parents live to a ripe old age on film is to have been homely as a child. The mildly supernatural angle is that the younger girl keeps seeing Mom (Hope Davis) amid the scenery, but she could just as easily be a lamppost or a gelato stand without much effect on the plot. Catherine Keener also turns up as one of Firth’s colleagues, and much as I love her, it’s getting depressing to watch her turn into the hippie Alison Janney. Can’t directors at least once give her something more challenging to do besides laughing that throaty laugh a moment before she looks all wistful at the recognition that life has passed her by?

Known for framing their studies of moral conflicts around lowlifes too brutalized to know a moral issue from a toothbrush until the light dawns, Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been mainstays on the festival circuit for a while, and their last film, L’Enfant, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes two years ago. After their new one screened there in May, I heard grumbles from more than one crit about another dose of the same old-same old. But since I came to the brothers late myself, I thought Lorna’s Silence was just fine.

The heroine is a young Albanian immigrant who’s married a junkie for the sake of Belgian citizenship. She knows a payoff is in store once she’s got her papers and can turn around and do another immigrant the same favor—if, that is, the hubby she’s got will just clear the way by OD’ing. Instead, against her better judgment, she starts feeling sorry for him, which is bad news for the petty mobster who enlisted her in the scam and doesn’t want her to end up welshing.

It may go without saying that jovial the movie isn’t. Even so, the Dardennes are today’s most honorable champions of an idea of cinema that could be due for a comeback—namely, that one thing it’s good for is to show us the workings of parts of society that most of us in a position to afford tickets walk past every day without a second thought. Which might get you wondering—OK, until Mad Men comes on—just who’s really been brutalized.

It probably figures that the one Stateside-set movie on my list all day was all about internal exile. Shot on a budget that makes shoestrings look like a luxury, Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy follows a mismatched-or-are-they pair of brainy young African American singles through the daylong aftermath of a one-night stand in San Francisco, never exactly Soul Central. As they get acquainted, learning that one thing they’ve definitely got in common is that they both like to bicker, issues of black identity play leapfrog with the age-old he’s-from-Mars-and-she’s-from-Venus routine. The set-up’s too schematic by half, but when was the last time you saw a movie whose biggest problem was how many interesting discussions it was trying to find room for? Anyhow, I’m looking forward to Jenkins’s next one as much as I bet Spike Lee isn’t. Spike always did like being the only one on the block.

Toronto Film Festival: Friday, September 5

Monday  September 08, 2008

Toronto Film Festival: Friday, September 5

Ah, Toronto. If glamour’s what you want from a film festival, Cannes still retires the trophy—even though the tinsel’s gotten pretty chintzy there these days. Sundance is just an endurance contest, or so I’m told; wild horses couldn’t drag me to Robert Redford’s Amerindie version of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. But if you just want to gorge on movies in more or less benign surroundings, this is the place.

Not that there’s any such thing as total escape from the gaudiest roller-coaster suspense flick of them all, even here. If only my hotel didn’t get CNN, I wouldn’t have stayed up half of last night wondering what John McCain meant when he told the GOP Convention that his svelte but scary No. 2 “has worked with her hands and nose.” To me, it suggests a whole other scenario for why he picked Palin—why else would he have been interrupted by such wild applause? But I digress.

Get back to the frigging festival, you say? By all means. This morning’s first packed screening was for the latest from Joel and Ethan Coen. Fresh off No Country for Old Men—oh, damn; I swear I didn’t mean to bring up John McCain again—the brothers are clearly determined to disappoint everybody who thinks they’ve Matured.

For somewhat different reasons, I was disappointed myself, partly because Burn After Reading gets off to a promising start with a funny turn by John Malkovich as an old-school (note bow tie) CIA analyst who gets fired from Langley and starts drunkenly writing his memoirs, unaware his starchy wife (Tilda Swinton) is banging another Beltway insider (George Clooney) behind his back. But once Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt turn up as a chowderheaded pair of health-club employees who stumble across a computer disk crammed with Malkovich’s inside dish and figure there’s a payday in it for them, the Coens drop D.C. social satire for their familiar hobby of ridiculing boobs on the make—literally, in McDormand’s case, since breast augmentation is part of the head-to-makeover she hopes to finance with the proceeds. As soon as she chirps “This could put a big dent in my surgeries,” you can feel the freshness leak out of the movie.

I enjoy McDormand in moderation, meaning both mine and hers. But this time out, she’s flashing that fatuous chipmunk grin of hers and popping her eyes for emphasis as if she’s prepping for a Carol Burnett biopic. On his end, Pitt has a couple of very funny bits, but his goofball part depends too much on getting comic mileage out of the incongruity that Brad Pitt is playing this dork—and you don’t much want to see the Coens competing with Ocean’s Fourteen. As for Clooney, he never finds a tone at all.

Waltz With Bashir, on the other hand, is a movie whose smarts are all about locating the right tone and sticking with it. A fascinating bookend to last year’s Persepolis, this is an equally autobiographical animated feature by Israeli director Ari Folman, mapping the guilt, ambivalence and PTSD he and a few middle-aged pals still suffer from thanks to having all served in the military together during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon—and specifically, on the periphery of the Sabra and Shattila massacres, undertaken by Lebanese Falangist militias against Palestinian refugees while Israel looked the other way. For American audiences, the parallel to Vietnam vets’ lost innocence is an eye-opener. Besides, the whole idea of using animation to personalize history and show audiences how subjective memory can be strikes me one of the most interesting cinematic developments around. But since Mel Blanc’s no longer with us, we’ll just have to find someone else to voice John McCain in Half-Baked Alaska.

Since I’d already seen Bashir at Cannes, I was able to hie myself off instead to The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, starring the guy who’s just about my favorite screen actor these days—Kang-Ho Song, whom some of you may remember as the tangerine-haired hero of The Host two years back. South Korea’s emergence as an economic powerhouse has turned its movie industry into a creative hotbed in the past decade or so, and Song is the country’s biggest star. One sign of how good his instincts are is that he always seems to understand what kind of movie he’s in—including this one, a broad-as-a-barn-door action epic that swaps Sergio Leone’s hyperbolic Old West for an equally preposterous 1930s Manchuria. As a thief contending with a glacial hired killer and a saintly bounty hunter from one shootout to the next, he’s predictably expert at providing comic relief, but if you want to see what he can really do, track down Chan-Wook Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance or Chang-Dong Lee’s Secret Sunshine instead. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

Plenty of my colleagues have an abiding soft spot for director Jonathan Demme, but he hasn’t been beloved by me since The Silence of The Lambs turned him 16 years ago from a filmmaker with a real gift for wayward flukiness into a helmer of corrupt big-league movies he turns even more compromised by pretending they’re smart. Starring Anne Hathaway as a misfit responsible for causing a family tragedy in the past who warily emerges from rehab to attend her sister’s nuptials, Rachel Getting Married brings him back to intimate moviemaking—but in such a warmed-over way that you may come out thinking better of Noah Baumbach’s very similar (but superior) Margot at the Wedding. I’d bet anything that, in Jenny Lumet’s original script, the groom’s family wasn’t African American; thematically meaningless, it’s just a way of disguising how stale the material is. For what it’s worth, Hathaway is very good, but the whole thing is so tiresome—with patched-in world-music interludes that are about as relevant to the plot as Act II of The Nutcracker, but let Demme indulge his old Mr. Multiculti Humanist shtick to the hilt—that I doubt anyone will notice.

Tonight was Cannes Camera D’Or winner Hunger, which I might as well admit I was dreading. But this is one brainy, riveting movie by nouveau black Brit Steve McQueen—not “the” Steve McQueen, obviously—about Bobby Sands, the IRA firebrand who starved himself to death during a prison hunger strike in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. What’s both most troubling and most riveting about McQueen’s treatment is that he clearly isn’t in it for the politics; in a Julian Schnabel way, he’s in it for the aesthetic charge of depicting human behavior at its most extreme. But in this case, that’s an improvement on all the plodding movies that have dramatized “The Troubles” for our benefit while wearing their heart on their sleeve, and the results are often harrowing anyway—thanks partly to newcomer Michael Fassbender, who plays Sands as a man so sure he was right that he didn’t care if anyone agreed with him. Not what I’d recommend for Sarah Palin’s first date movie with John McCain, though—you know he’d get all teary, and she’d just be trying to figure out where Ireland is and wondering when Gandalf will show up.