On “Win Win,” “The Conspirator,” and “Jane Eyre”

May 5, 2011.  Over a month since I’ve written.  Where does it all go?  (Most often asked and least answered question in the world!)   In this case … to class prep, and grading, and various compulsive preoccupations around the house.  … to research and application-reading chores and decision-making while seeking new leadership for my favorite theatre group in town.   … to staring at the piles of paper and unopened mail and unpaid bills on my desk, and pondering what’s to be done to postpone significant consequences.  … to the struggle to stay away from sugar and take off a few of the pounds that are challenging my activity and survival rate statistics.  … to debating whether or not to resume singing lessons or risk a return to the stage.  … to stalling and analyzing and ignoring and agonizing over priorities.  … and to questioning my own sanity and worrying over premature “dementia?”  … No, too harsh.  Just a little bit … uh … forgetful, Bill.  And maybe more than a little bit lazy.  And definitely having too damn much fun.

All that being said:  Three recent movies of note:  Jane EyreThe Conspirator, and Win, Win.  Not much to say of the first two.  They delivered.  They are fine films in their own way.  Both about what I expected.  Jane Eyre was beautifully filmed, and the familiar story was faithfully brought to screen in abbreviated form.  Fine, nuanced acting, beautiful photography.  No big surprises.  A little gem of a period piece.

The Conspirator was another period piece I had been particularly looking forward to.  It also delivered exactly what was expected, but little more.  Most in the audience knew that Mary Surrratt was executed for her part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  No surprises to be had there, although enough people thought she was innocent of that crime for books to be written and movies to be made.  I found this one to be a bit stodgy and two-dimensional.  Great pains and a lot of research time were spent to make it historically accurate, I think to a fault, as it left little time for human-ness.  That hasn’t stopped the inevitable nitpicking of Civil War “experts” who rushed out to claim it was not.   It’s not that the film lacks beautiful cinematography; it has.  And it’s not that James McAvoy, (a Scottish actor who has chosen some plum roles lately), Robin Wright, Kevin Kline (masterful as always as the evil Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton), Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meany, and the always reliable Tom Wilkinson and friends fail to turn in fine performances; they do.   But the characters they play are not given much opportunity to be human, or insightful beyond the “historically accurate” words they speak.  It’s a history lesson, and a very good one, but not one that results in much audience “AHA!” or many surprises.  As a drama, it’s full of predictable dialogue, trite phrases and clichéd confrontations.  I’ve long been enthralled by director Robert Redford, obviously.  The man is three years older than I am, and still going strong.  He was clearly obsessed with bringing Surratt’s story to light, even forming a new film company to do it. Why not?   I understand and respect that obsession.  However, without the revelations and layers of subtext, without the humor that must have gotten these people through their day, without the suspense, and most of all without the inner conflicts, and doubts, the empathetic vulnerability that afflicts us all (except perhaps at the hanging scene itself), his film fell flat for me.  It remains yet another story of justice (possibly) gone wrong.  And in these cynical times, that’s kind of like worrying over whether Bin Ladin was executed or killed in self-defense.  Not a lot of people seem to be spending a lot of time concerning themselves over little matters of principle.  … not a good thing.

Win, Win is another story altogether.  Just another sports story of a big win at long odds?  No, not this one.  This is a major gem, despite it’s ad campaign that suggests it  might be “just another” coach story.  We went because Paul Giamatti is the coach, and if you’ve read my earlier comments on Barney’s Version (see April 2 post), you’ll know that Giamatti would draw me into any movie.  And then I find out it was written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also gave us two of my favorite little American films, The Visitor and The Station Agent.  Once again he tells a wonderful small human story, this time of a struggling young wrestler (played by 17-year-old Alex Shaffer) unwillingly recruited by a crooked lawyer and part time coach of a miserably failing wrestling team.   Shaffer, by the way is wonderful, if not much of an “actor,” thanks to a perceptive casting director, but he’s a hell of a wrestler (He won the NJ State wrestling championship).  Broadway star Amy Ryan does a terrific turn as the coach’s wife, so inflexible in her principles, and so flexible in her humanity.  Bobby Canavale is a suitably obnoxious brother, and Burt Young shines as their dementia-afflicted father.   And at the top of his form, as always, is the extraordinary pliable Giamatti, his face forever denying his words, But the best thing about this picture is that there is not a frame of it that’s predictable.  Everyone is inner-conflicted, and never fits into any good-guy-bad-guy category.  Everyone is familiar.  Everyone is very, very funny.   There is no trace of the expected sticky, cloying sentimentality that could have marred such a story and ruined a perfectly fine movie.  There is not a cliché or piece of dialogue in the picture that is not undercut with a surprise or a character twist.   You can’t even guess the outcome of the big wrestling match finale, and in the “sports movie” genre, that may well be a first.

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One Response to On “Win Win,” “The Conspirator,” and “Jane Eyre”

  1. I wish that I could agree with you here about Win Win, but I found more than a little predictability, and a few traces of sentimentality. You are right that everyone is flawed, but the protagonist’s primary flaw is just that he will cut corners (lie and embezzle modestly) in order to protect his family, hardly a profound flaw in the great tradition of flawed characters. Giamatti played a far more flawed character in Barney’s Version, I think.

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