RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 33: Michael Bay’s “The Island” (2005)


The Players…

Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson (here she is again; the girl’s résumé is seeing more holes than a Castro District Taco Bell), Sean Bean, Djimon Honsou and Ethan Phillips, with Michael Clarke Duncan and Steve Buscemi.

The Story…

Everyday is a good day at The Institute. Lincoln 6 Echo has everything provided for him: virtual sunshine, palatable food, tepid friends and a burning need to understand why the f*ck for?!? His supervisors feel his endless questioning might be a sign of mental defect. Then again, no one has ever argued that insanity was ever caused by exposure to a matchbook underneath the umbrella of The Institute. Then again, is seeking escape—and possible freedom—really all that crazy?

The Rant…

Holeeeeey sh*t. He’s actually covering a Michael Bay movie. Fasten your seatbelts.

You’re probably wondering why it took so long to get around to dissecting a movie by one of the industry’s most notorious schlockmeisters. Well cuz under The Standard, a movie had to have a tepid turnout at the box office and a “don’t believe the hype” rep. Bay’s films don’t usually have that. In fact, they clean up most of the time and people squeal about how fun they are.

The Island is the landmark exception that proves the rule.

Look. I’ve been around long enough to know that Bay’s oeuvre obeys a muse designed solely to entertain. She disregards good acting, coherent plot and any sort of pathos in favor of fun, explosions, humor, explosions, drippy acting in the name of fun, more explosions and—what the hell—defying the laws of physics and general common sense to bring us, what, more explosions? No. Making Martin Lawrence an action hero, that’s what’s up.

It’s easy to beat up on Bay. His craft is obvious popcorn fodder. There’s no cinematic merit in his CV. None of his movies are expected nor designed to win awards (barring for F/X or audio). His crap’s supposed to be FUN! And fun with a capital ‘F’ seems to be sorely lacking in other movies according Bay’s philosophy.

He’s right though! Movies are supposed to be, above all and end all, fun! So why does this former music video director (when, if you think about it, who’s more shrewd about action shots that an MTV svengali) get such a bad rap for trying to drum up a little fun?

Because he does it a dumb way. His movies pander to the audiences’ basal wants and eliminate the need to think. No real surprise there. And if his core audience starts to think about what they’re watching, Bay’s checkbook is gonna get limp. Fast. I’d like to believe that most movie directors care equally about their cinematic vision and how the audience would receive it; a give and take, if you will. Not Bay. There’s a general sense of a “make it big, make it loud, lather, rinse, repeat” formula to his movies. That and a healthy, crossed-finger hopefulness that we’ll just throw out the kitchen sink and hope it sticks. Most of the time, honestly, his theory works…for a little while.

The big problem with Bay’s movies, I think is that they don’t let you really feel anything. They’re like chugging six cans of Red Bull, a fleeting rush of stimulus. I’ve never heard of Bay’s movies leaving a lasting impression, or at least a positive one. Unlike, say, James Cameron’s movies of similar spectacle—despite all their bombast—they possess a degree of economy and earnest drama that Bay’s disposable extravaganzas decidedly lack (I consider Cameron as “the thinking man’s Michael Bay”). There’s a reason why people still revere the original Terminator and Aliens; they are memorable for their straightforward, no-nonsense action, simple but nuanced stories and all tempered with humor and human drama. In a word: subtlety, an adjective either Bay doesn’t know the definition of, or chooses not to. Seeing a Michael Bay movie is a lot like cheap sex: it feels good while you’re there, and you might talk about your conquest in a crude way (usually while drunk in bar) the next day, but it eventually slips out of your mind. Until the frantic phone calls come six weeks later.

Kidding. But really, from everyone I spoke to about him or her seeing a Bay film, most say “Eh” after a while. Not outright complaining or resentment, just resignation to, “Yeah. I saw it. Pass the salt.” I used the first Transformers movie here as an example once. A lot of my friends who saw it (and their tastes are varied as there are waves on the ocean) thought it was great. For a while. Then they began to pick it apart in conversation. Oops. They went and stepped back and thought about it. And got ever more scrupulous when the inevitable, ever-limping sequels were released. The law of diminishing returns was put into effect. Nowadays, no one really talks about the movies anymore (even Bay, who in a rare display of humility, traded off responsibility for Age of Extinction to someone else). What is remembered is a bad taste in the mouth. Granted I base this on a small sample of people, but when every one of them has more gripes than not of a particular film—or director—it gets me to wondering.

Let’s recall The Standard. The Island is Bay’s first potboiler that tanked straight outta the box office. A needful first. It got lousy reviews—even more so than those of snobby critics—a poor turnout here in the US (it fared better overseas, and probably recouped a lot in video sales; I did rent the thing after all, but this was in the name of a PSA. You’re welcome.), and probably worst of all it tarnished Bay’s reputation.


“But he already had a lousy reputation!” one might cry. To which you may reply, “Shut up, Dad!” But Dad’s right. It’s an open f*cking secret Bay’s output is trans-fat movie goodness. But it makes money. The Island didn’t. When big budget movies don’t make big money, Hollywood gets nervous. The producers get nervous. Bay’s Loki, Jerry Bruckheimer gets nervous, and might get an idea of cutting his losses and steer his eyes towards the next…well, let’s face it, the next Michael Bay.

Hollywood has dozens of such loss leaders like Bay. Such are disposable. Remember Andrew “Under Siege and The Fugitive” Davies? Neither does the 21st Century, despite the millions he made. Bay is a tent pole director. When the summer season seems bleak, give Bay some willing talking heads, a malleable script and a lot of napalm and BAM! Blockbuster gold. He has a gift, such as even sometimes I cannot deny. But it’s fleeting, like staring a campfire with scraps of bark. Lots of smoke, not heat. Gotta splash on some gasoline, and it burns for a little while longer.

Anyway, off to The Island. Told you to fasten something…

Lincoln (McGregor) has everything he ever could need. A clean apartment. A steady job. Food in the fridge. Fresh sheets. Even a best buddy. Everything. Everything The Institute can provide. But that’s not enough.

Lincoln’s utopian world is lacking something. Life. All is routine and schedules. Sure, he’s got three hots and a cot, but something is missing. That and he does not really feel at home at The Institute, with all its rules and regs. There must be a better life than this, a better world to explore, something more.

Then again, there’s the Lottery. And what’s up with this Lottery?

Ah, yes, that. The big ticket out of The Institute and onto The Island, a virtual paradise free of any infection than the corruption of Nature could imbue. Yes, to Lincoln, that’s the place to go; all questions will be answered there. Right? At least that’s what his supervisor, Dr. Merrick (Bean) assures him.

But Lincoln learns that all is not the land of milk and honey that The Island claims to provide, with its supposed comfort and succor. In fact it is an illusion, a prison of the mind, and Lincoln will have none of that. So he runs. He absconds with the latest Lottery winner Jordan (Johansson) in high pursuit of…what? Answers? Freedom? A real life?

Even Lincoln doesn’t know. All he knows now is to run, run as far as he can away from The Island…

Despite my screeds and my purple prose, I am not a movie snob. Really, I assure you. Excepting the annual February red carpet calling call, I simply like movies as is, awards not only withstanding, but ignored. I actually have enjoyed a few of Bay’s movies. Again, a few. I found Armageddon a great popcorn film, starring stalwart, reluctant action star Bruce Willis and pleasing character actor Billy Bob Thornton (did you know that was his first big role after Sling Blade? Neither did I). I also dug The Rock big time. C’mon. It starred Nic Cage, Ed Harris and Sean Connery! A bountiful trifecta if there ever was one!

Regarding Armageddon, I’m a sucker for any movie about outer space travel, be it drooling nonsense with Owen Wilson as comic relief, the fantasy a la Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or the adapted historical fiction like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff. In simpler words, I’m all about big concepts, and Bay has used those in spades. I’m not so shy to deny spectacle like other movie-going esthetes, be it BIG or subtle. But like with most of the aforementioned titles, I need a little meat on my bones.

Most of Bay’s sh*t only has fat—chewy gristle rather, akin to my cheap, cheap sex line—and it gets pooped out faster than the THC colonic-rattled ass of mine can eject. But still, really, we need that once in a while. I’m not above such things. Dumb fun is still fun at the end of the day. The beef I have with this concept-in-practice, and Bay as a prime culprit, is that a fun movie should stick with you, like a delicious meal. Bay’s films only taste of popcorn, coated with that viscous slime known only as “butter-flavored topping.” It makes you fart a lot hours after consumption. Hours after consuming Bay’s popcorn, you would be farting too, only out of the mouth. Like I said, a year after Transformers release, no one was talking kindly much. Only farting gripes.

I have two big carps with The Island. One is purely about entertainment value, but I’ll save that for later. The other issue I take is that The Island is not original. Yeah, I know, I know. None of Bay’s scripts are. But this time I mean really not original, like the plot was lifted in full from another film, the original writers never credited. The guys who brought you Fringe wrote The Island. I’ll admit I’m a fan of that X-Files-meets-The Twilight Zone serial. I’ll also admit the show had so many plot holes one could drive a Mack truck through the first three seasons. Still, it was a goofy sci-fi lark that if you just went along for the ride, you’d get some entertainment. If it wasn’t for another cult show I wouldn’t have realized the plagiarism at work in The Island.

Back in the 90s there was this TV show called Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for short). Perhaps you’ve heard of it. For the uniformed, MST3K was a show about comedy writers (okay, one writer and a bunch of puppets) mocking and heckling sh*tty B-movies with improv and wisecracks. Pretty simple device, got lots of laughs. One of the movies they skewered was a drippy sci-fi action flick called Parts: The Clonus Horror. The plot goes like this: we have a clandestine super-science lab where the men in white coats are growing human clones as livestock so to harvest their organs for their dying, super wealthy clientele. Of course the clones are ignorant of their design or fate. All they know is exercise and schooling, so that one day they may “graduate” and go to “America.” One clone happens upon a scrap of garbage that looks like no artifact found in the compound and starts asking questions. One question leads to another until the inevitable happens and the rogue clone escapes with his clone gal pal in search of their clients to expose the horrible truth.

Sound familiar?

Clonus was shot back in 1979, a quarter-century before The Island. It was a sh*tty movie then, and the recycled plot isn’t aging well. And Island writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were rightly sued for their penning of this “original” script, causing mass chaos and legal action that drained the studio’s wallet.

Apart from but akin to the plagiarism, one thing in the world I truly detest is deception. Cruel, willful deception, that is. PT Barnum once said that the world wants to be deceived. I’m sure he meant that from an entertainer’s standpoint, furthering his business. With The Island, and others of its ilk, the producers were hoodwinking ignorant audiences into scamming their money. From a businessman’s standpoint. Like I’ve said before—in contrast to Barnum’s philosophy—I firmly believe that Hollywood assumes audiences are idiots; producers do their bread-and-circus thing and watch the disposable income burn up. Clonus was not a blockbuster, and next to no one has ever heard of it, let alone seen it (not even Kurtzman or Orci, allegedly), but to be so lazy and attach a lame stolen project to a usually reliable, sure-fire blockbuster filmmaker like Bay and just figure the unwashed masses would come in droves, ignorance notwithstanding—probably not ever caring—is incredibly cynical and callous. Tinsel Town just flipped the bird to Middle America and waited for the cash to roll in.

Only it didn’t.

The crowds were indifferent and/or befuddled by this lazy movie. Steven Spielberg had to sell off his benighted DreamWorks Studio to compensate for the film’s loss leader status. Kurtzman and Orci were sued. Bay’s already questionable status was reassessed. Much face was lost.

Barnum was also credited to claiming that no one ever went broke by investing in Americans’ ignorance, or something like that. Oops. Let’s hope some Hollywood fat cats learned a valuable lesson. Probably not, since this wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last time a debacle like this drops. Live and learn?

The main issue I take up with The Island is a simple one: the movie is dull. Now again, Bay’s films are never designed to be Academy Award winners. But at least The Rock, Armageddon and Transformers weren’t boring. The Island is simply one long chase scene that runs—so to speak—for over two mind-numbing hours. See Lincoln. See Jordan. See them run. Run, Linc, run! For over. Two. Hours. Me? I ran to the john three times just to move my legs and relieve myself, apropos of the running time. No pun intended there.

Okay, I’ll pull back on the rancor. I’ve already gone into overly great depth as what was wrong with The Island. Most movie snots draw straws to pick out which aspect of the chosen Bay movie was the worst. The matter is moot; we’re talking f*cking Bay here. Rememeber, do not think too much. Here, lemme show ya somthin’.

Just to shake it up some, here’s what I actually liked about the movie. Surprisngly, there was more to like about The Island that would usually be thrown to curb in most of Bay’s movies. Some stuff almost approached cinematic merit, and such merit is often kicked to the curb for Bay’s oeuvre. Most of the time.

First off, there are some nice visuals. The Institute has a definite 1984 or THX-1138 vibe here, all monochrome sterility and angles. Until it’s not. The Institute is in essence a farm, and we expect the livestock to be well cared for. But as we peel back layer after layer of levels and sublevels, the Institute’s sectors get grimier and grimier, the caretakers get less nice, the technology goes from background noise to hostile intrusion, all of it dwindles downward until Lincoln pops his head up into the Mojave. Thanks to the cinematography, all the sets here have a sense of openness, regardless of all the hustle and bustle within the Institute and later in downtown future LA. The world is just huge to Lincoln. It feels that way at home, too. It’s a nice metaphor. It’s an obvious one, but for Bay at least it’s direct.

Regarding being direct, I dare claim amid all the chasing, there were rather subdued touches, and (again) not very Bay. Some nuanced plotting is present, with allegory and further metaphor. This might’ve been one aspect that contributed to The Island’s box office pooch-screw. Bay’s audiences usually expect Bay films and all their obvious contrivances, fingerprints and pratfalls. Instead here, Bay was approaching a little depth; a message of sorts, and his vast flock puked such an aberration back down their throats. I’m not passing judgment; I base this claim against my reluctant Bay fanboys.

The Island in whole—despite or maybe because of its difficult origins—is a bare bones mash-up of campy 70s sci-fi dystopian movies, like Logan’s Run or…well, Clonus. This all might be unconscious homage, but it’s probably just rip-off. And Bay is ultimately a rip-off artist, but a very savvy one. He knows, if only on a vestigial level, he hacked into pulpy goodness circa late 70s/early 80s zeitgeist with The Island armed to the teeth with a 21st Century budget. After all, his is whole catalog is steeped in total—I mean total—suspension of belief. You gotta be in the right mindset to enjoy Bay’s films, with those delta-waves oozing freely through your brain. And what easier way is there to do this than drag the past moderate successes against a green screen? Correct. Add more explosions.

But then again…

Let’s just say Bay was just getting in touch with his inner 7-year old JJ Abrams, waxing nostalgic about those avocado and goldenrod hued space operas from the Carter administration. I think he might’ve took advantage of the studio money and made a film just for himself, for his pleasure. A tribute to those time-wasters just like Logan’s Run, THX-1138 or even Soylent Green. If that was the case, he was a genius. If that was the case. I don’t think the audience bit; the tally says so. Still, that’s something I considered while watching the movie, and I couldn’t help but muse over and made me crack a smile. For a nano with certain scenes, I approached feeling good—fun—about The Island. I actually began to suspend my belief and looked for what’s good with The Island.

Y’know what else I found good with The Island? The casting and the acting. Really. Barring Johansson’s usual oblivion, McGregor, Bean, Honsou and Buscemi all deliver solid, if not enjoyable roles. Especially our lead McGregor (in a double role!). From Renton to Lincoln, he’s always been a likeable bloke, with that million-dollar grin and rapier wit even with the low-lifes and scoundrels he plays. He never seems like a guy you couldn’t go out and have a pint with. The naïve that McGregor applies here to Lincoln is almost the only thing that advances the already razor-thin plot. His wide-eyed, “what the hell is going on?” attitude is on the mark. It’s only until the end of the movie that his acting out of character gets jarring, so for most of the film you can get behind him.

Sean Bean as Merrick is channeling a classic movie baddie: the mad scientist. Only this time, his ethics are warped by a force more sinister than madness: corporate greed. Merrick may be a scientist, but he’s got a business to run here first. The clones are not human, they are cattle. Where we see people Merrick sees hearts, livers, eyes and dollar signs. And he’s always gotta protect his overhead, that’s why he maintains the Institute as a clandestine, off the grid chopshop for the ludicrously rich cabal that need his unique services. Neither science nor service is Merrick’s honest motivation here. It’s his bank account, and very little is more distressing to a businessman worth billions at risk for losing said account. Remember all those very public financial bailouts in 2008? Right. Failed folks like Merrick could be searching for a way out, like with Eva in the bunker.

Steve Buscemi is naturally funny, regardless of his looks or his roles. Even when he tries to be scary (Fargo), silly (Airheads) or straight (Trees Lounge), he’s always comedic, and uses this to great advantage. In The Island, he’s the dues ex machina, more or less; he’s what propels Lincoln’s quest forward, as well as planting the initial seed. As always, Buscemi steals the scenes he’s in, and his rapscallion tech guy McCord is no exception. Yeah, he only gets a few scenes, but his hammy on screen time is precious, and probably the only honest comedy in the movie. The Island has a big balloon head to deflate, and Buscemi acts as the pin. (SPOILER) Too bad he gets waxed in the second act.

Now Honsou is a wild card. He’s best known for being the heavy. His characters are not exactly villains, but definitely toe the line. Here he’s a special ops guy, and essentially a dogcatcher armed with a flotilla of helicopters and a Hell’s Angels team of toughs sent out into the world to bring Lincoln and Jordan in. The same vapid blockhead operative he played in the dreadful Push gets a reprise here. But this time it works. Honsou can best be described in one word: suave. He can be smooth as well as earthy. In The Island, Honsou’s bounty hunter Laurent is charismatic despite being hard, and is the yin to Lincoln’s yang. Both characters are slow to learn what the Institute is all about, and their dichotomy adds a little undercurrent of tension in how the bland story plays out. You know, acting. No amount of explosives can correct an action movie’s threadbare plot than a little character depth can.

Of course, there’s gotta be a fly in the proverbial ointment. Not every role is well-played, and I’m focusing the lens on Johannson. Her non-acting style is rather amusing, and hard to tell if it’s deliberate or not. What’s funny about her nothingness is that it proved prescient from her breakthrough role in Lost in Translation. There it worked well, her as pawn, rudderless and innocent. It doesn’t translate well to action movies. Now granted, I never saw her act in The Avengers; I never caught the film (Again? With the beer cans? Come on), but her bit part as the future Black Widow in Iron Man 2 left me with a yawn, despite her well-choreographed kung fu moves. She’s not an action hero, there’s too little, well, action there. Don’t get ahead of me. There are plenty of cool female action heroes out there. Sigourney Weaver of the Alien franchise, Linda Hamilton as Terminator’s mother-of-the-future (Wait. Cameron again. Hmm). Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark and more recently, Carrie-Ann “Trinity” Moss of The Matrix fame and also Kate Beckinsdale of the pulpy Underworld series. Somehow Johansson’s pretty face is supposed to make up for her ultimate damsel-in-distress-disguised-as-sidekick schtick. It didn’t fool me, and since she’s so low-key, how the hell does she keep getting roles in action films? I thought a prereq was to be, y’know, active.

Oddly enough, the various tech flourishes with the reliable acting—a thing that usually assists in a movie’s success—were all present here, and should’ve made for a zippy pace. But The Island has got to be the slowest Michael Bay move I have ever seen. Again, that damned pacing. And yet, this tempo flaw might’ve been a strength. Although deliberate, the calculated sighs dispersed here and there allow the audience to breathe, if only to get choked again moments later. Maybe here, Bay was trying, however slightly, to inject a bit of philosophical musing to temper his stock-in-trade bravado. If this was an attempt at allegory, then good for him. If not (and it probably wasn’t), it was too bad his audience failed to follow the trail of crumbs. It felt like with The Island, Bay was trying to ape Cameron. It didn’t work. It had to have flow, with reliable breaths of pathos. Here they were sputtering. I’d like to believe that Bay tried.

I’d like to believe that.

So, what have we learned? First, don’t plagiarize. Second, don’t attach your plagiarism to a jillion dollar investment. Third, Bay’s films are chewing gum, and people like it that way. Fourth, people are stupid. Fifth, don’t let a hack, former Coca-Cola ad director play with nice things, even when he wears silk gloves. And finally, don’t let said director infamous for big budget ka-boom-o-fests try to stretch himself. Just let the guy blow sh*t up and not rock the Hollywood budget boat.

“Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business. Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly. The truth is, the more kind and liberal a man is, the more generous will be the patronage bestowed upon him.”

Barnum again.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. The Island is boring, and—believe it or not—doesn’t have enough explosions. It’s a boring B-level sci-fi flick adapted to fit a big budget movie. And it’s not even an original boring big budget movie. Pass the salt.

Stray Observations…

  • “What kind of tests?” “Nice tests.” Bean at his most sinister.
  • Was Bay repaying a favor to Michael Clarke Duncan? He got star billing in the opening credits and was only on screen for, what, 8 minutes?
  • “God’s the guy that ignores you.”
  • I need a flask like McCord’s. I need one.
  • “At least you had a bike.”
  • Looks like in this future LA finally solved the mass transit issue.
  • “Educated to the level of a 15-year old.” Not unlike the typical Bay demographic. Zing!
  • What’s with all the signage? Is it something to do with finding one’s way? Bay was never much for subtleties.
  • I noticed the 1984 prints in Merrick’s office. I’ll leave it at that.
  • “Boy, you’re in for a treat!”
  • Nice promo for Cadillac here. Even when Dad came by and caught me watching this movie, he said, “That’s a nice Cadillac!” Now I’m no gearhead, but I’ll trust my father’s Porsche-owning opinions.
  • Whenever I keep looking at the timer, there’s a problem.
  • “You still think there’s an Island?”

Next Installment…

It’s tough to put a crappy summer vacation in perspective when you’re stuck in the airless station wagon, sitting in the cargo bay, just staring out the window from The Way Way Back.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 32: Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl” (2004)


The Players…

Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, George Carlin and Raquel Castro, with Stephen Root, Mike Starr, Jason Biggs and Jennifer Lopez (ugh).

The Story…

After affluent music publicist Ollie Trinke loses his wife, his job, his home, his self-respect and his station in life, reality slaps him upside his yuppie head. However, amidst the debris, he gains a daughter, and she turns out to be the biggest, most important responsibility he’s ever had to own up to. But he learns he can’t do it alone. Sometimes even the tireless of single dads needs a shoulder to lean on. And that is exactly why he frequents the local video rental.

The Rant…

I’m gonna blog out again. Fair warning.

We’ve all had them. Menial jobs. The work that doesn’t really pay the rent, but keeps us wealthy in Ramen. What little revenue we gain from such posts often means the difference between having a night out or reliable Internet service. We’ve all had them. And if you haven’t, well, bully for you. You want whipped cream on that?

Back in college (here we go again), I worked part-time at the local coffee house. It was a mom-and-pop operation. In truth is it was a failed-relationship-steeped-in-recovered-heroin-addiction-but-still-maintaining-the-business-operation-because-no-matter-what-the-state-says-methadone-is-not-cheap-and-besides-the-deed-was-in-our-name operation. It was a nice place. I was a barista. Not a guy who wore a visor and apron emblazoned with the parent/corporate logo and pressed a lot of pre-programmed buttons. An honest-to-God, grungy, cliquey coffee house often manned by your fave know-it-all. I was trained in all the nuances of an expensive, imported espresso press/steamer—the kind of gear equivalent in value to a small car—with more knobs than a three-storey cathouse. I brewed coffee, made pastries, learned how the steamer worked so as both to not burn the milk as well as make it properly froth and the difference between a high-gluten yield and non-gluten one 20 years before it became a diet fad. The works. The place was a dingy, subterranean, literally a basement property beneath the local bodega that served real coffee, real espresso drinks, pastry and bread made on premises. The joint offered solace to beleaguered students and teachers alike. A thick haze of cigarette smoke you could cut with only the klatches the local profs held with their afterhours beyond lectures hung over the place. It was the closest thing I would ever experience to Boehme Greenwich Village a fool could in Central New York.

Not like the café gig was a going-somewhere career.

It was indeed a menial job, but it had its perks, so to speak. Free coffee, a quiet place to study, cool music (most of which courtesy of yours truly’s mixtapes), the occasional open mike act and nary an apron in sight. I think I spent the better part of my sophomore to senior evenings there. I would whip up off-kilter drinks (the lychee and cocoa latte failed to go over well), promote and solicit the local bagel baker, take the occasional date there (they always seemed to be impressed when I had to dip away from our table to service a customer) and also push our homemade scones. Best in town, especially since nowhere else in the town actually offered scones.

It was a nice job, but indeed menial. Paid peanuts. For instance, I once had to dip into the joint’s kitty for $20 just to score some beer. No worries, I paid it back in tips. But then again my folks had to cough up the monthly $35 data fee for the then burgeoning home Internet service (it was the 90’s). Whatever coin I pocketed was usually spent on CDs, books, phone bills and booze, three of the four usually employed to impress a date. Sometimes it even worked.

Nevertheless, what little the gig offered in the way of cash more than made up for some life lessons offered. Some of my fave profs held study groups there (remind me to tell you all about Prof. Thomas sometime. It’s a good story). There were the faux Boehme who would angst out and do fruitless punk sh*t there, like a lot of screaming about socialism, crushing coffee mugs against the already pitted wall and basically recreating whatever Ian MacKaye sang about that year. There was also a curious and engaging contingent of exchange students from Tokyo who would only commune with the sole white guy within a thousands clicks of the Finger Lakes who could speak Kanji, and I later learned they were merely talking about their escapades at the mall. And their classes. You gotta take priority when you can.

Anyway, it was there at the café that I met the Blofeld to my James Bond. His name was Mark, three years older than me, grad student studying law. Tax law. I once asked him, “Why tax law?” I was a fan of TV crime dramas and was totally ignorant of due process outside of Jerry Orbach’s snarky asides. “Why not criminal law?” I asked.

He told me. There was always an opportunity to make new law with taxes. The laws changed almost annually. Criminal law was different. So many precedents had already been set, so the opportunity to make “new” criminal law was almost nil. Mark didn’t necessarily have aspirations to be the next Bruce Spizer or anything; he just had an endless desire to learn new things and share acquired knowledge with anyone who walked into view, whether they wanted it or not. Enter young me.

Mark was a wiseass, armchair philosopher and pop culture sponge. We often worked together on the night shift at the café. We would goof around, wax political about social mores and their failures, talk movies and put on shows for our guests. Example? First there was Punctuation Night. A la The Electric Company, we’d draw exaggerated, cartoony punctuation on poster board and whenever we served a guest, we’d hold up the cards concluding each sentence or question with a card screaming “.” or “?” respectively. It played out something like this:

“Hi (exclamation point card)”

“Can I help you (question mark)”

“Would you like some coffee (comma) or maybe a muffin…”

You get it. It was juvenile. Such antics reminded Mark of and prompted him to tell me about the movie Clerks. He was endlessly quoting from it, and after I finally saw it, I followed suit. Mark and I were Randal and Dante, and we held those images sacred at work, even if the job wasn’t nearly as crushing as working at the Quick Stop. Practical jokes, snide comments to the people we deemed as not hip, endlessly arguing the merits of this scholar versus whatever pop culture issue we were chewing on that week was the routine.

So yeah, Mark introduced me to Kevin Smith’s movies. I watched Clerks to death; it was a calling card  to being 20-something and going nowhere in the 90s. I liked Smith’s dry humor and indie rock aesthetic. His other films like Chasing Amy and Dogma toed the line between heady and comic, with most of his work questioning the great values—or lack thereof—in these our United States. Like my peers, we probably looked too deeply into Smith’s oeuvre, especially his clunky Mallrats. His “dirty realism” is appealing, tempered with crude references to drug abuse, kinky sex and comic books.

All of which is lacking in Jersey Girl…

Ollie Trinke (Affleck) was once on the up and up. A cutthroat New York publicist for the music biz, shouting from the rooftops extolling the value of Madonna and the Fresh Prince (this was in the early 90’s) and living a near-rock star existence himself. Big office, big car, big money and dozens of assistants at his beck and call.

Once. It all began to fall apart after he got married.

Ollie and Gertie (J. Lo) are destined to be the next big power couple, riding the media wave into the 21st Century. It’s only natural they want to start a family, and when Gertie finds herself pregnant, Ollie is ecstatic. Things are really happening.

But such things are not to be. Gertie dies during the delivery. Ollie is left a single dad, bleak and trying to cope with a shattered family while maintaining his high stress job. It doesn’t work, and when Ollie openly trashes his new client at a press conference, well…bye-bye career.

Ollie leaves Manhattan in shame only to decamp in his hometown of Highlands, NJ with his infant daughter in tow. He moves back into his childhood home, sharing the world of parenting and beer with his gruff, blue-collar Pop (Carlin). Now Ollie occupies his time with trying to get back into the business, ignoring baby Gertie, and tasking Pop with performing the necessary fatherly duties. Ollie assures Pop this situation is only temporary until he finds a new job.

Seven years later:

Ollie’s still living in Jersey, doing menial work driving a street sweeper and doing his best to give grammar school Gertie (Castro) a normal, stable life. But Ollie misses her mom, misses the security his marriage once offered him. Misses other people. It’s only until a random stop at the local video store for some porn where he meets the kindly Maya (Tyler). She seems to know a few things about relationships, as well as taking a shine to Ollie’s awkward single dad status. She thinks she can help Ollie out of his funk, but it’s gonna be under some peculiar conditions…

I wanted to like Jersey Girl. I really did.

Jersey Girl was Kevin Smith’s first straightforward, “mature” film. A simple story, said to reflect the director’s own newfound status as married man and a dad. Reflective or no, Jersey Girl is almost too straightforward. The movie starts out kinda textbook, and just moves from chapter to chapter with nary a whit of elation or pathos to drive any conflict. It’s all connect-the-dots, and the movie fails to radiate any warmth that Smith desperately wanted to convey to his fans. The edge Smith honed in his other films is whittled down to a nub here, with none of the snarky spark that made Clerks and Dogma such spicy fun. There’s no subtlety of storytelling here, almost as if Smith wanted to make damn sure the audience understood the gravity of his new role. It’s never a good idea to pander to the audience, and downright knuckleheaded to think the masses won’t “get it” without cue cards. Punctuation or no.

The faults with Jersey Girl are small, but many. They add up. Kind of like a small cut on your finger that goes untreated and eventually gets infected: it all comes to a head after awhile. Too bad the story doesn’t come to a head.

The most glaring fault with Girl is the acting. It’s been debated back and forth with folks wiser than me that if Affleck and Lopez can actually act. After watching Girl, the vote’s still out. Affleck is as flat as could be. His Ollie is transparent and wooden. He’s just not likeable, and you can’t get behind a lead you don’t like. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of anti-heroes out there you can root for, but they usually have a strong personality, startling presence and are well-written. And also after a promising start with Out of Sight (almost two decades ago), J. Lo’s acting résumé has followed the law of diminishing returns. Granted she’s only offered a few scenes in Girl (amid the torrid real-life love affair with Affleck, which the celeb press could simply not get enough of), which she fails to make a case to being in front of a camera rather than a microphone, and even that is a case left by the bench. She’s dull, he’s dull. End of story.

Only it’s not. There are two distinct highlights of the movie regarding acting. George Carlin as Pop is a distilled version of the comic Noo Yawk persona that was his stock-in-trade for decades. His whole performance in the movie is merely a drawn out take of his “I Used to Be Irish Catholic” bit from his 1972 album Class Clown. Ever grumpy, sardonic and winsome, Carlin gives some life, albeit one-note character to the film. You can take an easy shine to his Pop, as he channels a thousand world-weary working class fathers into a simple 90-minute film. I wished he were used more wisely in Girl, if only as a tent pole. Carlin as cuddly? It oddly works. Also, the final scene in the bar? Carlin’s best role ever.

Castro brings out the limited best in Affleck. Sure, she may be the token moppet serviced as the axis the whole film revolves around, but the rapport between her Gertie and Affleck’s Ollie is simply great. It’s the best acting in the film. It’s almost like a film within the film. Everything else is bumping up against the set. Get Castro and Affleck together, and hey, there might be a story there. Too bad it’s so fleeting.

On a similar hand, I like the unsure nature of the Ollie/Maya potential. Here is where Smith’s mercurial taste of failing relationships takes a pit stop. With Ollie and Maya, there is this unsaid tension. It’s funny to say this since everything else in Girl plays out so literally. The abrupt way they come together, the sorting out of Ollie’s issues, Maya’s interactions with Gertie, all of these aspects are not examined in a way that could be considered “open.” Perhaps this was due to poor chemistry between Tyler and Affleck, but I don’t think so. There was something there that wasn’t fully fleshed out, and left a feeling of insecurity; there was some possible tension which the story sorely needed. Again, maybe I’m looking for something that just wasn’t there. There is a sense of something missing pervading all of Girl’s script.

I think that one of the reasons Girl is so linear was to serve as training wheels for Smith’s usual audience. Gone are the pop culture riffs, innuendo, edgy commentary and Jay and Silent Bob. Instead its all been replaced with warm and fuzzy. This might have thrown the core stoner crowd for a loop. There would be confusion, rioting in the aisles. Anarchy! And why isn’t this movie taking place in Red Bank?!? At least Jason Lee and Matt Damon get a cameo that might sate the crazed audience, rejecting this new, “family friendly” Smith. He wants to stretch himself and be all post-ironic making a film that reflects an open door policy on the foibles of life, all sunny and cute.

And Girl has a horrible case of the cutes. Right, sure. It’s cute, but that can only go so far. The treacle Smith was trying to spin here might have been from a muse that spouted blindly from his new “grown-up” status, so much so that his camera lens got bleary from too much talcum powder. There’s this pervasive sweetness at work here, but it gets cloying. Granted it does work; it’s the glue holding this derivative narrative together. But again, does he have to be so f*cking literal in delivery?

Thanks to Mark, I learned a belated lesson about how to appreciate Smith’s movies. And thanks to my reverence, I always eventually learned to appreciate the sum of their parts. Smith’s films are jagged, irreverent and ultimately rewarding being steeped in scatological humor, the human condition, and a healthy dose of dick jokes. Jersey Girl had none of that. Smith was trying to straighten his tie directing this one, and it fooled nobody. With such a straight line from beginning to finish, little was remaining for his signature left field sense of hockey helmet humor. It was like a Spielberg flick sans gaping eyes.

Jersey Girl is too much forced drama, set to a cool soundtrack. It’s an unfortunate color-by-numbers story, and we can all see it coming. Where’s Jay and Silent Bob when you need ‘em?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. It’s too connect-the-dots to allow any real feeling of drama or humor, despite Smith’s best intentions. Flat, flat, flat. Snooch to the nooch.

Stray Observations…

  • “What are your intentions…to my daughter?”
  • Video store, eh? Kevin Smith meta?
  • “That’s a lot.”
  • Affleck is good with kids. There. I said it.
  • “You gettin’ a dog?” Funniest line in the whole damn movie.
  • This was the first View Askew production to not feature Jay and Silent Bob. Maybe if they were included, some much-needed levity could’ve happened. Right, Lunchbox?
  • “What are your intentions…with my father?”
  • Joe bless George Carlin.

Next Installment…

Can Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson survive the perils of The Island? Not the island itself, per se. Y’know, just surviving a Michael Bay movie.


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 31: Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead” (2005)


The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Jaime Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard, Lucas Black, Brain Geraghty and Evan Jones, with Chris Cooper and Dennis Haysbert.

The Story…

The true story of how US marine Anthony Swafford endured training, heartbreak and service during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 90’s. Swaff learned hard that what it takes to be a soldier, and what’s after Basic, is not all its cracked up to be. Turned out to involve mostly sand.

The Rant…

I have known no war. At least not on the other side of a CNN camera.

I’ve made a few veteran friends in my days. All of them decent, upstanding guys who don’t talk much about the action they’d seen, unless you ask. Even then their stories are short, and delivered with humility, self-effacing modesty and more than a little melancholy. Any veteran who was in country, be it in WW2, Vietnam or the Iraq War doesn’t do a lot of heavy boasting or proffering up the glory of patriotism. Not a lot of flag waving; it mostly comes down to the edict, “I was just doing my job.” Following orders. A good example of this reticence was illustrated in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers. Brief conversations with the actual vets who were Over There bookended scenes were honest, describing the action they saw, friends they had lost and to demands of “doing their job.” There was none of that bootin’-rally mentality with these guys. Just a somber, sober retelling of the experiences, conveyed alternating between humble pride and some sadness and self-resignation. To me it seems the real rabble-rousing patriotism associated with gun racks on the backs of pickups, Calvin decal pissing on the likeness of Bin Laden’s head and a lots of cans of Bud being held aloft accompanied with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” is not present in the men and women who actually served their country, overseas or otherwise. To them, to repeating it very mildly, it was “just doing their job.”

I, like many bloggers, have given over their sites to a great deal of social commentary. Hell, the subtitle here at RIORI is “A Social Study of Middling Movies.” Like others, I reserve the rights to spout facts and figures about this and that. It’s what blogs are primarily for: self-expression, in addition to railing against Hollywood, corporate radio, struggling with addictions, parenting, posting recipes and giving in to foaming-at-the-mouth ranting. Sometimes even I get that way. At RIORI, I do it couched in the reflections of how so-so films relate to the dreary sh*t we all endure daily. This is usually done rambling on and on and on about my experiences with this topic or that, often rabbit-trailing down the hole into self-parody.

This time out I’m covering a cultural matter I have no personal experience with, carried along only by the stories and musings of others I’ve encountered. From their stories alone I’ll try to hold together a hypothesis. I’ll try to behave myself.

Once again we find our intrepid blogger dragging his stinky, whisky-addled carcass out on yet another business junket. Nightly I was at my outer office, being served by possibly the best bartender I’ve ever abused. His name was Pat, and although he never outright talked about his military career—he was in the Army’s Special Forces—he had plenty of stories to share about his time in the service. Mostly were just humorous tales about his fellow soldiers and the shenanigans they got into. Some were about the many people he met while being stationed in Scotland and Grenada. Some were life lessons; pieces of advice he would impart on his customers to enhance whatever drunken chatter we were yapping about. He was personable, but maintained the attitude and demeanor of a soldier. You couldn’t bullsh*t him.

Pat never talked about his tours. He actually never saw any active combat. He did however share (on rare occasion) second-hand tales of action his peers saw. None in great detail. Mostly we heard about his friends’ exploits delivered in patient, stern tones. Pat always stared off into the distance when he told such stories. His tales weren’t necessary gloomy, nor were they stories of horror. According to Pat, most, if not all of the vets he knew that saw action didn’t wax poetic about it. His peers were soldiers, patriots and honest men who saw and experienced things that didn’t—as he put it—expect civvies to really understand. I could only glean by such consternation, that what he heard wasn’t worth repeating, at least to us “civvies.” It sounded without sounding so like heavy sh*t, such was the casual gravitas of Pat’s delivery. I had to respect that.

Moving on. Chapter two of my firesides.

Out of college I worked part-time at the local coffee house. It was comfy mom-and-pop place (okay, mostly a mom place) where mom served the requisite beverages and treats. It was close to both the local high school and a college, and naturally became a haven for students and bookish people alike. The clientele was a crazy quilt of adolescent nervous energy, thoughtful scholarly contemplation, chain smokers and armchair philosophers. All of whom needing their daily fix. Nice, homey place.

We had Bill the preacher, who was a Lutheran minister, always nose deep in some theology text working on next week’s sermon. We had another Bill, the ex of the shop’s owner, always loaded with stories about everything and nothing and smoked so many cigs that it eventually was his undoing. He was a car nut, a real gear head. He was a kind of guru to the local teens who had tricked out their rides. Every so often, some custom set of wheels would cruise by the shop and instinctively he’d wave the young driver down so they could talk shop. We had Barney, an earnest bibliophile with a healthy knowledge about comic books and science fiction in specific and literary criticism in general. A fave fact about Barney: he was set about to write Harlan Ellison’s biography at the man’s behest—they were buddies—only under the cranky s/f writer’s decree that he’d be dead before publication. Such was our little corner of the corner.

And there was Joshua.

He name really wasn’t Joshua. I just call him that to honor some privacy. Joshua fell into the camp of a reader. Quiet, seemingly only interested in coffee, that week’s haul from the library and keeping to himself. Through the unique social osmosis that only tightly knit patrons of a café can produce, we came to learn that he was a Vietnam vet. One of the high school kids was doing a paper on Vietnam, and figured it would be a good idea to talk with Josh, get some firsthand history. I overheard his story. I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping. I only happened to be nearby, within earshot. This is was I roughly heard Josh tell the kid:

Josh was a comm officer in Vietnam. He was the soldier you saw in movies squawking on the radio, lugging that pack that resembled an aqualung attached to an old school telephone receiver. It was his duty to relay details from his CO’s operations back to HQ, radio for help and call in the air strike if needs be. Josh told the kid that after his commanding officer, the guy on comm was the next target of roving Viet Cong rebels. You see, without the comm officer, none of the things listed above could be accomplished. If the guy giving the orders was dead, and then the soldier whose job it was to call for help was gone, well…

Joshua lost half his platoon on one mission, including his CO. He lost a lot of friends, some of whom he trained with at Basic. He said that Vietnam was a beautiful country, and was saddened by what happened during the American invasion. That’s the word he used. Invasion. Josh had this faraway look in his eyes as he told his stories, and he used sentences that were simple and short. The time he served in country was wrapped up in a few paragraphs. When the kid asked the immortal question, “Is that all?” Josh answered that that was all he could remember. Then he went back to his book and latte.

He stopped coming by the café shortly thereafter. I guess he went off looking for some peace. Again.

One more thing; a coda if you will:

My wife’s dad was a doctor in Vietnam, a surgeon. He told her his lone war story once. It was short and simple. Dad got up in the middle of the night after a nightmare. He wandered to the fringe of the jungle encampment to relieve himself. Minutes later there were explosions; Viet Cong descended on the camp, knowing nothing of the Geneva Convention and preceded to burn the mobile hospital to the ground. There was a lot of screaming and gunfire. Her dad was one of a few medics to escape unharmed. Most of the injured just burned.

That was all.

Soldiers’ stories of service are ultimately private things. Prideful, duty-bound, sometimes happy, scary or downright boring. But there they are. The soldiers, they were there. They saw it all. I didn’t. I’m a civvie, and can only imagine further what the reality really was. Putting it all into perspective, I guess I’m just not supposed to know. I just didn’t—as they say in the service—have clearance.

Which makes the story behind Jarhead a bit of a curiosity to me. If so many soldiers are reluctant to share their stories while in the service, save some older guys who have the luxury of distance between the war then and their lives now, then how—why—does a movie like Jarhead exist…?

Anthony Swafford (Gyllenhaal) comes from a proud family military tradition. His grandfather served in WW2, his father Vietnam. Seeing how he found out the hard way that he wasn’t quite college material, he chose to follow in the family footsteps. Be a Marine! Serve your country! Impress your girlfriend! See the world!

The world f*cking sucks. And his girlfriend does also, much to Swoff’s chagrin.

The world means the Saudi desert. Sand. Lots of sand. And lots of nothing. Some bully named Saddam Hussein sent his meager army to invade the small sultanate of Kuwait, and since Kuwait (again, small) is a major exporter of crude to the US, well, America’s mightiest forces better swoop down and defend its lowly citizens. Swoff was trained to be a sniper and expected to take kill shots at desert rats on the line. Defend freedom. Kill r*gheads. Glory!

Mostly it’s digging holes, cleaning out latrines, disassembling and reassembling your weapon over and over again like battling a Rubik’s Cube and making nice for CNN. Swoff did not endure endless backhands to the skull to just clean his rifle. Again. And again.

The life of a Marine is simple. Follow orders. Be punctual. Be respectful. Keep that rifle in proper working order. Forget about that girl you left home who is probably banging a readily available college guy. Maintain the initiative your fathers swore by (who’s women weren’t as hypersexed as yours turned out to be). Whack off crying. Enjoy lots of virgin sand occasionally stained by the smears of crude oil spewing from busted wells that you were dispatched to defend. Oh, and maybe also defend some Kurds while you’re at it. Get ignored by the higher-ups. Clean that rifle some more. Get high. And then get drunk. Oo-rah.

Yes, it takes plenty of hard work, brutal training, suffering much humiliation and eventual boredom to serve as a Marine in Desert Storm. Your muzzle grows ever colder. Your sleep gets ever lighter. You begin to piss out sand. You often wonder both was it this way for your fathers, and who your luscious former girlfriend is f*cking now? Not you, that’s for sure, but perhaps the Bush administration.

It’s all in just, you know, defending American values. And their interests…

Director Sam Mendes received both a lot of praise and eventually a lot of flack for his Oscar winning American Beauty. Beauty, IMHO, falls into the same category as Crash, Dances with Wolves, Chicago, and The Greatest Show on Earth (The Quiet Man was f*cking robbed back in 1953): a Best Picture winner that should not have won. Beauty was a good film, although gussied up by an ignorant press as the film to see for 1999. Probably because star Kevin Spacey got high and nymphet Mena Suvari played a reluctant Lolita. Titillation always works to grab an audience’s attention. Worked for me.

So Mendes endured some slings and arrows for his Oscar win, its artistic merits in question. His over-hyped follow-up, Road to Perdition, got some heat too. It was merely a comic book adaptation, after all. We all know that comic book movies are fragile darlings. That and Paul Newman will never die. Road also panned out in the same style as Beauty; it was overwrought, heavy-handed and also had an intrusive atmosphere. But it had Tom Hanks! As a bad guy! Against type!


And now we have Jarhead, a bio no one was asking for. Unlike the stories I was privy to about military operations, I wanted to know more about those, but I “didn’t have clearance.” With Jarhead I got full disclosure. Where can I get reprogrammed?

Mendes’ directorial style is very—well—direct. He lays it out and on with very little metaphor. The whole underlying message of Jarhead is basically, “This happens.” It’s the overall feel of his movies. Here’s what happens, take it or leave it. Thud.

But Jarhead is a tad different from Mendes’ other films. For one, it’s a bio, and; two…it’s been done before. Many times before. The “soldier’s story” is a tried and true Hollywood trope. It gets audiences’ butts in the seats. Mostly civilian butts. They come in droves to see drama, horror, blood, explosions. Especially explosions. Jarhead has a few (explosions that is), but precious little of the rest.

The curiosity I mentioned earlier relevant to the “war stories” relating to a narrative like Jarhead’s is thus: if so many vets are reluctant to speak about their life and times, then why would Swoffard think he’d have anything to say about a subculture which appears to be decidedly recalcitrant, especially to civilians? That being said, why would he say anything? I’m not saying there aren’t stories to tell, but the hell of it is—at least concerning movies that lift from real soldiers’ stories, i.e. Band of Brothers—most commercial adaptations are either honestly compelling but rather infrequent, like Patton or Sergeant York. Either that or gussied up to make them more palatable to the Hollywood crowd, a la Good Morning, Vietnam or Born on the Fourth of July against the sake of honest portrayals. In other words, they are either carefully chosen and/or doctored for their grittiness and/or accessibility. Such as it is.

Jarhead follows neither of these tenets. It’s a biopic based on a soldier’s story where basically nothing happens. Does an audience really wanna hear a war story about not being involved in battle?

In all fairness, Swoffard’s story is unique in the pantheon of real-life war stories as far as I have seen. His experiences depict the sheer humdrum of service as a US Marine in the Persian Gulf. Unlike all the films listed above—where sh*t actually happens, fabricated or no—Jarhead and ostensibly Swoff’s real-life service was more of less a study of surviving boredom and loneliness, not combat. If anyone out there can cite a war movie, biopic or otherwise, that examines the mundane of military service, please share. I willfully admit my ignorance here.

That’s the whole gimmick for Jarhead. It neither depicts the glory nor the horrors of war. It just shows us the monotony of it all. The downtime, the restlessness, the freakin’ boredom. Apart from the few scenes of actual tension—very few of them deal with being “in the Suck”—in the movie, Jarhead is an insular exercise in alienation and frustration. There’s a lot of navel-gazing. Interesting navel-gazing, but hardly compelling.

I understand that Jarhead is based on actual events, yet while watching it I could not escape the feeling of embellishment. One would think for a movie that I have attested is about nothing happening would demand a little more meat on the bone. But this feeling was not about elaboration for the sake of drama. It was for comedy. Maybe this is the Shakespearean trick of enhancing tragedy coupled with humor. Maybe the dark streak of humor that runs through Jarhead is meant to temper the drama with levity. Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there.

There is some comedic undertones running through the film. Like other biopics covered here at RIORI (Cadillac Records springs immediately to mind), Jarhead employs the device of narrator; Swoff’s accounts of boot camp to the desert read as though lifted directly from the text, punctuated with self-deprecating jokes and tongue-in-cheek non-sequiturs to either make light of his troubles or enhance them. In any event, the narration, like Mendes’ direction, falls flat and too direct. No inferences. This happened. Then the next thing happened. And so on. The story plods.

As hinted above with my secondhand war stories, I am ignorant of actual combat. From what I did hear from vets is that there is a lot of “down time” in between missions. Actual battle, however brief, more than makes up for the lag. A minute of action balances out the hours of nothingness. Jarhead if anything illustrates this fact keenly. Three-quarters of the movie is not about the missions, but the waiting. Waiting to be a soldier. The rest of the time is divided between cleaning your rifle, watching porn, masturbating and other such shoe-polishing. It’s routine documentation of…well…routine in the life of a grunt is the unique facet of Jarhead. Sure, there have been other war movies that furnish the audience with the non-events of actual fighting (now MASH springs immediately to mind), but they were usually boosted with comedy or pathos. Not Jarhead. Swoff’s tales are simply a journal about waiting to “get on with it.” In fact, that’s how I felt watching the bulk of this movie, my eyes continuing darting to the counter on the BD player (“We’re how far into the movie and still no action?”).

A positive thing that tempers the languid tone is the nice pace. Jarhead has a nice flow. It’s easygoing, albeit a bit long. The film is seamless, edited well and has few hiccups. The cinematography, especially in the desert scenes, is flawless. What really accentuates the loneliness and alienation theme of the movie is seeing our cast either marching out in the middle of a sandy waste with no landmarks or bunkered down in endless, nameless bivouacs that are supposed to be, but don’t feel like mobile outposts. Gyllenhaal and his cast mates are more nomadic and seemingly rudderless than the Bedouins they encounter.

Jarhead also sports some pretty decent acting too. Nothing standout, save one role. But before that, let’s say that Gyllenhall has come a long way from Bubble Boy. This was his follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, in which he was superb. Here, his Swoff is a cipher; a blank slate for the audience to walk, or march—endlessly march—with in his boots. Most of the time, he fades into the background although he’s supposed to be the protag. Even his bouts of tragedy don’t come across as real or engaged. This happens.

On the other hand, both Foxx and Sarsgaard are very entertaining. Jaime Foxx’s Staff Sgt. Sykes is great. He’s very funny without being overt. His performance feels like it screams to the audience, “You’re in on this joke, right?” Toeing the line between being a commanding officer with all the baggage that comes with it paired with being an ambassador of goodwill to CNN (with all the baggage that comes with that) makes for a humorous and cutting take on what the Gulf War meant to soldier and homefront alike. And thanks to 24-hour cable news, the homefront was very directly involved.

Sarsgaard as Troy is yin to Gyllenhaal’s yang. Swoff entered the Marines as more or less legacy as well as not finding any place in civilian life. He conveys a cavalier, “what-the-hell” attitude. Troy is there because there is nowhere else he should be. Collected, mature and quietly wise beyond his years, Sarsgaard is the good acting/story rule of “less is more.” His performance has a definite economy of dialogue and action that is engaging, designed to get the audience on to what happens next with this guy, even more so than Swoff’s trials.

There are a few period touches to the movie that I liked. The use of the pop music of the early 90s does wonders to punctuate the feel of the times (the dream sequence set to Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” is chilling), as well as the contributions from Naughty by Nature, Social Distortion and C&C Music Factory. The soundtrack keenly complements the emotions of the actors almost perfectly. The omnipresent specter of CNN dogging the troops. We remember that on cable, Wolf “The Scud Stud” Blitzer was the talking head there on the frontlines in Kuwait, and we were glued to the tube every night for the casualty updates, yellow ribbons and all. No less under pressure were the troops, hounded to look busy and patriotic while sweating to death. These were the first real “viral videos” that so captivated the nation. It made the war seem more like a TV show than an actual conflict, and the movie makes no bones about CNN nosing in wherever and whenever it can.

An aside: it’s curious how slow it was to admit the (first) Iraq War was a mistake. Vietnam happened slower, lasted longer, and had the kids at home in an uproar for the better part of a decade. Just sayin.’

Despite the cynicism, there’s a vein of sentimentality running through Jarhead; a scent of nostalgia. These weren’t the best days of Swoff’s life, but they end up being the most significant. The training, the heartbreak, the monotony, the transformative power of “friendly fire”, all of it left an indelible mark on our hero. But it is mark of, simply, this happened. There just wasn’t enough oomph to Mendes’ direction and Gyllenhaal’s Swoffard.

Jarhead, for all its flat affect, is a stylized biopic. Mendes tried to add some weak flair to a decidedly weak story. Swoff’s accounts read as a cautionary tale. It’s not anti-war, it’s anti-lonely. It can even be gloomy at times, outright boring; the argument can be made that this was the point. At other times, Jarhead plays out like a poor man’s Full Metal Jacket. There’s a false, but somehow convincing sense of reality illustrated by the non-action your average Marine must endure. It’s kind of like being a cop. Sure, it looks exciting being on the case like in Law & Order. But any police officer can tell you it’s mostly desk work. Pushing papers (or reassembling rifles) drenched in disparagement and lowliness does not a stirring war moving make. At times interesting, but not stirring.

So Jarhead, the Janus-faced war chronicle. Poignant? Quietly. Honest? Probably. Engaging? Seldom. Tone?

Boring, and most likely on purpose.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. There are better soldiers’ stories out there, not unlike the ones I heard. I guess if you really want the dirt on combat, seek out your local vet. But chances are, he’ll be tight-lipped. I learned there’s a reason behind that.

Stray Observations…

  • “Thou shalt not kill…F*ck. That. Rule.”
  • I have heard that on the line, snipers do not blink when making a shot. Something about maintaining accuracy. Can anyone verify this?
  • “Metroid” doesn’t have nine levels. It only has five. Hey! Ow! F*ckin’ beer cans…
  • “Those were my sausages.”
  • Rain in the desert? How convenient. Must be the first time in 100 years. Climate change, I tell ya.
  • “…Welcome to the Suck…”

Next Installment…

“Nothin’ else matters in this whole wide world, when you’re in love with a Jersey Girl. Sing sha la la la…”