RIORI Vol 3, Installment 72: Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal” (2004)



The Players…

Tom Hanks, Stanley Tucci and Catherine Zeta-Jones, with (quite the supporting cast of) Barry Henley, Eddie Jones, Diego Luna, Chi McBride, Michael Nouri, Kumar Pallana and Zoe Saldana.


The Story…

All Viktor wanted to do was get home. But some stupid coup d’etat explodes in his homeland, and he’s stranded at Kennedy Airport, carrying a passport nobody recognizes.

What to do, what to do now? That answer is pretty basic. Since Viktor has no recourse, quarantined to the transit lounge, he simply goes on living. By his lonesome. Such as it has become.

But Viktor doesn’t have to go it alone. This is JFK International Airport, after all. Someone is bound to lend a hand.

Hands, rather.


The Rant…

Hey. Welcome back.

So you check out Munich yet? For those who did, bravo! For those who didn’t you’re most likely a newb here. Welcome anyway.

Today is a carryover from the last installment, my scrutiny of Steven Spielberg’s polarizing historical fiction Munich about how the Mossad waxed the “terrorists” who waxed the Israeli track team in the 1972 Summer Olympics in the titular city. This is the second part of a two-part study of the esteemed Steven Speilberg’s hiccups in the 21st Century. The first half, my intrepid examination of his Munich bore some fruit. After watching it (and thereby disturbed by it) illustrated the man has not strayed very far from his craft and/or muse.

As with a few earlier installments here, seeing the subject matter of this brief study we’re gonna divvy up some rations. I shall employ one intro pertinent to the matter at hand (Spielberg being the crop of the cream) and a second snarky, bilious intro based on my fevered, judgmental, feverish judgments. Thank you and you’re welcome.


First Intro…

The man’s an easy target.

In the pantheon of esteemed movie directors, Spielberg has earned his bones and has rightfully scrabbled to the top of the heap. In the grand scheme of cinematic things, such is no small feat. After all, “movies” took hold in France (depending on who you’d ask), and from the Francos theatre on the big screen usurped the eventual snobbery dividing the theatre goers against the cinemaphiles. Like all rivalries, you can’t have one without the other. There could be no Coke without Pepsi.

Spielberg’s cinematic dichotomy has been written into clay ever since his Jaws coined the phrase “summer blockbuster.” His CV wanders between fantastical and harrowing. Precious few of his outings cast an audience over the spell of “sentimental,” but that’s there. Sometimes it borders on treacle, but that Brit molasses is sweet and heady, therefore tough to resist. C’mon, you have to be made of stone not to at least sniffle when you see ET REDACTED by a helpless Elliot. But sometimes sentimentality can grow out of hand, curdle and become maudlin. Sorry Steve, but with Always your slip was showing. Same with Hook. Hell, especially with AI (Kubrick should’ve stayed the course, I tell ya).

So there are a few, minor bloops on the man’s resume that might tarnish his rep for when his heart was hiked up too far on both sleeves. Or until BFG 2 gets dropped. Whatever comes first. The matter there is that once you reach the top of the heap is finding a way to stay there, all the while keeping both your rep and cachet intact. Well that’s not possible. Even the most revered directors drop a turd in the punchbowl once in a while, blinded by the power and glory of their vision. It’s necessary though. It’s the Coke vs Pepsi paradigm: you can’t measure the good without having the bad rear its pus-filled head once in a while. Hence Pepsi Crystal.

The great many of Spielberg’s movies are like pizza: when it’s good, it’s good and when it’s not you still have some pizza. Like Lou Reed said, “My week beats your year.” In the final analysis, the man’s work speaks for itself, and in turn speaks to a lot of audiences. That can’t be denied. But sometimes—sometimes—the man overplays his hand as well as keep them cards too close. When it comes to establishing a personal, emotional grip on the audiences’ attention you can’t have it both ways; you can’t mix artsy-fartsy with Kleenex. Get too squishy that way and off the top of the heap you may slither.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve got a soft spot an AU wide for sentimental, treacly films. Gotta have those guilty pleasures, right? Forrest Gump, On Golden Pond, One Crazy Summer and so on. I’m not made of stone, either. But I can be pushed towards petrifaction. The envelope can only go so far. On more than one occasion (as I listed earlier), the man’s tried my emotional patience. Sometime for the good, though, but mostly it’s been lemon juice-dipped fingernails on a chalkboard hewn from pumice.

In other words: Steve, know when to rein it in.

Sometimes it’s good, if not fun to let a talented director to run riot with their treacly id. Once in a while. The other times when that goes down, said director better have a damned interesting script to back up their Hallmark moments.

That being said, The Terminal holds up better than Always. And far better than Jurassic Park: The Lost World.

That was a joke, you dolts. Show some emotion already…


Second Intro…

Air travel sucks.

I recently read a story in the New York Times op-ed section from a seasoned and presently retired commercial airline pilot. He spoke as to  debunk the myths surrounding the so-called luxury of the Jet Age. The man flew planes from the late 60s into the late 90s, and according to his experiences in the air and out, trade-offs were few, far between and interchangeable when it came to the “comfort” of flying the friendly skies. His argument was akin to Pete Townshend’s proclamation of, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” For the record, the FAA was the boss all along.

The pilot compared traveling business class today with its sardine-like seating and the dinky, ever fluttering screen embedded in the headrest in front of you with yesterday’s roll down trundle beds (that took up three rows of seats and cost as much) and panopticon movie screen scrolled down for one feature for the duration of the three day flight as not very far removed. At least these days passengers aren’t choked into lung cancer via open smoking recycled through the already recycled air. That and non-Whites are now permitted into First Class. With those roll-down beds and blowjobs. Kidding. There are no roll-down beds in First Class, just non-allergenic blankets. So I’ve heard. Now turn your head and spit.

Tee hee.

Anyway. According to the article, the only thing that has never changed in air travel is the being on the ground part. The waiting. In the airport. Being poked and prodded and x-rayed and having your gums inspected and it costs how much to weigh my bags? Now get in this line to get into that line.

Admit it. Sometimes when you have a layover it feels like it lasts longer that your actual flight, if it would ever land on time. You’re stranded in the terminal, what with all its food courts, book stores, communal charging stations and a billion foreign tongues chattering with urgency. It can be surreal. It’s like another planet. It’s disorienting. The only thing that can keep you metaphorically grounded is your aging flight pass and happy hour at the nearest watering hole. It’s five o’clock somewhere, right?

Yeah, at your destination. Five days away. I don’t know about you…wait, that’s not right. I do know you. We’ve all been stuck with a layover if we travel by air. Sometimes it’s a few hours, sometimes it’s many, many, many hours. We’re talking sprawl out on the nearest empty row of chairs hours. You’re in fishbowl. It’s a given that it’s no fun to wait around for a flight, a matter completely out of your control, at the mercy of the aviation gods. It’s a test of patience. So chill. Ride along. Make the best of it. Watch the people scattering hither and yon, for you may be scattering some day also. Pulsing humanity. Big airports are a microcosm of the human condition in action. Seeking sanction and/or seeking escape.

Yeah, yeah. That truck sounds so heady. But (surprise) I got a tale to tell about the oddness of said human condition that happened to me in an airport. Seems relevant. That and it happened in Utah, so that carries some weight.

It was August, and I headed out the summer after graduating college to visit my then girlfriend who took a job as a park ranger in the Black Canyon in Colorado. Never been to the Rocky Mountain range, and was curious as to how she conducted business. She promised the elegance of Colorado’s high desert country, as well as an easy descent into said canyon beckoning one of those Ansel Adams-esque streams flowing at the bottom. Crystal clear water and a keen view of the rising Coloradan cliffs. Sounded good to me.

I departed Philadelphia International for a five hour flight to the Centennial State. The cross country flight was unremarkable. The three hour layover in Utah was something else. Believe it or not, whenever I had flown in the past I was mercifully spared super-long layovers. Maybe an hour at most. Even my high school jaunt to Ireland only trapped me in Heathrow for a bit over sixty minutes. Call me lucky.

Stuck outside Salt Lake City was a different story. Three hours. That’s the first set of a Dead show there. It was the late 90s. Mobile phones just made calls. No Wi-Fi. Michael Crichton still a hot topic at the local newsstand. Boredom set in quick, as well as getting all fidgety for lack of a traveling companion. That and queuing up in the proto-TSA security line made me edgy. Hope the crack team with the wands wouldn’t find that stash of hash crammed in my ears.

Kidding (I wish). I trudged my way along the line to get prodded in the name of safety, chatting up this young woman who was just as bored as I. Never caught her name, but we BS’d as we waited. We came through scott free—ears intact—and decided to kill some of a lot of time at one of the many bars. She recently finished school and welcomed me for a few. Over cocktails we talked about our destinations and where we were from. It was a real “single serving friend” moment, to quote Tyler Durden. She was en route to Colorado also, to start a new life. Something about recovery and living with her sister who had recently given birth to her first kid. Single mom, offered an opportunity for my single serving to get her head together. No judgments from me; I was intrigued.

I spewed my bile and she suffered me pretty well, probably since I offered to pick up the tab. We took in the scenery, the masses moving to and fro. I pulled my recent degree in English and Philosophy out of my ass and got all existential on her, remarking on the surrounding, pulsing humanity. She dug and told me more about her microcosm of addiction and hanging with “the wrong crowd.” She showed me a fresh tat on her arm, something tribal. She called it a milestone, a change in her life and what it might lead to. Sorta like true north. The whole chit-chat seemed to be all about where we were going, reflection—satori—in the busy shadows of hundreds chasing their flights.

We killed enough time for her to finish her layover. I ran with her to her respective gate and bid her good luck. “See ya around” and such. She embarked and that was that. Another nugget of humanity that could only get sifted through one of America’s many airport terminal screenings. Funny how a chance encounter with a stranger makes for some well-killed time in a building full of strangers hell-bent for stranger tides. I waited out my final hour of laying over thumbing through a journal or something, lamenting the batteries in my Discman were dead. Late 90s, remember?

Coda: almost a week into my vay-cay with the park ranger girlfriend, we had to venture out to the Costco for groceries. I wanted to stock up on the necessities of my climb down the Black Canyon. Clif Bars, bottled water, oxygen tank (that would come later, actually and really). I got into my head to kill some time back at her cabin we needed to build some Lego sets. No cable, no Internet, no nothing. Why not? Those esteemed Danes launched their new Ninja sets that summer, and I had a hankering.

While rifling through the boxes, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I figured it belonged to my girl, ready to scold me for considering such a frivolous purchase. I was wrong. It was my single serving friend, smiling, pushing a stroller with a sleeping infant. I was so surprised to see her again I could only grin and say, “Hi!” F*cking backwoods Colorado, a lifetime away from Salt Lake, her new neice snoozing in the stroller. The damned Costco of all places. She smiled back, waved and made her way down the aisle. That was all.

Funny what connections can be made on the road. The passing parade sometimes lends you a chance to jump onto a float. And float is an apt term. Stuck in the melee of travel, you get get alone amongst hundreds of strangers. Not surpring how the desperate lonely there seek out some kind of connection, over drinks or no. Now that I scratch at that memory, I remind myself that my friend had only recently graduated high school. Nineteen years old. Far too young to drink in an airport bar. But I was paying, and vouched for her and the bartender left us alone. Figured she’s seen this setup before.

Funny what sticks, and what didn’t. All I knew about then is that I had a hangover for the record, and met another stranger who helped me out of boredom. With long distance travel, sometimes that’s all you need to make the wait not seem like waiting.

More about the ride back later. The apocryphal trip home…


Viktor Navorski (Hanks) is a man without a country. Literally.

During his stay in NYC political upheaval has torn his homeland asunder. To put it plainly his country of Krakozhia doesn’t exist anymore. Viktor’s citizenship—his very nationality—has been revoked. He can’t go back home, because technically it ain’t there no more. So now he’s stuck JFK airport’s international arrivals terminal for the long haul. A very long haul, until some loophole in customs come to light.

This isn’t that uncommon in the historical annals of international air travel. Sometimes travelers can’t get to their desired destination for myriad reasons. Political matters, yes, but at least there’s a place to go to. Normally Viktor’s plight would be handled with a minimum of fuss, drenched in paperwork, red tape and waiting on a phone call returned from the Krakozhian embassy.

Normally. There is a spanner in the works at JFK regarding Viktor’s exit: customs director Frank Dixon (Tucci) and his impending promotion. See, our castaway is a prime example—albeit of a unique circumstance—of what Customs tries to avoid. Prevent would be a better word. Displaced peoples. Dixon has been zealous in his duties, his reputation impeccable. His responsibilities keeping JFK ship-shape have never floundered, so Dixon’s on the deserved up-and-up.

Now Frank has Viktor. Quite the possible blemish on his sterling record. This will not stand, so to unload his misguided frustrations and ire, Frank makes Viktor’s non-life a bureaucratic hell. Sign this, sign that. Don’t do this and don’t do that. How dare does this backwater Eastern Bloc yahoo screw with his smooth-running airport?

Due to international law and basic protocol, Dixon can’t just toss the waylaid Viktor out onto the street, nor can he send him back “home” either. The guy’s stuck there in the IAB, forced to etch a new life as a refugee with no cash, no English, with just his luggage and the clothes on his back.

Oh, and his can of peanuts. Can’t forget the peanuts…


I had to watch The Terminal in two sessions. It was over two hours long, I got tired and had to get to work the next day at an ungodly early hour. That and my attention started to waver by the start of the second act. When I start watching the timer, such does not bode well for a positive critique of the weekly mangling.

My attention started to fail when I began to silently ask the movie, “Where are we going with this?” (perhaps also to the two or nine beers I had consumed). To put it quick, Terminal had got to be one of the most winding road trip movie I ever saw. And seeing our protag never gets to go anywhere outside the airport also made for a weird viewing experience. Don’t misunderstand that. The Terminal is about going places, but it’s all inward, revolving about our waylaid hero Viktor. The atmosphere is alluding to the guy finishing his journey, by hook, crook or redeemed passport book, but the whole process is akin to that Rush lyric (quit moaning): “The point of a journey is not to arrive.” Whatever that means.

But think about it. Another cliche: getting there is half the fun. Precious few films I’ve just given up on here at RIORI. Most because they were boring, insipid, poorly written or a melange of alla dat. I lose patience. The whole timer watching thing. Darted my eyes up and down between the film and the Blu-Ray readout. Like I said: does not bode well for this duck.

Then I remembered Terminal was a Spielberg flick, and the man often takes his time setting up the story. Beat as I was, I wasn’t so thick to give up so soon. The first act of Terminal was not boring, insipid, or poorly written. But it was rambling. Couldn’t figure where Viktor’s odyssey was headed. Barring the hook/Maguffin of the peanut can, The Terminal felt like rote Spielberg. Still I maintained enough curiosity to keep going. Even if it took two nights. Three, actually. I said I was late and it was tired.

Halfway through my viewing I remembered a short interview with Spielberg courtesy of AMC. It wasn’t a kitchen table thing, just a short-lived gimmick the network employed to promote new movie remakes (in theatrical or soon-to-be theatrical release) against the originals in their library. The example: dateline 2005. Steve was going to unleash his version of HG Wells’ War Of The Worlds that summer, so AMC did their due diligence in broadcasting Byron Haskins’ original 1953 outing about malevolent Martians laying waste to humanity one Saturday evening. Remastered!

I really dug the original, and sorry, forget director Haskins’ vision. This War was special effects guru George Pal’s baby all the way that time out (I believed after eventually watching Spielberg’s version, he paid more homage to Pal’s vision rather than Byron-what’s-his-tits). I learned later that Pal’s take was a thinly veiled allegory about Communist invasion—both mindset and body—seeping into post-war America, what with all it amazing consumer and technological advancements (read: modern conveniences. Who would’ve though self-cleaning ovens could shake the Iron Curtain so?). When I was 12, I just dug the tension, desperation and very cool, ahead of its time F/X. Did I mention that?

During those fateful weekend viewings, Steve shilled his new project between commercials. Naturally he laid much praise on Pal’s movie. More on the F/X, natch. He also shared his muse that drove his version. Perhaps also inspired by the second into third act storyline of the original film, Steve brought up the notion of the “refugee experience.” This left-field musing caught my attention (right before the sponsor Scope tore me out of my reverie). From an alien invasion film? Really?

Then I finally caught Spielberg’s version. Despite the violence, ear-crushing Dolby digital and an out-of-place Tom Cruise, I grokked to where the man was going. Great swathes of Spielberg’s film involved desperate humans bolting for survival, their country in upheaval, fleeing for shelter and REDACTED a crazed Tim Robbins. Folks driven for normalcy via wit, grit and both. Steve’s War in that light was a culmination of sorts regarding literal refugee stories like Empire Of The Sun and The Sugarland Express, if not Jaws and Close Encounters in a metaphorical sense.

The Terminal is a very literal refugee experience. But from the inside out. Within Spielberg’s healthy id and his sentimental superego. Viktor is the uber innocent abroad, but like Rush alluded it’s not Viktor’s destination that really matters, It’s how he manages to survive, a la Empire. On the run the whole time. Not from invading aliens. From time. And a dogged government official. Gotta respect the FAA.

Hanks’ Viktor is indeed a refugee. So when plunked into an environment not of his own making, what to do? Right. Create a suitable (new) life, if only to establish a new normal and keep sane. Once I woke up and carried on after the second act and into the third, my befuddlement leaned into empathy for our hapless hero. It’s made clear at the outset that Viktor is no rube. Sure, there’s a language barrier. But that’s it. I don’t know about you (and the following might be on the cusp of racist), but where I work a great portion of my co-workers serve English as a second language. Half of the time Spanish, Farsi and Arabic spoken there. I only know enough Spanish to know when someone is talking about me (“Se hombre tiene schnozzola grande“), and I’ve never had a three day layover in Riyadh, so there.

That irks me. Not the non-layover. But feeling dumb that I have this lingual deficiency. Constantly being reminded of my insular American-ness makes me feel like, well an American and a casual Trump disciple. So I’ve been accused. In Farsi. Our Viktor isn’t dumb, regardless of how Americans regard non-Americans who don’t savvy the language.

That being said, I harken back to a recent installment (#70, Garry Marshall’s Georgia Rule) where I offered to critic of that film a favor. I owe AllMovie critic Terry Seibert a dinner, too. This time with a glass of wine. Like I said, I was a tad befuddled by where the hell Spielberg was taking me with The Terminal. Seibert sent me on the course. That aforementioned curious tableau The Terminal offered with a two-plus day viewing demanded me to check out AllMovie’s take. Like I said I’m a “believe it when I see it (literally)” kind of guy, but once in a while I get all confuzed and need some insight. Seibert’s take set me straight.

Better put, Seibert gave me some perspective. Tom Hanks is a good, reliable actor. A 21st Century Jimmy Stewart. But Hanks CV has been rather spotty overall compared to his legacy contemporary. Sure, Hanks eventually hit a stride in the early-90s, but only after bumbling through his salt mine 80s. Can’t really think of many good Hanks flicks between being Kip for two measly seasons of Bosom Buddies and the doggie slobber that was Turner And Hooch. Not to say there weren’t some bright spots peeking from behind clouds of pratfalls and goony histrionics. There was Big, of course. A breakthrough. But also minor goodies like Punch LineSplash and to a lesser degree Nothing In Common, his first stab at drama. Why cite these and not the chewy goodness of Dragnet and The Man With One Red Shoe (better not to ask)? Listed above suggested the key to Hanks’ appeal that Seibert plainly said about the actor’s motivation in The Terminal.

Hanks is a good listener. Or rather, his characters on screen are good listeners. When they carefully take in the world around them—or dumped into, like Viktor—they take the necessary time to figure out what’s going on and what to do with it, as well as thoughtfully interact with the other characters. That’s when the Viktor’s of Hanks’ oeuvre take flight. Even when screaming at a volleyball.

Along with Big, Forrest Gump (a no-brainer, so to speak) and even Saving Private RyanThe Terminal gets its proverbial mileage from Hanks observing his environment and weighing the options offered up by people he meets along the way. The aforementioned films have ensemble casts, as does Terminal. The only difference is that our protagonist is not part of the ensemble. Not really.

Here’s how that works. Our setting—the titular terminal—is the real protagonist of the movie. Viktor’s just its avatar. JFK International a federal law teems. May not be Salt Lake City (but then again, where is?), but I’ll bet you a silk pajama that at least a million travelers tear through that airport each week in a running at full clip OJ Simpson fashion. In a good way (I think). And despite Viktor’s claustrophobic cultural exile, we sure can see a lot of space. Said space allows Viktor to “explore America,” get some bearings and permits our Cold War Gump to take us on the trip also. The terminal—a world unto itself—lets us be Hanks’ Link to JFK’s Hyrule.

You’re welcome, Switch users and abusers.

What I’m driving at there (“It’s dangerous to travel alone! Take this” Ha ha and sorry) is how the many lives fold into Viktor’s adventure. What I’m getting at here is the supporting cast. At heart, Terminal is a character study. Sure, Viktor is our avatar against the backdrop of the omnipresent terminal, but how he wends his way towards whatever depends almost solely on (as Blanche’s been over-quoted) “the kindness of strangers.” We have a lot of cool strangers indeed to rely on here. Barring Viktor, but not snubbing the principals, the motley, reluctant crew at his sides really makes Hanks shine. He’s a listener, right? At first glance, Hanks’ language barrier looks like only be used for derivative comic effect. It’s only later that we learn it’s his only defense against being regarded as some patsy or rube. Viktor ain’t dumb. He’s perceptive. Also earnest. To the people around him and later rally around him. Or don’t.

That’s good there. Let’s start with Viktor’s nemesis, Frank. Tucci is always great at being smarmy. It’s his signature, and it works wonders here as the antagonist. Frank’s not a bad guy, just a tad overzealous in his job. We know folks like that, worked for folks like that. Are folks like that. Tucci’s Dixon is a prime example of the old saw: characters don’t have to be likable. Maybe not even relatable (likable’s red-headed stepchild). No. They have to be interesting. What’s Frank’s damage? Beyond the demands of his (potential) new post? Felt kind of a Napoleon complex here, and not just cuz Hanks is 6′ and Tucci is a subaverage 5’7″ (really. Those stats are correct. I Googled it, and I’m a lame-o. That stat is also correct). Dixon’s the classic case of someone who has something to prove to himself by proving it to everyone. A real heavyweight. Against the patient, curious, resourceful and without a network Viktor, his ire and contemptuousness makes for a delicious brew of conflict. Sure, Tucci comes over as a bit over the top in his pursuit, but it feels…well, like natural acting. He’s slimy (for a good example, watch Big Night or The Core, covered here earlier). His slow burn works especially well as Dixon’s underlings begin to regard clever Viktor with more respect than their boss. Like I said, Dixon’s not a bad guy. He’s just a bad listener.

The supporting cast was awesome, and I’m not just talking the actors. Like the terminal, the folks on the fringes add to the world as human fishbowl microcosm (did that make sense?). As Viktor attempts a new life in exile, he bumps into a lot of other displaced persons along the way. Viktor may be alone in a crowd, but that makes him the ideal pinion for the often invisible people that make an airport run, run. Thanks to “local hero” Viktor we get to meet the “real New York.”

I must admit, I really loved the supporting players here. All touchstones of Viktor’s muddled psyche, and all trying to point the way, if only in a low-rent, surreal kinda fashion. Each minor player had their own fleshed-out story. Most ancillary players in an ensemble film are usually just chess pieces shoved around to keep the narrative dutifully chugging onwards. Not here. Chi McBride, of whom I am quite the fan (ever since his turn as cigar-chewing, philosopher king janitor Heavy Gene on The John Larroquette Show back in the ancient 90s) was a delight. Channeling Gene here, his baggage tosser Joe is brash, yet still savvy to the needs of the anonymous millions he disservices (and quite cagey in scoping out their valuable errata). The guy knows stuff and has no misgivings about waxing poetic about the basic needs of people. His whole schtick reminds me fondly of that Robert Fulghum essay about chicken-fried steak (visit your local library). Joe is the guru Viktor needs to get his sh*t together, while all the while gathering more “sh*t.” Namely, finding your place in the midst of life, wherever that place may be. Now play cards.

Diego Luna was not an actor I was immediately familiar with, but (as they say, whoever they are. They is usually me, and I don’t know anybody) he “has that face.” Right; I saw him in Elysium, also covered here (vol 3, installment 1) and did some voice work for the well-received Book Of Life. He also did this little thing later called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. So that. Guy’s been around. Here? He’s the hapless romantic figure. An oft dodgy prospect in most roles of such ilk. But I giggled a lot here thanks to his performance. That’s right: giggled, and not in a down-the-nose kinda way. Luna’s Enrique was a sweet, hapless romantic, a la Roberto Begnini and starring towards piece of Viktor’s fractured presence.

Did I mention that thing? That I found the supporting cast as representing aspects of Viktor’s psyche? Like a Greek chorus? The terminal being the grey matter dictating Viktor’s adventure, the minor players serves insight into our hero’s fractured voyage. If Chi was the sage—a wiseass sage to be sure—then Luna was the romantic, soft for stalwart Saldana and using Viktor’s supposed innocence as an ideal Cyrano. Must’ve sparked something in Viktor’s imagination, as well as his unwanted isolation to attempt to get all close to Amelia.

Ah. Sorry to be so abrupt (no I ain’t. This yer first time here?). Here we take the pipe. Jones’ Amelia is too fluffy and not fleshed out, perhaps on purpose. If that’s the case, then boo, Steve. Right on, she’s nice on the eyes, yes, but as a valuable addition to the chorus? Not so much. She comes across as an afterthought; some sort of device—perhaps a MacGuffin—to bolster Viktor’s unwinding story. Don’t get me wrong. Jones’ is a decent actress, often sly and funny. Some claim she’s pretty. She’s neither here (not the pretty part. She looks like my wife when I want her to. Love you, Seej! Don’t change the locks!). I figure we gotta have some wart festering in a tale like this. A cast of tens needs at least one square peg, right? Uh, wait. Dixon filled that slot. Jones had only three distinct spots here, and almost all of it fluttery and spineless, like she knew her role was superfluous and either incapable or unneeded of rising to the likes of, say, Kumar Pallana’s Yoda-like Gupta.

He was a trick, meaning he fooled me. Y’ever come across a guy who’s a real pest? Well-meaning and sharp but lacking the social skills to know when to shut the f*ck up? I work with a guy like that. Maybe you do too. Story time! Yet again! Shut up!

The kitchen I sweat at has at least three utility guys on the clock all day long. Utility? Read: dishwashers. One of them is a loud, boorish, jabber box off the first water. He has Asperger’s Syndrome. For those not in the know, Asperger’s is a high-functional type of autism. Namely, those that make their way in the world by abiding to their personal rules that guide them through the day. Like most of us, which means we don’t call for V-E-R-N when Tom Cruise rifles through our library. Unlike most of us however, when something occasionally goes awry (as it sometimes does), we try to not get very pissy and only chill when homeostasis is re-established. When the flow is restored. No. All is well when the system is in place, on certain terms. Take that away and Hail Columbia. In the interim, you can’t talk to the guy. He’s a raging torrent of profanity who looks eager to take a swing at you. Sometimes he does. No matter. He’s pesky. He means well overall. And if he doesn’t shut his trap when all’s on the level again YOU’RE gonna get ready at bat.

Gupta was kinda like that to me (especially considering how he wielded his mop). Pallana was mouthy, sour and the ideal Spielbergian avatar as emotional center for Viktor’s chorus. He was my fave character, though not at first. He reminded me a bit too much of my proto-Rain Man co-worker (do not ever f*ck with the guy’s system about stacking pots. I have nine fingers now. Kidding. Eight fingers and a thumb). Eventually my patience was rewarded. Gupta’s sagacity reflected Viktor’s trevails, but in a subtle, rather crafty way. Gupta’s presence was a slow build. A very slow build. Like Vik, get patient. Don’t stack the pots yourself. Just listen to the scamp; he knows sh*t. Viktor’s good at listening. With Gupta, Viktor/Hanks learned how to be selective in what to listen too. We eventually learn through Pallana’s ultra-subtle acting/characterization that prickly can often be dismissed beyond empathy and wisdom. That being said, I learned how to replace the detergent block in the dish machine to make those agony-inducing, digital bleeping screams go away for a while. Viktor learned fast to whom should be heard.

Terminal might be the most angular film Spielberg ever cut, and maybe on purpose. Couldn’t escape the feeling of a message being conveyed. Not sure of the message, but so much of the film seemed deliberate. That’s not bad thing; angular does not necessarily mean absent of nuance. The supporting chorus paired against Viktor’s crafty self cured that…with patience. Still, beyond any obvious human condition thang and Speilberg trademark humanity, Terminal was approaching some kind of statement. Again, not sure what, but the smell of that lingered. Might’ve had to do with how clever the movie played out. That deliberate feeling reflected when Viktor REDACTED his adopted home. It felt like a crafty descent into being clever. The entire film is clever in a very cheeky way, but it takes aeons to figure that out. That being said, Terminal is a voyage into the human condition, stuffed illegally into the overhead compartment with a lot of emotion, coat-tugging, willful disappointment, a lame Catherine Zeta-Jones and a dedicated appreciation for jazz. Something for everyone. Just keep your ears as open as your eyes. And mind the pots.

In hindsight, Spielberg’s 1989 misfire Always (which I enjoyed, thanks to the great cast replete with the likes of Dreyfuss, Goodman, Hunter and Keith David [!]) feels like a dry run for Terminal‘s story of being “lost” and eventually “finding the way again” metaphor. Sure, it was a 15 year gestation, but certain things need to take their good ol’ time. In that aspect Terminal was a minor miracle. A tale of naked human emotion that didn’t need Kleenex. Instead of rubbing your palms together, genuflecting and demanding of the sky, “What does it all mean?” we got, “Huh…” and (hopefully) later, “Ohhh.” Then break out the peanuts, please.

Airports tend to be dehumanizing, as I said. We’re all but airfares and lemmings. That actual building, the one embedded into concrete is the real master of air travel. Public charging stations, fees for fees, Dan Brown paperbacks with Hanks’ mug on the cover and all them cat o’ nine tails upon the Carlin-esque pre-boarding process. After watching The Terminal, I took some small solace in knowing I wasn’t all alone in such massive spaces, whether in major hub Salt Lake or parking lot Durango, CO (with or within the lost single-serving). Sure, we see the passing parade at the time. On the streets, in a mall, even on FaceBook. But for a singularity of purpose—getting the f*ck away—enjoy a layover.

That might’ve been the message I was grafting onto the character study that was The Terminal. Could’ve sworn I heard something…


Epilogue…

Oh yeah. That return flight home.

You ever get lucky on a flight and have the entire row to yourself? Me neither, but en route back from Colorado I scored the next best thing: an empty seat between my rump and another poor schlub stuck on the same red eye. Never caught his name, but I remember being the first to suggest that we slap the armrests back and get some breathing room.

He was a software developer, from Seattle (hmm) on some junket and claimed feeling like he was paying rent here with so many whistle stops. I told him about me being a recent college grad and where I was departing from. From Montrose, CO to Salt Lake City—pushing three hours with the headwind—we chatted and joked about (then early) Internet tech, family, the delights of modern air travel, college and I shared my tale about my single-serving friend. Both our arms were crooked over the vacant headrest. We we able to swivel our legs inwards to maintain circulation as well as avoiding a brusque encounter with the errant beverage cart. The time flew. We had a grand conversation. Amazing what a bit of legroom could do. Best return flight ever.

He asked me about the Black Canyon. Always wanted to hike in Colorado but duty calls. He asked me if I recommended the Canyon to meet his curiosity. I ended that hike wheezing so hard I lost my cigarettes halfway up the ascent and found myself sucking on an oxygen mask like Ginger Lynn readying the money shot.

Of course I said yes. Wear the proper shoes. Worn out Doc Martin’s make for lousy climbing. You heard it here and it was the 90s.

You may now return your flight attendant to her full, upright position.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Be patient, my friends. The payoff will come. Hanks is a good actor. He doesn’t push and pull. He’s lost but hopeful. He’s patient. He’s a good listener. Be like Hanks.

Steve is also hopeful. Also patient. A good listener. He makes nice movies. His win awards. Good luck being like Steve.


Stray Observations…

  • “America is closed.” Says it all.
  • BORDERS. Kind of on the nose there. But I do miss that chain, sorry. I have another story to tell there about how I got married. I just need to see the proper movie to introduce that rant. I am strict.
  • “She’s a Trekkie!” No…way.
  • I got a feeling that Viktor’s awkward posture was a ruse. Can’t put a finger on how, though.
  • “I hate Tuesdays!”
  • Always took a shine to a resourceful hero type. Must be latent “MacGyver” nostalgia/fandom.
  • “He love that goat.” Wink.
  • That being noted, we got some odd humor going on here. Uneasy, jittery. Post-911 perhaps? Again?
  • “You don’t like fish.”
  • This is the polar opposite of Munich, right? Right?!?
  • “Success.” Irony not lost.

Next Installment…

If you thought one was bad, try dealing with Seven Psychopaths, Clarice.


 

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RIORI Vol 3, Installment 30: Joel Coen’s “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)


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The Players…

George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Edward Herrman, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein and Cedric The Entertainer, with Julia Duffy, Geoffrey Rush and Richard Jenkins.


The Story…

Love is fleeting as it’s been said. That’s why we have prenups. Serial golddigger Marilyn has a made a career of “marrying right” in order to divorce when the check clears. Finding Mr Right is a distant second to scoring Mr Right For Now.

When Marilyn solicits Miles Massey’s law firm for her latest chump to dump, he smells a rat and a scam. And an irresistible fiscal black widow Miles can only regard as “fascinating.”

And the case. Right, let’s not forget the case.


The Rant…

Short one this week. Kick back. Grab some Cheetos.

So. Do you remember your first Coen Brothers’ movie?

I do. They’re kinda like an event nowadays. Films made for a cult audience before the cult’s even made. I first experienced that hoo-hah back in college, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Again.

My first toe-dip into the Coen’s olympic-sized film pool was by way of Raising Arizona. Didn’t get it then. I was a kid. Liked Nic Cage because he was loony and hammy. Saw Arizona the same year Peggy Sue Got Married came out on video. Even though being a kid and totally removed from the film’s 50s pop culture references I liked that film enough. It was where I first met Cage really, and got reacquainted with that funny lady from Romancing The Stone, too, which was nice—mostly for Cage’s nasally delivery. The whole time travel thing was cool, too. Such simpler movie watching times then.

So me being a nascent Cage fan, hearing about the Arizona movie I checked it out. Like I said, didn’t get it. Too young. But Nic was clowning around and the whole goofy kidnapping caper tickled my fancy, enough so that I still remember the film aeons later. Must’ve left an impression.

The Coen’s movies sure do that. Leave an impression. It might not always be a good impression, but their signature sticks in your teeth like a Jolly Rancher, regardless of being either sweet or sour. Sure, other directors have their signature thumbprints all over their work (e.g.: Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, etc), and you look forward to their usual antics, but the Coen’s work is so oblique, so abstract, so f*cking weird we don’t get thumbprints. We get a five-fingered slap. And it can feel oh so good.

But for every Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing, we can also get The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers and Paris, Je T’Aime. I ain’t saying the latter films suck, but the Coen impression is skewed here, beyond the wacky scripts and bizarre acting. There’s inconsistency with the impression. Even some of Spielberg’s lesser films still smell like a steady Spielberg project. Coen films are a lot like comparing sex and pizza. When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still good. But for both accounts, when it’s bad is isn’t necessary bad when it comes to Coen films. But it can be unsatisfying.

Akin to my Raising Arizona story, that Coen impression can be so palpable that when you watch one of their fluffier films you run the risk of walking away scratching your head. “What was up with that?” you may ask yourself after watching Inside Llewyn Davis two weeks after seeing No Country For Old Men. You dig? With the Coen brothers, it’s never really a good impression or a bad one. Across a continuum it can be a baffling impression. I understand all directors want to squeeze the orange every so carefully with each of their ensuing films, but the Coen’s work is so eclectic, and their quality is so all over the map it gets hard to adjust your lens.

Take this week’s installment…


She’s cunning. She’s deceptive. She’s gorgeous. And she’s loaded, which is separate from her other assets.

Marilyn Rexroth (Jones) is a serial golddigger. Professional golddigger is more apt, and she knows how to squeeze both a bank account and a scrotum with equal ease. The former is her weapon of choice. And her latest stupid, prey is on the chopping block, the cheating Rex Rexroth (Herrman). So to make sure she gets the biggest buck for her bang, Marilyn seeks out the best counsel against the law firm of Massey et al to secure the prenuptials.

Slick marriage attorney Miles Massey (Clooney) knows a ripe peach when he picks one. Marilyn’s beguiling…case proves to be a curious one. Miles suspects Marilyn isn’t the damaged, rueful ex-wife she appears to be. He scours about the law community trying to get some scuttlebutt on this woman’s true motives—which are painfully obvious.

But as Miles gets to understand his quarry, he finds himself slowly getting tangled in Marilyn’s web of…of…

How fascinating…


Like I began to babble about up top, my first real Coen movie exposure came in my senior year of college. Not one of their films, per se, just the reactions to one. The movie of the moment then, whose buzz could not be killed with an entire pallet of Raid was The Big Lebowski. My peers raved. They cheered. They took the White Russian-soaked philosophical mumblings of The Dude quite seriously. A cult was brewing. I was hesitant.

I’ve always been suspicious of the mass pop cultural appeal towards the movie/TV show/band/book/yoga position of the moment. For example, when the novel The DiVinci Code was the book on everyone’s quivering lips, I steered clear. Since the majority of Americans are functionally illiterate, when the hoi polloi starts salivating over a few pages, I arch a brow. I once got a “recommendation” for Dan Brown’s opus from a bar buddy of mine. Her claim, “Don’t worry. The chapters are short” was hardly a ringing endorsement. Back when Lebowski was the flavor of the week, and my esteemed colleagues would just not quit answering all questions with, “The Dude abides,” I slinked away and said later, gator. It took many years for me to get around to see the thing. Then and only then I figured out what my friends were slobbering over. It’s a great movie, granted. I guess I had already seen a lot of other films from the Coen Canon before my eventual few frames with Walt and Donny, so when the hammer came down I knew what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course I was pleased. Because that crucial Coen impression was slathered all over the place.

Cruelty has the impression all right. It’s just not a good impression, and not in the sex/pizza paradigm, either.

Let’s get right to the point, Cruelty is a comedy in the vein of its Coen-helmed ancestor, Raising Arizona. Only it’s the opposite. Where the latter was an experiment in the bizarre, and totally left field compared to other comedies of its ilk back in 1987 (eg: Three Men And A Baby. Need I say more, Spock?), the former is a straightforward black comedy. Arizona was the anti-comedy. Cruelty is a winking screwball comedy. Almost, but lacks bite. A great part of the Coen’s impression is bite. Stinging, ribald, getting-under-the-skin bite. Cruelty has almost no bite. It gums. It’s goofy, to be sure as comedies like these are, but the movie flies by in such a gale that nothing gets a chance to take hold. Stick. Penetrate. Chafe. Ow.

Sorry.

Cruelty is a slick caper, this one. It’s not that there’s anything overtly off-putting here—acting’s good, story’s not dull, Jones is hot—but one gets the feeling that the Coens are deliberately holding back. You know, taking a few Ativan and seeing if they can bring wacky, campy sh*t to rise minus the late Randall “Tex” Cobb and his shenanigans. The end result here doesn’t feel very organic though, not the way like, say Fargo was. And that movie was a lot funnier than Cruelty is, albeit more stark. Then again Cruelty is a deliberate black comedy, trying very hard to be screwy, and maybe on purpose. I mean, it felt like the Coens were reaching for something here, something more mainstream in a comedy compared to their past efforts. But the whole thing just zooms by with nary a whit of subtly, like there’s some hurry to get to the resolution or the kitties will burn. It’s like staring into the microwave, watching that spinning cup of coffee boil over.

In simpler terms, slow it the f*ck down. Moving on.

Cruelty kinda reminds me of one of those daffy comedies starring Cary Grant back in the day. It’s would explain Clooney’s delivery, all snapping teeth, mile-wide smile and silver-tongued scene chewing. His Miles is a second cousin to Ulysses McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—I know, I know. One more Coen movie citation and out the window with me—all fast talking and on the cusp of total ham. Whereas Ulysses tried to be an honorable husband and dad, Miles’ smarminess belies a petulant, pimply teen inside, always squirming with self-doubt. For all his wheeler-dealing, high-end divorce lawyer guise, what ultimately motivates him is getting girls to notice him. There are plenty of scenes when Miles is scampering about like spoiled, randy teenager, all bluff and bluster. It’s somewhat charming, but not necessarily endearing. Miles’ is ostensibly the protagonist; why’s he so reactionary?

Perhaps because Jones’ Marylin is so seductive, and not in the silk stocking kind of way. She’s a smooth operator, all right. Some master criminals scheme their schemes with maniacal glee. Well, so does Marilyn. Save the rare remorseful, crying jag she’s as scheming as they come. In a way, her nefarious lack of bluster makes her all the more Black Widow-type. Only instead of killing her prey, she kills their livelihood. It’s a kind of bullying really, and maybe a form of radical feminism. I don’t need a man for what he can give me; I want what he can give me. Jones is the villain here, and a delicious chimera if there ever was one. Best part of the film I figure. And kudos to the wardrobe department.

Despite the mostly seamless (get it?), winding, interconnecting plot threads in Cruelty, the whole thing comes across as way to busy and rushed. Feels like Coen comedy lite. Sure, it was amusing, and professional in its execution. And it did smack of a Coen Brothers madcap comedy, but everything was too measured. No real edge. No Hudsucker here. No tension. Slick like Miles courtroom babbling and everything streamlined because Marilyn has other fish to fry. Hurry, hurry, hurry. IfI get to timer watching—so to speak—there be a problem, laddie buck.

Welp, that’s about it as far as this installment goes. Other things of note (I don’t want to be derelict in my duties by ignoring other noteworthy sh*t. Yer welcome) that Cruelty sports the usual, eclectic, tasteful, awesome supporting cast of misfits and wastrels. We still have plenty of Andy Kaufman-esque “punk the audience” humor. There was a fair amount of head-scratching curiosity (one could say too much). The movie didn’t outright suck, but it was for lacking. Cruelty was a casserole of half-baked ideas and malformed notions, and maybe all a deliberate mess. Taken as a whole, Cruelty was sadly less than the some of its more impressive parts.

Y’know, now that I think about it, Cruely kinda played like a mashup of other Coen comedies. This specimen seemed fused together from ideas scattered on the cutting room floor. Was this part of any underlying comedy here? Like the Coens were trying to bait the audience by preying on blind fandom and Jones’ boobies?

And do they even have cutting rooms anymore?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Hey, not every Coen Brother film is worth quoting, y’dig? It’s like this is what happens when you find a stranger in th—Ow!


Stray Observations…

  • I think this is the first movie I’ve seen starring Jones with her not shedding the Brit accent. Maybe the lilt in her speech was meant to make her Marilyn all the more intriguing.
  • “We’ll eat the pastry!”
  • Was it just me, but didn’t Miles’ big speech at the convention kinda flow like Jimmy Stewart’s in Mr Smith Goes To Washington? Like I claimed, classic comedy film undertones. Discuss.
  • “This man is tuna.” F*cking vile, that.
  • Living Without Intestines. Now that’s bathroom reading. And it has a pinup!
  • “Who needs a home when you have a colostomy bag?” Good point.
  • Talk about eating your words (*rimshot*).
  • “Punky’s Dilemma.” Clever.
  • “I nailed your ass!”

 


Next Installment…

The Physician of the Middle Ages understood that the only real obstacle on the way to becoming a healer was ignorance. And superstition. And the Catholic Church. And the Inquisition. And traveling afar to unknown lands. And eventually HMOs. And…


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 36: Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity” (2000)


High-Fidelity-poster-art


The Players…

John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black and Todd Louiso, with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Sara Gilbert, Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Once again, cranky audiophile Rob Gordon has been dumped by…oh, it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same, ever since middle school. After this latest failure of a relationship, Rob decides to do some soul-searching; to figure out what’s gone wrong in his life when it comes to the opposite sex. It may be a lack of maturity. Or his caustic attitude. Or most likely, he identifies better with the music in his unfeasible record collection than actual socializing. Whatever the reason may be, Rob’s going to be adrift and alone forever if he doesn’t take off the headphones.


The Rant:

Here we go again with another music-themed movie, and you just know your not-so-humble blogger is going to either rail on and on about corporate rock and/or rail on and on about his psychotic record collection.

Nope.

Not this time. Not gonna do it. We’ve got something else under the lens today: movies based on pre-existing media. In the case of High Fidelity, books.

With any movie adaptation of a pre-existing literary form—a Shakespearean play, a novel, a comic book, etc.—the director has to walk a very loose tightrope, but a tightrope nonetheless. I say loose because we have two sides of an audience to reach here—most of whom are fickle—and we best be flexible.

On one side, the audience that knows the source material, wants to see the director’s vision and interpretation of said source as close as possible, hopefully satisfying the need (sometimes obsession) to see if he got it “right.” People want to see the director’s vision not getting in the way of…well, the director’s vision. You don’t want to have a color-by-numbers, scene-by-scene exact duplication of the original material. That’s a cop-out, especially to those who already read the book and probably loved the book like chocolate, sex and sex-covered chocolate.

On the other side, you don’t want the director to deviate so far from the original idea so to mangle the script, use lame dialogue, and stick in some artistic “flair” that either Hollywood insisted on adding like a happy ending, general sweetening or Jennifer Aniston. That or placating the director’s muse excitedly sh*tting on his head. It’s a delicate balance, and the pissy audience that already read the book—Harry Potter fans, Game of Thrones disciples, Walking Dead adherents and/or Fifty Shades of Grey very desperate housewives—wants it both ways. When it doesn’t work out, it’s usually the audience’s fevered fanboy-ism that’s to blame. Not that they’d ever admit it.

That being said, there have been several notable book-to-film adaptations; some were stellar or at least satisfying. Sam Raimi’s Spider Man 2 springs immediately to mind. My opinion is best validated by rumor having it that when original Spidey artist John Romita, Sr. caught a sneak peak of the film, his comments were more-or-less, “I drew that…Drew that…That too…etc.” Sounds like the movie straddled the line well to me. Other highlights include MASH, the Godfather and the original Die Hard; yes, Die Hard was based on a book. I read the book after seeing the movie like, oh I dunno, a jillion times. I can safely say that here’s one instance where the movie version is superior. All the humor and vulnerability of Bruce Willis’ iconic, relatable everycop John McClane were absent in the book, as well as the hero being actually named “John McClane.”

As a control, Forrest Gump is not a good example. The touchy-feeliness of the movie version was sentimental Hollywood claptrap, which reliably raked in the dollars and awards; the novel was pessimistic with a capital P, Jenny. Another bad example, oddly enough, is Die Hard 2. Yes, yes, it was based on a book, too. A very good book, BTW. Hack director Renny Harlin chewed it up and spat it out and made a good, taut action/thriller novel into the ur-Michael Bay summer blockbuster. Lots of boom, bullets and bad dialogue. Yippee-ki-yay.

So why do some adaptations work and others limp? Like I said, walking the tightrope. There has to be enough cuts from the original roast to remain true to the spirit of the book, yet have enough directorial sensitivity to respect the lifted material while still adding a unique spin. This is usually done with visuals, dialogue and above all else acting. That and a kick-ass screenwriter like Ted “The Silence of the Lambs” Tally or Richard “The Quiet Man” Llewellyn don’t hurt none. All of it as a whole must be executed with extremely extreme prejudice. In simpler words: don’t dupe the audience. There’s a good chance they already read the book well before the movie hype hit the dailies. Ask any Shakespeare aficionado. Or Spider-Man fanboy.

Some books-turned-movies use the device of a narrator, and sometimes it works. Fight Club employed a narrator (to go so far as to credit Edward Norton simply as “Narrator”), so did Forrest Gump (and despite that movie’s squishiness, it worked too) and also Taxi Driver, A Christmas Story, The Big Lebowski, Apocalypse Now, GoodFellas and—before God—Dances with Wolves. These all worked. High Fidelity uses a narrator too. What separates this movie from the others is the deliberate shattering of “the fourth wall.”

For those who don’t know the reference, I’ll share. Look, it’s not as if the readers out there on the Interweb are thick, it’s just I want to be clear. I gather that most of us are of decent intelligence; of a curious nature that draws the lot of y’all to sh*t-digging social experiments like this one. I can get obtuse in my rumination at RIORI, so I’m making a point out of this one. It’s vital to the movie as a whole.

The “breaking of the fourth wall” is a theatrical reference in which a player steps out of character to directly address the audience. Bill Shakespeare (him again) did this often, like in his drama Othello where the baddie kept telling the audience about his nefarious plans, mwa-ha-ha. The best example used I can recall in modern cinema is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Our protag makes asides to the audience enhancing the action to what’s happening (or will happen) onscreen. For High Fidelity, not unlike Day Off, it augments the comic aspects of the movie. Unlike Fidelity, all the wink-wink/nudge-nudge bets are off.

All right, lecture’s over. Hand in your blue books.

*cheers, applause, sighs of relief, lines to the bathroom*

Hmm. It seems like I’ve already chewed apart our latest installment before the synopsis is out there. Glad you caught me…


Laura (Hjejle) left. She finally had her fill of Rob (Cusack), his musical obsessions and his generally mopey attitude. She’s just another failed relationship in Rob’s seemingly endless line of failed relationships. Now he’s alone, bitter and the only companionship he can find is his unwieldy record collection.

What went wrong?

Rob now plays out days at his semi-failing record shop, Championship Vinyl, dealing with the snobby opinions of his “musical moron twins,” blithering Barry (Black) and milquetoast Dick (Louiso). Nights are spent organizing and reorganizing his LPs, ruminating over the notion that maybe he’s doomed to live alone forever.

Again, what went wrong?

In a rare moment of clarity, Rob does some soul-searching. He recalls his “top five, all-time breakups,” and how they happened. His sifts through his address book and decides to track down his exes to see if there was a pattern forming; what led to his undoing and lowly state. Sure, it might be painful to go down memory lane, facing some ugly truths about his relations with the opposite sex. But you know what they say: pain means you’re growing.

Rob figures it’s time to man up, stare down adulthood, get some maturity and, well, face the music…


I read High Fidelity well after I saw the movie. A lot of people—the aforementioned fanboy audiences— always claim that the book is always better than the movie. Fidelity is an exception to that belief. I’m not saying that either one was superior to the other. I’m saying with Fidelity as a whole, it didn’t really matter.

The movie is very faithful to the book. Very faithful. Like I said, I read the book after I saw the movie, and it made no difference. That’s how faithful Frears’ adaptation was. There were only three differences between the book and the movie:

  1. The setting. Nick Hornby’s book took place in London. The movie is set in Chicago. Cusack, who co-wrote the screenplay, is a native Chicagoan, as well as a handful of the other actors (Robbins et al). They were all once part of a troupe in the Windy City, and it was at Cusack’s behest that these folks could add something to the movie, enhance the set as tableau. Like the book, London was much a character as Chicago is here. Director Frears—who is English—was originally rather diffident about shooting an English story in an American city until he read the script and met the cast. In the end, where High Fidelity takes place was irrelevant. Some stories, like Hornby’s delightful novel, are universal. Life, love and leaving. That’s what Fidelity is all about.
  2. One scene from the book was deleted, and one was added. In the book, the chapter where Rob went record hunting at a spurned wife’s exes fire sale of his record collection was left out. The subplot about Rob producing a pair of burgeoning amateur musicians was added. Both were metaphor for Rob’s life arrest and eventual getting on with life. Both worked well, and;
  3. In the book, he was Rob Fleming. In the movie, he’s Rob Gordon. Not sure why this was done.

At heart, Fidelity is not a music movie. Right. It does have the soundtrack of my dreams, even Katrina & the Waves and “Most of the Time” is one of my fave, latter-day Dylan songs. But it’s not a music movie. It’s a story about personal responsibility and belated growing up.

It’s a lot of other things, too. Fidelity is a love story to and within Chicago, but the opposite of Ferris Beuller. Frears turned out to be wrong, all right. The setwork is great, and the backdrop of the city makes for a lovely sofa. The setting doesn’t really matter, but it helps the movie took place in a city as diverse as Chicago.

Almost as diverse as Rob’s infeasible record collection. Both are as much characters in the movie as the actors. Rob’s music collection is so intertwined with his personality—and his troubles—it’s like he can’t divorce himself from self-absorption steeped in adolescent fantasies and motives. His whole “art of the mixtape” schtick comes across as both solace and salvation, a la a teen brooding in his room after being not invited to the jocks’ beer bust. In the end, it’s all just juvenile and for naught, especially for a mid-30s bachelor and record geek.

Another thing: most importantly Fidelity is a character study, and without a primo cast like this one, there’d be just another Gen X nostalgia cash cow being milked here. Usually the director guides the actors. According to Frears, Fidelity was the other way around. And the whole thing rests on Cusack’s shoulders. If a lesser actor was employed the whole thing might’ve torn apart at the seams.

Rob is a walking headache. Leave it to Cusack to deliver his role with a slumped-shoulders, Holden Caulfield affect. No matter how old he or his story gets, Rob’s terminally in the 7th grade. It drums up sympathy for a character who really is a drudge, cranky and generally not a guy you’d want to share a beer with. His character does a lot of acting with a hangdog and a blank, baleful, hundred-mile stare. It’s paramount to breaking the fourth wall.

Oh yeah, that. The whole narrator thing? Key.

The DVD release of Fidelity has clips and commentary from Cusack and director Frears. Frears was a fan of the book and always wanted to make it into a movie, but was afraid that all of “the good stuff” would have to be left out. It was Cusack’s idea to do the whole narration thing. That way, all the exposition that was so vital to the book was left in, delivered in this very clever, non-intrusive way to convey Rob’s angst. It’s very subtle, thanks to Cusack’s alternating manic and meandering delivery. His monologues are like the confessionals of a middle schooler, which Rob ostensibly still is. It works well with the theme of life arrest. Rob’s just a “victim of circumstance,” with circumstances he’s created. He’s boxes himself in with his own rationalizing, and gets it intimate with the audience.

Fresh-faced Hjejle is great as Laura. She’s very disarming, kinda like a Gen X Isla. Laura is oddly strong, yet vulnerable. You get the feeling that she doesn’t want to leave Rob, she just has to so to maintain her sanity. It’s tough to be in a long term relationship with someone who just doesn’t get commitment, that it’s not just about you anymore. Rob is all about “you,” meaning him. Laura, whether Rob knows it or not, keeps him grounded. She’s never shown to be the bad guy. She bails, and it’s not for wondering why.

Black and Louiso are the Laurel and Hardy in Fidelity. Dick and Barry are yin and yang. Black is delightfully toxic. His acerbic wit and classic music snob blathering is both hilarious and cringe-worthy. I think we all know someone like Barry. They are all alone in a crowded record store. If only more actors could be as charmingly hammy as Black. And he actually has a good singing voice. It’s a bit schlocky, but entertaining, not unlike Tenacious D. Isn’t that what matters?

Louiso’s Dick is so self-effacing and passive it’s like he’s hiding inside his clothes. Dick is the anti-Barry. He’s still a music snob, but he assumes the timid, quiet stance. He likes letting lesser-knowing music buffs in on obscure bands as some secret, trace element stuff. It’s along this line that gets Dick a date. To wit, Louiso and Gilbert have an honest chemistry, and their budding relationship reflects Rob’s failed ones in understated, sweet contrast.

There’s a lot of nice touches about relationships in Fidelity. It’s a gentle movie, kinda tender, despite the prickly subject matter. It’s also a guy movie, with Cusack being the spot-on, typical thirty-something man-child, awash in insecurity, facing middle age and exuding weltschmerz from every pore. Us guys get that way. Rob’s love/hate relationship with his music reflecting his love/hate relationship with his past relationships; it’s never blunt, and paired with the smart narration, the message comes across with great humor and flintiness with being preachy. It’s the whole “adding the egg” metaphor here (see the All Is Lost installment). I love the dry humor. It does a great job escalating the tension within the first two acts as it eventually tempers the third descending into sweetness without being saccharine.

To wrap it up, there’s one word to describe Fidelity: satisfying. The story is solid, the acting great, the pacing perfect and it has an intelligent, thoughtful streak running throughout. High Fidelity is probably in my top-five, desert island movies.

Now where could I hook up the DVD and the stereo on a desert island? Well, thank God for Wi-Fi.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Go read the book, too. Check out either one first. And take off those damned headphones.


Stray Observations…

  • “She liked me. She liked me. She liked me. At least I think she did…” No one really ever graduates middle school.
  • Every scene in the store, club or apartment features at least one album I own. I don’t know whether that’s comforting or really, really sad.
  • “A Cosby sweatah!”
  • That Slits album has been bouncing all over the sets. Who wants to wager director Frears is a fan?
  • “How can someone who has no interest in music own a record store?” The very sage Jack Black. Dumbass.
  • Keen use of the Beta Band there. Yeah, I have those albums too.
  • “Do you have soul?” “That all depends…”
  • Jones says “F*ck!” better than I’ve ever heard it anywhere.
  • Rob all alone in the record store. His castle, his prison.
  • “My guts have sh*t for brains!” Hornby.
  • I do miss mixtapes. I’ve made my fair share of mix discs, but it’s just not the same.
  • “I’d never thought I’d say this, but can I go to work now?”

Next Installment…

“Who, as they sung, would take the prison’d soul and lap it in Elysium?” That’s John Milton. Who’d’ve thunk he was into Matt Damon movies?