RIORI Vol 3, Installment 54: Joel Hopkins’ “Last Chance Harvey” (2008)

Last Chance Harvey

The Players…

Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson, with Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Eileen Atkins, Liane Balaban and Richard Schiff.

The Story…

Harvey Shine’s a struggling musician. Okay, a jingle writer for commercials. Ignoring the mundanity of his work, he presently risks losing his plebeian gig to attend his daughter’s London wedding. Like with his winnowing relevance in the digital age, Harvey discovers that he’s not exactly welcome at the festivities. Looks like Harvey isn’t wanted on either side of the Pond.

While in the airport bar (as do where many a magic moment may happen), he meets a lonely lady and finds himself some unexpected romance. Amazing how a nice cuppa tea works wonders.

The Rant…

It’s not easy being alone. Takes a lot of energy. Takes its toll. It’s a full time job in a way.

The roughest thing about being alone is the slow descent. One does not all of a sudden find themselves cut off from their friends and loved ones, like falling into some Cambodian tiger trap. Nope. Loneliness is slow and sneaky, and all too often the lonely one’s fault.

Being alone is akin to a contagion. You get some sort of depressed stink on you, and your support system of friends, co-workers and family slowly catch a whiff and begin to turn their heads away lest they become infected. You friends think you’re just down and need some space. Your business partners take note of your productivity and an intervention may be needed…someday. You stop being invited to special family occasions like Thanksgiving or your nephew’s bris. People begin to claim the sad old saw: he probably wants to be alone. And therefore completing a circle.

Denial sets in. Who needs other people? They don’t want me around anyway, so screw ’em. I have personal matters to attend to. Here in my room I reign supreme. You’re a Simon & Garfunkel lyric waiting to be written. It’s a delicious, vicious circle. I am alone, therefore I want to be alone. I choose it so. I want to ignore all the bulls*it and drudgery that others might impose upon me. The job. The family. I want to escape. Into myself and my own little sphere of value…which was once richer with other people involved. Too bad I’m alone.

Humans are social creatures. We need to interact with others for intellectual stimulus, open dialogue and argue differing opinions. Even some antisocial twit who f*cks with people needs others to bounce their demented issues off of. And consider the hermit who decidedly shuns people for solitude; they balance their cloistered existence against the bullsh*t that chafed them so. People—of all stripes—need other people, for within and without.

But when you’re lonely—and lonely by yourself—all you have to lean on is you, and that can take a psychic toll.

Ahem. Sorry. Been listening to too much early Cure as of late. Let’s lighten it up a shade, for a little at least.

One of my favorite writers Harlan Ellison once wrote in a collection of essays of the difference between being alone and the idea of aloneness. Since I understand that Mr Ellison is a rather contentious individual let me take a moment to say that I am paraphrasing the man’s observations to meet my own ends here, and in no way am attempting to co-opt any observations I read in his essay. It is just that I figured his musings felt relevant to my rant. If any of you out there in the blogosphere find my little shout-out a tad odd let me go on record saying I would never, ever wish to be James Cameron. Or Aaron Spelling either, for that matter. But then again, who would be?

*90210 riff*

Anyway, Ellison once wrote about the differences between aloneness and being lonely. Aloneness is a choice; we all need some time to ourselves to either tackle personal business or just dick around with sh*t that don’t invite other people to come along and muck up your works. Working on your car, writing in a journal (or blog, hey!), making a small meal just for yourself with as much ketchup as you could stand or a Breaking Bad binge watch. Go away, bolt the door and don’t make me throw this heavy, metal bowl of cheesy poofs at your head! I want to be alone!

want to be alone. Garbo notwithstanding when you’re lonely there’s no one to throw the bowl at. Let alone bolt any doors.

That being said, leaving any doors open within your loneliness echoes an actual Simon & Garfunkel song. Well, maybe just a Paul Simon lyric:

“She said losing love is like a window in your heart/everyone sees you’re blown apart/everyone sees the wind blow.”

For Harvey Shine his loneliness, lowliness and isolation really blows, with or without the cheesy poofs and a frustrating bowl to throw…

Harvey (Hoffman) is at an impasse. With his career, with his family, with his very late mid-life crisis. Everything that was once so secure has been unraveling for years and it’s finally caught up to him.

Harvey’s a musician, in a matter of speaking. In his salad days he fancied himself a jazz pianist. But aspiring to be the next Bill Evans wasn’t going to support a wife and daughter so concessions were made. Advertising contracts came beckoning, therefore solid paychecks. But Harvey’s dreams kept needling him, and his wife Jean (Baker) soon felt the sting. They separated, and Harvey carved out his niche in advertising. Writing jingles rather than movements. More things began to slip away.

Like his daughter Susan (Balaban). It’s been years since Harvey was anything approaching vital in her life. So when Harvey gets an invite to her wedding he views it as an opportunity to stand up again and be dad. Something he could hold onto as a person could ever could, especially as a father.

The nuptials are in London. It’s where the betrothed met. A bit out of the egg for Harvey, but it’s for Susan, dammit! Insecurities be damned. Right, until Harvey finds himself plunked into a hotel a lifetime away from the posh, private guest house. Pariah.

The reception is a disaster. Harvey bails, telling Susan that the reception can wait. He has to get back to New York to handle some business anyway. He understands he’s not wanted and wants to get back to his egg ASAP.

They key to being lonely? It can make you productive under the proper circumstances. Harvey’s proper circumstances is waiting for a belated flight back to JFK and getting wrecked at the airport bar. Another circumstance that falls into play is chatting up statistician Kate (Thompson) on a lark. A final circumstance is that mousy Kate could use a way out of her own loneliness, too. Maybe Harvey could be of help, and in turn help himself?

Maybe. For now, a few shots and a cuppa will work. For now…

How come legacy actors don’t get much respect these days (unless their latest effort has stunk to high Heaven)?

The phrase “legacy actor” is one I made up (I think) in referring to certain actors whose careers have been long, eclectic and often lauded. Maybe an award or two’s been tossed their way to boot. Some of their work can even become the gold standard by which other aspiring thespians try and measure up to. Namely certain actors have a legacy, and their names have vital weight in the Hollywood and/or Broadway community.

Like Dustin Hoffman, of course. Who else would I be talking about here? James Spader? C’mon.

*The James Spader Fan Club are winding up for the beer can pitches*

Folks, please. That’s getting old. And Jon Cryer found work so, huh?

Right. Hoffman. Pretty esteemed legacy actor wouldn’t you say? Oh, and if you’re of the YouTube ADD demographic—which means you like watching things, or at least looking at things—you might wanna check out some of Hoff’s work. You know, to see how it’s done. Myriad actors have looked up to Hoffman’s style and delivery for aeons. His work has mostly been steeped in playing the anti-hero. As Ben Braddock in The Graduate to a divorced single dad in Kramer vs Kramer to out of work tranny in Tootsie to idiot savant in Rain Man to…um…a sensei red panda in Kung Fu Panda, the guy’s been around. And to say versatile would be an understatement and a half. A red panda, I tell you!

But for all his anti-heroics, Hoffman has been self-effacing and compelling. Compelling first and foremost for the whole anti-hero bit. His characters are hard to get behind. Even in his big roles he can come across as annoying or downright ugly. C’mon, Raymond Babbit might’ve been autistic, but it made him no less…pesky. And when he experienced some seriously demented Nazi dental torture in  Marathon Man, a small part of you (admit it) kind of felt he deserved it.

Well, regardless of his irksome roles one cannot deny Hoffman’s legacy. There are but a handful of actors that fall under my umbrella whom have had/still have a legacy. John Wayne, Toshiro Mifune, Katherine Hepburn, Bogey, Jack, DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Mickey Mouse; just to name a few. All have or had carved out a niche in movies that is both wide and enduring, and often a high water mark that other actors try to reach.


Thanks. What precious lines of bullsh*t were those.

So here we reach our quandary. Why don’t legacy actors get their props much anymore? Like I said, a lot of aging actors slow down, make less than compelling films, maybe choose a role (or multiple roles) to just f*ck around a bit and have some fun, grasp at laurels long fallen from the wreath or what appears to be just lost the plot (Pacino, I’m looking at you).

A lot could be argued that most movie attendees have indeed been warped by media saturation—both online and off—and have no patience for work of (gasp) older actors. Nowadays if you’re a successful actor you may at best have ten years in the pocket as relevant or (more accurately) quite bankable. A lot of that has to do with the glammy notions about how Hollywood packages their output. Face facts: one ceases to be “sexy” post 30 years old. We ain’t got the Studio System anymore, where basically a core audience got built up. Nope. Nowadays it’s all flash in the pan. Here’s yer 15 minutes, don’t waste it on saving the whales. Sequel’s be a-callin’.

Cynical? Did you forget where you were? But it is true. Everything has a shelf life, just as everything has a saturation point. These days the latter holds more truth than the former, which in turn directs the former. Legacy stars don’t stand a chance these days. They are old, their Oscars are tarnished, their breasts start to droop and their hair falls out. To wit, the Millenials all let out a collective “Eeyeew.” Then plunk down 12 bucks to watch Scarlett Johannson wink at them. Again. Hey, at least her boobies are still perky and ignore the CV after Lost In Translation.

I figure that’s it with our TMZ, tech gobbling culture. If it ain’t new, it’s through. If you’re old enough to remember Maytag appliances (clothes washers, dryers, digital vibrators, etc) and their “lonesome repairman” commercial campaign then you may get it. The subtext of those ads was Maytag didn’t necessarily have planned obsolescence built into their gizmos; sh*t didn’t go expensive kerboom after five years. Nowadays everything in Hollywood goes splat within ten years. Moreover three. No time to give a nod to the esteemed, older, uglier actors who could act their way out of a Turkish prison. Nope, more money for less art. That may have how it’s been all along.

Now getting back to my original point (I think I may have had one), consider Dustin Hoffman’s legacy. Taking into consideration of the man’s storied and varied career in cinema: he has never been in any of his roles straightforward and not a left-of-center anti-hero. I’m pretty certain in that observation. That’s been his bread and butter since the 60s. It’s his thing, his signature. It’s what makes (most) people want to see his movies. They wanna see Hoffman the passive-aggressive d*ckhole with a few chuckles to feather his cap. That’s been his cachet.

With Last Chance Harvey, I’m sure regarding the above, a little turnabout won’t do much to harm the guy’s vaunted career. In fact, it might help it, sagging as it’s been lately. Red panda, I tell you!

Back to the real, un-pixelated world. In Harvey it’s good to see that even in his twilight years Hoffman has lost none of the awkward intensity that has made many of his roles great. The guy’s style has almost always been twitchy, sometimes odious and barely likable. Of course, that’s what makes for a good anti-hero, a type of character that Hoffman more or less pioneered. His characters often find themselves tripping over their own feet. We watch, we cringe, we snicker. But for all his gangly characters with their hang-ups, issues and occasional, outright histrionic blithering, none of them have ever come across as a serious loser. Teetering on failure maybe, but never a klutzy, grade-A nimbob.

Until now.

Harvey has Hoffman playing against type. Way against type. His dejected husband/father/maker of Tide seem wondrous is unlike any role I’ve seen from the guy. His Harvey’s also very vulnerable, like a raw nerve. Everything in his world has fallen apart, gradually, like a stream’s flow wearing down the rocks. And it’s all his fault through insecurity, anxiety and a trap of loneliness and isolation by his own design. Not your typical hero. Not quite an anti-hero either. With an anti-hero he is either outright unlikeable or toeing the line between principled and nihilistic (think Mad Max or Travis Bickle. Or just read the Observe And Report installment. Again, hopefully).

Not Harvey. He’s dejected and not quite a victim of circumstance. He’s not pleasant. Mostly a basset hound in an ill-fitting suit. Uncomfortable in his own skin. How the hell are we supposed to rally around such a drudge when he’s the Academy Award winning version of Lt Barclay from Star Trek: TNG?

(If any of you out there got that reference bless you and get out of Mom’s basement more often.)

But seriously, how? That’s where the acting comes in. For all of Harvey’s flaws, he’s clumsily self-conscious, sympathetic despite his hell by design, trying to do what (he believes) is the right thing. He jaunts off to London as a second-class citizen to his daughter’s wedding, whose step-family receives better than he ever did. He needs a hug.

The vulnerability is the key. Of course we’ll all felt like Harvey once in a while. We don’t want to admit to that, feeling all lonely and all at sea with ourselves, but it’s a reality. Face it, fess up and go along with the story. Harvey is fifth wheel syndrome run rampant, and all the better for it.

Since we’ve established that Harvey is a film about juxtapositioning an actor known for less than traditionally vulnerable roles/a lonely schlub who needs a break character study it might be prudent to  point out that Harvey‘s plot is terribly derivative. Wait, what? Yep. It’s your typical redemption story. Loser makes good, finds love, revamps his ailing family life and career. That’s not a spoiler; watching the movie you know that’s gonna happen. Sure, Harvey is a bit predictable, but it’s excellently staged. Credit the acting. In the endgame, it’s the only thing that’s holding this trifle together.

To paraphrase Bill Hicks: there’s snarky jibes on the way. Relax. Don’t want to lose any (more) of you.

Right. Character study. Hoffman is our avatar about the lovelorn and lonely. But this ain’t just about Harvey. We have Kate, too, don’t forget. Thompson is an esteemed actress in her own right, and much more than Kenneth Branagh’s former squeeze. Think she nabbed a few of them superfluous Awards too for her screen time. Seen a bit of her sh*t. Her stock in trade has been in histrionics (at least by what I’ve seen). Sure, she can be reserved, but it’s usually tempered by letting edginess sneak out from the corners of her mouth, like spitting out a chew.

For Harvey, that cutting is still present but is now tempered by fragility. Wait, that’s not quite it. Brittleness is a more apt term. Her Kate is lonely like Harvey. She’s frazzled and awkward and loveless and looking down the barrel of middle age…wait, that shot went off years ago. And she’s feeling all of it, from her dead end job, crapping out on the dating scene and her codependent mother who is practically gaffer-taped to her mobile phone’s speed dial (or whatever they call it these days. Last I checked cell phones didn’t have dials, even back in 2008). Kate’s on the fast track to becoming what lesser PC-philes used to call an “old maid.” Like Donna Reed in It’s A Wonderful Life‘s alternate reality. She needs a hug.

So of course both the twain shall meet. For a film like Harvey it’s not only inevitable, it’s essential.

To claim that the movie is star-crossed is and an understatement. Actually, it’s more like…well…I’m not sure what to call it. Two lonely people finding each other, and in turn finding themselves? It’s the stuff of a billion rom-coms, even one as bittersweet as this. Harvey‘s protags aren’t star-crossed. They’re destined to find each other. It’s along the movie’s inevitable curves.

What makes this usual schlock work so well—if at all, incredibly—is due to one thing, and for the first time in this blogger’s grumbling it’s not the pacing (although pretty good. A tiger cannot change its Fruit Stripe gum wads). It’s the editing. Took me a bit to pick up on it, kinda like an “icebox moment” in a Hitchcock flick.

Movie sign! Time for a little annoying film trivia courtesy of yours only! Oh, shut up. Been pretty sober (at least in print) in analyzing Harvey. Time to shake off the fleas.

Hitch coined the term based on his hopes that after a person got home after the movie one would suddenly recall an inconsistency in his movie that would be the antithesis of Kafka’s third act gun rule (look that one up on your own time, buster), maybe when the viewer was reaching for some chicken out of the icebox. There’d be a pause, a head scratching and a general malaise of “wait a minute…”

Harvey‘s icebox moment is a bit more accessible. And you don’t have to pay that much attention, but you should because the film’s editing is the pinion upon which the whole story spins. Harvey is excellently staged, yes, but also excellently edited. Never before in my immediate memory have I ever seen such a film that was cut so well (beyond the technical aspect sh*t) that it was a story element in and of itself. Let’s face facts, no one really cares about good editing until Oscar season, and even then the honor usually falls under Best Picture. Harvey won zero awards in the red carpet sense, but its trimmings were f*cking vital in how the story played out. And not in an overt, pandering way, either. Even I, your ever diligent OCD movie dork missed the cues at first, but in simpler terms Harvey’s editing is smart. Amazing even.

Every scene is framed according to the troubles our protags are wrestling with, balanced against one another revealing their personal hells. We have Harvey. He is alone, he is a drudge, he is ostracized by his family. We have Kate. She is alone, she’s put upon, she is rapidly hurdling towards in an aforementioned less-PC world could consider “old maid” territory. And back and forth and back again we go for the better part of the first act. These cuts show and never tell what’s afoot here. We know these kids are unlucky in love (the bar scene is heartbreaking, as well as it’s reflection at the reception scene), but director Hopkins never takes that frozen chicken’s ire out on a right cross to the temple. Like I said, took me a bit to catch the drift, but when I did, whoa daddy here’s where drama happens. Like a cherry blossom, and no I ain’t being overly poetic, ya dips.

All the rapture I’ve slathered over Harvey for the past nine years doesn’t mean nothing stank in Denmark. Of course not. Even the greatest of movies (which this nugget is far from) has a few rats in the cellar. What? You’ve read this blog enough before. Unless the movie under the ‘scope that week is either truly deplorable, gets my socio-commentary dander up into overdrive or is just a non-stop 100 minute facepalm I only bitch and moan with such aplomb such as Londoners didn’t do during the Blitz. The flipside is me trying to be polite—equitable even—and point out, “Hey, wait a minute…” even with a decent movie. And decent Harvey is, but there’s stuff there that made my eyes roll. Minor, but there. So here they were.

Harvey’s eager desperation seemed a might pathetic. We get the fact the guy’s a failure by his own design, and we are well aware of the magic movie laws dictating that deep sh*t will ultimately yield fallow compost. However keeping them cards too close to the director’s chest might result in his hand being forced. Hoffman’s a gifted actor, and his CV might exceed Hopkins’. Hell, it might even exceed Hopkins’ life, but he’s the director and maybe well-acquianted with his lead’s delicate past and reluctance for going after the jugular.

Maybe not. For after considering Harvey’s sea change in life by the third act, one gets the impression that Hoff’s iron will regarding character acting got willingly rusty. We got plenty of a taste of Harvey’s dire straits from the get go. Do we need a reaffirmation of his insecurities—albeit in a sunnier light—later on after he woos the girl? Right. It should be about trepidation, reluctance to take a plunge no matter how desperate the need is. We don’t need sniveling, no matter how sweet-natured.

Um. That’s about it for the bitch department. Huh. You’re welcome? Who’s up for golf?

After all I said and what was watched this film made me smile in spite of me. Yeah, it’s derivative, but please refer back to my “predictable” comment. Almost all rom-coms are connect the dots, regardless of the skills delivered by the cast, the director, the writers and/or the scouts. Sometimes though, all the essential pieces fall into place. I’ve learned that with a rom-com this can be a very dodgy undertaking. Thanks to (or more often no thanks) established gimmickry solid with the genre most cast and crew play it all fast and loose for maximum laughs, minimal pathos and an inevitable butt shot, gender regardless. Hopkins’ was a nice tonic to all that soap opera folderol. Harvey was thoughtful, clever and overall satisfying entertainment. By the way legacy, actor Dustin Hoffman was our awkward lead. That means something in these days of Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johannson.

One more thing: of course everything works out. That’s not a spoiler. That how all rom-coms end.

Precious few deserve to though.

Now if you’ll excuse me I am lonely and I need to hit up the nearest airport bar. Maybe Emma Thompson will be there. Or Dustin Hoffman. Or Heather Graham circa 1997. I ain’t picky.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Smart, stinging and sweet. Funny too. It’s flicks like this one that reassure/justify my scribblings here at RIORI. That and I’ve been hard up for a non sh*t-bag movie here in ages, so I’ll take what the queue sends.

Stray Observations…

  • “Enjoy London.”
  • The wedding bartender’s looks are priceless.
  • “I’ve always enjoyed stationary.” Wink wink.
  • God, Thompson was looking cute here. Not bad for 51.
  • “If that’s for me I’m in the shower.”
  • Beware of Poles bearing smoked gifts.
  • “Carry your books?” Too goddam sweet.
  • Never realized before how short Hoffman was. Or how tall Thompson was rather.
  • “You do know this is the children’s table?”

Next Installment…

I can’t think of a clever teaser for a movie titled The Last Mimzy.

RIORI Vol. 1, Installment 4: Woody Allen’s “Midnight In Paris” (2011)


The Players…

Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cottiliard, Tom Hiddleston, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Adrien Brody and Kathy Bates.

The Story…

Would-be novelist Gil visits Paris with his fiancé and her family to soak up the local culture. One night, after too much family time, Gil hitches a ride in a classic Peugeot and finds himself magically transported back in time to the Paris of the 1920’s. Gil finds rubbing elbows and trading drinks with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other luminaries of the ex-pat Jazz Age sure beats yet another jaunt to the Louvre.

The Rant…

I only like good movies. I often scan AllMovie or Netflix to see if my opinions of movies match up with what either the critics’ takes are or what audience ratings indicate. But are the films good because they jibe with what strangers have to say? Because there are other like-minded people out there with agreeable opinions such as my own? Is this snobbery? Everyone thinks that his or her tastes are great. Folks can get pretty heady about such stuff.

I dunno. Maybe. Like I said, I only like good movies.

Maybe I was little too harsh in my last installment, covering the mindwipe that was Drive starring Ryan Gosling and Bryan Cranston. It wasn’t all bad. It had its moments. It just wasn’t what I wanted to expect (and I didn’t really know what to expect). I still wouldn’t recommend it though. What I’m saying is a little thoughtfulness in my critiques might be a welcome thing. I can rail with the best of them, and when a film is disjointed, poorly paced, fails to follow interior logic, or if the acting is just plain dumb, I get cranky. But still, I feel a little thoughtfulness can go a long way.

Which brings us to this installment. Midnight In Paris was not a critical dud, and audiences happily plunked down their monies to catch it. So how does this film fall under the aegis of “dubious reputation of lack of box office mojo?” One small thing that I intend to expound upon for as many paragraphs as it takes. That thing the audiences were complaining about—if you can believe this coming from Woody Allen’s oeuvre—that it was “overly intellectual.”

Like this is a crime. We as filmgoers are already fed to the choking point—mostly during summer—with so much pabulum already, one would think a intellectual film that did well at the box office would be a good thing. I think it is. I’ve seen enough lowbrow films in my day (and don’t get me wrong, I find I like any Adam Sandler movie that has him playing a sport delightful. Too bad there are, like, only two) to bang my head against the wall and spit up my popcorn, threatening to walk out of the theatre. But I also like my Fellini, Kurosawa and, yes, Woody Allen films too. Most of those are thoughtful, smart pieces of cinema that could be or were popular.

So what’s wrong with “smart film?” Does it make the average moviegoer feel dumb? I heard somewhere that there was a theater warning patrons that Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life had, not graphic violence, sexual situations or extreme language, but “philosophical overtones and existential themes”. Stop the projectors! This was a warning. A warning. To average citizens. About smart sh*t in a Brad Pitt movie. Huh? This is a bad thing, apparently, according to the laymen.

Here’s a fact: people are stupid. I don’t mean people in general. I mean the collective sheeplike hive mind that is the nebulous concept of “people” is what is stupid. “What do they know?” is a phrase bandied about by all of us at one point in time. “They” is people, and if people are made to feel stupid, then they get what they deserve, and’ll probably miss out on cool sh*t and die angry.

Before I go off on another bilious tear, let me say that tempering thoughtfulness with intellectualism made Midnight In Paris a small gem…

Gil (Wilson) is a Hollywood hack and a budding novelist. When he and his fiancé Inez (McAdams) and her parents take a trip to the City of Lights, Inez and family are too caught up in the idea of Paris, its pretensions, for Gil’s tastes. He eventually gets restless with being inundated with too much Parisian culture. He goes for a stroll one evening, lost in the winding streets after too much wine when at midnight, he happens upon a ride in a classic Peugeot. Gil’s magically transported back in time to a swinging party hosted by none other than the Fitzgeralds, Zelda and F Scott to be precise, with lots of bathtub gin and a live performance by Cole Porter. Over the course of several evenings, Gil drinks with Hemingway (Stoll), gets writing advice from Gertrude Stein (Bates), and carouses with Picasso’s mistress, Adriana. Gil is rubbing elbows with artistic elite of 1920’s Paris, if only for a Cinderella moment. And happy as a pig in sh*t, more so than in his clumsy 21st Century life…

If this premise appeals to you, apparently it didn’t appeal to the masses. Well, some of the masses. I guess I’m one of the few that found it appealing; otherwise I wouldn’t have rented it. Woody Allen’s films have almost always been intellectual, even the dumber stuff like Bananas and Sleeper. Midnight In Paris is the only movie in his filmography that I know of that has been so overtly intellectual. At lease, appealing to the intellectuals out there.

Am I saying that I’m an intellectual? Hell to the yeah. The notion of conversing about writing and getting tight on absinthe with Papa Hemingway charges me up. Watching Gertrude Stein argue with Pablo Picasso about each other’s interpretations of a portrait? Bring it on. Having Dali want to do and abstract portrait of me? “The Temptation of St. Anthony” is my favorite painting.

Does all that bother you? All that name-dropping? It would bother me too if I were outside the circle that Allen tries to condense into an hour and thirty minutes. It’s easy to see why folks could get alienated. The whole film is virtually a holy host of 1920’s celebs, too many for the hoi polloi. Too many writers, too many artists, too many non-Internet (save Wikipedia) connects to catch up with the times.

Enough about the dividing lines. What brought this film together for any smart audience to appreciate?

For one, the opening montage is great. Dozens of scenes showing off everything you need to know about Paris. The winding streets, the cafes, the out of the way places. Here is the setting. Adjust to it for the next 90 minutes, yer gonna be walking it. Good news is you won’t sweat.

Owen Wilson is at his Owen Wilsoniest here. Charmingly awkward. Wilson always has this air of “I’m in the wrong place” in most of his films, and it works really well as he Billy Pilgrim’s it between 2010 and 1920. This awkwardness translates into childlike wonder when Gil goes back in time and hobnobs with the writers and artists he meets, especially when he starts crushing hard on Picasso’s dame, Adriana (played gamely by a lovely Cottiliard). Yet on the flipside, this is a more mature Wilson, not so quick to act goofy and clueless to grab a laugh. This is not a laugh-out-loud film, but using Wilson as a guide, you get snickers. Following his childlike enthusiasm for this newfound world, you have to laugh inspite of yourself. It’s hard to be cynical with a movie like this one.

It’s the 1920’s, right? That means jazz and gin and flappers. The costumes are great. Everyone is nattily dressed in the attire of the times. Sumptuous attention to details. The backdrops to Gil’s fantasy world are so inviting that even if you’re not a big deal reader or even writer, you’d like to dip your toes into a party where the Charleston rules and gins flows like icy water. And as always, Allen’s soundtrack is  tasteful and thoughtful as ever, too.

Notable acting is key. Head and shoulders over the cast is Corey Stoll as Earnest Hemingway. His script is tight, just like his prose. And he has this stare that is just so convincing. Allison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald is a hoot too, flapper incarnate and perpetually drunk and borderline psycho. Good stuff.

The whole film had a sophisticated Twilight Zone feel. Man hates present. Man visits past. Man wants to stay in past. The past in not where he belongs. The film questions the idea of a “Golden Age.” I’ve read somewhere that a Golden Age is when you were 12 years old. Despite the fact Gil is well over twelve when he takes his stroll into the Parisian version of the Zone, his juvenile enthusiasm is infectious.

Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed intellectual, you can appreciate what’s going on. This movie isn’t about who you rub elbows with, it’s about being comfortable with yourself. In your own shoes. Hell, there’s a message we all should hear once in a while. With or without the bathtub gin.

But hopefully with.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Get over yer pretensions and have a laugh (or more accurately a chuckle) with Wilson. As we travel afar with Owen, it brings to mind that old saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Stray Observations…

  • “I’m working on a…Where am I?”
  • Hemingway: “Have you ever hunted?” Gil: “Only for bargains.”
  • The set pieces were amazing. I mean, I wasn’t extant in the ‘20’s, but it gave me the feeling of realism all the same. And I guess during America’s Prohibition years, Paris was the place to be.
  • I should learn French.
  • My uncle taught Owen Wilson at St. Mark’s. And his brother Luke. And Old 97’s singer Rhett Miller. Just sayin’.

Next Installment…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo form a wobbly alliance to hunt the Zodiac. Let’s hope they got enough crossword puzzles.