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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which lifts its title from a collection of Pauline Kael's film criticism, a title lifted in turn from an Italian movie poster, is a self-reflexive, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, and self-mocking pastiche of the private-eye genre, the directorial debut of screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight, in chronological rather than alphabetical order). The hard-boiled first-person narrator, the chronically insouciant Robert Downey, Jr. ("I was tired, I was pissed, I was wetter than Drew Barrymore at a grunge club"), refers to himself as "your narrator," and knows full well he's in a movie. The chapter headings -- "Trouble Is My Business," "The Lady in the Lake," "The Little Sister," "The Simple Art of Murder," and "Farewell, My Lovely" -- are all titles of works by Raymond Chandler, although it's highly doubtful that anyone knowledgeable enough to recognize them would, in the first place, be susceptible to flattery over such knowledge, or, in the second place, be susceptible to this filmmaker's brand of sophomoric bluster. The touches of black comedy are of slapstick breadth. The decadence scarcely seems subject to further decay. I can't even say that it's a pleasure to see Michelle Monaghan, so fetching in smaller roles in Winter Solstice and North Country, assume the female lead. I can't even say it's a pleasure to see her with her shirt off. Val Kilmer, for his part, does everything humanly possible with the character of a homosexual dick named Gay Perry.

Walk the Line walks the line of last year's Ray, a late-autumn release, to stay fresh for Oscar consideration, of a musical biopic on a recently fallen giant of popular song, C&W instead of R&B, Johnny Cash instead of Ray Charles, two years dead instead of mere months, but the same backstage tale of early poverty and tragedy, meteoric ascent, marital discord, drug abuse, salvation. Fewer people this time, in describing Joaquin Phoenix's impersonation of the Man in Black, are apt to link the adjective "uncanny" to the noun "likeness." Though he has obviously studied hard for the part, copying the horselike head-toss and breaststroker's air-gulp in performance on stage, he lacks both the stature and the weight: a sort of Cash shortage. It doesn't help that his singing (separate from his head-tossing and air-gulping) is of dog-howling caliber. Oscar lightning, in short, would seem unlikely to strike twice, unless it were to strike right next to him. Reese Witherspoon's June Carter -- a ten-year-old voice on the radio in Cash's cotton-picking childhood, a touring mate in the mid-Fifties along with Jerry Lee, Buddy, and Elvis, and finally his second wife in the late-Sixties, when the movie ends -- dances rings around him. And sings them, too.

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