The awards season swaggers on, but I shall refrain from commenting on the 68th Golden Globes, held last Sunday. Let us flee the limelight:
In the great harvest of film exploration and innovation known as the French New Wave, Claude Chabrol labored vigorously for years in what might be called the Hitchcock vineyard, distilling film after film. He died at 80 last September 12, yet how many Americans noticed?
What distinguished Chabrol was not just masterworks, and there were quite a number, but the silken flow and inventiveness of his art. In his movies, countless actors attained peak level. France’s leading star of recent decades, Gérard Depardieu, finds autumnal glory in the film that Chabrol made with, for, and partly about him, Inspector Bellamy.
Always a big man, in span more than height, Depardieu is now grand if not gross. He follows his gut the way that Orson Welles and Robert Morley once did. Though his Inspector Paul Bellamy gets winded by climbing stairs, probably dyes his hair, and can be nostalgic, when he shows some muscle of tough nerve we feel the force of it. He has sworn off wine (Depardieu is famously a lover of the vine) yet still relishes food and passing a fond paw over his wife’s rump. And he enjoys the opportunity to use his brain again when an odd case falls into his lap during summer vacation in Nimes, the old Roman Empire town in southern France.
Along with a charred corpse, a betrayed wife, and a spoiled mistress, there is a suave and shady man with shifting names, portrayed by Jacques Gamblin. Bellamy gets to know him, like an amiable but imposing, slightly menacing bear. Paul’s wife Françoise (deliciously mature and sharp Marie Bunel) is skeptical and amused. Sometimes amusing is Paul’s half-brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac), an alcoholic sponger and envious failure. Paul loves him yet feels some nagging guilt for being luckier and successful. This gives the story a percolating intimacy that is funny, private, and partly unexplained (or inexplicable).
Chabrol’s filming is so springy, his shots so adroitly composed but seemingly cast-off, that the movie never becomes a routine crime story. We realize he doesn’t care much more about the killing than Robert Altman did about the one in Gosford Park. Chabrol here seems to meld Altman with Georges Simenon, and Inspector Bellamy is a very civilized distance from blowups, chases, and smack downs.
Bellamy’s investigation has a vacation rhythm, with time for drink and food and jokes and secrets. And time to have a pedicure, do a crossword puzzle, and enjoy a spirited lass (Adrienne Pauly) who lives up to her name, Claire Bonheur. He even nudges a young lawyer into a court stunt in debt to the local musical hero, Georges Brassens, which also gooses the law (to Chabrol, always a dubious deity). The greatness of Depardieu’s work is to display such a wry, knowing touch without being smug or old-pro. Bellamy doubts his clues, questions his accuracy, never becomes a preening Poirot.
This is not a sunset performance by the star or director, though the film soberly winks at age. Bellamy is braced by his smart, loving wife and challenged by men (the brother, the suspect) desperate to escape their torments. For all his bulk, the inspector bobs and weaves well, and to the poignant swoons of Elgar’s cello concerto, this deft, surprising masterpiece finds its satisfying conclusion.
The Company Men
Years ago, in classic Hollywood, the lead roles would have been ripe for William Holden, Van Heflin, and Fredric March (or Gary Cooper). In The Company Men, Ben Affleck is Bobby, rising exec and hotshot salesman. Chris Cooper is Phil, workaholic mid-level manager, now prime for layoff at GMX, Inc. Tommy Lee Jones is Gene, the candid visionary and executive motor for the money-mad CEO Jim (Craig T. Nelson).
Jim has become a toxic node of unapologetic capitalism, having “diversified the portfolio” away from the honest shipbuilding that made Phil and Gene so proud. He wallows in debt leverage and sneaky stock deals, and if that means closing plants and offloading most of a loyal team, what else can a smart, greedy guy do? Put together with neatly joined building blocks by John Wells (producer for ER and The West Wing), the film often feels rather editorial, and it could use more of the pressure-cooking of old biz pictures like The Big Knife, Patterns, and Executive Suite.
It is well performed (Maria Bello, Kevin Costner, and Rosemarie DeWitt pitch in), handsomely photographed by Roger Deakins, and not sloppily sentimental about its people. Choice dialog includes:
A smiling flunky: “We aren’t breaking any laws, Gene.”
Gene: “I always thought we were working to a higher standard than that, Paul.”
These tough guys, who have surely cut a few corners, now face the Big Cut. They sweat with an exposed, honest humanity. The scenes of “old” Phil looking for a job come close to Willy Loman level. The Company Men inventories current anxieties, but it doesn’t hedge ironically. And, despite a slightly soft ending, never simply smooches the hard truths.
Shot mostly in crushing close-ups — even mighty Chicago seems squashed — The Dilemma is a showcase for big Vince Vaughn. He plays a former gambler who is still addicted to spinning bull. The motormouth hustles his new vision of an electric muscle car with his best buddy, an engineering wiz played by Kevin James. Though he can barely find the nerve to ask his devoted girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) to marry, Vaughn is keen to muck around in other peoples’ affairs upon finding that his friend’s spouse is having a covert affair with a stud muffin (Channing Tatum). As the wife, Winona Ryder seems almost as desperately lost as in Black Swan.
The nice, meatloafy Kevin James compares love to a “warm stew” and then extols a fudge sundae. This is not inspired comedy. Neither is Vaughn’s crass, rambling toast to an old couple; his raging fight with the stud (in fury Vaughn isn’t funny, he’s menacing); director Ron Howard’s cute roles for his father Rance and his brother Clint; the use of Queen Latifah primarily for one raunchy line and a salute to Deep Throat; the pious nods to Chicago sports and (in stacked videos) the late Chicago-area filmmaker John Hughes; or Vaughn opening his slobby soul to God near an El platform. If there was ever a perfect movie time for an angry lightning bolt to zap someone, that’s it.