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Had I consented to watch my DVD screener of The Square, there would have been more than a couple of days left in its solo week at the Ken Cinema before I could say that it was the most fun I’ve had at the movies so far this year. (Happily, it and the fun will be extended into a second week on a shared screen with The Eclipse.) A friend of mine, not alone, has suggested that the brothers Edgerton, Nash and Joel, be anointed the Australian Coen brothers, and I concede the justice of it as long as the scope of discussion is limited to first films. We’ll see where they go from here. Both of the Edgertons have a lengthy list of credits as actors, and Nash has a lengthier list for stunt work, and they’ve divided the tasks on The Square like so: director, editor, and co-producer, Nash; co-star, co-writer, co-producer, Joel. Apart from the fraternal collaboration, similarities to the Coens’ debut, Blood Simple, can be sensibly confined to the broad neo-noir genre, the basic plot type of worst-laid-plans, and the pitying point of view that permits us, as the plans descend from bad to worse, to see much better than the participants how and where things are going awry. The catbird seat is crucial to the fun.

If the Edgertons’ first feature lacks the flash of the Coens’, that’s arguably a point in favor of the former, a work of self-restraint and self-effacement that lacks little in fluidity of camera, solidness of construction, steadiness of pace. The narrative agenda of adultery, graft, theft, arson, homicide, blackmail, betrayal, mayhem — all that good stuff that tells us something fundamental about our species — remains resolutely human in scale, renouncing gaudy special effects and amplified action; and the unfamiliarity of the cast, while sacrificing nothing in competence, serves above all to underscore the humanness: David Roberts, a Gloomy Gus, and Claire van der Boom, a bargain-basement femme fatale, as the no-time-for-play adulterers, Joel Edgerton as the rough-and-ready firebug for hire, Lisa Bailey as his slow-witted girlfriend, among others. The ambience may be a trifle thin, a besetting problem in neo-noir, a natural by-product of color perhaps, and the character of the cheated-on wife seems neglected and underwritten — not a bit the cheated-on husband — and the whole derivative business could be branded as a mere exercise. But the execution of that exercise, vigorous and invigorating, is A-plus, the detail fresh and abundant (the two dogs from separate households who threaten through their unaccountable friendliness to give away the affair, the Down Under summertime Santa who quick-changes into firefighter’s gear to answer the alarm bell, the beautiful hilltop overlook on the fire from the vantage of the admiring arsonist, the nervous doodling that develops into a clue, etc., etc.), and the raw emotion of the climax brings it home to us that, for all the diverting cat-and-mouse machinery of the plot, it’s human beings who get themselves into these messes, not mice, not cats. Not cogs.

An “exercise” would be a fitting description as well for the Edgertons’ prefatory short film Spider on the same program, almost like a classroom exercise or at most an M.F.A. exercise, and of its type pretty near perfect. Its type would be a macabre little joke — a lovers’ reconciliation gone horribly wrong — in illustration of the opening epigraph attributed, after a Jack Benny-like pause, to Mum: “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.” The Edgertons have a couple of tremendous jolts up their sleeve, but are in no hurry to get to them, so that when they arrive they are genuine disruptions. The feature film — not to reveal more than strictly necessary — contains an insider’s reference to the short, which is of no artistic significance in the larger work but is all the same a tiny fraction of the fun.

The Back-Up Plan gives Jennifer Lopez something to do. In it, she plays a fugitive from corporate America, now an independent pet-shop proprietor and doting mistress of a cute little handicapped pooch in a wheelchair, someone, in short, with priorities in order. Impatient for Mr. Right, her biological clock approaching or overshooting forty, she gets herself artificially inseminated and then, wouldn’t you know, meets Mr. Right — a dairy farmer of equally well-ordered priorities who dreams of a “sustainable gourmet shop” — before she finds out she’s pregnant with twins. What to do, what to do? Lopez, or if you prefer J-Lo, who in real life has given birth to twins since her last appearance on screen four years ago, stands out as a pearl among pebbles. Her hair and makeup are a wonder to behold, and are indeed beheld with tunnel vision and starry eyes by director Alan Poul and photographer Xavier Pérez Grobet. Her charm is unmissable if not irresistible, her talent as well-honed as it is narrow. And her biggest laugh, for sheer incongruity, comes when she explains how she knows the new man is The One: “He’s very real.”

More truthfully, he’s very ideal, a masculine accessory — second-tier Australian actor Alex O’Loughlin, a composite of Matthew McConaughey (torso) and Jon Stewart (head) — who will never compete for the spotlight, will mold himself into a devoted slave, will put up with nuttiness of any degree or duration, and will afterwards Always Be There For Her, like a favorite handbag. Not everything, needless to say, is roses: “I miss my old ass,” the star plays up to, or rather down to, her fans: “It was kinda like this, but way hotter.” Too, the public childbirth attended by members of the Single Mothers and Proud support group — not the heroine’s childbirth but that of one of the pebbly supporting players — adds something new to the annals of parturition on screen, namely an unparalleled element of demonic possession. (The bowel movement has been paralleled, thank you.) Even outside of that, the movie achieves a level of biological repugnance to rival Ingmar Bergman, except with a sense of humor. A crude one.

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JohnnyJ April 30, 2010 @ 1:25 p.m.



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