It seems impossible to speak of Mel Gibson’s “comeback” in Edge of Darkness without speaking of what it is he is coming back from. But speaking strictly, the aftermath of his arrest for drunk driving in 2006 was altogether another form of entertainment, another medium. And while his behavior on that occasion may have rendered him unfit for any number of things (political office leaps to mind), it could hardly be said to exclude him from the role of a Boston police officer tracking down his daughter’s shotgun killer. Perhaps, given Mad Mel’s inflammatory views of Jews in The Passion of the Christ and under the influence of tequila, it was asking for trouble to have him in the course of this role spew a line like, “You had better decide whether you’re hangin’ on the cross or poundin’ in the nails,” and further to highlight this line in the trailer. In context, though, it is the trouble of no more than a moment. To make anything at all of it would be to make too much. People who can no longer look at Mel Gibson without hearing in their mind’s ear some of his more unfortunate turns of phrase from the arrest report have a choice to make: either hereafter avoid the tabloids or avoid the movies. Mel Gibson is not the only movie star about whom we know more than we need.
Nearer the point, he has done nothing to unfit himself for the role at hand in his gracious surrender to the advances of age. (It has been eight years since his last leading role in Signs.) The thinning hair, the sagging jowl, the three deep horizontal grooves in his forehead crossed with two vertical diagonals give him a humanity that is vital to the grieving avenger. And, with or without any outside knowledge of his inner demons, he is very believable when angry. He wears the role well. The detective work — the mistaken first assumption is that the detective himself was the intended target — is solid and followable, and it offers a fair share of ah-ha moments. (Nice one: the lock of the daughter’s hair snipped on the coroner’s slab later reads as radioactive on the Geiger counter in her personal effects.) If the investigation depends overmuch on bullish Dirty Harry tactics to move it along, it at least pulls up short of the overscaled action — the outrageous chases, the explosions, the Hong Kong combat — that has so numbed the contemporary action film. Thanks primarily to the scale, it’s a sufficient thrill when Gibson simply unholsters and cuts loose with his sidearm. Thanks secondarily, right before that, to the alarming agitation of Caterina Scorsone at a secret roadside assignation, and to the suddenness of the interruption of that meeting, and thanks in general to the self-effacing professionalism of director Martin Campbell and cameraman Phil Meheux.
There are other ways to heighten the scale, however. And at this late date we can scarcely be surprised, we can at best be resigned, that a grade-A mainstream murder mystery (based, like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play, on a British TV miniseries) would lead ultimately to matters of national security and nuclear weaponry. The components of the paranoia thriller are by now mere conventions, and the shadowy figure of the lone-wolf federal troubleshooter, the Mr. Fix-it, the “cleaner,” although played with relish by Ray Winstone, brings with him no measure of reality. No doubt it took a little crust to identify the complicit U.S. Senator as a Republican, especially as this is likely to irk some of the staunchest defenders of The Passion of the Christ. (Jesus, we’ve been taught to believe, was at some point converted to the GOP.) The greedy corporate type has been, so to speak, democratically photo-shopped into companionship with Clinton and Pelosi as well as Bush and Cheney, but that won’t throw anyone off the scent: Eau de Républicain.
At the finish, as the film sank into slow-motion sentimentality, I could not help but look back nostalgically — not terribly far back — to another Boston murder mystery, which, for all its social breadth and emotional depth, was finally just a murder mystery: Mystic River. The fate of the free world did not have to hang in the balance. The crime did not have to be pinned on Big Brother. The scale could stay local. There is a passing reference in Edge of Darkness to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s familiar quotation about “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time,” and although I don’t offer it up as evidence of “a first-rate intelligence,” I can say in that spirit that I myself am of two simultaneous minds about the film. I found it to be as enjoyable as I found it lamentable.
When in Rome, directed by Mark Steven Johnson, is a frightfully unfunny romantic-comic fantasy revolving around a junior curator at the Guggenheim, a single girl in Rome for her younger sister’s wedding, who does as the Romans do not: pilfering five coins from the Fontana d’Amore and in magical consequence drawing their last owners to her like a magnet. If nothing else, with creamy-dreamy cinematography by John Bailey, this serves as a test of whether or not the chiselled and clenched Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat, etc.) can carry a movie by herself, albeit only a balsa-light one. Reckless would it be, off the results, to repeat the experiment taking away the helping hand of the casually confident Josh Duhamel or adding a bobby pin of extra weight.
Dear John weaves a wartime romance beginning in the spring of 2001 (you know what’s coming) and stretching up to today, staggeringly basic and banal in its specifics, turning on a senseless withholding of information for the sole purpose of contrived misunderstanding and revealed nobility. It issues from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, always a harbinger of goopy absurdity, and the chief function of director Lasse Hallstrom, at one time a halfway serious filmmaker, is to pour sunlight, moonlight, and firelight over it like syrup. The buggy-eyed Amanda Seyfried manages to convey maybe a month’s worth of maturation over the decade-long storyline, but Channing Tatum makes a tiptop military type, a strong, silent type, guarded, humble, a tad pent-up, a tad petulant, several tads chivalrous. He merits some sort of medal for his recitation of the “I am a coin” letter to his dying numismatist dad. I can see good things in his future. Not in his past or his present.
Honesty compels me to admit I screened La Danse on DVD. But inasmuch as the Reading Gaslamp, which opens the film on Friday, has taken to projecting some of its “alternative” fare on disk, the point might be moot. I can’t say for a certainty that that’s how this film will be shown to the public. I only have my suspicions. With that caveat, this privileged peek inside the Paris Opera Ballet — more than a peek, a thorough probe — ought to be catnip to anyone interested in classical and modern dance, or for that matter in artistic creation in any form, the process of bringing execution in line with conception. Veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman provides no narrative thread and no commentary from within or without the picture frame, just random drop-ins on rehearsals (predominantly), polished performances, conferences in the inner sanctum, costume and makeup departments, the cafeteria, the corridors, anywhere and everywhere, down to the lone custodian picking up trash in the baroque auditorium. At over two and a half hours, it would be difficult to say that it couldn’t have been tightened. Illuminating as it all is, it would be equally difficult to say exactly where it could have been tightened. Honesty again compels me to admit I watched the two disks at separate sittings.