Guest of Honor: David Thewlis' wabbit twouble in Atom Egoyan’s latest.
The way Guest of Honour is being vaunted in some circles, one would think that it had been decades since its writer-director had turned in anything of quality. The truth is that Atom Egoyan has never made a bad movie, just one that isn’t as good as the others. (This one, alas.)
The tension between public perception and private history is always at the core of Egoyan’s work. Jim (David Thewlis) is a persnickety, permanently punched-in city health inspector. Though not a religious man, when his time came, the widower left instructions with his daughter that he be given a church funeral, which is where our story begins.
Veronica (Laysla de Oliveira), a former high school music teacher, meets with Father Greg (Luke Wilson) to make arrangements for Jim’s service. No one would ever confuse the aseptic beauty for an ex-convict, but when asked to provide memories for the eulogy, all Veronica has to offer is that her father did a great job of looking after her pet bunny while she was in prison serving time for a prank that got out of hand.
Technology as a tool for evil is another of Egoyan’s pet concerns, this time, it shows up in the form of a single-note school bus driver (Rossif Sutherland) who frames Veronica by surreptitiously using her phone to sexually harass a pair of underage students. For reasons I won’t spoil, Veronica pleads guilty and insists on receiving the maximum sentence.
There’s a saying that lucky rabbit’s feet come from unlucky rabbits, but you couldn’t prove it by Benjamin Bunny, who, for 15 pampered years — the timeline of the film — provided the family with loyal companionship. Jim lost his daughter’s respect the day she spied him in church, seated between her dying mother and her music teacher, and holding hands with the latter. This audience member’s respect died along with the rabbit. Benjamin’s peaceful passing was but a contributing factor to what turned out to be a ghastly day for Jim.
A visit to an Armenian restaurant finds the owner (played by Egoyan’s wife and stock company accomplice Arsinée Khanjian) not only purchasing rabbits unskinned and unprocessed, but repurposing their ears for other purveyors to sell as deep-fried delicacies. As great a performance as Thewlis gives — and there hasn’t been one quite this memorable since Naked — the film never gains the dramatic foothold needed to make his character’s implausibilities plausible. Any animal lover who has formed a relationship even remotely similar to the one between Benjamin and Jim would have viewed the stack of rabbit pelts as an omen, shuttered the establishment until it was once again brought up to code, and been off. In an attempt to tie three storylines together, Jim returns later that evening, where he winds up as the eponymous toastmaster, drunk, angry, and issuing a death threat against the driver who ruined his daughter’s life. A video of Jim’s meltdown soon goes viral.
It’s been five years since Egoyan gifted us with a movie: I found Remember the most memorable picture of 2015. Others were quick to forget it. Had this been the work of a novice, I’d probably proclaim eternal buddyhood on the basis of one picture. Egoyan-lite is still more full-bodied than almost all of his contemporaries, but this one ends with a bitter aftertaste. ★★
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An American Pickle — A trustworthy storyteller recognizes that the essence of fantasy relies less on a filmmaker’s potential to suspend disbelief and more on their ability to create a plausible universe within which to frame their work. Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen) is a Russian-Jewish immigrant, transplanted to Brooklyn in 1919, where he worked as a pickler. Revived from a briny, 100-year snooze, and without so much as one tweet or TV crew to acknowledge him, Herschel exits the hospital freer than if he’d been there visiting a sick friend. Huh? There’s not one wrinkled nose when a dead-ringer for Tevya in a touring company of Fiddler on the Roof, back from the dead and sporting the same clothes he was pickled in, walks past. Big lapses in logic to overcome, but then, it’s early in the picture. Next up, the presence of street-corner seltzer vendors in ancient Brooklyn. I’ll go along with them, and even buy into Herschel’s desire to just once in his life have a sip of the then-cost-prohibitive carbonated refreshment. The centenarian goes to live with his great-great-grandson, and the presence of a seltzer water maker in Ben’s (Rogen in a dual role) kitchen doesn’t trouble me one bit. What sets me spinning is that after a full reel spent milking this cow-sized gag, Ben hands Herschel a glass of freshly-charged water without so much as one bubble surging through it. We open strong (a gag in the old country involving defective shovels) and close big (a mid-credits nod to Rogen co-star Barbra Streisand’s Yentl) — but it’s the enclosed bickering and one-upmanship, compounded by obvious political parallels, that leaves the audience in a pickle. 2020 —S.M. ★
Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump — According to intelligence expert Malcolm Nance, “Prior to Trump, every president maintained the continuity on how the constitution was upheld and defended.” Life changed the day after the inauguration, when presidential water bearer and spinner of “alternative facts” Kellyanne Conway grossly overestimated the number of attendees. It was her Trump-hating husband George who famously sided against his wife, their carnival sideshow bickerings playing out on the nightly news. He was also a major proponent of a Rolling Stone article that, borrowing a page from social psychologist Erich Fromm, labeled Trump a “malignant narcissist.” (Trump checks all four boxes: 1. Narcissism. 2. Paranoia. 3. Antisocial personality disorder. 4. Sadism.) The commentariat, give or take an Anthony Scaramucci, boasts more Ph.Ds than a free postdoctoral job board. Gaslighting is given a rigorous explanation, and try as one might to tune him out, The Mooch does a damn frightening job of delineating the average Trump-humper and what it is about their billionaire regular guy that renders their faith unflappable. And lest we forget: the Hitler similitudes that kicked into full gear instantly after Trump’s inflaming “both sides” snipe. Never one to defend a Nazi, I was still quick to observe that Hitler sent roughly 16 million people to their doom, while the only thing Trump ever killed was a 24 oz. Porterhouse. Dan Partland’s seditious documentary argues that while President Trump doesn’t possess a similar capacity for evil, he does fit the same psychological modus operandi as Chancellor Hitler. According to the first Mrs. Trump, the Donald’s habit of repeating things three times came from reading Hitler’s speeches. There’s the occasional misstep — the Jane Goodall analogies drawn between gorillas and our alpha-male orangutan-in-chief are amusing, but fruitless — but for the most part, the film does a fit job of arguing in favor of insanity. 2020. —S.M. ★★★