Sunday, September 17, 2006

Two American Films

I saw a couple of American films in the past two days, both of which might be considered 'Indie' pics according to their aesthetic and social concerns, though both are as conventional as one can expect from any film that comes out of the US these days, whatever the budget used to make it. The first is the better one, Thumbsucker, the feature debut of Mike Mills, one of the co-founders of the Director's Bureau with Sophia and Roman Coppola. Mills, like his colleagues has cut his teeth on music videos, most notably for Air, who named a song after him, and commercials. His first film, which focuses on a shy, disaffected seventeen-year-old in small-town Oregon, who has yet to relinquish the habit of sucking his thumb, is a modest but pleasant piece. While much of the subject matter will be familiar from previous films of the sort, Thumbsucker is for the most part convincing and not terribly inane, which, given some of the American indie films I have had to endure in the past year, is an achievement in itself. Mills strains a bit towards the Wes Anderson school of whimsy, and there is an annoying over-reliance on slow-motion comedy shots set to music, not to mention long, aimless pans. But the quirkiness is mostly held in check and whatever jokes there are are gems, such as the entire character of the family orthodontist Perry, played by Keanu Reeves, who sends himself up gloriously. The acting all round is first class and probably the reason for the film being so sympathetic; newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci plays the diffident teenager Justin, doe-eyed and uncertain as to whether he should become an out-and-out rebel or to conform, as seems to be closer to his temperament. Vincent d'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton are both excellent as his parents, whose very ordinary characters are shaded masterfully by the actors and director alike. Best of all though is the school debating coach played by Vince Vaughn, who seems to be relishing the advent of middle age, his features lustily swelling to a bon viveur contentedness. This is probably the best portrayal of the pale regretfulness of a late thirtysomething man since Matthew Broderick in Election; and it is Alexander Payne, rather than Mills' younger contemporaries that the director resembles most. While the friend whom I saw it with was a bit miffed at the film's apparent disapproval of drugs, legal and otherwise, I saw this as more of a muddle, a flaw to be expected in a film that, refreshingly has no great ambitions, nor ideas above its station. I was happy just to watch Mills' beautifully framed images and situations drift by, set to the tune of poor old Elliott Smith and that army of optimists, The Polyphonic Spree. A nice film, and that is no slight.

The same cannot be said however of Thank You For Smoking, a leaden satire on the tobacco lobby by Jason Reitman, son of Ghostbusters and Twins director Ivan (whose new film My Super Ex-Girlfriend was released, in France at least, on the same day). Aaron Eckhardt plays a lobbyist, who takes all the public revulsion that the job engenders in his stride, and manages to stymie his opponents with exceptional flair, until he engages in a bit too much pillow talk with a young journalist assigned to write about him (Katie Holmes in yet another clichéd role). Eckhardt's track record working with Neil LaBute on both stage and screen has prepared him well for the amoral anti-hero he portrays here, and his performance is both effortless and with gusto, and it is about the only thing that keeps audience interest in the film. Beyond that the film gets bogged down in a morass of fascinating facts that might as well be repackaged as a Reader's Digest special entitled 'the truth about the tobacco industry' (Reader's Digest does get a mention in the film too). Eckhardt also delivers a voiceover that sounds very like the apologia provided by Nicolas Cage's arms dealer in Lord of War, and while Thank You For Smoking is not quite as bad as that, the film's overall tone of condescension and its pretention to a Swiftian savage indignation make it deeply dislikable. And, badly made, for the most part.