Posts Tagged ‘allison janney’

A fair number of the films nominated for one or more of the just-awarded Oscars for this past year have begun to pop up on our local cable system for the pretty-damn-reasonable rental rate of $5.99, so now is a good time for folks like me, who didn’t make it out to the theater nearly as much as we’d have liked over the past 12 months (or thereabouts), to catch up on the stuff everyone’s been talking about — and in the category of celebrated acting specifically, they don’t come much more-talked-about than director Craig Gillespie’s biopic of notorious-but-perhaps-misunderstood figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya. Allison Janney went home with the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her turn as the one-time-phenom’s mother, LaVona, and Margot Robbie received rave notices for her take on the film’s troubled protagonist, so what the hell? On a low-key weeknight, have you got something better to do than to check this out? I don’t.

For those who lived through the early-’90s melodrama that was the Harding/Nancy Kerrigan dust-up, the general details — perhaps even the specifics — are still floating around somewhere in our syrupy collective memory, but for those who either weren’t around for it or had something better to do, it goes something like this : Harding, a rough-and-tumble gal out of small-town Oregon, who hailed from a decidedly working-class background that could generously be described as “atypical” when contrasted with most in her sport, found herself at the center of one of the 24/7 news cycle’s first wall-to-wall stories when one of her primary competitors, media darling Nancy Kerrigan, had her leg bashed in with a tire iron by a masked assailant who, as it was quickly discovered, was in the employ of Harding’s ex-husband, an incompetent loser named Jeff Gillooly who tended to surround himself with folks no smarter or more savvy than he was himself. But there’s a whole lot more to the melodrama than that, of course.

Harding’s place in figure skating history was already well-secured by the time all this shit went down : she was the first woman to successfully complete a Triple Axel in competition, she’d been a national champion and an Olympian, she was the first woman to successfully project a “bad girl” aura in what had previously been a genteel and refined sport. How and why, then, did she find herself mixed up in a Keystone Kops-style fiasco that ended with her being banned from competitive skating for life when she probably should have been milking lucrative endorsement deals and participating in “Champions On Ice”-style exhibition tours for at least a half-decade, if not longer? Believe it or not, that’s probably the wrong question to be asking.

The right question, as it turns out, is how Harding could have possibly gone as far as she did given her disastrous upbringing and abusive domestic life. Janney’s every bit as compelling as everyone claims and nearly steals every scene she’s in — LaVona was a nightmare of a mother, callous and cruel and emotionally distant and manipulative and antagonistic in the extreme, a literal cauldron of seething bitterness and resentment split between being driven to push her daughter to the top of her field and being deeply envious of the success that she goaded her toward achieving, and it’s testament to Robbie’s own acting abilities that she’s able to stand toe-to-toe with her co-star and still make her own presence felt. When the two are going at it, they really go at it — and when they aren’t going at it overtly, the tension is never more than about a centimeter from the surface. This is meticulously-crafted interpersonal dysfunction that drips of years of slow-burn mutual  destruction, some of it aimed outward, much directed inward. LaVona, in particular, seems to hate herself and her lot in life every bit as much as she despises her offspring, while Tonya has internalized so much of the psychological trauma she’s been subject to that you just know she’s doomed to sabotage her own success because, after being told you don’t deserve it long enough, you begin to believe that’s true — no matter how hard you’ve worked for what you have. On the surface, the idea that Tonya Harding could be waiting tables in a greasy-spoon diner within months of reaching the pinnacle of her profession appears absurd — but when you see how her life played out, such a fall from grace (one in a series of them, truth be told) seems not only natural, but inevitable.

The same, sadly, can also be said of Harding getting into, out of, and then clinging around the margins of, a shit marriage. Sebastian Stan steps into Gillooly’s no-doubt-cheap shoes and inhabits the character with tremendous authenticity : he’s a fuck-up, sure, but a fuck-up capable of slapping the shit out of his wife at the drop of a hat, apologizing for it afterwards, and then doing it again. And again. And again. The sheer banality of the domestic abuse in this film is particularly disturbing — Gillsepie doesn’t swell the music and pull in the camera for tight and frightened facial close-ups, he just goes the naturalistic route, and it offers no safe dramatic distance for audiences. One minute Harding is putting groceries away, the next she’s getting a black eye. It’s abrupt, it’s shocking, it’s direct, it’s real. And yet you can also see why the Gillooly/Harding relationship made a kind of sense in the way that so many of these dead-end pairings in dead-end towns do : he was interested in her, she was interested in getting out from her mother’s thumb (not that she really did, but that’s another matter), and neither of them had anything else to do. Harding ended up getting the “upper hand,” so to speak, only when she finally dumped her old man’s sorry ass and he slid into the typical “I’ll do anything to get her back” mindset — but that came back to bite ’em both where the sun don’t shine, because what he would “do for her” turned out to be as stupid and disastrous as you could possibly imagine.

Of course, with a “bodyguard”/hired goon like paranoid, delusional, grown-man-living-with-his-parents Shawn —a part that probably looked like little more than comic relief on paper but is elevated to a kind of queasy believability by Paul Walter Hauser — at the center of a Gillooly’s grand scheme to prove his “worth” to his estranged spouse, said scheme never has a chance, and the minute the FBI starts poking around a guy of Shawn’s “fortitude” is gonna squeal like the proverbial stuck pig, so the only real surprise on offer in the film’s final act is the speed at which the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. It’s actually kinda breathtaking to consider that these clown thought they’d get away with the assault on Kerrigan, but again, that deep-seated sense of inevitability that Gillespie has so masterfully channeled from the outset (with no small assist in that regard coming from the admirably less-than-flashy screenplay by Steven Rogers) is what’s most compelling about watching this all go off the rails. Everyone’s so broken, so ill-equipped to handle the situations that they themselves have gotten into, that you can feel the walls of the universe itself closing in around them. This is the way it has to be, and even though you’ll fight against it, you’ll be doing so in full knowledge that your efforts are doomed to fail.

All of which makes I, Tonya a tragedy, of course — but one most people can probably relate to. There are no “heroes” in this flick, but there are no real “villains,” either — not even LaVona, who really just finds herself at the end in the same place she’s always been, namely a hell of her own making. Harding’s short-lived career as a boxer is touched upon not for laughs, nor for sympathy, but as just another thing that happened. That was bound to happen. As is also the case with her lifetime ban from figure skating — yeah, it’s a punitive punishment, but what else did anyone really expect? The die was cast the minute that Kerrigan’s kneecap cracked.

If you’re looking for redemption, then, or for a ninth-inning (sorry, wrong sport) comeback, or even for any of these folks to forgive any of the others for anything — sorry, not in the cards. Tonya Harding overcame a hell of a lot to make it as far as she did, absolutely, but in the end everything and everyone she had a chance to escape from pulled her right back down to their level — and not through any Herculean effort on their part, but simply because she never had the tools to learn to how to break their grip. Seriously, you have to wonder — what good is having a vehicle but no map of how to get where you want to go? Gillespie’s remarkable film — anchored by genuinely compelling performances — reminds us that even the brightest and flashiest of rocket-ships will crash and burn if it doesn’t achieve proper velocity at liftoff.

"Life During Wartime" Movie Poster

So, anyway, Todd Solondz is back with a new film, and not too many people seem to care.

I caught his latest, Life During Wartime, a sorta-sequel/sorta-variation on his 1998 breakout hit Happiness,  at a Saturday matinee showing at the Uptown Theater here in Minneapolis, essentially indie film central of the upper midwest, the day after it opened — and there were exactly seven people in the auditorium, myself included.

Talking briefly with a couple of moviegoers after the show, they essentially had the same reaction I did — it wasn’t bad by any means, but we all felt, I dunno — kind of underwhelmed by the whole thing. Todd Solondz has grown up and learned to divorce himself from his characters a bit, but I think I preferred the less-analytical, more directly-involved (for good or bad) style of his previous efforts. Hold tight and all will (hopefully) be explained —

First off, if you haven’t seen Happiness, don’t bother with this at all. Solondz assumes the audience is all familiar with the characters,  even though each and every one is portrayed by a different actor than last time around (Solondz seems hooked on the idea of changing our perception of his characters based on changing who’s playing them, and uses those changes as a way of questioning the fundamental nature of identity itself — an interesting and challenging move, to be sure, but frankly one that he used to much better effect is his last (and for my money best) film, Palindromes, where the actress (and in one case actor) playing the lead role of Aviva changed several times within the film itself), and he doesn’t bother to really provide much of a point of entry for anyone late to the party.

Fair enough, I guess, it’s his call to make, but certainly the effect on any new viewer is going to be alienating to say the least. But given that alienation is a central  concern in all of Solondz’ work, maybe that’s intentional. It’s certainly carried over into his overall approach approach as a filmmaker.

And that’s where my main beef with Life During Wartime lies — in his previous efforts, Solondz has either treated his characters with outright disdain (Happiness, Storytelling) or something approaching a sort of genuine level of sympathy and human concern (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromes). In this flick, though, he approaches his subjects with a kind of detached, almost journalistic eye that works decently enough in conjunction with the minimalist production design and straightforward scripting in creating a sort of bare-bones, take-it-or-leave-it environment for his characters to function in, but it never really directly involves the viewer in any sort of way with the events unfolding onscreen.

I’m assuming all of this is quite intentional on his part (Solondz is too talented to assume anything else), and furthermore I can see why he’s chosen to go down this road — as with Happiness, the themes he’s dealing with here are intensely painful and harrowing, and viewing them through a kind of cold, clinical lens produces a juxtaposition, and a tension, between storytelling style and subject that’s interesting, to be sure, but in the end not entirely rewarding.

It’s been a full decade since everything went to hell for the Jordan family in the first film, and the three sisters who were the focal point of the first film have moved on — eternally depressed optimist (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not) Joy (Shirley Henderson) has settled down and married former (or so she thinks) obscene phone caller Allen (Michael K. Williams), but things aren’t going so well and she’s haunted by visions of her ex-boyfriend who committed suicide, Andy (Paul Reubens —one of the truly great things about this film is seeing Pee Wee Herman himself back in action). Uptight-and-always-in-denial Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida and told her kids that their pedophile father Bill, who’s actually due to be released from prison any day, was a  great and heroic sort of guy who died a tragic death.  She’s met an older guy named Harvey (Michael Lerner) whose staunch support for Israel and sexual — well, normalcy — have made her fall instantly in love with him. And uber-successful sister Trish (Ally Sheedy) has given up poetry for screenwriting, moved to Hollywood, cut off ties with her family, and started dating Keanu Reeves. Yes, really.

Things start to go south for the family pretty much from the word go, though — Joy (who gives this film its title with one her corny musical compositions, as was the case with Happiness) learns that Allen hasn’t been able to give up his X-rated prank call habit and flees to Florida, then Hollywood, hoping to find solace with her family (good luck with that). Cracks start to form in Trish’s carefully-constructed dam when her 12-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns the truth about his dad. Things only get worse when the old man gets out of  jail and seeks out his their eldest son,  Billy (Chris Marquette) at college. And Helen is — well, Helen, and essentially completely divorced from basic concepts of human empathy and understanding, wrapped up in a completely self-absorbed cocoon of pure selfishness.

At this point I may as well admit that I find some of the casting choices a little bit disappointing in relation to the earlier film — the sisters are all well-chosen, but Jon Lovitz was a lot more interesting as Andy than Reubens is (painful as it is for me to say that), Philip Seymour Hoffman was a much more memorable Allen than Williams is, Dylan Baker was a much more terrifyingly real Bill than the detached and damaged figure Hinds portrays, and geez, Renee Taylor as family matriarch Mona can’t hold a candle to Louise Lasser (the ladies’ father, played with his usual consummate professionalism in Happiness by Ben Gazzara, is missing and presumed dead).

I have no doubt that a lot of the differences between how the characters came across the last time around and how they come across here can be more than adequately rationalized as being a realistic portrayal of where they are in their lives now versus where they were then, and represent a natural evolution of the kid of people they would become given the events that have transpired in their lives. I’m cool with that. But that doesn’t mean the actors, and the director, necessarily chose the best way to try to make this phase of their respective stories as interesting as the last was.

Sure, each character’s “arc” (God how I hate that term) is interesting enough in and of itself, but again, Solondz’ detached approach never makes any of the various plotlines as genuinely involving as it could be, and that makes all the difference here. And I’ll state again, while I have no doubt this artistic decision was made quite deliberately, it still doesn’t make for as satisfying a viewing experience as we got the first time around.

I guess a lot of folks are going to say that our guy Todd has simply matured as a filmmaker, but it seems like some of the fire in his belly has gone out a bit. Happiness was as genuinely disturbing to this reviewer on first viewing as films like Salo and Cannibal Holocaust (and no animals — or humans — were harmed in the process), but Life During Wartime feels less like a sequel, or even a variation, and more like an addendum. It’s central theme of forgiveness for the unforgivable feels heavy-handed and frankly shoehorned in, as if to prove there was more of a point here than just saying “oh, by the way, here’s what happened to these people in case you were wondering.”

I don’t to bitch too much here, this is still a more interesting and challenging film than 99% of what’s out there. But given the high level at which Solondz set the bar with Happiness, it has to be said that his folow-up feels like something of a missed opportunity.