Brainwrong

We don’t really hear much about Armond White in the UK, so it was a surprise to discover how much he turns up in movie conversations in New York. He’s the King of Hyperbole, read for the sheer insanity of his pronouncements, which tend towards either ecstatic transport or queenie indignation, often bearing only the most tangential relationship to the film under discussion.

The only review I read by White during my visit was for Scott Frank’s THE LOOKOUT. Boy, was White angry about that film. Since he also mentioned the fact that he hated BRICK*, which I rather liked, I figured that THE LOOKOUT was probably at worst inoffensive, at best rather good. And so it proved to be.

Scott Frank is the screenwriter of OUT OF SIGHT, probably Soderbergh’s most effective mainstream entertainment, and the film which more than any other helped confirm George Clooney as a genuine movie star (it also created a fleeting, illusionary halo of tolerability around the person of Jennifer Lopez). I’m not crazy about Frank’s other credits (Armond White, however, apparently loves MINORITY REPORT) but I was interested to give THE LOOKOUT a try sometime.

Basically, the film deals with a character played by BRICK’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who suffers brain damage during a reckless nocturnal drive and goes from being a high-school sports star to a bank janitor who has trouble remembering and sequencing events. Comparisons to MEMENTO are inevitable, but I think there’s room for more than one film about this relatively common kind of problem.

Induced by an acquaintance (Brit Matthew Goode, sporting a pitch-perfect U.S. accent) and a too-good-to-be-true girlfriend (Isla Fisher) to help out in a bank robbery, LGL’s character finds himself in over his head, outgunned and outplanned, and must work around his multiple mental disabilities in order to emerge alive.

“In THE LOOKOUT, Gordon-Levitt cements his indie rep as the poster boy for dysfunction,” writes White, suggesting a deep discomfort with any movie presenting a hero who is not perfection personified (he loves his Spielberg). And: “It takes a highly naive, cynical performer—or a doltish film critic—to find this nonsense interesting or surprising.” Naive AND cynical, that’s a nice mix. Where does Hollywood find such performers? White really seems not to believe that people with brain damage exist. The fact that JGL’s character lives with a blind man (aw, it’s Jeff Daniels — we LIKE Jeff Daniels!) seems to make him even angrier, although this is surely just WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. People with different disabilities are often housed together, so they can help each other out.

Of course, disabilities rarely DO exist in Hollywood. THE LOOKOUT doesn’t necessarily make the very best use of the issues it raises, but at least it raises them. It’s essentially a decent, tense film noir with some unusual characters. I wondered if it would be brave enough to have a downbeat ending, because I think most of the best noirs do — MINORITY REPORT would be immeasurably improved if it ended just after the Cruiser realises he’s been set up — but then I figured the film was so pervaded with loss and sadness, nobody would want to see it end worse than it started. But it’s inherent in the film’s premise that sometimes you lose something and you can’t get it back, things can NEVER be as good as they were, so the upbeat conclusion is still rather sad. This strikes me as pretty brave for the mainstream, and perhaps explains why the film didn’t do better. It’s a stylish thriller with great music and performances and the story is suspenseful and satisfying — but so many people like White are deeply uncomfortable with anything that suggests that life for some of us — or ALL of us — might not be perfectable.

Although some aspects of the film are predictable, this didn’t strike me as bad: our greater ability to work out that JGL is being exploited means that we can feel anxious long before he does. I thought it was also rather smart that the film encourages us to underestimate the hero in just the way the bad guys do. His stripper “girlfriend,” played by Isla Fisher and rejoicing in the name of Luvlee Lemons, is something of a cliched Tart-With-A-Heart: Frank wrote a proper femme fatale, but Fisher didn’t want to play unsympathetic. I think that’s a terrible choice, since femme fatales are MUCH more enjoyable that T-W-A-Hs. And Fisher telegraphs her character’s niceness in one dreadful scene by staring at JGL through a windscreen and assembling a variety of emotive expressions on her face, with a good bit of Dallas-type Odd Lip Movement.

Nevertheless, I would unhesitatingly suggest that those in search of a good modern thriller to try this one on for size. If you don’t like the movie, you can still get endless fascination by trying to figure out what the hell Armond White means by “Being an indie puppet means a willingness to pervert contemporary notions of heroism, and in THE LOOKOUT, Gordon-Levitt once again plays a moral defective as if the film’s absurdities made sense.”

“I know what all those words mean, but that statement makes no sense,” ~ Lisa Simpson in The Simpsons, studying a marquee that reads “YAHOO SERIOUS FILM FESTIVAL”.

*Self-conscious neo-noirs never seem to work, since the stylistic excesses of the classic noir were committed with a kind of innocence: the term film noir had not been invented, and filmmakers were just doing what seemed natural and right at the time. Yet BRICK’s teen-noir pastiche struck me as fresh and satisfying. It helps that the film has a bright, saturated look and surprise framing and cutting that have nothing to do with noir archetypes. At times it verges on BUGSY MALONE territory, with all those kids acting like gangsters, especially when school principal Richard Roundtree calls the young hero into his office and tells him to BACK OFF, but I enjoyed even that moment. The whole film is very self-conscious and cute, but sincere too.

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9 Responses to “Brainwrong”

  1. Armond White is a complete creep. No one should take him seriously. Actually there’s no room for anyone to take him seriously because he takes himself so seriously he’s sucked all the air out of the universe.

    The Lookout is a marvelous liittle “B” movie – an update of the sort of film Don Siegel would be making were he still around, and “Bs” still a producion mainstay. J G-L is one fantastic actor. His career-making performance was as a male teenage hustler in Greg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. He began his career as a child. The better part of it was the nine years he spent on Third Rock From the Sun — a very amusing sitcom starring John Lithgow and Jane Curtin in which he played one of a group of aliens who take on the form of what they think is an ordinary small town family. While the oldest of the group he was given the body of a teenage boy. He was quite funny.

    He also played Brad Pitt as a child in A River Runs Throught It

    Joe has a blog called hitrecord.org which features his videos. They’re very good.

    Most child actors don’t make it to adulthood alive. Among those that do, few have adult careers. Joe has one – as does Neil Patrick Harris.

    The “Gordon” in his last name hails from his maternal grandfather Michael Gordon — a blacklisted direcor whose credits include Cyrano de Bergerac and (wait for it!) Pillow Talk.

  2. I’d forgotten that was him in 3rd Rock! Yes, he was good. One British TV critic observed John Lithgow’s camp manner and decided the whole show was about “passing”, with being an alien a metaphor for homosexuality. Perhaps a case of overdeveloping a promising interpretation, but it works for some aspects of the show.

    Hope Scott Frank makes more films, and I hope the fact that this one wasn’t a huge hit doesn’t change his approach.

  3. I hope he does too, 2007 was a big year for screenwriters becoming writer-directors what with Tony Gilroy and Michael Clayton.

    I think that critic was over the top in calling “3rd Rock” being a metaphor for “passing” as a gay, though Lithgow (who’s straight, very nice, and wildly sophisticated) is something of a camp icon. It’s really about the wild eccentricity that lurks just beneath the surface of the “ordinary.” Interestingly Joe played the least “out there” of the aliens.

  4. Third Rock From The Sun was quite entertaining. I’d agree on the ‘wild eccentricity’ that we all have and that it shouldn’t be totally seen as a metaphor for homosexuality – like the X-Men series it could stand for anything that sets you apart from the norms of ‘society’! In that sense everyone is trying to ‘pass’ as being a sensible, conforming, upstanding member of the community while feeling inside that we might get found out or won’t live up to other people’s expectations! It then becomes more a matter of feeling at peace with yourself and your choices and interests rather than worrying about perceptions of others!

    It is interesting that science fiction seems more interested in these kinds of themes and have more of an opportunity to tackle them through having obviously ‘fantastical’ and ‘unreal’ situations to lend a safety net to the viewers. I was quite impressed with the way Doctor Who has been tackling quite head on lots of difficult themes with little comment.

    I’m really far behind with my film viewing – I’ve got the DVDs of Mysterious Skin and Brick but have not yet sat down with them. Can I recommend a great podcast series called Out Of The Past: Investigating Film Noir – each month the two gentlemen doing the podcast analyse a classic film noir and a neo-noir. They’re up to their 47th episode now and recently did Brick, but of course I’ve skipped that one until I’ve seen the film!

  5. I shoudl add that I really like Gregg Araki’s The Living End, though my reticence in tackling another Araki film could probably be because the only other film I’ve seen by him so far has been The Doom Generation, which Totally F***ed me Up! ;-D

  6. I quite like Totally F**edd Up. The Doom Generation not so much. Greg started out with “no budget” movies. His first film, the charmingly titled Three Bewildered People in the Night was shot on black and white “short ends” he found on the campus of UCLA. To compensate for lighting limitations he shot many scenes in laundromats at night. The overhead flourescent lights were perfect.

  7. I can highly recommend Mysterious Skin one of the best films I’ve ever seen. So sorry to see it in Cameo with nearly emptyhouse at the time.

  8. Am adding to my rental list. Haven’t seen enough of the right Araki, and am sure I haven’t seen that one.

    Scifi is indeed great for metaphor, although I sometimes quibble at Dr Who’s abandonment of subtlety and head-on approach, when it’s so much more fun, and smart, to be indirect, especially in a genre which invites it.

  9. While reading this I couldn’t help but think about the online furor over Armond White and how few people are mentioning that he has written a book on the subject of Michael Jackson that may very well be the best EVER on the subject. –

    The book is called, “KEEP MOVING: The Michael Jackson Chronicles”. It’s a collection of articles on Michael Jackson written over the last 25 years. Published in the fall of 2009, the book is slowly earning praise from a variety of readers. If interested, Google the title for ordering information.

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