EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Just knocking off a few reviews here, which should bring me up to date as far as films seen in theaters go.
The Beaches of Agnès (2008; Dir.: Agnès Varda)
Nine (2009; Dir.: Rob Marshall)
Crazy Heart (2009; Dir.: Scott Cooper)
How you respond to a first-person memoir documentary like The Beaches of Agnès will, I suspect, depend on how invested you are in the life and thoughts of the film's maker, French New Wave legend Agnès Varda. Cards on the table, then: as of now, I'm basically unfamiliar with Varda's work—I've seen none of her stuff outside of that brief movie-within-a-movie with Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina featured in her Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). So while I marveled at the creative energy and moving introspection Varda offers on her life as a filmmaker and wife/mother (when I finally caught up with this film at the Museum of Modern Art late in December), I also felt a bit detached from the whole thing—leaving me wondering whether my indifference to some of Varda's musings stemmed mostly from not knowing much about her art in advance, or whether I just naturally tune out of these kinds of deeply personal projects. (For what it's worth, its most poignant moments, for me, come from Varda's reflections on the way she dealt with husband Jacques Demy's impending death from AIDS; she, as most artists are wont to do, turned the experience into her own handcrafted art.) I had much the same reaction with another first-person cinematic memoir released last year, Terence Davies's Of Time and the City: I found a lot of it beautiful in the moment, but I can't say I remember much from the experience now beyond respecting Davies's zeal to documents his own memories and impressions on film. However, I haven't caught up with Davies's earlier work either, so again, that may have influenced my reaction.
Could it be that films like The Beaches of Agnès and Of Time and the City are so inherently tied into their respective auteurs' personal experiences that they risk leaving audiences not already invested in their art in a state of distant admiration? And if that's indeed the case, does it necessarily matter? Whatever you may think of films like these, they show directors working in their own creative zones, dealing with their personal obsessions and leaving the audience at sea in trying to determine whether there's anything to take away from the viewing experience. Generally, I admire filmmakers who work in such an uncompromised vein; on the other hand, the result can sometimes feel like you're on the outside looking in. (In Varda's case, though, it means looking into a house with celluloid walls—a closing image that truly inspired this particular cinephile.)
To a certain extent, that's a feeling I've always felt while watching Federico Fellini's much-celebrated 8½—not a documentary (obviously), but a grand phantasmagoria borne out of the same kind of deeply personal impulses as The Beaches of Agnès and Of Time and the City. Having seen the film numerous times over the years, I've come to appreciate not just Fellini's endless imagination and creativity, but also the extent of his brutal candor and his heartfelt belief in cinema as the perfect medium for self-analysis. (When, towards the end of the film, Guido implores his long-suffering wife Luisa to "accept me as I am," it feels less like a narcissistic rationalization of his faults than it does a purifying expression of the kind of awareness of human foible that marks the greatest of film directors.) But, if you're not receptive to Fellini's self-examination, 8½ could come off as insufferably masturbatory stuff.
Better that kind of introspection, though, than the kind of prestige-pic impersonality exemplified by Rob Marshall's Nine. Now, maybe we should be fair to this film and take it on its own terms: as an adaptation of a Broadway musical inspired by the Fellini classic rather than a reworking of 8½ itself. That still leaves us with bland music, even worse (read: inelegant and inexpressive) lyrics, TV-style cutting, and an emotional void at its center. Granted, there are some moments of impressive musical bravura (Fergie does a pretty impressive Saraghina in tackling "Be Italian") and even instances of genuine dramatic emotion (most of the scenes with Marion Cotillard, playing the constantly cheated-on wife). But nowhere in Nine is there a sense of an artist feverishly expressing his passions onscreen, however self-involved those passions may be. Instead, generic, fashion-spread, stage-bound slickness rules. Has Marshall actually seen any movie from the so-called "Cinema Italiano" (the name of the film's worst number, by the way) other than 8½? But then, I can't tell that Maury Yeston, the composer-lyricist of the musical, has done so either. None of this is actively offensive, mind you—at least if you don't mind the film's choreography-obscuring cutting. But a movie that is supposedly about an artist's creative block arguably shouldn't feel as soulless as it does here. 8½, for all its self-indulgence, certainly didn't.
Self-indulgent? Jeff Bridges? Never! But narcissistic? I would have never thought Bridges was capable of narcissism in a performance...and then comes Crazy Heart. Writer/director Scott Cooper's film is another portrait of an artist: Bad Blake, a 57-year-old former country sensation who is now frittering away his songwriting talent in small-town shows and heavy booze. The film follows a predictable thematic trajectory: Bad Blake aims to make a comeback, but of course it's a tough road, what with his alcoholism and a frayed father-son relationship that he tries to make up for with a single mother/aspiring reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her kid. A bastard son of The Wrestler (2008) and Tender Mercies (1983), Crazy Heart is a notable mostly for how unsurprising it is throughout; only toward the very end does Cooper, adapting a novel by Thomas Cobb, throw in one or two calculated curves to Bad Blake's road to redemption.
Much more disappointing than the story's infestation of clichés, however, is Cooper's near-worshipful stance toward the main character—or, more accurately, to Jeff Bridges. Women eagerly prostitute themselves to him; his younger rival Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) stands in awe of him, even as Blake trashes him to his manager; and of course there's that Bridges/Gyllenhaal May-December romance, which gives us an opportunity to see that, yeah, he's a family man, too, when he's sober. Notwithstanding one unfortunate incident, in which he nearly loses the kid in a shopping mall when he takes him to a bar so he can grab a drink, Crazy Heart feels, more than anything else, like an endless love-in for its lead actor, with rarely anything at stake other than the threat that, gasp, we might actually see his character in something approaching a genuinely negative light. Could Bad Blake be the cuddliest alcoholic ever seen in an American movie? Even when the film approaches toughness—with one shot in particular, of Blake collapsing on a bed in a depressed, drunken stupor, that somewhat recalls the closing shot of Kirk Douglas collapsing right in front of Billy Wilder's camera in his Ace in the Hole (1951)—Cooper consistently pulls back to reassure us that, no, Blake will indeed see the light soon thereafter.
I'd like to believe that Bridges—certainly a great actor who has earned the right to a showcase of this kind, and who, to be fair, is fine enough here—was totally innocent, trying his damnedest to give, within this pandering Oscar-bait vehicle, as honest and gritty a performance as possible given such undistinguished material. But when I see his name listed as an executive producer of this dreck...well, I really have to wonder.
But at least the T-Bone Burnett/Stephen Bruton songs are generally quite good, and Bridges's performances of them show the kind of emotional honesty otherwise smothered by Cooper's stars in his eyes. Buy the soundtrack; skip the movie.
(The Beaches of Agnès will be released on DVD March 2; Nine and Crazy Heart are currently playing in theaters across the country.)