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dir James Gray
scr James Gray, Ric Menello
with Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw, Isabella Rossellini, Moni Moshonov, Elias Koteas, Samantha Ivers, David Cale, Marion McCorry, John Ortiz, Jeanine Serralles, Mark Vincent
release US 13.Feb.09, UK 27.Mar.09
The back-up plan: Phoenix and Shaw
CANNES FILM FEST
|R E V I E W B Y R I C H C L I N E|
A strong story is given weight and meaning by some especially vivid acting, but a too-mainstream approach to the edgy subject matter leaves the film feeling oddly flat.
Leonard (Phoenix) is a 30-something guy with a dark past involving a broken engagement and mental instability. He's now working in the family dry-cleaning business and living with his parents (Rossellini and Moshonov), who introduce him to a nice Jewish girl, Sandra (Shaw). They actually like each other, but Leonard is distracted by needy neighbour Michelle (Paltrow). He begins to juggle both relationships, seemingly keeping Sandra as the back-up in case things don't work out with Michelle, who's already seeing a married man (Koteas).
Phoenix's involving and cheeky performance gives this film its substance. Even as he highlights Leonard's creepy-stalker obsessions, he's still likeable, especially when he cuts loose on a dance floor. His interaction with each of the other characters is engaging and revealing, especially his strikingly different approaches to the two women. And Paltrow and Shaw both underplay their roles beautifully, with Michelle's dark edges contrasting against Sandra's more open-hearted earthiness. But from the moment we met the clingy, passive-aggressive Michelle, we know Leonard's in trouble.
The script makes some keen observations on modern society, from Michelle's comment that she has ADHD ("Yeah, everybody has that," Leonard replies) to the authentic Jewish culture. Along the way there are plenty of squirm-inducing moments that keep us guessing as to where the films is going. We can see the clues that Leonard misses, and that makes it all the more ominous. In many ways this is a story of the power of delusion.
But while the film is efficiently shot and edited, director Gray's direction is far too slick and straightforward for a story like this. It really needs a much more illuminating directorial approach that can get deeper into Leonard's head, but Gray plays it completely straight, giving nothing away and even hedging from the difficult elements (such as the story's logical conclusion). The result is a film that feels badly watered down for mainstream audiences. They'll appreciate the more upbeat approach, even if it rings false.
|R E A D E R R E V I E W S|
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© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall|
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