The cast of WOMEN IN TROUBLE
It’s a simple, clear-cut fact: movies need women in them. Women bring basic interest, grace, beauty, glamour, sensitivity, human depth and intelligence -qualities necessary to art. Any film without them, you can rest assured, will be primarily concerned with macho competitiveness, sports, war and/or violence, often lacking in any emotional reality, and, if that’s your cup of tea, be my guest. But be honest: what would you rather watch, THE WOMEN or TWELVE ANGRY MEN?
The lack of a strong female presence in today’s films is often decried but, lately, beginning with PRECIOUS, this has happily not been the case. Of course, these current women-centric films are not all 100% artistic successes, but, nevertheless, I’m very grateful that, in the independent sphere, especially, the filmmakers responsible for them are not subject to the oppressive chauvinism and 14-year-old boy mall target audience mentality which has all but ruined Hollywood.
With the delightfully raunchy WOMEN IN TROUBLE, writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez turns from the pulp-y concerns of his scripts for GOTHIKA, SNAKES ON A PLANE and THE EYE and focuses on an interrelated group of ladies trying to make sense of their hectic Los Angeles lives. The fact that a good portion of them are porn actresses bespeaks yet more involution, as well as this auteur’s deliciously prurient interest in the X-rated genre, itself.
Gutierrez captures the edgy, neurotic rhythm and fast, smart, often profane conversation of these ladies who lunch upon one another (Carla Gugino, Adrinne Palicki, Emmanuelle Chriqui), as well as a shrink (Sarah Clark) dealing with her husband’s (Simon Baker) canoodling with one of her patients, and her sister (Connie Britton) who has a lifelong secret concerning her niece (funny, wry Isabella Gutierrez). He tosses hoary ingredients like the porn girls’ witnessing a mob murder or getting stuck on a stalled elevator into this flavorful stew and makes them seem bracingly fresh. Elizabeth Berkley (bringing her seasoned SHOWGIRLS seasoning to the mix), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a hilariously nerdy porn aficianado who goes too far) and Josh Brolin (having fun as a dissolute Brit rocker who joins the mile high club with disastrous results) appear in small, yet amusingly telling roles.
Carla Gugino as Elektra Luxx
Cast performances are uniformly strong with the bad girls standing out in particular. Gugino (who was so luminous in Broadway in AFTER THE FALL and disappointing in DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, a needless O’Neill revival) is in top form. As Elektra Luxx, a porn queen who could give Jenna Jameson, herself, a run for the quick money, she has an amusing jaded aplomb, especially describing the silliness of having a top-selling replica of her vagina on the market (“It vibrates and it squirts”). Chriqui, with her synthetic rich mahogany tan evokes deliciously hard-boiled, been there-done that dames of the past like Iris Adrian and Mayo Methot, and Palicki is a delightful dippy Monroe for the millennium, forever getting bonked in the head and wailingly admitting, “Dirty talk embarasses me and I hate eating pussy: I’m the world’s porn star!”
Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in UNCERTAINTY
Joseph Gordon-Levitt also appears in UNCERTAINTY, an affecting effort by Scott McGehee and David Siegel (the team that brought you THE DEEP END) which simultaneously spins a double tale of lovers Bobby (Gordon-Levitt) and Kate (Lynn Collins), who realize they are about to experience a blessed event. At the beginning, these two flip a coin on the Brooklyn Bridge on the Fourth of July, after which each run in the opposite direction – to Manhattan and Brooklyn – as their stories in each New York borough begin. The Manhattan section involves their finding a cellphone in a cab which they discover is wanted by all kinds of shady characters and, as they realize its possible money-bartering value to them, they also become aware that it may be putting their lives in danger. Brooklyn’s story focuses on Kate’s Argentinian family who have them over for one of those family barbecues, fraught with combative love.
McGehee and Siegel have a neat sense of pacing and keen ear for authentic dialogue. “Somebody’s hating his life right now,” Bobby mutters when he finds that highly coveted Trio, and anyone who has ever lost a mobile will completely relate. The Manhattan tale, while rather far-fetched, has kinetic energy, while the Brooklyn sequence is rich in familial tension and well-observed inter-relationships. Spanish actress Assumpta Serna, who was in Almodovar’s MATADOR, has a tensile strength as Kate’s quietly dominating mother, the very kind who simultaneously draws and repels her daughters, and, as Kate’s likable younger sister, Olivia Thirlby once again proves herself, after JUNO, as one of our freshest, most appealing young actresses.
Gordon-Levitt gives a highly appealing, understated performance, the kind that could be described as “perfect leading man” without a trace of condescension. Collins has the more emotional turn, and is up to the challenge, being affectingly real in every frame. Apart from their romance, made true by the unforced chemistry of the leads, the film is also in love with New York, which, shot with beautiful crispness and fluidity by the wonderful young cinematographer Rain Li, hasn’t looked so good in years. It’s a wonderfully fresh look at the city, without any Woody Allen glossiness, in which Chinatown, Union Square and quiet residential Brooklyn streets and backyards have a recognizable authenticity, with an ever so slightly heightened yet buzzing, ecstatically summery quality.
Robin Wright Penn and Keanu “Peter Pan” Reeves in THE SECRET LIVES OF PIPPA LEE
Arthur Miller was never particular great shakes when it came to writing women – look at all those ladies in housedresses standing around wringing their hands over their men’s misdeeds in DEATH OF A SALESMAN, ALL MY SONS and A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and what he did to Marilyn in THE MISFITS and AFTER THE FALL, although, finally, his film script for EVERYBODY WINS afforded Debra Winger a great opportunity – but his writer/director daughter, Rebecca, is doing something to remedy the family honor on that score with THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE. It’s the story, riddled with flashbacks, of Pippa (Robin Wright Penn), married to an older man, Herb (Alan Arkin), and still suffering the scars inflicted by a benzedrine-addicted mother Suky (Maria Bello), who tries to maintain the perfect, gourmet-cooking balance in the retirement community where they’ve moved.
There’s a lot of good stuff and quirky observation going on here, but we somehow never get fully pulled into Pippa’s plight, as she’s been mutedly drawn as too much the stoically benevolent nurturer and accommodator of, and reactor to, everyone else’s nuttiness, a Nora who takes forever to slam the door of her doll house. Although the movie revolves around her, Wright Penn, always quietly intelligent and agelessly bautiful (at times recalling Julie Christie), must still wait for the role that will really celebate her undoubted talent (something I haven’t seen since THE PLAYBOYS way back in 1992). Miller makes Pippa a well-heeled Everywoman we’re all supposed to relate to, endeavoring to transcend a problemmatic family and past; what she hasn’t done is make her interesting.
Arkin is much more compelling, and does maybe his best screen work ever, creating a full portrait of this semi-retired editor, facing a scarily quiet new suburban life, as well as his imminent mortality, with admirably economic intelligence. Pippa’s unspoken worry about his inevitable demise, which will certainly prefigure hers, becomes a funny-sad leitmotif here. Bello seizes her flamboyant opportunities as a woman obsessed with image, yet fragmenting before the eyes of her perfectly groomed children. Monica Belluci has a wild moment of black humor as the woman whom Herb leaves for Pippa, throwing a disastrous farewell lunch in which she serves stuffed pig and cow head, “so we can see the faces of creatures who have experienced pain.” Winona Ryder has a small comeback role as an emotional mess of a woman who brings yet more stress into Pippa’s life, and she goes all the way with it to amusing effect. Julianne Moore stridently overdoes it as lesbian photographer who takes in the teenaged Pippa (Blake Lively, who’s no Wright Penn), as if the actress had read some manual entitled “Dyke Cliches.” Also in the strident category is Zoe Kazan, all too convincing as Pippa’s disagreeable daughter.
Keanu Reeves, sporting a ridiculous Jesus tattoo on his torso, plays Chris, the troubled son of a neighbor of Pippa’s in the community, with whom she becomes involved. It’s a role in which he seems to be typecast, ever since “saving” Diane Keaton’s middle-aged life in SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE. It’s rather amazing: Reeves is now 45 years old and a truer example of a Peter Pan, and I’m including the late Michael Jackson, never existed. He is still boyish after all these years, completely lacking in any kind of seasoned, masculine weight and, when he attempts anything like this, it’s as heavy and forced and suddenly as dead-serious and semi-risible as Shirley Temple used to be when suddenly told that her mother, or father, or both, had died.
Stay tuned for reviews of YOUNG VICTORIA and THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND, two more “women’s films.”