Friday, February 28, 2014

Three Goodbyes

February is vying for cruelest month this year, if only for its contributions to the celebrity death list.

Philip Seymour Hoffman — now that he's gone, I'm wondering if he wasn't my favourite actor of the last 15 years. Certainly in the last decade, if you saw his name on the marquee you were assured that his minutes on-screen were going to be interesting. Consider Anthony Minghella's mawkish The Talented Mr. Ripley. Beholding Minghella's method of injecting sentimental bloat into the base material of Patricia Highsmith's flinty novel is certainly a spectacle, but one that quickly gets tedious. Then there's Minghella's choice of actors: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow. Give me one good reason to sit through more than 12 minutes of this.

Enter, PSH:

I say if the critic's duty is to address the film that was made, the blogger's duty is to praise the one that wasn't. In an alternate universe there exists a Talented Mr. Ripley where alt-Minghella clearly saw what was before him and gave the title role to PSH, casting Damon as Dickie and Law as the simperingly sinister Freddie Miles.*

I get that some viewers thought PSH guilty of chewing the scenery. To which I say, if that's scenery-chewing, it's of an order that raises the entire game. Anyone on set who thought themselves entitled to a little nibble of their own had to invest a unique level of intelligence and conviction, or they fell flat in contrast.

P.T. Anderson intuited this better than anyone else. Anderson placed Adam Sandler across from PSH, to pleasing enough effect. But casting the back-from-batshit Joaquin Phoenix across from PSH was inspired. By comparison, Tom Cruise (a Grand Masticator in the field of scenery binging) seems caught off-guard. No wonder he called a second match on his own turf, in M:I:III.

Here Anderson pitches the craziest knuckle-ball to PSH, giving him lines no-one should be able to sell, forcing him to do a Penn-&-Teller sleight-of-hand, where you announce to the audience that this is the trick, this is how it works, then you do it and still leave 'em scratching their heads:

I'll miss those grand flourishes, the set of his jaw, the rheumy eyes and breathing, and all the other tiny little indications he pulled from a seemingly inexhaustible bag of actor's tricks. Getting motivated to go to the movies just became a whole lot harder.

Bob Casale (aka, “Bob 2”) — death at 61 might seem like a ripe old age for a rock 'n' roller, but DEVO had a larger brain-trust than most bands, and played a surprisingly long game through various venues: I expected their gig to continue into my advanced years. The various TV and movie noodlings that Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh did were pleasantly unmistakable. And while the band slowed its own output over time, it remained committed to its central concept and executed its entertainments with a subtle variety that played off nostalgia without succumbing to it — pretty much as they'd done from the start. This isn't a death-on-the-nostalgia-circuit, a la John Entwhistle. This is a man who died at home, and left a family behind.

Harold Ramis — pretty much responsible for the bulk of my inner comedia-scape. If I didn't see his “Slob-vs.-Snob” movies in my youth, their take-away lines were nevertheless imprinted on my psyche thanks to the endless parroting they received from my Junior High peers. When finally I carried a few armloads of VHS tapes back to a shared unit, I was struck by how uncomfortable Ramis's movies could make me feel. To wit, the break-up scene in Stripes:

One gets the impression that A) the actress isn't having any difficulty locating her motivation, and B) neither is Bill Murray, and he's steering the craft 180 degrees away from it. As a comic, the lines — both his and hers — place Murray in a very tough spot. He can't afford to let the validity of her argument strike home, but of course everything he gives voice to does exactly that. He has to play it in such a way as to let the emotional reality get just enough traction to kick the plot into motion, but not so much traction as to acknowledge the actual tragedy of what is happening.

My fellow grade 9ers had heard arguments like this, of course — between their parents, or between their parents and their older siblings, or between their parents and themselves. I think Ramis and Murray,** or whoever else Ramis enlisted for the part of the Slob, were the voice of reassurance. This stuff happens — don't take it too seriously. Don't take anything too seriously, but take yourself seriously — kind of. You'll muddle through. You'll be okay.

I was always happy when Ramis popped up in something, and nowhere moreso than in Jake Kasdan and Mike White's Orange County. Ramis only has a bit-part, as a beleaguered Dean of Admissions who starts tripping out on some unintentionally administered ecstasy. And yet the film has Ramis's DNA all over it. It's the “Slob-vs.-Snob” template in reverse: Our Hero is an earnest stiff who aspires to be Somebody Respectable, but is foiled at every turn by the Slobs surrounding him. Ironic turn-of-play was something Ramis clearly enjoyed, and excelled at. I wonder if the OC cosmic-flip wasn't a reality Ramis didn't register — the Slobs have taken over, dammit.

Only they haven't, of course: it's the snobbery that's changed shape. In its way, Orange County is a premature but very sweet farewell, on behalf of a man my generation is deeply indebted to.

*Fortunately, this universe has Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, starring John Malkovich, who does a better job of it.

**I have to wonder if one reason why Murray stopped returning Ramis's calls wasn't just the sheer exhaustion of acknowledging brute truth, then spinning that into comic redemption. Best, instead, to just to play Garfield, or turn in a laconic Wes Anderson performance.


Joel said...

The talented Mr. Ripley was also where PSH first started to stick in my mind. And it was, as you said, in the midst of an otherwise very flawed film. But I came away from that film remembering his performance. Ever since then, his name alone has been enough to recommend a movie to me.

Darrell Reimer said...

Yeah, that performance was a discovery for a lot of people. I'd seen him in Boogie Nights and The Big Lebowski before that, but his bit in Ripley probably signified just what sort of potential was available for the tapping with this man.