Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Since I adore talking about the way movies open, and how that relates to the film as a whole, I suppose I have to cover this one. Unfortunately, that may result in some unpleasant mental imagery, since it starts with, and there is no kind way to say this, naked Philip Seymour Hoffman, knee deep in Marisa Tomei. Far be it from me to criticize the larger fellow - hell, I'm roughly the same build as him - but man, I do not want to see a naked Philip Seymour Hoffman. Naked Marisa Tomei is a much kinder image, but man, it's a scary way to start a film. But it makes sense, given the title. It's a little bit of heaven - for Philip - before it all goes to hell.

The film is about a robbery gone wrong, the lead up, and the way out. Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose name is really annoying to spell out all the time, stars as Andy, a guy who from all outward appearances would be a success. He's got an inexplicably hot wife (Marisa Tomei), a good job, a nice house, attractive suits, and easy access to drugs from a weird whispy tiny guy. His brother Hank, played by Ethan Hawke, isn't a success, as he's paying loads of child support and is pretty much flat broke. Andy, however, is just as broke, so he hatches a plan to rob their parents' jewelry store, and get everyone out of debt. Of course, since it's a film and needs a plot, things go not well.

Since all film critics - even amateur ones - all wish they were film makers, I'll have to cop to something, this is the kind of film I would make. One major event, the lead up, and the consequences. Hell, I even have a rough story bouncing around in my head, and might even write a script, inspired by a story that happened in a nearby town (hey film producers, call me!). A script that won't be produced, mind, but my point that I'm taking a roundabout way of getting to is that this is the kind of thing that fascinates me. The entire film hinges on one event, the psychology of it, and how people handle the consequences. I love the idea of one event changing everything and how people have to deal with it.

That said, I am not sure if I would film it like this. First thing, the jumpy chronology is an interesting idea but it's just inefficient storytelling. A lot of scenes are told from several different points of view at several different points in the movie. It feels repetitive and doesn't tell you very much more about the characters or events. If the film is going to jump around to different characters and times like it does, I can understand why you would want to repeat scenes. It lends a sense of importance, and gives the viewer signposts so they know where they are in the narrative. But while I understand the reasons, I can't quite get behind the jumps, since I'm not sure there's anything to really gain.

Do we need the story to be told again and again from several different angles? Or can we tell it once, well? The isolated perspectives don't actually add anything since the characters' paths don't diverge long enough to make a difference. If people left each others' orbits more than a few minutes at a time it could be a useful tactic, but since they're all in contact for most of the film, we just keep driving over the same patch of ground over and over again.

I also should note that I would not have cast Ethan Hawke, or at least have made him perform differently. The entire movie he's got this stupid look on his face as though he's caught a glimpse of some freaky but compelling porno. That mixture of disgust and intrigue that I think he was trying to pass off as nervousness, and it did not work. Instead he looks very stupid throughout, and it undercuts the drama. A shame, really, since everyone else does a pretty good job. Well, Albert Finney as the father has a few silly face moments as well, but it's not near as bad as Ethan Hawke.

I also didn't like the silly editing when flashbacks were set up. But I can't think of anything really compelling to say about it, apart from that it's very silly and there's an annoying sound effect. So I'll just toss that out there.

It's a good idea, and while I don't like how it's executed, I can't say it's a bad movie. The story is interesting, the characters are frequently compelling, and it's a solidly made film. The problem is mostly in that the construction distracts from that. Many of the touches don't serve the film, instead showcasing how the people behind it are all very clever, and have all sorts of novel ideas of how to make a movie. If a clever idea doesn't improve a film over a more conventional approach, however, maybe it should not be used?

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