David Mamet can’t commit. His latest Broadway show, November, is an almost-farce in need of bigger laughs. Despite its definitive title, his film Heist couldn’t quite bring itself to be a fulfilling caper picture; likewise, Spartan is a sort-of spy movie. His best work of late has been in adaptation: his film of The Winslow Boy is a fine look back at the Terence Rattigan chestnut, suitably framed for the Clinton scandal years, and his reconsideration of the near-forgotten play The Voysey Inheritance Off Broadway last season commented subtly on the Enron generation. But his tenth movie since 1987’s diamond-hard House of Games, Redbelt, is another coy shell game, a movie about martial arts that doesn’t want to be a martial arts movie.
Mamet knows how to open a picture. We are introduced to Mike Terry, proprietor of a declining L.A. dojo, who teaches Brazilian jujitsu. The magnetic Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Terry, and I will digress briefly to say that if I am scanning my cable channel line-up and hit upon one of his scenes in Kinky Boots I forget where it was I might have been going and tune in. Teaching a cop how to fight with one hand tied in the first scene, Ejiofor repeats, rhythmically, reassuringly, urgently, “There is no situation from which you cannot escape.” This will be the mantra of the story. I was intrigued. The notion of Ejiofor as the leader of a beleaguered Shaolin Temple on the West Coast was a good one; what was needed was some butts to kick.
But Mamet doesn’t want to sully his hands with that kind of picture. The martial-arts strain is crossbred with the noir-ish strands of Forties pictures like Body and Soul and The Set-Up—Mike is loathe to compete in the soulless commercial arena of the sport, and the other characters are pushing him hard to do so, some indirectly, some more bluntly. The can of worms opens when the hysterical Laura Black (a high-strung Emily Mortimer) barges into the dojo as that initial training session ends and, unhinged, fires the policeman’s gun through a window. A woozy chain of events, designed to throw Mike off his principled high horse, transpires. He saves, or seems to save, hack movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) from a barroom beating. A film producer (old Mamet hand Joe Mantegna) takes an interest. Business opportunities suddenly open up for his wife Sondra (Alice Braga), a fabrics designer. David Paymer talks tough. Hombres lurk on the sidelines. Ricky Jay sleazes around.
The salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross say, “ABC, Always Be Closing.” But the XYZ of Redbelt, when Mamet finally consents to get physical and have Mike jujitsu some ass, is conceptually dubious and haphazardly shot—the real reason he may be reluctant to roll up his sleeves on a true genre picture is that he lacks the craft. [The screening room audience giggled at Mike’s near-comical dispatch of his enemies.] There’s a certain snobbery at work here: Mamet mistakes the high-flying poetry of Hong Kong martial arts pictures for silliness, and, pretentiously, seeks to tame and correct them. But he loses the majesty of their constant, furious, movement—The Forbidden Kingdom may not be much yet it has a little kick to it. Worse, the writer-director hasn’t made up for this deficit of action by giving his characters much of interest to say; the dialogue is arrhythmic and unmemorable, and so Tim Allen in a Mamet picture is like Tim Allen in any picture. The situation its maker has put Redbelt in cannot be escaped.
I was one of four people who turned up for a showing of The Visitor earlier this week. This is one of those mildewed-middle-aged man-restored-to-life pictures, a genre I find more and more relatable with each passing birthday. Frank Langella starred in a good example last fall, Starting Out in the Evening. Langella is the kind of rapt presence who holds the screen. The screen in contrast holds Richard Jenkins, the star of The Visitor; if it weren’t for the celluloid propping him up, he’d probably slip out of the projector and onto the theater floor. He’s about as anti-charismatic a leading man as one can think of. But Jenkins, best remembered as the FBI agent professionally and personally partnered with the also-nascent Josh Brolin in Flirting with Disaster, has reserves of character and feeling that he draws on to good effect in the picture. You don’t see him coming.
Like writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s previous film The Station Agent, this is a quiet, frill-free story of reengagement, with a bit of a political edge. Jenkins is the widowed Walter, a past-it economics professor (and failing piano student, apprenticed to no less than theatrical grande dame Marian Seldes in a couple of quick, incisive scenes) who is obliged to journey from Connecticut to his long-disused New York apartment for a conference. Walter is more curious than dismayed to find the flat illegally sublet to Muslim immigrants Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), and he allows them to stay on, a wary union that warms when Tarek teaches him to play the drums. When Tarek, an illegal, is nabbed in a turnstile-jumping incident in the subway, he is hustled to a drably forbidding complex in Queens. His go-between to the outside world, Walter, intersects with Tarek’s Syrian mother Mouna (Hiam Abbass) as the young man faces deportation. A connection is made, but the outcome is bittersweet.
This is a small, insightful film composed of small, insightful moments, and one big one: Walter’s explosion at the infuriatingly pig-headed guards of the detention center. If a Frank Langella played it, this would be a star turn. But Jenkins is so unassuming the sequence attains real stature—it’s as if the entire body politic aggrieved at our repressive policies is taking a stand. He is an excellent stand-in for we, the people, who are sick of this duplicity (and I like the way he pulls back a little, too, mindful that the people he’s railing against are minor functionaries just playing their parts). McCarthy’s handling of the Muslim characters is deft (they are innocent of our prejudice, but not of the ways of the world) and the way in which Walter helps Tarek realize his American dream is beautifully syncopated. I think the four of us had a satisfying stay with The Visitor, and as the noisy summer fun machines rev up starting today you’ll soon wish you had been with us, too.
If I have theater on the brain this week, it’s because I just wrapped up a season-long stint as an awards nominator for New York’s Drama Desk, the 53-year-old theatrical writers organization. Unlike the Tony Awards, the Drama Desk considers Off and Off Broadway shows besides the Broadway ones, and that meant the six of us nominators were hopping from venue to venue starting last June. Among us, we saw and evaluated some 450 shows, which kept me in constant velocity—on Sundays, I’d cram in three performances if I could. It’s an arduous schedule, when you add in the many hours of meetings (including final overnight deliberating sessions) on top of the viewings, and I’m going through withdrawal. But nature abhors a cultural vacuum: I’m sure the empty hours will fill up with DVDs, screenings, and yet more shows when the next season asserts itself after a brief hiatus.
In the meantime, we have an exceptional slate of nominations to vote on (and I’m not just saying that for myself; the chattering classes who comment on every move we make online seem stunned into relative silence regarding the breadth of this season’s choices) before the May 18 awards ceremony. Thursday afternoon I attended a cocktail party for the nominees at Arte CafÃ© on the Upper West Side, and the stars shone brightly: castmembers from the Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County; gravel-voiced Bill Pullman, from Edward Albee’s Peter and Jerry; Harvey Fierstein and the three terrific leads from his new show A Catered Affair (including the genial Tom Wopat, who has reinvented himself as a theater star since his Dukes of Hazzard heyday); Daniel Breaker and Stew from the latter’s soulful musical journey Passing Strange; and Sunday in the Park with George revival stars Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who were delighted to talk to me…not about the show, but about their appearances on Doctor Who. “I was killed by a Dalek,” Russell gushed. “I love this production, but that’s what people know me for.”
I know Top Girls nominee Marisa Tomei from many appearances, but the last thing I expected was for her to throw her arms around me in a big hug of thanks. I was dumbstruck. She is something. [As were all the leading ladies of this season’s musicals, including Alice Ripley from Next to Normal and South Pacific star Kelli O’Hara. Her co-star, the surely movie-bound Matthew Morrison, thanked me for my part in nominating him for a show he claimed, kiddingly, not to remember, last summer’s pocket-sized Patti Griffin jukebox musical 10 Million Miles. ]
Thanks for indulging me. Wish you were there. Now back to the saltmines of commentary.