Joel & Ethan Coen’s “True Grit” (2010) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“When Chaney is taken, he’s coming back to Fort Smith to hang. I’m not having him go to Texas to hang for shooting some senator.
-“It is not important where he hangs, is it?”
“It is to me. Is it to you?”
-“It means a great deal of money to me. It’s been many months’ work.”
“I’m sorry that you are paid piecework and not on wages, and that you have been eluded the winter long by a halfwit.”

In our recent podcast review of Kelly Reichardt‘s 2020 film First Cow, I reductively summarized the canon of the American Western, by praising that film’s setting and narrative because, “It’s not California, it’s mostly not about men with guns, and it’s not all taking place in one 30-year period following the California Gold Rush”. In retrospect, I must admit that I was knowingly doing that canon a disservice, because- however much I scoff at American mythmaking, which began in the rhetorical drive toward reinvention and conquest that we called manifest destiny, and continued past the violence and broken treaties toward a full century of colonialist nostalgia – it is a genre that I’ve personally enjoyed for most of my life, and which spans a great many times and places. This enjoyment has persisted even as I’ve had those myths peeled away and deconstructed one by one, a process of reexamination that began – in both academia and popular culture – well before I was born. One of my favorite Westerns from my lifetime, the 1993 George P. Cosmatos film Tombstone (which takes place in 1880s Arizona) was as much about providing a nostalgic filter for modern-day gang violence (in the form of an organized gang of “cowboys” identified by their characteristic red sashes) as it was about reenacting the shootout at the O.K. Corral, or denying Val Kilmer a well-deserved Oscar. In addition to being a recent (27-year-old) example of a revisionist western that I enjoyed, it came to mind because one of its most memorable scenes, a late showdown in a knee-deep river, may have been loosely inspired by the mid-climactic confrontation between 14-year-old Mattie Ross and her father’s killer, Tom Chaney, which appears in both adapted versions of True Grit.

True Grit is an interesting case for a few reasons – for starters, it’s explicitly not about westward expansion, but rather about run-of-the-mill law and order in a place where it should rightfully exist as a measuring stick of civilization. The film takes place in and around rural Yell County, Arkansas, a state in the Deep South with a population of a little over 800,000 in 1880 when the film takes place (more than 200,000 more than present-day Wyoming). The film, adapted by the Coen Bros in 2010 from a 1968 novel by Charles Portis, was adapted previously into a 1969 film starring John Wayne, Glen Campbell, and Kim Darby as 14-year-old rancher’s daughter Mattie Ross. When she was cast, Darby was a 22-year-old mother, styled with what would’ve been regarded at the time as a short-cropped boy’s haircut (similarly used for Mary Martin as the title character of the 1954-60 musical/telecast version of Peter Pan). The Coens took the novel step of casting a real teenager, Hailee Steinfeld, who was the product of a massive talent search and had only ever appeared in a handful of shorts before this film. And while it’s fair to say that Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon embody their characters in similar ways to Wayne and Campbell in the ’69 film (Damon in particular seems to lift many of his mannerisms and accent straight from Campbell), Steinfeld is the reason why this film works so well, along with Portis, the late author of the novel. Because it wasn’t until this week, when I watched both versions of the film and perused a copy of the novel for the first time, that I realized just how little of the script and dialogue belongs to the Coens, with much of it lifted wholesale from the novel, and only the occasional little tweak or rearrangement or inner thought being spoken aloud that belongs to the Coens. Which is fine, honestly. True Grit is one of the Coens’ funniest films, but Ethan Coen was the first to admit in a 2010 interview that much of that humor came directly from the novel, and part of his desire to re-adapt the novel was to restore the humor that was lost in the ’69 version.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

The novel takes place from young Mattie’s perspective as she locates and hires the meanest US Marshal she can find, Rueben J. “Rooster” Cogburn (Bridges), to track down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a drunken scoundrel with a powder-marked face who murdered her father as he tried to stop him from attacking a table of cardplayers to whom he had lost money moments earlier. Mattie is both exceptionally capable and knowledgeable of both law and financial matters, details which are established in a handful of introductory scenes in the ’69 film, but which come essentially out of nowhere in the 2010. Steinfeld is not only completely in charge of these interactions, but threatens multiple people with the litigious retribution of her family’s lawyer, J. Noble Daggett, who is voiced in the film by J.K. Simmons, as the only indication that the girl’s threats to sue and assert her rights are anything but bluster. Although both films contain a line which perhaps helps to explain the girl’s claim of authority – she defends herself against abandonment to a “congress of louts” (a Coen Bros line) by identifying her name and hometown, and asserting, “My family has property and I don’t know why I am being treated like this.” It’s not the girl’s fault that she comes from a place of wealth and privilege any more than it is her fault that her father was murdered by a hired man. But it is a bit of a reminder that wherever law and order are lacking, only crimes against the wealthy will be properly met with justice. This also relies on a prior assumption that the institutions of justice will, if brought to bear on the situation, truly result in a just outcome.

And this is where True Grit (take your pick from the novel or either filmed version) really shines, allowing Mattie to constantly assert her piety, innocence, and clear-eyed sense of morality, while also prodding her naïveté and ending on a note that perhaps suggests that her vendetta was not so well-conceived. As I’ve come to expect from the Western genre, all of the principal characters in the film are white, and the film’s treatment of race is confined to a singular punchline during a triple-hanging scene in front of the Fort Smith courthouse in the film’s first act. This an interesting scene because it is an instance where the adaptations diverge quite sharply, with the ’69 version containing no dialogue from the condemned men, whereas the 2010 opens on one giving a lengthy speech, begging the crowd to learn from his mistakes and be kind to his family, and lamenting his lack of proper instruction as a child that led to him murdering a man “in a trifling quarrel over a pocketknife”. A second man says he is on the gallows because he “kilt the wrong man”, and he sees men in the crowd worse than he is. Both of these speeches are taken almost verbatim from the novel, if slightly out of order. And then, in a Coen Bros punchline, the third man, an unnamed Native (who in the novel professes his faith in Jesus Christ and compares himself to the thief on the cross) only gets out, “Before I am hanged, I would like to say…” before the hangman shoves a bag onto his head. Both adaptations contain other little nods to unequal justice, but they’re subtle. The ’69 version handles this slightly differently, featuring a bit of side conversation between Mattie and a talkative woman in the stands, who points out Judge Parker sitting atop the courthouse roof, and says that he watches every one of his hangings out of a sense of duty. Kim Darby’s Mattie visibly scoffs at this, and dismisses the woman’s declaration by saying, “Who knows what’s in a man’s heart?” What is perhaps unspoken is that Mattie thinks Judge Parker may just like watching people die. Rooster refers to Judge Parker more than once as a “carpetbagger”, and given that this is 1880 Arkansas, it’s fair to say that this characterization carries a lot of the baggage of racist campaigns of terrorism visited upon former enslaved people in this region. Combine this with Rooster’s tendency (asserted to Mattie by the town sheriff, and confirmed under oath on the witness stand) to kill most of the people he is sent out to retrieve, and it’s quite easy to find some modern resonance in this story. Because a huge part of the American frontier myth has always been the concept of throwing together a posse to avenge ourselves, the civilized folk, upon the outlaws and savages who have done us wrong, without any judges or rules of evidence getting in the way. This is perhaps America’s oldest myth, and it persists into the cop genre to this day, because even as we insist upon a desire for justice, we still can’t get enough of the one-man killing machine who Gets Things Done (because he has True Grit, if you like). Even if in practice, we know what this looked like even a century ago. It looks like decades of lynchings and Jim Crow juries refusing to convict their perpetrators. It looked like the terrorist bombing and massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, 1921 – an event I had never heard of in 2010, and which is now HBO TV fodder. In fact, between Watchmen and Westworld, wherein the western genre is rendered literally as a sex/murder nostalgia party with robots, I daresay HBO may have its real measure.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

I still regard True Grit as one of the Coens’ funniest films (owing a great deal to Jeff Bridges‘ performance as Rooster, which vacillates between buffoonish and menacing with remarkable skill). But its punchline is murder of the same, thoroughly justified sort that exists throughout the frontier myth, directed at a conveniently despicable man, Tom Chaney, whom the Coens actually make even more despicable in the 2010 version. In the novel, when Mattie first confronts Chaney in the creek, he immediately expresses regret for killing her father. The ’69 version gives no such dialogue to Jeff Corey‘s Chaney, who merely played him as cocky in his refusal to go quietly (prior to Mattie pulling the dragoon pistol and gut-shooting him). The 2010 version also starts with cockiness and ends with attempted murder by Chaney, but the Coens have Josh Brolin say aloud that he truthfully doesn’t regret killing Mattie’s father at all. Like I said, conveniently despicable. And now, disposable, because he flatly refuses to return and face justice, and he has no regrets. All that remains is to put him in the ground, which Mattie contributes to in both films, albeit a bit differently in each. In the ’69 version, it’s a perfunctory act of self-defense (occurring within a few seconds of Chaney clubbing LaBoeuf in the head), and it doesn’t even finish Chaney off. The shot sends Mattie tumbling into the snakepit to be threatened by a bleeding Chaney from above, before Rooster returns to finish him off. In the 2010 version, Mattie struggles and yanks LaBoeuf’s fallen Sharps carbine from Chaney’s grasp, orders him to his feet, and blasts him off a cliff, before tumbling into the snakepit, as did her predecessor. The difference between these two scenes is subtle (and happens so quickly in both films that I had to rewatch each more than once), but I daresay the Coens are the winners here, sticking more closely to the novel (wherein Mattie’s fatal shot catches Chaney in the head rather than the gut), and putting the moral choice to kill, as well as its immediate consequences, firmly into Mattie’s hands. Or, as LaBoeuf might say, her hand. That’s what makes the upshot of this film work so well. For all the girl’s piety and sense of justice, her violent retribution against Chaney was ultimately unnecessary, and the circumstances were such that she was instantly punished for it, losing a limb for the rest of her life.

Still from "True Grit" (2010)

This is probably where I should say something nice about Roger Deakins’ cinematography as well as [Coen-alias] Roderick Jaynes‘ editing and Carter Burwell‘s hymnal-influenced score, because it is indeed this triad that makes the Coens’ take on this material so memorable, concluding with Rooster’s desperate midnight ride to save Mattie’s life, and layered throughout the film as it attempts to create a sense of wide-open spaces, isolation, and grandeur. One memorable montage of long fades (easily ten seconds apiece) starts with the trio traveling across the Arkansas prairie into the Choctaw Nation, with a rising crane shot, lush with cool blues and purples, panning upward to keep the riders’ heights uniform with the distant, silhouetted mountains as they ride toward the camera, with the slow fade ushering into a static, warm-hued shot as they ride away across grassland toward a broken line of low, rocky hills. The long fades continue, some to emphasize the position of the sun and the passage of time, some for the changing terrain, and some to highlight Rooster’s varied disposals of his waning supply of whiskey bottles. However shrewdly Mattie operates in the opening act, hiring Rooster was perhaps her least advisable maneuver, choosing the “meanest” marshal even as she is warned that he loves pulling a cork. When we see Mattie (played at age 40 by Elizabeth Marvel as well as a visual stand-in, Ruth Morris), she retains the same rather arbitrary sense of moral clarity, speaking cordially to real-life bandit Cole Younger (Don Pirl), but telling his Wild West Show partner, Frank James, to “Keep your seat, trash,” after the pair reveals that their show partner, Rooster, passed away three days earlier. This moment is straight out of the novel, and offers an explanation from POV character Mattie, who asserts that despite having similar body counts from their outlaw days, Cole Younger spent 25 years in prison for his crimes and expressed a bit of Christian regret, whereas Frank James was acquitted, despite likely pulling the trigger on innocent victims more than once. Hence, trash. But I’m not sure how much credit for irony I can really give this film, opening as it does on a Bible verse (from Proverbs, “The wicked flee where none pursueth”), and sandwiched between a pair of pious voiceovers which emphasize, if nothing else, how little Mattie’s experience changed her, merely ossifying moral tendencies that she possessed since childhood. This is perhaps the most enduring trope of the frontier genre – that a departure from what you regard as civilization is revelatory, but only of the sort of person you always were. And in that sense, the Coen Bros’ True Grit stands strong, even in the Western’s waning years.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #178 – “Promising Young Woman” (dir. Emerald Fennell), “First Cow” (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

Poster for "Promising Young Woman"

*CW: This episode’s review of Promising Young Woman contains discussions of sexual assault and rape.

This week, Glenn, Daniel, and Erika check out two films delayed by COVID, the first a bucolic 1820 Pacific Northwestern from veteran genre director Kelly Reichardt, First Cow. The second, which ended up in a well-deserved awards-qualifying run (which you should responsibly skip in theaters and watch from home) is the feature directorial debut of “Killing Eve” Season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman, featuring Carey Mulligan on a quest for both personal and systemic revenge (01:23:49).

Still from "First Cow"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (First Cow): 6/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Erika), 8.5/10 (Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (Promising Young Woman): 8/10 (Daniel, Glenn), 9/10 (Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:42] Review: First Cow
  • [15:29] Spoilers: First Cow
  • [41:20] Review: Promising Young Woman
  • [54:38] Spoilers: Promising Young Woman

Listen above, or download: First Cow, Promising Young Woman (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

Edward Zwick’s “Love & Other Drugs” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Love & Other Drugs"

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“I love you! You don’t understand – I’ve never said that to anyone before.”
-“You’ve never said ‘I love you’? “
“No!”
-“You never said it to your parents?”
“No.”
-“You never said it to your brother?”

“Ugh!”
-“Jesus, you’re more fucked up than I am. I once said it to a cat.”

Flashback to 2010, as director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Siege, Glory), a director whose work I’ve tended to enjoy as it beats me about the head and face with its point, takes us on a tour of the alarmingly sexy and morally dubious world of 1990s pharmaceutical sales! We open on a montage in 1996 – “Two Princes” (Just Go Ahead Now) by the Spin Doctors plays, as we meet one Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), effective and charming stereo salesman, who is highly successful at selling 1980s boomboxes by charming, flirting, and dancing with customers. Then he takes a quick five to have sex with the girlfriend of the store manager in the backroom, before she accidentally buttdials the manager on her Motorola Razr as he stands with customers on the showroom floor. At the place where all three of them work. Naturally, Jamie gets fired for gross, gross misconduct, but not before getting another girl’s number. Fifteen seconds post-coital, we learn that Jamie has chutzpah, and is, to put it mildly, a bit of a womanizer. This definitely feels like a ’90s period piece for at least the duration of this scene, but after that, the dialogue is pretty well peppered with modern references, including Jamie’s rich asshole brother Josh (Josh Gad), whose wife “looks at his dick like it’s the eye of Sauron”, and throws him out of the house because he’s addicted to internet pornography – an impressive accomplishment in ’96! Must’ve gotten an ISDN line installed for that. After a brief dinner in which Jamie’s rich asshole parents chide him for getting fired, Josh offers him his next gig, as a pharmaceutical sales rep for Pfizer, hawking Zoloft (a name-brand anti-depressant) and Zithromax (a name-brand antibiotic) by visiting doctors’ offices with swag and out-and-out bribes in order to gently encourage them to prescribe it to their patients. I already knew this profession existed – my mother did this job in the 90s before switching to insurance, and I can still remember all the swag she would keep around the house.

This is before another montage shows us that A) Pharma conventions in the 90s were gaudy as hell (think Tony Robbins meets WWE, plus the “Macarena“), and B) Pharma reps, also known as the “detail team”, were encouraged from the outset to push off-label usage of their drugs. It is at this point that I’ll mention, I chose to re-review this particular film because of my recent reading of Gerald Posner‘s excellent and exhaustive history of the pharmaceutical industry, Pharma, which I’d encourage everyone to check out (especially if you want to be nice and angry at what a softball deal Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family has just received after basically inventing a half-century of pharmaceutical advertising tricks, as well as the epidemic of Oxycontin and other opioid abuse). According to Posner, promoting off-label usage has not only always been routine in the industry, it is a core component of their business model. In fact, if you want to get even angrier, read up on how off-label usage combines with misuse of the so-called Orphan Drug Act to allow companies to maximize revenue while blocking out generics for an extra-long patent period, and jack up the prices, with their research heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Jolly fun! But that’s about as far into the Pharma book as I’ll be delving in this review, because apart from occasional barbs about America’s ridiculous healthcare system (which was even worse in the 90s), Love & Other Drugs really only uses pharma as a romantic backdrop, as well as a platform for dick jokes. Lots and lots of dick jokes.

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

So Jamie is a newly minted, slick-haired pharma rep, and also a big ol’ asshole, who reveals early in the film that he dabbles in pick-up artist bullshit, calling a hot girl by the wrong name (so that she’ll wander up and correct him, and he can reveal a backstory of thinking she’s a woman he rejected, which’ll make her want to get with him, and it honestly sounds so tedious as I’m describing it). This puts him in good company with Dr. Stan Knight (Hank Azaria), currently an avid Prozac prescriber, and apparently the most important internist and GP in Pittsburgh, who can somehow singlehandedly redirect every doctor and headshrinker in the City of Bridges toward Zoloft if only he switches his own patients off Prozac first. So Jamie straight-up bribes him with a $1,000 check from Pfizer to “shadow his practice” and give him the hard pitch all day. Dr. Knight responds with feigned moral outrage before pocketing the bribe, then uses the time to ignore Jamie’s pitch and ask for a bribe that’s several orders of magnitude larger, asking for a plum consulting gig in place of all the gifts and swag and beach conferences in Cancun that he’s apparently getting from Eli Lilly to promote Prozac. I knew this even before reading Pharma, but none of this, including the gaudy convention, is much of an exaggeration from reality. Despite Dr. Knight’s disinterest in switching meds, Jamie scams and seduces and petty-crimes his way into this clinic (with Judy Greer appearing as in one of her many, many devious and hypersexual secretary roles sandwiched between Arrested Development and Archer), and apart from making Pittburgh feel a bit small We basically only see a single medical practice, adjacent back-alley, and nearby bar in the entire film, and the characters are constantly running into each other. But there are is an amusing gag here – a homeless man who keeps retrieving the Prozac samples after Jamie tosses them in the dumpster, and over the next few scenes, looks more and more respectable each time we see him, until we finally learn he has a job interview coming up! I didn’t mind this bout of silliness too much, since the butt of this joke is firmly the American mental healthcare system.

Jamie also reveals his predatory tendencies a bit more in this scene, as uninsured 26-year-old Parkinson’s patient Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) concludes her exam (for a refill of her Parkinson’s meds) by asking Dr. Knight to examine a mark on her breast, which he does, as a lab-coated Jamie gawks. That Maggie discovers his true identity and savagely beats him in the parking lot with a briefcase in the very next scene is at least narratively redeeming – especially since this is a pattern that will continue as the film goes on: Jamie’s shallow bullshit delivered with utter confidence and charm, before getting smacked down hard by reality until he tries something a bit more sincere. But he doesn’t try that yet – instead, he delivers a charming apology on behalf of the entire medical community for treating Maggie in such a dehumanizing manner, which is, if you really think about it… Maggie silences him with several barbs, snaps a Wall ‘o’ Shame Polaroid, gives him the finger, and quits the scene. It would be very easy at this point to say that Jamie is doing the mercenary libertine schtick from Thank You for Smoking and Maggie is doing the quirky, wounded fawn from Garden State, and but there’s something a good deal more mature and substantial happening here. While these characters obviously start off at different levels of likability, they are essentially just two self-possessed grownups who don’t have time for [other people’s] bullshit, and are each fairly upfront about their visceral attraction to one another. Their coffeeshop date contains a lot of metatextual patter in which they allude to how the scene might play out if they were each playing their respective roles as expected, but then they jump straight to the booty call that they each really came there for. It somehow landed precisely on that line between contrivance and sincerity – when I saw this a decade ago, I probably regarded it as an attractive fantasy that the hot, interesting people were probably engaged in. In my 30s, my reaction is just…yeah, this happens. It may not be a guaranteed recipe for anything more than a quick bang, but I know more than a handful of people in serious, long-term relationships that started on such terms, and quite as many that did not, but who’ve enjoyed a shallow bang or six in their time with no regrets. It also definitely helps that the brief, quasi-animalistic sex scene that ensues is not layered with an overwrought musical track (now for sale on iTunes!), doesn’t contain dubious or disturbing implications with respect to consent, and simultaneously feels sexier and more grounded in reality than anything that appeared in any of the Fifty Shades films, which were as much an austere, sanitized fanfic about sex as they were about Twilight. And we’re only 30 minutes into the film when this thing, whatever it is, gets started. The couple untangles their mostly-clothed bodies on the floor, and Maggie tells Jamie politely to get the hell out of her apartment. Then she pages him to fuck in an alley, literally 10 seconds into the next montage. Despite their mutually-stated desire to keep things simple and distant, Jamie manages to spill a bit of expository pillow talk about how he was smart enough to get into med school, but didn’t want to give his dad the satisfaction, and Maggie manages to ask whether he’s ever said a true thing to a woman in his life. And they cuddle a bit. Progress!

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

Jamie goes back to the alley behind the only doctor’s office in Pittsburgh to toss out more of those pesky competing Prozac samples, only to catch a well-earned beating from Trey the Eli Lilly rep (Gabriel Macht), who is also both an ex-Marine and an ex of Maggie’s. Which is a genuinely bizarre and intriguing bit of backstory for Maggie’s character. I wasn’t quite sure how to classify Maggie besides…an experienced medical patient. But in a later scene, she flat-out calls herself a “drug slut”, and I found myself wondering whether being a pharma groupie is or has ever been…a thing? I’ve heard that Emergency Department nurses frequently end up dating cops, and it stands to reason there may be other professional romantic subcultures I may be unaware of. Before COVID, I joked more than once that the business travel market would collapse if not for the professional class’ insatiable need to get away from their spouses and children for a couple weeks a year to discretely bribe and fuck each other amid half-remembered keynotes and breakout sessions, and it fits this motif that Jamie gathers himself up and returns to Dr. Knight’s office (again!), only to get the cold shoulder from both of the receptionists (Judy Greer included), whom Trey has bribed with a convention/trip to Hawaii. The movie is…very unsubtle on this point, at one point showing Dr. Knight (who abuses Viagra samples later in the film) literally injecting himself with testosterone so he can attend a convention-adjacent orgy.

Jamie is naturally a bit bummed about these twin smackdowns, so he goes to see Maggie, who initially looks confused at his arrival with takeout. Structurally, now it’s her turn to be vulnerable and talk about her mother, before they both recoil away from it and remind each other they’re not quite a couple yet. Then they have some honest chitchat about her former affair with Trey the Eli Lilly Rep, who was and is married to someone else. Maggie gets a bit vulnerable here and admits she has a type, and Jamie very wisely gives her no grief for it. Now it’s time for more sex, but Jamie’s mind stays a bit unfocused and flaccid, and his penis follows suit. Maggie smiles and calls him a lying sack of shit with latent humanity (by way of accepting the situation and being kind about it), and they briefly, nakedly act as if they’re in an intimate relationship, eating cereal on the couch and talking about his day. She discusses the psychology of men and their capricious boners, and then lets slip that she read somewhere that Pfizer is developing a “fuck drug”. Hmmm… MDMA already existed in ’96 – and ironically can cause erectile dysfunction – so she must mean Viagra! A vasodilator with an accidentally lucrative side effect (discovered during clinical trials for pulmonary arterial hypertension), which would end up selling over $2 billion in prescriptions over the next decade. But enough about the history – I’m stepping on Hathaway’s superlative and scathing delivery on a rapid-fire series of dick puns as I type this, which finally gets Jamie going again. And for the rest of the movie (after a softball pitch to his boss), Jamie will indeed be selling Viagra, because, as he puts it with that unassailable Gyllenhaal charm, “Who can sell a dick-drug better than me?”

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

Over breakfast the next morning, Maggie has a hand tremor and can’t open a Pop Tart for Jamie. She covers for it, handing him the package, sending him out the door, and asking him not to call again, because she can’t do…this. This being a relationship, which she feels she doesn’t want, can’t handle, doesn’t deserve, shouldn’t inflict upon him, etc. Obviously, it only takes one more scene of [inexplicably pharma-tinged] rom-com theatricality before they decide to give the whole relationship thing a try anyway. It involves a busload of seniors trekking north of the border for meds they can’t afford in the US, an operation that Maggie is either a volunteer or participant for. Jamie endears himself to her by…showing up as the bus leaves, and then waiting all night until it returns, and okay sure, I guess. Love & Other Drugs offers a working definition of a relationship as a constant defining, prodding, communicating, and redefining of both internal and external boundaries to gradually coalesce around each other. In the usual rom-com fashion, much of what Jamie does meets the legal definition of stalking (and he conspires with her doctor’s office to commit multiple HIPAA violations!), and at first, it’s pretty clear that this is just one more dubious conquest for him. Until it isn’t. Then, after their nth hookup, Jamie casually refers to Maggie as his girlfriend, and she realizes she’s okay with that. Then he straight-up has a panic attack when he realizes (and states aloud) that he loves her. It gets worse from there – she has a bad day with her illness, which turns into a bad, drunk, insecure, borderline abusive moment, in which she caps off an unhinged rant by flat-out telling Jamie he’s not a good person just because he “pity-fucked the sick girl”. Then she drops and shatters her vodka glass and bawls onto the floor as Jamie is storming off, but…he comes back to comfort her. This seems thing-adjacent to the typical ebb and flow of a burgeoning romance, so it’s worth taking a step back to discuss this film’s treatment of disease, disability, and mortality.

I’ve seen a number of films in which creatives who aren’t dying or disabled make an effort to get into the headspace of people who are (there is also a healthy discussion around what disabilities it is appropriate for non-disabled actors to depict). Maggie’s illness is largely discussed as an inexorably fatal one, which is not exactly false (people with Parkinson’s do have, on average, reduced lifespans compared to people who don’t), but it’s not exactly true either (early-onset Parkinson’s cases tend to have many years ahead of them). In fact, for a film that’s clearly trying to drop a few real facts about the disease, it somehow elided a detail that I didn’t know until I looked it up after the film: Parkinson’s is not a fatal disease! It is a complex and not terribly well-understood disease (mostly as true now as it was in 2010), but people don’t die from it directly. They die from complications caused by it, such as falls, infections from injuries, aspiration pneumonia (due to swallowing difficulties or feeding tubes), etc.. This may seem like a semantic distinction, but it’s important to consider when viewed in the context of Jamie and Maggie’s respective dysfunctions about it. Jamie and Maggie’s relationship is generally pretty relatable, even if it seesaws back and forth a bit more than a conventional rom-com.  The film seems to generally treat Maggie like anyone else who feels she’s undeserving of, or doesn’t have time for, love, perhaps because of her romantic history, or other concerns in her life, or both. Her Parkinson’s, therefore, feels less like an intrinsic component of her identity than an obstacle the film completely forgets about during the extended fuck-montages and bits of interstitial cringe comedy (including every single appearance by Gad’s wholly excisable brother character), and then remembers when it needs to reach for a moment of romantic pathos.

Still from "Love & Other Drugs"

After their drag-out fight and reconciliation, Jamie and Maggie head to Chicago for a pharma convention. Maggie is spotted in short order by another Parkinson’s patient who tells her the real party is across the street, so she excuses herself to the event, which calls itself the “Unconvention”. I thought perhaps the film was going in a weird, alternative-medicine direction at this point, but this was pretty clearly a community support group, featuring a number of real-life Parkinson’s patients. A comedian on-stage (played by Lucy Roucis, who has kept up her craft on the Denver theatre stage in the intervening years!) is doing a bit of disease-themed standup. She’s interspersed with various others, some of whom are clearly untrained actors, hollering out a cathartic series of “fuck [whatever]” type statements for things in their life that annoy them because of their condition – shirt buttons, coffee mugs, soup, etc. A woman in her 50s steps up with a cane and ponders aloud why God wanted Parkinson’s patients to be so good at giving handjobs. And so forth. It’s all very sweet and funny, and a bouquet of emotions flies across Hathaway’s face as we silently learn that Maggie has never seen anything like this, and finds it all terribly moving. And why not? She gets to see variety of people, all different ages, disease stages, and body types, speaking their truth onstage and think that maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a world where she doesn’t have to go through this thing alone. Jamie shows up toward the end, just in time for a man at the coffee bar (who is there with his wife, a Stage 4 Parkinson’s patient), to initially refuse to give him any advice, but when pressed, to admit that he loves his wife, but that his life as a caregiver wasn’t worth it, and he wouldn’t do it again. In fact, he goes further: he flat-out says that Jamie should dump Maggie and find himself a healthy woman. I’ve met multiple older folks who have succumbed to some degree of caregiver fatigue after a long life of looking after a sick partner or family member, and for this film to pretend like everything is hunky-dory for the families of all these people standing up onstage and enjoying community time together would’ve made the whole event seem contrived and insincere. I found this man’s attitude very sad, but I found it to be an honest and relatable narrative choice. I hope he was just having a bad day, and that he has time and people to look after himself as well. But for him to express this attitude aloud illustrates the very real peril that the caregivers of a Parkinson’s patient are in (which in turn places the patient themselves in similar peril). Burnout is a real thing, and kudos to the film for neither overstating it nor shying away from it.

Jamie doesn’t really react to this, because Maggie ushers him out to apologize in the street for the vodka-soaked tirade in the previous scene and say that she loves him. This is a curious repetition of how Jamie came to realize that he loved her – by interacting with other people who weren’t her. This is admittedly still rather sweet, largely because of the actors’ chemistry, but it was also the part of this rom-com that I perhaps found the least relatable. Coming to say “I love you” is something I strongly associate with spending time with the person I love. Finding that feeling through separation seems to be a rom-com trope, but to me, it has always suggested that what these people really love is life itself, or perhaps themselves – and they just felt the need to run home and tell it to their partner. I’m not sure if this makes movie love feel less than the real thing, or if it’s simply narrative shorthand that I can excuse, but my receptivity to it will largely depend on how much I believe the actors when they say the words. The other mirror image going on here is that neither of these two is sure whether anyone else deserves the affliction of being in a relationship with them – Maggie because of her illness, and Jamie because he has spent far too much of his life trying to be an asshole. It’s pretty easy to say Maggie deserves whatever happiness she can grab onto, but what of Jamie? Does he “deserve happiness”? I would say that deserve is not a meaningful framework here. No matter how many bad things a person has done, the only person who can practically deny them happiness is the person himself, and perhaps anyone they think they love. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, discounting any belief in karma or a fair and just world, I think it’s appropriate to say the world is better off if people like Jamie are happy, because then they the world won’t have to deal with his toxic bullshit quite so much – and perhaps neither will his partner. His happiness has the potential to make the world a better place. As for whether Maggie deserves happiness, she obviously does – she’s a kind, intelligent, and creative person who has a lot to offer a potential romantic partner. But there is a similarly brutal utilitarianism that applies to her situation. The idea of Maggie thinking of herself in these terms – as someone that neither the world, nor the people she loves, should have to make the effort to help – felt completely human and sincere, but also made me very sad. As did what happens next.

Jamie gets to work with all of his powers as a pharmaceutical rep who knows Philly’s biggest sexpot physician to try to cure what ails his girlfriend. I’m sure he’ll sort it out, right? He hits up Dr. Knight for contacts for all the cutting-edge, experimental Parkinson’s treatments, and we enter a montage of him dragging Jamie from one medical provider to another trying to order up one (1) Parkinson’s Cure, please! Minus the please. There’s an extended sequence where he harangues a receptionist at Massachusetts General, telling her they flew 2,000 miles (from Pittsburgh – not the first time he has used this weirdly specific numerical lie in this film), only to find out their appointment has been postponed two weeks without notice, then starts Karening out all over her, demanding to see the doctor (who’s not there), the head of the hospital (who doesn’t care), etc., as Maggie sits in the foreground looking more and more mortified before finally getting up to leave. They argue in the snowy parking lot, and she tries to give him a way out here – says she’s bored, and tired, and wants to go home – before he asks her whether she wants to get better, and…that’s it. Maggie realizes that this impossible thing, a cure for her Parkinson’s, has become much too important to Jamie, and tells him they need to go home, make some goodbye love, and then he needs to get his stuff out of her apartment, because they’re breaking up now. Because, as Maggie puts it, Jamie is such a good man he doesn’t want to be the one to walk away, so she’s doing it for him. This doesn’t feel like sarcasm on her part so much as mutually assured destruction. She really does think he’s a good man, but also a weak one. She doesn’t want to inflict herself upon him, but she knows he would allow it…if only he could spend the rest of his life trying to find a cure that doesn’t exist. It’s fraught. And her choice to dump him feels neither arbitrary nor unwise, even if it may not be her only choice.

Excerpt from xkcd webcomic, "Ten Years"Excerpt from xkcd webcomic, “Ten Years“. Comic artist Randall Munroe’s wife recovered from a serious case of breast cancer while in her 20s. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License, almost the same one I use!

Like I said, Maggie makes me very sad. This is obviously a breakup that will reverse itself before the end of the film (if you’ve never seen a rom-com before, I apologize for the spoiler, but I won’t mention the sex-mansion pajama-party breakup-threesome Viagra-mishap!), but even their return to romance feels like a rather dour ending, because this feels like the origin story for the bitter old man at the “Unconvention”. Jamie will stay with Maggie, and spend every waking moment for the next 30 years trying to cure her (a terminal voiceover informs us that he’s thinking of applying to medical school!), before telling a young man in his former position that it wasn’t worth it. And Maggie will let him stay, but she’ll always feel like she’s imposing on him, and will occasionally chase him off for it. In that sense, the movie doesn’t really feel like it even has an ending, so much as it hits the predetermined beats of a rom-com in a story that can’t really mesh with them. This ebb and flow will continue, hopefully for the rest of their lives? Perhaps that was the filmmakers’ intent, but it left me giving this movie some credit for swinging high and missing rather than for telling a complete story. And Love & Other Drugs did swing high. It reflected on the interplay between romantic love and mortality as it relates to the human condition, and its treatment of disability felt neither tokenistic nor disrespectful. And for a film in which every dude is an irredeemable asshole, that counts for a great deal. There is nothing revolutionary about the idea that people who with reduced life expectancies have value and deserve love for whatever time they have, nor is there any separation between them and the rest of us. Maggie may know that her CNS function is on a path to deterioration, but Jamie could still be hit by a bus tomorrow. And for that matter, so could Maggie. Or they might live on. The most horrifying adventure of all.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #177 – “Come Away” (dir. Brenda Chapman), “Possessor Uncut” (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

This week, Glenn and Daniel return to a W.B. Yeats poem with Come Away, a hybrid fairytale from Brave director Brenda Chapman featuring Peter Pan and Alice (in Wonderland) as childhood siblings in London, then venture into the twisted (and uncut) sophomore feature from Brandon Cronenberg, Possessor, a sci-fi horror film that’ll make you never trust anyone again (59:29).

Still from "Possessor"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Come Away): 6 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Possessor Uncut): 8/10 (Glenn), 5/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [02:13] Review: Come Away
  • [17:47] Review: Possessor Uncut
  • [34:48] Spoilers: Possessor Uncut
  • During a brief aside on the limitations of artificially intelligent machine vision as depicted in Possessor, we mentioned AI researcher Janelle Shane‘s reporting on the phenomenon of “giraffing” (a term originally coined by Melissa Elliott)- she discusses it in an interview here, and you can check out her excellent blog and book here.

Listen above, or download: Come Away, Possessor (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #176 – “Nocturne” (dir. Zu Quirke)

Poster for "Nocturne"

This week, Glenn and Daniel check out the debut feature for director Xu Quirke, a tale of cutthroat songbirds that harkens back expectedly to Black Swan, yet carves a path very much its own (35:49).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Nocturne" featuring Sydney Sweeney as Juliet Lowe

FilmWonk rating: 6/10 (Daniel), 7.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [01:36] Review: Nocturne
  • [20:50] Spoilers: Nocturne

Listen above, or download: Nocturne (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #175 – “Kajillionaire” (dir. Miranda July), “The Devil All the Time” (dir. Antonio Campos), “Cargo” (dir. Arati Kadav)

Poster for "Kajillionaire"

This week, Glenn and Daniel check out Miranda July‘s latest, Kajillionaire (in theaters now, on VOD 10/16), which – like a hot tub at 29% APR – is an oddball gift that keeps on giving. Then we venture into a deep, dark, dire pit of the American South with Antonio Campos‘ adaptation, The Devil All the Time (Netflix). And finally, we check out Daniel’s pick for our first foray into Hindi-language films (and the Bollywood equivalent of an indie darling), the outstanding debut sci-fi feature from director Arati Kadav, Cargo (Netflix) (01:25:13).

Still from "The Devil All the Time"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Cargo): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Kajillionaire): 7 out of 10

FilmWonk rating (The Devil All the Time): 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:24] Review: Cargo
  • [21:29] Review: Kajillionaire
  • [34:42] Spoilers: Kajillionaire
  • [51:39] Review: The Devil All the Time
  • [01:08:45] Spoilers: The Devil All the Time
  • We briefly scoffed about a review with the headline, “‘Kajillionaire’ shows how boomers stole from millennials — and what they’ll keep stealing“. To be fair, headlines are often written by editors, and the review, from cultural critic Sam Thielman, is worth a read even if we took very different routes to liking this film.
  • During our review of The Devil All the Time, Glenn pronounced the name of Riley Keough two different ways – regrettably, neither of them was correct. We regret the error.

Listen above, or download: Kajillionaire, The Devil All the Time, Cargo (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #174 – “Mulan” (dir. Niki Caro), “Lingua Franca” (dir. Isabel Sandoval), “Up on the Glass” (dir. Kevin Del Principe)

Poster for "Mulan" (2020 film)

This week, Glenn and Daniel (and special guest Erika) dive into the first Disney live-action remake Glenn has felt any desire to watch, Mulan, a film as American as apple pie and jingoism. We also check out a pair of smaller films – a thriller melodrama debut from director Kevin Del Principe, Up on the Glass (now available on VOD), and a slow-burn romance from trans Filipina director Isabel Sandoval, Lingua Franca, now available on Netflix (01:36:58).

Still from "Lingua Franca"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Up on the Glass): 7.5/10 (Daniel), 3/10 (Glenn/Erika)
FilmWonk rating (Mulan): 5/10 (Daniel/Glenn), 7.5/10 (Erika)

FilmWonk rating (Lingua Franca): 6/10 (Daniel), 8/10 (Glenn/Erika)

Show notes:

  • [01:46] Review: Up on the Glass
  • [11:00] Spoilers: Up on the Glass
  • [22:00] Review: Mulan
  • [46:06] Spoilers: Mulan
  • [59:04] Review: Lingua Franca
  • [01:35:51] Spoilers: Lingua Franca
  • We mentioned a video from the excellent long-form media critic (and now NY Times best-selling author) Lindsay Ellis – that video is “Woke Disney“, and you should definitely check it out.
  • We referenced an interview that Sandoval gave to James Factora at them. – you can check that out here (contains spoilers).

Listen above, or download: Mulan, Lingua Franca, Up on the Glass (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – 10th Anniversary Spectacular – “Raging Bull” (dir. Martin Scorsese), “Lawrence of Arabia” (dir. David Lean)

Poster for "Lawrence of Arabia"

CW: During our review of Lawrence of Arabia, we discuss an incident of sexual assault from T.E. Lawrence’s biography, as discussed by his biographers, and as depicted in the film.

This week, Glenn and Daniel reflect on ten years of the FilmWonk Podcast, and review two cinematic blindspots from the AFI’s Top 100 list – Lawrence of Arabia and Raging Bull (01:48:15).

Still from "Raging Bull"

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Raging Bull): 7 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Lawrence of Arabia): 10 out of 10

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Raging Bull, Lawrence of Arabia (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

“Get Duked!” (dir. Ninian Doff) – Good-hearted satire for a generation that’s fuckin’ sick of it

Poster for "Get Duked!"

South Park got old. Hell, it even admitted it. More to the point, while it has taken various stances over the years (anti-religion, anti-sacred cows, anti-taking climate change seriouslywhoops), there was always an undertone of “LOL nothing matters,” and the assumption that only nerds care about political outcomes. It’s a very 90s, Gen-Xer stereotype version of what it’s like to be a counterculturalist, and this is perhaps why Trey Parker and Matt Stone speak more frequently through the grown-up characters in the newer seasons. I have no idea what the kids are up to these days (apart from taking climate change seriously, whoops), but I know that millennial political cynicism tends to be a bit more outcome-oriented than its immediate predecessors. While I could heap pattern-recognition compliments onto Scottish, 1982-born music video director Ninian Doff‘s debut feature, which is at times reminiscent of both Edgar Wright and more obscure hip-hop insanity like Bodied or Patti Cake$, its tone, which manages to maintain remarkable consistency even as the film leapfrogs from horror to comedy to self-serious classist satire, feels most profanely and offensively reminiscent of the boys from Colorado. Just…a bit more fresh, because its satire seems to stem from a sincere belief that everything might not just keep bumbling along in the same way no matter how much you get worked up about it.

The story begins with a trio of troublemakers, Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan MacDonald (Lewis Gribben), and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), whose chosen moniker might just be a shit DJ name (they all are, William, don’t you worry), but whose posh surname and ivy-laden high street address is a consistent source of mockery by his best mates. Joining them for the first time is Ian (Samuel Bottomley), a basically ordinary and well-meaning kid who wants to do well on the outdoor adventure program in the Scottish Highlands that they’ve all been signed up for – for the three delinquents, as a last chance at respectability and accomplishment by their headmaster, and for hapless Ian, by his mother, who is concerned by his lack of activities and social connections. That program is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, an outdoor-oriented youth program (reminiscent of the Scout movement, also founded by landed British gentry). To earn the award, the boys are left in the Scottish Highlands by their teacher, Mr. Carlyle (Jonathan Aris), and immediately hunted for sport by The Duke (Eddie Izzard) and his wife The Duchess (Georgie Glen). So immediately, in fact, that I’m not going to trouble to hide that plot detail, since the movie spends much of its first 15 minutes plastered with sight gags announcing its intentions toward the horror genre so explicitly that I was half-expecting a Cabin in the Woods-style genre deconstruction. But the basic idea (as laid out in the first of many visually stunning animated sequences seamlessly intercut into the film) is that the boys must navigate their way through several valleys and fields and craggy hills down to the coast, where they will collect the award, but only if they manage a collective achievement in Teamwork, Orienteering, Foraging, and…a few other soft skills.

Still from "Get Duked"

The best thing I can say about these four boys is that my favorite of them fluctuated over the course of the film, which is usually a sign of a well-balanced cast. They each have their moments of depth, apart from Duncan, the goofball, tank, and arsonist of the group, who is a pure comic foil and does not contain multitudes. The most interesting character may be Dean, son of a fish cannery worker, who gradually lets slip that he expects to amount to nothing more than a lifelong stint in the same blue-collar trade as his father, and he sure would love it if society would get all the way off his back about chasing achievements that he doesn’t believe he ever had a chance at in the first place. When Ian, and even Willi- *sigh* DJ Beatroot talk about their home life, it’s clear that they have some sort of ambition beyond the circumstances of their upbringing, even if in Beatroot’s case it seems borderline delusional. But Dean thinks he fully understands himself already, and is basically okay with who he is. Until the moment that he isn’t. And for however profanely these boys talk to each other, or whatever anger or jealousy might be stewing within the group dynamics over the course of the film, all three of these little hellions are basically trying to be decent to each other. They’re not even that mean to the new kid, and even offer to share their dubious drugs with him. There are a lot of drugs in this film, none of them in familiar forms, and all a bit explosive and/or hallucinogenic, which leads to further wonky visuals as characters’ bodies are deconstructed to the raucous beats of one of Beatroot’s…annoyingly good hip-hop jams, most of which are on the subject of his dick.

Eddie Izzard‘s Duke is a walking, shooting, slow-motion exposition-bot, who is happy to explain his simplistic and paternalistic ideology of culling the weakest (and poorest) members of the herd at length before wildly firing his rifle near the boys. And while Izzard fully justifies his presence (and executive producer credit) by the film’s end, he starts on that path at the halfway point when he and the Duchess join a psychedelic musical round with barely comprehensible choral chanting about maintaining the respectable trappings of empire as they prepare an attempted ritualistic murder of one of the boys. Then the Scottish cavalry arrives, and the curtain falls on their little caper. I won’t reveal what exactly I mean by that (James Cosmo is involved), but I’ll tell you what I did not need, and what the film itself has very little use or patience for, is the police. It would be easy to look at bumbling Scottish police Sergeant Morag (Kate Dickie) and PC Hamish (Kevin Guthrie) as pure buffoons, as they attempt to make sense of each rumor and whisper of the film’s plot by sliding another extravagant charge onto the big chore board at the police bureau (“PAEDOPHILE”, “TERRORIST”, and “ZOMBIE” each make an appearance). But this entire grating subplot is finally justified by the glorious appearance of the unnamed police superintendent (Alice Lowe), who gives a rousing battle speech on the need of these bumbling hillbillies to stop chasing a wholly confabulated urban gang (which Hamish identifies, on the radio, without a shred of evidence apart from his own racism, as 15-20 black males wearing hooded tops), down from London just to fuck with their unenviable backwater…and get back to solving the important crimes, like the fugitive bread thief, which was their #1 unsolved case before the film began. The film’s point that these cops would do nothing to help the situation was made after about 30 seconds of watching them, and during each of the other cop scenes, I was mostly just waiting to get back to the A-plot. But this is a minor complaint. I must emphasize, I am not being sarcastic here – the superintendent’s speech is a stellar comic moment, and it very nearly justifies the rest.

I can’t say much more here without giving the game away, and what a great game it is. While you may feel as if you’ve been served a pile of hallucinogenic rabbit fodder by the film’s end, you won’t come away wondering for a moment what it was all for.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Get Duked! is available starting today, 8/28, on Prime Video.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #172 – “Rebuilding Paradise” (dir. Ron Howard)

Poster for "Rebuilding Paradise"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel grapple with a horrific natural disaster that has been exacerbated by inept individual and governmental decisions whose ongoing toll of human tragedy is difficult to fathom.
And they also watch a documentary about the 2018 Camp Fire (29:30).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Tune in next week for our Tenth Anniversary episode!
  • We mentioned California SB50, which represented multiple failed attempts at increasing housing density in California during 2018. Several more attempts were made to pass the bill in 2019 into early 2020 without any more success.
  • We speculated that the town of Paradise must have experienced some permanent population loss as a result of this disaster (which is only mentioned in passing in the film). According to US Census Bureau estimates, the population went from 26,711 in 2018 to 4,476 in 2019, an estimated population loss of 83%.

Listen above, or download: Rebuilding Paradise (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)