Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "The Brothers Bloom"

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.

“As far as con man stories go, I think I’ve heard them all.
Of grifters, ropers, faro fixers, tales drawn long and tall.
But if one bears a bookmark in the confidence man’s tome,
twould be that of Penelope, and of the Brothers Bloom.”

-Narrator (Ricky Jay)

I won’t call Rian Johnson too clever (apparently he hated it in ’09), but writing the first six minutes of your film as a Little Rascals confidence game as rendered by Wes Anderson, in rhyming iambic heptameter, is definitely a conscious choice to show off your sense of style. But I expected nothing less from the director of Brick, which takes place at a modern American high school, but is a hard-boiled film noir detective story, complete with all the 1940s period dialogue, see? I don’t mind saying, Johnson is clever – and I’ve been rather pleased to see him try his hand at another genre in the intervening years – but his first two films certainly forced the audience to make an early choice about their willingness to suspend disbelief with respect to his out-of-this-world characters, who tell as much as they show, using words that nobody on this planet still uses, plucked from multiple decades of 20th-century fiction and slotted into the present day.

And the Brothers Bloom – Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrian Brody) – are confidence men posing as antique dealers who travel by fucking steamship to The Continent (even after the movie amusingly reveals that airplanes exist in this world). The two are definitely from a bygone era, and they wear a multitude of hats – and I mean that in every sense of the phrase. We see Stephen craft his first con when the pair are orphan brothers of 10 and 13, flitting from one foster family to another before inexorably getting kicked out for bad behavior. This is a pattern that would repeat for the rest of their lives, including with their criminal mentor, the villainous Russian mobster known only as Diamond Dog (Maximilian Schell, in his final role), sporting an eyepatch from their last violent farewell. But – back to that first con. Even as a newly minted teenager, young Stephen (Max Records) is a firm believer that all the world’s a stage, and his brother Bloom (Zachary Gordon) is his star. He storyboards his first con – an elaborate scheme to get all of the town’s middle-class kids to muddy up their Sunday-best in order to collect kickbacks from the town dry cleaner – as cover to allow Bloom to talk to a girl he likes. Really, that’s it. He presents the con as an act of kindness, and would go on to say repeatedly that the perfect con is where, “each one involved gets just the thing they wanted”. This even includes the mark, who gets a thrill or an adventure or a whirlwind romance (or the chance to think they’ve murdered someone in a rage, then flee?) in exchange for a sum of stolen cash that, frankly, they can usually afford to lose.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Stephen is the closest thing to a Mary Sue that I’ve ever seen in fiction. This is not a term I use lightly in 2019, and it has a fairly muddled meaning (my only prior use of it fell somewhere between tokenism and stunt-casting). The term has deservedly fallen out of favor in the past decade, mostly used in bad faith by misogynists who can’t fathom the likes of Rey or Arya Stark kicking well-earned ass with skills that whose provenance was thoroughly demonstrated on-screen. As I retire my use of the term here, let me be clear what I mean by it: Stephen is an authorial, self-insert, wish-fulfillment character. The idea that Stephen’s authorship of Bloom’s existence is so thorough as to prevent his brother from experiencing an authentic moment in his life is not only a diabolical fiction; it beggars belief. And it works, because these actors fully commit to this reality with a heaping spoonful of self-awareness. What Ruffalo is delivering…is Rian Johnson with godlike powers. This is not even the only self-insert screenwriter character I’ve seen (Charlie Kaufman and Martin McDonagh are both prior culprits), but at a certain point, you’ve just gotta call Dante what he is as he winks at the reader and descends into the Inferno.

Stephen is the in-universe author of this film, deciding on the fly how best to serve his characters, which include family like Bloom, marks, like the rich, quirky, shut-in, dilettante, epileptic photographer Penelope (Rachel Weisz), and friends like the mute explosives expert Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). These are caper characters. Bang-Bang, who is literally mute and appeared out of nowhere, is essentially a plot device, even if Kikuchi delivers yet another amusing (silent) performance. But these caperists know exactly what they are, even if Bloom is suddenly the only one bothered by it. Because Stephen writes Bloom’s life, his brother plays the role of the shill, or the honeypot, in the structure of a confidence game. He ropes in the marks, which almost invariably include a beautiful woman – and we have to accept Brody’s well-acted assurance that today, he’s 35 years old, he’s been living a false life for twenty-plus years, and he’s decided he can’t wake up next to another stranger that thinks they know him. So he’s out. Both a decade ago and now, I was on board for this. It’s exciting, isn’t it? Because it’s supposed to be. Johnson-as-Stephen wrote Bloom as the vulnerable antihero so that we’d internalize his laudable reluctance to perform one last job (which Stephen waits three whole months before inviting him back for), and while I’m not totally convinced that it was necessary to have a character explicitly point this out on-screen, it does require Brody to be the acting MVP of this film. Even if he has ample competition.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

Weisz had to sell Penelope’s bored, rich hobbyist ways by learning a multitude of skills, including playing a bunch of musical instruments, karate-chopping, backflipping, DJing, ping-ponging, juggling (I think the chainsaws were CGI), and riding a giraffe unicycle. But while that’s impressive, it’s not exactly acting. It’s an exhibition of parlor tricks, however impressive they may be after only a few weeks for the actor to train. But acting, Weisz’s primary hustle, is what happens on a train to Prague. Penelope has joined the brothers for a con to smuggle a stolen 8th century prayer book allegedly worth millions. As with all of her hobbies, Penelope is excited to try this one, and she’s leaning hard into the sleeper-car fantasy of it all. That’s to say, she schmoozes with Bloom, nurses her 9th mini-bottle of an unspecified liquor, before drunkenly (and graphically) describing him as “constipated…in [his] fucking soul”. She also admits that she knows she’s only pretending to be a smuggler. Then she ruminates on acting a bit and climbs to the end of the bed, telling Bloom that his problem is that he’s got to stop thinking so much and live his truth. Then a thunderstorm erupts outside, and she proceeds to fuck the train, after a fashion, before announcing (completely unnecessarily) that she’s horny. This really must be seen to be believed, because in a movie full of deliberately overwritten scenes, this is a movie character getting shitfaced and telling her castmate that she knows all of this may be fiction, but they’re on a train for a leisurely crime, and the best thing he can do is enjoy the ride. And then she writhes orgasmically to cement the point. For a moment, she’s a creature of pure id who’s shamelessly breaking the fourth wall, and rather than feeling manic or pixie or like any sort of a dream girl about it, the moment feels completely genuine. Ugly and sloppy and ridiculous, but real. And it scares the shit out of Bloom, who immediately bids her goodnight and flees the car. Penelope was right about him. Soul full of grumpy poop, that one.

I suppose this is where I’m meant to ruminate on how The Brothers Bloom has changed for me over the past decade, but if I’m being honest, despite paying thirty bucks for a Canadian import Blu-ray so I could see the film a bit earlier (since it never came to Seattle for a theatrical release), this is only the second time I can recall watching it. But it delighted me today, as it did a decade ago. Its production design is stellar, with both costuming and locales (for which the movie really flitted around Eastern Europe) giving the movie a real jet-setting (train-setting?) international flair without looking like it cost all that much to make. Nathan Johnson‘s score, with his group The Cinematic Underground, is a sheer delight – at times sweet and sentimental, at times an epic, jazzy romp on an outdoor bar stage, and features creativity and breadth of style and instruments that are rarely seen. This was only Johnson’s second film score (his first being Brick), and I’m pleased to see he’s continued making music in the intervening years, even if that includes only a handful of film scores.

Still from "The Brothers Bloom"

But as I sat on my couch sipping merlot and playing out the part of the film wonk revisiting a movie for the hell of it, I know in my heart this movie is as much of a narrative mess as lesser fare that I’ve dismissed over the years, like Matchstick Men or Bandits or…yes, I’ll admit it, The Sting. It’s perhaps a lesser grift than the 2003 James Foley film, Confidence, the best of the genre that I can recall, but that film seemed far more concerned with its grifting technique than in crafting characters I should care too much about. It also featured Weisz in a dubious and lightly misogynistic role that was frankly beneath her, so it’s hard not to see Bloom as an improvement for her participation in the genre. As a 30-something revisiting the film now, I find I can relate much more to Bloom’s struggle to find his identity and be comfortable in his own skin. By this point in life, you’re meant be able to live with who you are and your place in the world – and if you can’t, that’s a serious problem for both your life and mental health. Seeing this a decade ago, I just kinda rolled with the film’s premise. Seeing it now, I empathized a great deal with Bloom’s struggle, even if I was making an even more conscious choice than before to suspend my disbelief about his lifestyle. Penelope presents another lens through which to view this struggle, because she’s a creature of privilege who can afford to flit from one identity to another at will, never feeling a sunk cost of money or time (the latter being the most precious and limited resource). The film seems content to mock her a bit for this, twice featuring a spiral notebook in which she’s scribbling “Penelope the Smuggler” and “Penelope the Con Artist” like a 12-year-old. But is Penelope really the immature one? What this character says over and over again is that she writes her own story – that she tells it to herself over and over again until it becomes true. But she prefaces this by saying that the trick to not feeling cheated is to learn how to cheat. I found this provocative because I now believe it’s easy to feel cheated as you learn more and more how the world works, even as there’s almost certainly someone else would look at your life and wonder what you have to complain about. And perhaps that’s why we root for con artists and antiheroes. Anyone who breaks the rules to peel off a fragment of wealth from the handful of robber barons who hoard most of it…is worth rooting for. Even if they tend to end up dead or in prison in real life. But I knew all of this already – or at least “knew it” in the sense of banal cynicism. The emotional core of this film is still fundamentally about becoming comfortable with your identity and your place in the world, and however my worldview may have changed in the intervening years, there’s a lot I can connect with here.

I also recognize that it’s difficult to get the tone just right in the con game. The saving grace of The Brothers Bloom is its commitment to maintaining about a 3:1 ratio of romantic whimsy to self-seriousness at all times – even to the point of letting Penelope walk out of a Czech police station with the stolen prayer book in hand, with the script literally scoffing on-screen at the idea of ever explaining how she did it. My guess is that a substantial bribe was involved. The film’s caprice runs a very real risk of making me dismiss it as a silly trifle, but that’s not how I felt while watching it, and more or less how I feel watching James Bond, so really, who cares? I’m happy to let the movie be what it is, which is a flight of fancy from a bygone era, filled with fourth-wall breaking characters who literally know better than to be doing all of this. And capers do happen in real life. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and a billionaire Coke heir were just busted with a plane full of Business Weed in St. Kitts this past week! Capers are just…marginally more likely if you don’t have work in the morning. Or if you can commit to your new life of crime by blowing up your existing one.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #145 – “The Favourite” (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos), “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” (dir. David Slade)

In the first podcast of the new year, Glenn and Daniel check out their favo(u)rite film of 2018, as well as a tech-infused experimental film from Black Mirror (01:26:20).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch): 6 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (The Favourite): 10/10 (Glenn), 9/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

Listen above, or download: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, The Favourite (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

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.

Ad exec Will (Ryan Reynolds) wanders through Manhattan to pick up his daughter, playing “the perfect song” for when you’ve just been served with divorce papers: “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. Let’s agree to disagree, movie. This is perhaps the most generic song until “ABC” the following year, and it isn’t nearly as catchy. My overt hostility this early into the film should tell you what to expect here – this is the first 10YA film I’ve rewatched and found substantially less enjoyable than my first viewing a decade ago. So let’s do this thing. Will’s tiny individual Bluetooth earbuds indicate that he is abundantly wealthy and tech-savvy by 2008 standards (these are still barely a thing). He interacts with a series of New York street people from central casting as the credits play, then wanders up to his daughter’s school.

“Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan your playlist, there is no right track for what awaits you.”

I normally begin my 10YA reviews with a selection from the opening voiceover, but this is really the first time it’s been this trite and inconsequential. His song is uninspired, his metaphor is now dated, and “what awaits him” is a bit of a cacophony at the school because the kids have just started sex-ed. His daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) explains the mechanics of sex, and asks a perfectly reasonable question – her friend Sammy Boigon’s sister says he was an accident, and how do you accidentally thrust a penis into a vagina? Will shuts her down, telling her to stop saying such accurate words (“say tinkle-part or wee-wee or something cute”) – bad form, Will. Comprehensive sex-ed is better for a reason. She then asks more pointedly, “If they didn’t want to have a baby, why did they have sex?” Will misses a second teachable moment, and says they were rehearsing. He’ll miss another one later when his daughter asks, “What’s the boy word for slut?” One thing I’ve done since 2008 is become a parent, and I really try not to judge how other parents handle common pitfalls. But Will seriously biffs this moment, and given that it’s one of the only consequential moments with his daughter until the end of the film, it seems worth noting.

Anyway, all of this was an awkward lead-in to Maya asking how Will met her mother. Does this premise sound familiar? The CBS series “How I Met Your Mother” was in its third season and largely unknown to me in 2008, although seeing this film may have seeded my interest in it. Now that I’ve seen that whole series, which spawned a skip list and series-end podcast in which I called it “one of the finest sitcoms on television,” this film suffers by comparison, both in the credibility and structure of the story, and the likability of the characters. More on that later. Will agrees to tell Maya the complete story of his adult dating life, but he’s going to change the names, and he won’t reveal until the end who her mother is. Definitely, Maybe does a poor job of justifying its premise. It attempts to lend a sense of urgency and purpose to the story by couching it as Maya’s precocious attempt to “solve” her parents’ impending divorce. And Will makes it clear (to the audience) that he knows this, but never that he’s doing this for some definable purpose, or even against his better judgment. Beyond the appropriateness of the subject matter, this just really seems like a bad idea. But…what the hell do I know, I’ve never been divorced. To call this situation desperate and sad seems a bit obvious, but it’s all I’ve got going in.

The tale begins. In 1992, Will is a volunteer for the Young Democrats of America in Madison, Wisconsin, and we meet Lady #1: Will’s college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). If I remember correctly, this is Maya’s mother. I obviously didn’t know this the first time I saw the film, but seeing it now, the film definitely pats itself on the back several times for hiding this result. Maya even guesses that it’s never the first girlfriend you meet – which implies that she knows more stories in this “rom-com mystery” genre that I’m unaware of. The only other one I can think of is Extraterrestrial, and the mystery there was “What’s up with the alien spaceship hovering over our one-night stand?”, but no matter. These particular early-90s Democrats work for the Clintons, and Will is leaving for New York to work for Bill’s presidential campaign. Because Will wants to be president. I give the movie kudos for presenting Will’s political aspirations (with a mix of real and fictional politicians) as something admirable and sincere. Reynolds plays Will’s later disappointment with President Clinton’s scandals in a way that feels genuine and devoid of cynicism. Clinton is his idol, and his fall from grace disappoints him. It doesn’t count for much of the film’s plot, but it’s something.

Emily, who is staying behind, sends Will along with a book-sized package to return to one Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), whom she met on her exchange program at Cambridge. You may be assuming that this means Weisz will speak with her native British accent, and you would be wrong. Emily notes that all the guys wanted to sleep with her, and Will suggests that perhaps she should mail it instead. Whoops. We haven’t seen her yet, but Summer is Lady #2, and Will is definitely, 100% going to sleep with her. Flying into New York, Will looks out the window and sees…what looks like archive footage of the NYC skyline. The WTC towers are visible, but also it looks a bit grainy, which is a strange thing to see in HD. He’s handed a cellular telephone just slightly more advanced than the one Zack Morris carried in ’92, and is sent to get coffee and bagels. When he returns, he wipes out offscreen into the men’s room with a comically huge pile of TP while the campaign manager briefs everyone, and screams “what am I doing here?!” We get it, movie. Shit rolls downhill. This film largely predates the gig economy, but Will’s bitching about his no-future entry-level political job feels petty. Suck it up, intern.

Will meets April (Isla Fisher) at the copy machine, and they flirt. April is apolitical – this is just a gig for her. She’s also Lady #3. Will makes some vague promises about how great Clinton will be for African-Americans and women, and then the Gennifer Flowers scandal breaks. Whoops. The campaign gang goes out for beers, and they spontaneously compare notes on who their romantic “types” are. Will’s type is brunettes with horn-rimmed glasses (neither Emily nor April). He drunk-dials Emily, who correctly concludes that he’s never coming back from NYC. Back in his room, with some prodding from his campaign roommate Russell (Derek Luke), Will rips open the package from Emily and finds…a diary. They decide they can’t read it. Then they read it, it plays as light erotica written by a dude, and it seems that Summer might be Emily’s ex-lover. I’ll go ahead and admit an area of personal growth for me here: This is definitely something that would’ve seemed like a bigger deal to me in 2008 than now – I didn’t really grok the Kinsey scale in those days, and this sort of revelation would’ve made me feel insecure in a more categorical way than the existence of ex-boyfriends. But it’s a personal hang-up that I find silly in retrospect (you’re either confident the person you’re dating likes you, or you’re not), and I’m glad to be past it.

Will heads over to Summer’s apartment without calling first, and finds Kevin Kline in an open bathrobe. He is Professor Hampton Roth. Will asks if he is Summer’s father, and he confirms, “Yeah, I’m her daddy.” Gross. Then – and I’ll pause here to note that it’s about 10AM – he pours some Johnny Walker. The boys get hammered and pass out, and Will awakens to the face of Summer, who introduces the professor as her boyfriend (and thesis advisor). They engage in some flirtatious banter in Weisz’s hit-or-miss American accent. This was a miss. The accent, and the character. She asks if he read the erotica-diary, throws it at him and suggests that he read it when he’s lonely, then follows him into the hallway and kisses him. “Sorry,” Summer says, “I was just curious. Hampton encourages me to cultivate my curiosity.” Ugh. These two met 60 seconds ago. This is utterly bizarre, even in this genre.

Back at the campaign, Will is stapling signs, nearly staples his hand, and screams aloud again, “What am I doing here?!” Each of these complaint beats feels like the failure mode of an “As Seen on TV” commercial. Luckily, the movie has also lost patience with this, and campaign manager Arthur Robredo (Nestor Serrano) realizes he needs someone with a Wisconsin connection to court Madison donors in the NY area. Will now has a desk and a real job, and it turns out he’s an ace at it, selling out an entire fundraiser table. He runs into April buying cigarettes at the convenience store, and the two have a dumb argument about which of their brands is healthier and/or burns faster. Then they proceed to have a competitive smoke-off. During the ensuing chat, we learn that it’s April’s birthday, her musician boyfriend stood her up (on her birthday!). She wins the bet, but declines the payoff, and they haggle their way into attending a party together. They end up on a rooftop, and Will reveals that he plans to propose to Emily when she comes to NYC. April invites Will to practice the proposal on her. He starts with a half-assed “Will you, um, marry me?”, and she gives a solid rehearsed speech excoriating him for it. This is a decent scene – not because of the overwritten rom-com speeches, but because April is not being a ridiculous caricature here – perhaps just a hit heightened. She’s neither manic, nor pixie. I buy that she has a life outside of this moment. They go back to her apartment for tea, and they have a nice chat about a copy of Jane Eyre that her father inscribed and gave her before his untimely death. This’ll be important later. They chat all night about music, politics, travel, etc, and she tosses in a line about how this is nice that they can just sit here and chat and not have to worry about flirting or all the attraction stuff. Then they frantically make out, and then he leaves. It’s a mess. So far, I believe this relationship the most of the three.

Back in the hotel, Emily – Will’s actual girlfriend, remember – has arrived on the red-eye to surprise him in the morning! She takes the elevator, he takes the stairs, and he magically gets to the room…long after she does. Well played, movie. But it’s fine, because his roommate has covered for him. They kiss, and Emily notes a bit frantically that his tongue tastes different. They wander through Central Park, and Will tells a rambling story of how his father ran into an ex on his way to propose to his mother (meta-story!), and it turns out he’s proposing to Emily now, and Emily panics and scream-admits that she slept with Will’s roommate Charlie. So it’s over. And I now remember with absolute certainty that Emily is the mother, so at some point this will all be a double-reversal. Back at the campaign, Bill Clinton has won the New York primary (and three others, including Wisconsin), and it’s party time. April drops by to see why Will is so miserable, and they banter and apologize for the kissing. They have a competitive metaphor-off for how disastrous their hypothetical romance would be, and she wins with “Sandpaper and bare ass (you’d be the ass)”. Then she asks him to dance. I continue to buy this relationship the most of the three.

Will and Russell hit the road to continue with the campaign. And then time advances, montage-style. Once Clinton is elected, the two form their own political consultancy, and they join the [fictitious] gubernatorial campaign of their old boss, Arthur Robredo. Will starts dating again, April dumps her loser boyfriend and goes traveling, and the two become pen pals, and fast friends. It’s 1994 in New York. Will lazily informs us that the internet is getting started, everyone on the street has a large (but not huge) cell phone, and I start to think this movie has Forrest Gump ambitions of being a time capsule for future rosy-eyed nostalgia. It would really need a better soundtrack for that. Will gets invited to a book signing with Professor Roth, and runs into Summer again. Summer is writing for NYMag, and the professor has moved on to dating a pair of college freshmen. Legal, but still gross. And the three of them engage in more preposterous banter. It is utter nonsense that any of these people would remember each other from a single meeting two years earlier (kisses and drunkenness notwithstanding), and all of this feels forced. Summer agrees to write an article about the campaign. She and Will go out for dinner again, flirt like crazy some more, and montage their way into a relationship (much of which is weirdly musically-focused and takes place on the same park bench). They make out on various couches, decide to spend the whole day in bed together, then they’re immediately called away to the hospital to tend to Professor Roth, who has had an aortic rupture (a condition with a 90% mortality rate) and is somehow still alive. Roth is just conscious enough to criticize her for not writing a sufficiently hard-hitting exposé on Robredo’s campaign, seeding the destruction of this relationship, which is barely five minutes old in movie time.

And then April returns. They wander the streets, and she tells a story of bursting into tears after making out with a hot stranger on a Cretan beach, because she realized that she couldn’t see a relationship with this guy going well. And then she realized she simply had to tell someone specific about this, and that someone is right in front of her face- annnnd while they’ve been talking, they’ve walked into a jewelry store because Will is picking up a diamond engagement ring for Summer. Whoops! Back in the present day, daughter Maya recites some subtext: “Weren’t you listening? She came home for you!” Will looks pensive, as if he somehow didn’t realize this. This is where the structure of the movie strains credulity a bit. It’s certainly possible for someone to interrupt a personal anecdote to say, “Hey, you were the asshole there”. But it doesn’t really make sense that Will would tell this story, which obviously emphasizes April as a major participant, if he never realized that April was one of his own love interests. He can tell the story of how he met Maya’s mother, but April is only an important character if she’s a potential mother, and it sounds like Will is supposed to be gobsmacked by this sudden realization.

Back in ’94, he goes to meet Summer. NYMag has asked her to do a followup on Robredo, which she has already written, and it’s a doozy: Robredo abused his political influence to get a friend an early parole from prison. Will says this is bad…that his boss is the “tough-on-crime Democrat”. Then he tells her if she hands this in, “we won’t survive this.” Summer starts to equivocate, and then he makes it clearer. “I’m talking about you and me.” This is the point in the story in which I interrupt Will and say, “Hey, you were the asshole there,” because that’s a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re about to propose to. It’s also the point where I say the same thing to Summer, because writing an exposé about her boyfriend’s campaign…well, I’m no journalist, but it sounds like a serious conflict of interest. And it turns out she’s already handed it in, so the campaign and the relationship are over. The relationship careening off a cliff makes sense, since this relationship was utter tosh to begin with – but politically, this feels quaint in a post-2016 world. This is a mundane bit of patronage, and it’s hard to imagine this scandal would torpedo a campaign today, when every politician with a national profile is gleefully ignoring multiple career-defining scandals each week. The world got weird and ugly. The GOP backed Roy Moore. And this would barely make a dent today.

Speaking of scandal, we flash forward to 1997, when Clinton is about to be impeached, and April finally calls Will back, leading with “Are you watching?” I guess their meta-awareness that they’re in a story is just something I’ll have to suspend disbelief on, because this is a weird way to call someone after a three-year break. They banter. April is quite sure that Bill did it, saying of Monica Lewinsky, “Look at the picture of her! I love her, she’s so his type.” I was rather incredulous at this line – both because we seem to have found the one person in 1997 who was kind to Lewinsky, and because… Well. I’m not going to pretend we (or I) have found some sudden piety on the subject of powerful men abusing their positions to make advances on the women in their employment in the past six months, much less the past decade since I first saw the film. This is an issue we’ll be coming to terms with for a long time as we begin the slow, generational task of reducing the incidence of women being drummed out of male-dominated industries by sexual harassment from men in supervisory roles. That said, it seems worth acknowledging that “she is so his type,” while perhaps a period-accurate statement for someone to make in 1997, is a little fucked up. As if type has much bearing on it when he’s the President of the United States.

Later, Will and April are back in a diner, and they discuss the nature of finding “the One”. April says it’s not a matter of who, but when – you reach a point where you’re ready to settle down, and whoever you’re with then becomes The One. More on this at the end. But first, Will dopily inquires if there’s ever been a guy that made her think, “This is it, this is him.” Isla Fisher kills this moment, because standard rom-com misfortune dictates that she has had this exact thought about Will, but April reveals just enough of this for the audience, but not enough for dunderhead Will. Then she reveals that she’s seeing someone (a dude named Kevin), and Will gets drunk. He’s disappointed with his life, Clinton’s linguistic dickery over the word ‘is’, and obviously the April situation. He checks his answering machine (kids, this was like a Google Home that only worked offline), and finds messages from April about his upcoming birthday, a surprise call from Emily (who is in New York), and April again. He wraps himself in a blue blanket of sadness, and April shows up at his door. This is the second time she has come looking for him when he’s being a sad sack and avoiding a party. This happened to me once in my early 20s, and I also failed to pick up on its meaning at the time. Will fails similarly, falling on his face off-screen as April marvels inconsequentially as his disheveled apartment, and- WHOA. Aggressive smash cut to them arriving at the party, and it really feels like there was supposed to be more dialogue here. I guess the movie was running long.

Here we see most of the minor characters from earlier in the movie. They chat about Bill Clinton, whom Will has genuinely lost faith in, and thinks maybe should be impeached. Will leaves the party, gets drunk (again), and wanders to April’s doorstep, where she finds him and cheekily berates him for missing his cake, which she baked (*sigh*). And hang on, folks, because this scene is quite a ride. He quotes Nirvana. She takes an intimate swig of his beer without asking. He calls her beautiful and she thanks him. He drunkenly confesses that he likes her, then soberly confesses that he’s in love with her. He then projects some insecurity onto her, and she says he’s an idiot. He kisses her, and she pulls away and demands to know why he didn’t tell her sooner, instead of like this, when his “shit is a mess”. And he apparently took the ‘mess’ thing personally because he gets personal, and nasty. Nastier than their friendship can withstand. He insults her life and her career and her choices, and then twists the knife by saying he’s just saying this as a friend. She slaps him and goes inside. Reynolds made his bones playing the loveable asshole, but I’ve seen him play truly unlikeable only a handful of times. It works for the villain at a nostalgic theme park, but not the hero of a romantic drama.

Will wanders past a bookstore and finds the lost copy of Jane Eyre that both he and April were looking for, with the inscription from her father inside. Finding a specific lost copy of a book is a ridiculous plot device, but we’re moving at lightning speed now, and this is the only artifact that can save this relationship. He arrives at April’s apartment to deliver it. April’s roommate answers the door, and she is visibly amused by the torrent of sad sack apology messages he has apparently been leaving on the answering machine, because restraining orders don’t exist in Comedy World. She lets him into their gargantuan apartment, where he finds April’s boyfriend Kevin, who is Model-Hot, and who mentions he lives with her. This means Kevin should also be aware of the apology messages, so he’s either the most chill dude in the world, or he just sees Will as that non-threatening. Will leaves. Oh, and April’s in grad school now, so his abusive rant apparently stoked her ambition. More on this later.

Next up, he’s at a sidewalk café, a waitress brings him a gigantic glass of wine, and asks, “Do you know what you want yet?” “No, ” he responds, with a dumb double meaning. Summer wanders up, and is pregnant. Baby-daddy’s out of the picture, and she invites him to a party to make amends, and – whoa whoa whoa. Back in the present, Maya is now completely freaked out and demands to know if Will is really her father, and I have to say, the movie is being downright sadistic now. He is her father, and he’s a terrible one at that. He says this story has a happy ending, and she demands to know how that could possibly be, when whoever her mother is, they’re getting divorced. He offers to stop, then goes to get her a cup of tea before they continue. She falls asleep. Poor kid. The next morning, they get a bagel and continue the story. Will arrives at Summer’s party, and gives her flowers. She makes niceties, we learn that Professor Roth died alone in his office, and he…accuses her of planning to seduce him. Seriously, this rom-com narcissism is getting tedious. It’s like Will has read the script and knows these women are required to be into him (à la Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister”). She shrugs that off and asks if they can be friends, he agrees, and she leads him across the room to meet an old friend…his ex-girlfriend Emily, who lives in New York now. The two share some easy banter over whether he intended to call her, and he puts her number directly into his Motorola StarTac (I had one of those!) because he actually means to call her back this time. Later, Emily and Will wander in the park, and she makes overtures about continuing the relationship, and reaches up and strokes the side of his head, and BAM – Maya figured it out. Emily (real name: Sarah) is her mother, because she does that head-stroking thing to her too. Do I even need to point out that it would seem a bit odd for Will to include this particular visual detail in a story told verbally? No? Okay, let’s move on.

Sarah (who is Emily, remember) walks up, and they all share a stoic trip to the zoo. They stand in front of the penguins, and Maya teaches them all about lifelong penguin monogamy. It’s sad. We don’t know why these two are splitting up any more than we know why they got back together, so it’s hard to invest much in this scene apart from the grim knowledge that there must be a good reason. Maya leaves with her mother, then runs back to thank her dad for telling her the story. Will says he forgot to tell her the happy ending. He looks his daughter in the eye: “You.” They embrace. It’s a sweet and completely unearned moment. Bless her, Abigail Breslin adds almost nothing to this film. This girl was Little Miss Sunshine, and here she is relegated to a sympathetic sounding board for a midlife crisis. Then Bill Clinton (impersonator Dale Leigh) jogs by with a Secret Service detail, and Will shouts a greeting. Clinton waves, and…Will has closure, I guess? About something?

Will goes back to his office, signs the divorce papers, and finds the copy of Jane Eyre that he located for April, now many years earlier. And it’s happy ending time. He finds April at the offices of Amnesty International, in an unspecified do-gooder dream job. And here’s something I definitely didn’t realize in 2008: the movie is pretty clearly telling us that the torrent of drunken abuse that Will threw at April earlier was instrumental in helping her go back to school and get her life back on track, and this feels deeply unsettling in retrospect. All that we saw of April earlier was that she was confident, capable, gainfully employed, had saved enough money to go traveling (and then did so), and was in multiple relationships that we have no particular reason to believe were unhealthy. Will’s criticism of her in that scene is all the more baffling because it comes out of nowhere, and if the movie intended for him to be wrong or misguided, it does a terrible job of showing it. April laughs at him on arrival (in a “happy to see you” sorta way). They trade details: No one’s dating anyone, no one’s currently smoking, he just got divorced (which she somehow heard already), and the two are maybe finally ready to be together? He gives her the book. She cries and thanks him. He completely unnecessarily tells her that he’s had it for years, and apologizes. She tells him to leave. Come on, movie. Coffee is for closers.

Back home, Maya berates him, and reveals that Summer’s real name is Natasha (“who writes for that magazine”), and asks why he didn’t change April’s name in the story. She tells him he’s not happy. He tells her to get her coat. They head for Brooklyn. This is incredibly inappropriate, and I guess it’s really happening… They buzz April’s apartment, she demands to know who the kid is speaking in the background. He tells her. “That’s kinda cheating, isn’t it? Bringing your daughter?” Yes, April, yes it is. They decide to count to thirty and leave if April doesn’t come down. As April listens to this on the intercom, Maya tells Will he should tell April the story, and “Then she’ll know!”. They reach 30 and start to walk away, and April bounds out the front door, surprising no one, to ask, “What story?” He says he kept the book because it was the only thing he had left of her, and he couldn’t let her go completely. They embrace. Then they go inside for some awkward storytime, but not before the two grownups pop back out to the front step for a huge smooch. Annnnd we’re out. Good luck folks.

At the risk of vaguely spoiling How I Met Your Mother, the series did all of the same things as this movie, and it certainly had its share of redundancy and meandering subplots. It tried to have its ending both ways in a similar manner, giving the main character a happy (but ultimately doomed) romance with one character, only to pair him with another at the end. But what was it all for? Well, in How I Met Your Mother, the explicit message (as narrated by Bob Saget) was that love is hard, but it’s worth it, because it’s the best thing we do. The only thing close to a coherent message I can extract from Definitely, Maybe is April’s speech about finding The One – that at a certain point, everyone just decides they’re ready, at which point they love The One they’re with. It’s a glib message, but it’s one that’s supported by the complete lack of foundation for Will’s romance –
and re-romance – with Emily/Sarah. All we ever saw of this relationship was failure. I don’t know why these two were ever together, apart from the convenience of college geography, and I have no idea why they got back together, apart from quarter-life desperation. But at least they got a nice kid out of it?

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” – There’s really no upside to child murder

“In this man’s fantasy, she reacts to his sexual advances the way a consenting adult woman would, rather than the reality, which is a terrified little girl who wants no part of him. She’s crying, in pain, wants to go home. Quickly, he’s lost control of the situation…”

-John Douglas, FBI (ret.), Journey Into Darkness

David Slade’s 2005 film Hard Candy told the story of a 14-year-old girl (played by Ellen Page) turning the tables on her would-be sexual predator – drugging, restraining, and psychologically torturing him for the next 90 minutes. The film was a fascinating and disturbing cat-and-mouse thriller, but stopped far short of suspending disbelief. As I watched this adolescent girl exhibit all the sensibilities and ruthlessness of a jaded adult, a single line of thought kept ringing.

This has never happened. This could never happen.

Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones takes a different tack. When Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan), a lively and innocent 14-year-old girl, is lured into the dungeon of middle-aged serial killer George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), it ends exactly as it would in real life. The film doesn’t bury the lead er…delay…revealing this point, as it happens in the first twenty minutes of the film. After hours of waiting for their daughter to come home, Susie’s parents call the police – her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) waits at home as her father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) runs around town showing a picture to anyone who’ll look at it. Days later, they both listen in horror as a police detective informs them that they’ve found a piece of their daughter’s clothing.

“We also found blood. A substantial amount of blood.”

I’m belaboring this point a bit, but the sequence plays like every parent’s worst nightmare. I can’t overstate how horrifically the film depicts the preying upon and murder of a child, as well as its utterly destructive effect on the girl’s family. We don’t see the actual killing, but we see every moment leading up to it. When the crime occurs, Tucci and Ronan play the scene with startling realism, but I would stop short of calling their performances “good”. “Unsettling” is more like it. The scene is difficult to watch, and I’m still unsure whether it was prudent to include it. From that point on, the story follows two separate threads, depicting Susie finding her way through the In-Between (an arbitrary blend of Heaven and Purgatory) and her family’s struggle with grief following her death.

But while Susie’s story (in life) may end realistically, I was still reminded of Hard Candy – because like that film, the rest of The Lovely Bones plays very much like a fantasy. But this is not a fantasy of revenge, but rather of consolation for a grieving family – a literal rendition of “she went on to a better place.”

And is the In-Between a better place? It’s yet another elaborate CG world from Weta Digital, but I think a collection of pristinely rendered desktop backgrounds just isn’t enough to impress me anymore. We have the technology, and we’ve had it for a while now. This is certainly not the best we’ve seen from Weta, and while an oversaturated green valley or an endless icy plane with giant crystal bells may look pretty, none of it is going to blow me away at this point unless it also works thematically. And from a storytelling standpoint, the In-Between is almost a total failure.

When Susie arrives, she is greeted by another young girl named Holly (Nikki SooHoo), who seems to exist solely as the Exposition Fairy. She has all the personality and staying power of a Walmart greeter, and as she matter-of-factly lays out the rules of the In-Between – basically, a place to let go of your earthly life so you can move on to Heaven – it’s not entirely clear how her continued presence doesn’t violate these rules. Regardless, Susie spends most of her time playing around in the In-Between with Holly, and it occasionally takes a dark turn. Her experience there seems to depend on two things – how well she’s coping with being dead, and how well the people behind are getting along without her. Ronan gives a solid performance, but for most of the film, she is written as just another rendition of the “ghost with unfinished business“. Nonetheless, these worlds do occasionally collide in some interesting way.

In an early scene, Jack Salmon (Wahlberg) shows Susie how to make a ship in a bottle, placing it on a shelf in a room full of them. The dozens of ships suffer exactly the fate you’d expect, as Jack shows up shortly after his daughter’s death and proceeds to smash every single one of them. Back in the In-Between, as Susie walks along a rocky ocean beach, the waves pick up, and she looks on in horror as huge, lifesize versions of these ships sail in from the choppy ocean and shatter on the rocks. While the real-world scene is just a predictable bit of melodrama, its visual rendition in the In-Between is at least somewhat memorable.

The real-world story is about as close as the film comes to a passable narrative. It spans a couple of years, as Jack, Abigail, and the rest of the Salmon family deal with their daughter’s death, each in their own way. Lynn, Susie’s grandmother, comes and stays with the family, and is played quite ably by Susan Sarandon. Jack begins a half-cocked investigation, bombarding a well-meaning police detective (Michael Imperioli) with accusations against anyone and everyone around town for the most slight and arbitrary of reasons. This subplot could well have succeeded as a Columbo-style “howcatchem” detective story, but Jack is no detective, and his investigation is really just a series of random, baseless accusations. The tragic irony is that when he meets George Harvey, his daughter’s actual murderer, he accuses him of the crime based on evidence just as flimsy as with any of the others, and nearly gets himself arrested in the process.


Stanley Tucci is almost unrecognizable as Harvey (I’ll admit – I didn’t even realize it was him until I began this review), but for how cartoonishly the character is written, he might as well have been wearing a rubber mask. Tucci is a great actor who does the best he can, but he is utterly wasted here. And while the character’s fate is rather unexpected (and certainly only possible in an age before modern forensics), it’s tonally bizarre. What message can we extract from his final scene? What goes around…kinda comes around? There’s nothing sadder than a pedophile past his prime?

As I spoke with others about this film (reminding them that the protagonist is a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl), the most frequent question I received was this: “Do they catch the killer in the end?”

I must admit, this question never occurred to me. For my part, catching the killer may be satisfying and cathartic when the victim is an adult, but there’s really no upside to the death of a child. And whether or not this fictitious killer is caught doesn’t matter nearly as much to me as what message the film is promoting about the world at large. The most provocative thing about George Harvey is that he seems perfectly normal when he’s not murdering children. I sometimes wonder how many more films we’ll have to see that depict “seeming normal” as a sinister warning sign. While most people aren’t secret pedophiles or murderers, it’s remarkable how many parents will make the opposite assumption if they see a 40-year-old man with the audacity to speak to a child.

Regardless of its message, The Lovely Bones plays more like an ill-conceived therapeutic exercise than a film. The family’s story is tonally all over the place, but this erratic emotional curve mostly rang true for a family dealing with the death of a child (owing heavily to the performances of Wahlberg, Weisz, and Sarandon). But while I may have found their struggle realistic, I certainly took no pleasure in watching it.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10