Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Teachable moments (and others)

Okay, about that move...

Let me preface this by saying that I both respect and sympathize with teachers. It's a tough job, and a necessary one, and one whose members don't get enough respect. There should be space for both the teachers and students to play, because that's a part of learning. Over the last fifteen years - really I think the trend started even earlier, but it's gathered steam more recently - education has been a dog wagged by the tail of test prep consultants.

So sitting down to watch Tony Kaye's Detachment I was pretty much in sympathy with what it had to say, to the extent it had anything to say. That's where the trouble begins.

In the film, Henry Barthes is a substitute teacher who's never taken a permanent job with a school because he fears becoming too involved. Barthes is played by Adrien Brody, an actor who always looks like he's manning a suicide hotline after at least sixteen hours nailed to a cross. That turns out to be close to what he's actually doing here, so good choice, I guess. When a student in Henry's class frustrates his attempt to even do basic work in class and throws his messenger bag at the wall, Henry tells him that neither he nor the bag have any feelings to hurt. You can probably guess how long this stoicism lasts.

On the bus home one night he sees a teen prostitute blowing an old guy who then hits her instead of paying her. She latches onto him and, because there'd be no movie otherwise, he invites her to live in his studio apartment. The obvious pitfall to this arrangement is that he'll be mistaken for her pimp, her father, or her creepy boyfriend. Over the course of the film he winds up hitting the trifecta.

This is a movie that prides itself on not being feel-good, not pandering like say Dangerous Minds or Lean on Me. These are indeed mostly unserious movies that suck, but the pride leads Kaye way off course. Detachment isn't really serious about its subject either. It just wants to beat you over the head. The commitment to grime is bracing at first. Then it gets ridiculous. (The scene where Lucy Liu as guidance counselor unloads on an F student as "a shallow disgusting creature" feels like it was made for drag competitions.) After a while you realize you've been subjected to ninety minutes of wall-to-wall tears and screaming and you just wait for it to end.

It doesn't help that the acting profession tends to weed out restrained people before they can get started. Tell actors that you want them to chew the scenery and they'll have their knives and forks out already. So what we get here is everybody freaking out at once as part of Kaye's attempt to mash allC the buttons. Christina Hendricks, as a long-suffering math teacher, is a noble exception. She seems to float above the mess, as if she's the only person who can remember there are other things. This, and not the Eisenhower-era hotness that made her a star on Mad Men might turn out to be her greatest asset.

Also James Caan gets to tell some jokes, but I'm pretty sure that's because he's high through the whole thing. His character, that is. Hell, maybe him, too.


semiconscious said...

well, never let it be said that you can't write an entertaining, insightful movie review :) . as much as we enjoyed kaye's 'american history x' (tho, hell, if edward norton was in it, i'd probably even enjoy something as moronic as, say, 'the incredible hulk'?), we'll likely now be giving 'detachment' a pass. &, afa your observation that 'after a while you realize you've been subjected to ninety minutes of wall-to-wall tears and screaming and you just wait for it to end...', welcome to our review of multiple-academy-award-nominee 'whiplash', a disturbing/disgusting movie that actually managed to get so many other things wrong that the tears & screaming were only a part of the problem...

meanwhile, & it's not my intention to make you jealous here (tho this'll very likely be the result), this evening we'll be watching the criterion-restored version of 'island of lost souls', the movie that asks the age-old question: 'are we not men?' we'll do our best to enjoy it for you :) ...

Ben said...

Hmmm. I generally like JK Simmons, so it's a shame if the movie that's brought him so much acclaim + a couple of awards isn't up to snuff. Of course a lot of things are out of an actor's control.

I do hope you enjoyed the Island of Lost Souls viewing. That is the one with Charles Laughton. Good stuff. Pre-code, I'm guessing from the film poster I just saw on Wikipedia.