A mixed week at the movies:
It started with a whimper in the form of director Zhang Yimou’s reunion with leading lady Gong Li. The master melodramatist and his muse collaborated on a bushel of first-rate films during the 90’s, from his debut, “Red Sorghum,” to the color explosion “Ju Dou,” to the masterworks “To Live” and “Raise the Red Lantern.” (His opening ceremony for the Beijing Summer Olympics will endure as one of the triumphs of human artistic expression.) Sadly, “Coming Home” falls far short of that bar, with its wan story of Lu (Chen Daoming), a political prisoner taken from his wife Feng (Gong) and ballerina daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huiwen) during the Mao years. After the regime change and his release, Lu returns home, only to find that Feng has dementia and does not remember him or their life together. (The scene in which her head comes to be injured feels especially forced.) As with “Phoenix” earlier this summer, the last scene would be a doozy if we bought the premise, but Zhang throws in so many false starts, I heard audience members sigh and in one case even laugh with exasperation.
Leslye Headland, who wrote last year’s terrific remake of “About Last Night,” both wrote and directed the new romcom “Sleeping with Other People,” starring Alison Brie and SNL alum Jason Sudeikis as Lainey and Jake, who lost their virginity together during college and meet again at a support group for sex addicts. Headland’s script includes a handful of big laughs - several from Jake’s business partner and bestie Xander (Jason Mantzoukas) and his straight-talking wife Naomi (Andrea Savage) – but too many artificial stops and starts on the inevitable road to togetherness. It’s Adam Scott, as the average Joe Lainey’s been zooey over since college, who gets the One Great Line that sent me into heaving paroxysms of laughter. As I did with “Entourage,” I hereby offer to pay for the ticket of the first reader who sees “Sleeping with Other People” and tells me the One Great Line (clue: three words). Just for the sake of closure, the One Great Line in “Entourage” was delivered by Melanie, one of Eric’s fuckbuddies, after he chastised her for texting him “I want your cock.” “God,” she protests, “I only sent that because I was feeling insecure.”
Morgan Matthews’ “A Brilliant Young Mind” was always going to have a hard row to hoe. Autism in the movies has produced Oscar-winning kitsch (Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man”) and done in one of the foremost directors of our time (Steven Spielberg’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”). It’s a challenge to make moviegoers care about a character who expresses himself in ways that are difficult to deal with, who recoils from his mother’s loving touch and offers no easily recognizable way in. Asa Butterfield, whom I liked in “Ten Thousand Saints” last month, plays the boy, Nathan, whose father dies young and whose tirelessly chin-up mother (the inimitable Sally Hawkins) indulges his need, at a Chinese restaurant, for a prime combination number with a prime number of prawns. He’s invited to compete for a squad on the English maths squad (Rafe Spall plays his MS-afflicted tutor, Eddie Marsan the director of the International Math Olympiad), a process out of which we get one superb scene, between Butterfield and an actor named Martin McCann, as a boy under extraordinary pressure to medal. A subplot involving a nascent romance with a Chinese competitor (Jo Yang) – her uncle is the coach of the juggernaut team – goes nowhere.
I’ve never been the president of the Richard Gere fan club, but he’s Oscar nom-worthy (and at times almost unrecognizable) as George, a homeless man in New York, in Oren Moverman’s patience-testing “Time out of Mind.” Gere, who often went undetected by passersby during the shoot, shows a (for him) rare generosity, ceding the foreground to the talented actors who enter and exit George’s world. (They include Steve Buscemi, Jena Malone as George’s estranged daughter, Kyra Sedgwick as a can collector who shares a moment’s carnal pleasure, and Ben Vereen as a disputatious friend he makes at a shelter.) The lack of a plot and a notably slow start compelled several Westsiders to walk out of the showing I attended, unwilling to experience homelessness for two hours even vicariously. Two observations made a strong impression on me: the ease with which a once productive member of society can fall entirely off the grid, caught in the chicken-and-egg quandary of needing a government ID to qualify for benefits and not being able to obtain one without already having another; and the crazy-making, incessant hum of street noise. A home provides not only shelter but sanctuary, peace and quiet that the streets rarely afford.
The pick of the week is Geeta Patel’s completely winning documentary comedy “Meet the Patels,” about her brother Ravi, a comedian living in Los Angeles, whose white girlfriend Audrey breaks up with him (she wanted a commitment; he hadn’t even told his parents she existed), and who agrees to let his parents Vasant and Champa - muck-a-mucks back in their village in India – find a girl for him to marry. (Their own marriage was arranged, and has proven blissful for both.) The process involves the Indian concept of the “biodata” (a resumé sent to potential matches), as well as Indian matrimonial websites, a cross-country series of fixed-up dates, and a round of speed dating at a gigantic “Patel Convention.” Champa has the hardest time understanding why what worked for her might not for her son, while Vasant is one of the unforgettable characters of the movie year. He’s hilarious, and the genial Ravi plays off him with very funny reactions of his own. I also appreciated the brother-sister relationship between Ravi and Geeta, who’s clearly an amateur but whose love for her brother fuels the movie. I did not expect to have such a great time at “Meet the Patels,” but I did, and so did a packed house at the Landmark. Check it out.
Finally, a big thumbs down for the ghastly French comedy “Paulette,” with the late Bernadette Lafont as a misanthropic apartment dweller who’s behind on her rent and utilities. When the repo man comes and removes all her furniture – down to the stand underneath the phone she’s dialing to complain about him – she needs a way to make a lot of money fast. Through a contrived series of events, she becomes a drug dealer, first selling hashish in pure form and later baking it into “Afghan cookies” and “space cakes.” The tone of the movie is that of a sitcom that’s been sitting on the shelf for a lot of years. There are mistaken inferences, narrow misses – “Three’s Company” type stuff. A much better movie in a similar vein is 1991’s “Tatie Danielle,” also about an elderly widow who lives to torment everyone she meets. That picture, in addition to producing big laughs (the corners of my lips didn’t move a millimeter during “Paulette”), had the courage to keep its comedy black to the end. This one wilts like a bad batch of weed.