★★★ / ★★★★
Despite the fact that Michael (Dustin Hoffman) is a good actor, he finds himself unable to book an acting job in New York City. Casting directors tell him that they need someone a little older, a little younger, or that he has the wrong height. The truth is he has the tendency to argue with whomever is in charge and eventually no one wants to work with him. George (Sydney Pollack) knows this and, as Michael’s agent and friend, he tells the frustrated actor the reality of the situation: Michael Dorsey is not bookable. Taking this to heart, Michael creates a new identity: Dorothy Michaels, an aging actress with a personality so forceful and confident, right away she snags a role in a soap opera.
I think cross-dressing is difficult to pull off in the movies. In good hands, genuinely funny situational comedy can be created through mistaken identities coupled with inspired physical gags. On the other hand, the material might end up cynical, offensive, and hateful. Many people equate cross-dressing with homosexuality, the latter often being feared and reviled. But director Sydney Pollack fills “Tootsie” with a lot of positive energy. It is not just a movie about a man dressing up as a woman. It is also a farce. It comments on lives of actors who are struggling to make it in the big city, it shows what might happen behind the screens of a soap opera, and it underlines the unfair treatment of working women.
The script glistens with terrific dialogue. What is projected onto the screen and what can be heard from the speakers pop because the performers are backed by strings of words that someone might actually say. Because the exchanges have verve, a few jokes that do not quite work, for instance, are easily overlooked. I smiled through them because I know that sometimes people try make jokes but the jokes are only funny in their heads or their way of delivering punchlines are a bit off. Since the dialogue is realistic but fun to listen to, some of its flaws become part of the charm.
Hoffman’s performance amused me. I would not say that he makes a very convincing woman, but I could not stop staring at him. In my eyes, he gave two performances: as a man who is angry that no one will cast him and as a man dressed up as woman who has a genuine fear of being found out. The anger and the fear are played for laughs, but there are enough details embedded in Hoffman’s carefully calculated performance that serious undercurrents are detectable by perspicacious audiences. Both Michael and Dorothy are enjoyable to watch because Hoffman’s approach is fresh: he does not turn them into caricatures.
What did not work for me is the subplot involving Julie (Jessica Lange), Dorothy’s co-star in the soap opera. While the progress of the friendship between Julie and Dorothy is occasionally interesting, I grew tired of Julie’s constant whining. Most annoying is the problem between her and her boyfriend—their situation is not only stereotypical, it is also underwritten. As a result, I did not buy into Julie’s inevitable changes. Also, there is a line uttered somewhere in the middle that should have allowed Julie to figure out Dorothy’s true identity. It is a glaring misstep because Julie is not stupid but she is treated like she was. It would have been surprising and more challenging if Julie had known earlier that Dorothy was a man. It would have provided an additional twist to the story.
And yet despite the miscalculation, “Tootsie,” adapted to the screen by Larry Gelbart, Barry Levinson, Elaine May, and Murray Schisgal, remains entertaining because it continues to move forward, never allowing a joke to go stale while on the plate. It juggles several funny assumptions, implications, and situations without drawing too much attention on how clever it all is. If it had felt too self-aware, the point might have rested on the cosmetics, the wig, and the outfits instead of the man underneath the disguise.
Vow, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
A truck smashed into a couple’s car while on their way home from a romantic night out. Leo (Channing Tatum) suffered a few injuries, but Paige (Rachel McAdams) had severe brain hemorrhaging so the doctors thought it would be wise to keep her in a coma until her brain had a bit of time to recover. When Paige woke up, she had no memory of Leo, including getting married to him and moving to the city to pursue her career as an artist. She remembered being in law school, being engaged to a man named Jeremy (Scott Speedman), and living a completely different lifestyle prior to the accident. Inspired by a true story, “The Vow,” based on the screenplay by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, offered several good scenes because it was able to capitalize on the chemistry between Tatum and McAdams, but certain plot mechanisms were so obviously designed to make us feel sorry for the couple and angry toward everyone else. Take Rita (Jessica Lange) and Bill (Sam Neill), Paige’s parents, as an example. We were given background information that Paige hadn’t spoken or seen them in years for reasons yet unknown to us. When the parents arrived at the hospital, it was difficult to get to know their characters, as if the material wasn’t at all willing to give them a chance. They were so serious, tight-lipped, and stern. Every time they opened their mouths, it was about chastising Leo for not calling and letting them know that their daughter had been involved in a terrible accident and attempting to get their daughter to live away from her husband. Because that scene–and others of its type–was so manipulative, it was difficult not to consider more realistic reactions. While the parents would still probably be angry with Leo for not being informed, wouldn’t they also have felt some sort of relief knowing that Paige was still alive? Since the parents were pigeonholed as villains for the majority of the time, the script lost the necessary complexities in the human drama: the disapproving parents seizing a new chance to lead a new life with their wayward daughter at the cost of Leo and Paige’s marriage and Paige’s personal struggle to put together the pieces of a life she had great trouble remembering. If the relationships had been messier, like life, it could have been much more compelling. However, the film was not without moments of truth. This may sound kinky but I found the scene where Leo passed gas in the car and Paige, to my horror, actually pulled up her window so she could bask in the stink. While most people would consider such a thing as downright disgusting, I found it romantic because it felt real. It may not have been subtle but it was an effective symbol of complete acceptance. If your partner is willing to sit with you during the good, the bad, and the unsavory vapors, I say your partner is a keeper. And why shouldn’t there be more unpleasant scenes like that portrayed in serious romantic dramas? I’d rather watch a well-placed fart scene than a series of monotonous seriousness where I find myself sitting passively, desperately waiting to be surprised. “The Vow,” directed by Michael Sucsy, was at times too constrained by what people come to expect from a romantic drama, punctuated by bright moments when it seemed free to do whatever felt right for the material. Because of the push and pull, the film was uneven but it was far from a mess.
Cape Fear (1991)
★★ / ★★★★
Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” was about a man (Robert De Niro) who was recently released from a fourteen-year prison sentence. The moment he got out, he made it his goal to make his former lawyer’s (Nick Nolte) life a living hell by torturing his family (Jessica Lange as his wife and Juliette Lewis as his daughter) and his budding flame (Illeana Douglas). I think I was particularly tough with this film because I expect a lot coming into a Scorsese picture. In trying to analyze things such as motif, consistency of tone, foreshadowing and other elements, I found myself not impressed with the big picture. I thought the storytelling was scattered because there were too many times when De Niro and Nolte would confront and threaten each other and it got old pretty quickly. However, I did like the fact that everything about this film was exaggerated–the soundtrack, the characters’ emotional reactions to certain events, the decisions they chose to tackle–to the point where the film almost felt comical instead of chilling. The style somewhat reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s. The two scenes that stood out to me were when Lewis and De Niro had a “talk” in the theater and when De Niro broke into the family’s home as they tried to trap him. I felt like those scenes had Scorsese’s signature of wit, irony and just enough tension to keep us engaged because we were completely aware of the fact that the antagonist had the upperhand. Those scenes were so powerful, I felt like I held my breath during those times. Unfortunately, I felt like the rest of the picture did not quite hold up to those highs and I was somewhat underwhelmed when it was over. When I look back on it, while it was nice that De Niro’s character brought out a lot of almost repressed issues of the family, I still felt as though the characters were one dimensional. It was so unlike Scorsese’s movies because most of the time he features characters who are complex because they want to redeem themselves. In here, I saw Nolte’s character as a person who was a cheater and only felt bad for his actions because he got caught and problems were quickly proliferating in her life. If I did not know that Scorsese directed this picture, I most likely would not have guessed that it was indeed his work. Granted, one could argue that I shouldn’t compare “Cape Fear” to the director’s other projects as a basis of a film review. And I agree. I just wanted to emphasize the particular mindset I had while watching the movie. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll be able to enjoy it more. The elements of creating a great thriller were certainly there but I felt like they did not come together as well as they should have had.
Broken Flowers (2005)
★★ / ★★★★
It all started with a pink letter from an old flame with a message written in red that Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a father of a nineteen-year-old boy. Don, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy), is serious about finding the mother of his son so he makes a list of his former lovers and visits them across America. I liked the premise of the film but the execution was a bit weak for me. I thought the set-up of the story went for too long: the scenes with Jeffrey Wright as Don’s friend who’s enthusiastic about everything may be amusing once in a while but most of their scenes together did not really contribute to the big picture. When Murray finally met the various women in his life (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton), the picture only spent about five minutes for the characters to interact. Five minutes would have worked with a more efficient director or writing but this film needed an extra ten or fifteen minutes with each women. It simply wasn’t enough and was somewhat unforgivable because I thought that the movie was supposed to be about a man who realized how much he missed out on these women and why he was now a lonely aging guy with no wife and child. Those intermissions after he met each women which consisted of driving around and sleeping could have instead been used to explore his former relationships and why some of them were very unhappy when they saw him. It was such a shame because the actresses featured are very talented and they really could’ve elevated this film to a new level. Instead, I felt that it was ashamed to explore the underlying emotions and would rather take the route of dry comedy with too many coincidences and potential explanations. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, if it weren’t for Murray’s performance, I would’ve been more critical of this film because it was borderline pretentious about the journey of a lonely man. Those little character quirks such as the lead character’s desperation to find anything pink that might give him a clue to who was the one who sent him the letter took me out of the experience. A similar storyline reminded me of Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” only that picture was a lot more fun to watch because it had small payoffs throughout even though it was a more typical Hollywood fare. I say see it for Murray because he really does nail characters who says a thousand words with silence and glances. If only the material was able to match his talent.