Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cowering Curmudgeons

For those of us who are "of a certain age," minding our manners doesn't always come easily. Whether one feels an uncontrollable urge to tell a bunch of little whippersnappers to get the fuck off the goddamned lawn -- or whether one suffers a general lack of social skills -- outliving a spouse, one's friends, or one's professional usefulness leaves many a person bitter, angry, and generally dyspeptic.  With too many people making excuses for such loathsome antics, far too many curmudgeons get away with murderously bad behavior.

Unlike the Grinch who stole Christmas, curmudgeons aren't quite as likeable at the box office as one might hope.  Thus, many films in which nasty old bastards take center stage end up in art houses as opposed to megaplexes.  Given a choice between Ben Stiller and the nasty old geezer who lives across the street, there isn't much of a choice.

That's why I was fascinated at how a gaggle of brittle, selfish seniors were recently depicted in two films which deal with fear of intimacy, lack of trust, cross-generational relationships, and the very genuine dread of dying.

This month, the 2008 Mill Valley Film Festival is offering audiences the West Coast premiere of a curious little film called How About You, which follows the Christmas shenanigans of a group of wildly dysfunctional seniors living out their final years in an Irish boarding home.  The real plot centers around the family conflict between two sisters:  The older sister (Orla Brady) purchased the property with money she received after her husband died.  The younger sister, Ellie (Hayley Atwell), has a history of instability and shows up on her sibling's doorstep looking for a job and a place to stay so that she can save up enough money to travel around the world with some friends.

Ellie, who is much more laid back, has no qualms about baking marijuana cookies for the elderly boarders or breaking senseless rules which serve no purpose.  Her sister, who is wound pretty tight, is terrified of losing her business license if the health inspector makes one of his unexpected visits and finds things amiss.  When their mother suffers a stroke, the older sister heads off to London to be at her bedside, leaving Ellie to supervise a gaggle of aging raptors filled with resentment at the sight of her healthy, young flesh.

As it turns out, most of the other nursing facilities in the neighborhood usually send their tenants home over Christmas.  The ones that remain open have refused to take on the trouble-ridden likes of Georgia (a vain old actress who was once a much-desired chorus girl) ever again.  Add in a self-centered old judge and two bitterly unhappy and unmarried sisters, and you have the Christmas from hell brewing on the horizon.

Vanessa Redgrave and Hayley Atwell in How About You

Until, of course, the old windbags push too hard.  When Ellie lashes back (probably the first time in years that anyone has chastised them for their disgusting behavior) and throws down the gauntlet, the geezers realize that they can only survive the holiday by cooperating with each other.  As each reveals the fears and insecurities which spark their bad behavior, their Christmas dinner is almost ruined by an unexpected visit from the health inspector, who threatens to shut the place down.  Upon his return, however, he confesses that his wife just left him and for the first time in his life he has nowhere to go for Christmas dinner.

In lesser hands, How About You might become an excessively mawkish film.  But when you have such veterans as Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Brenda Fricker and Imelda Staunton chewing the scenery, the movie takes on a more brutally poignant glow.  I especially liked Joan O'Hara's portrayal of Alice, who dies early into the film.

Based on a story by Maeve Binchy and directed with an icy touch of cynicism by Anthony Byrne, How About You will never be a feel-good Christmas movie for the family. I would happily recommend it, however, for the irritatingly irrascible incorrigibles in the crowd. Here's a holiday film for that important and underserved niche market: selfish mean old bastards!

Bah, humbug!

Of equal interest (and populated by a cast of actors with equal dramatic strength) is Isabel Coixet's Elegy.   Based on a story by Philip Roth, this intimate film stars Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh, a pompous, bitter and cynical professor of literature who walked out on his wife and child when his marriage started to resemble a prison sentence.  His son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), hates his father's guts. 

David, who survives beneath his impossibly thick coat of intellectual and emotional armor, has spent the past several years in a "friends with benefits" arrangement with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson),  a self-made businesswoman who is constantly on the road.  His best friend, George (Dennis Hopper) is equally cynical.  When bonding together over coffee or on the racquetball court, the two men display a startling lack of maturity with regard to their relationships with women.

Enter Consuela (Penelope Cruz), one of David's students whose Cuban roots treat intergenerational relationships with much more openness and honesty than David can handle. Although quick to worship her magnificent, voluptuous body, he is loathe to admit to any kind of romantic entanglement.  

When Consuela finally gets David to agree to come to her graduation party -- where he will meet her parents -- he chickens out and, by doing so,  destroys their friendship.  Until, of course, that horrible moment several years later on New Year's Eve when he receives a call from Consuela, asking if she can see him.  Having recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, Consuela wants David (who is an amateur photographer) to do something special for her -- a favor she can ask of no one else she knows.

As with How About You, Elegy is the kind of film that cannot succeed without skilled actors who are secure in their work.  To her infinite credit, Coixet's direction is simple, understated, and allows the audience to focus on David's internal conflict.  Both films are also rescued by the brash honesty of the younger generation, which refuses to participate in the lies and deceptions that their selfishly delusional elders insist on using as an emotional crutch.  

Elegy is well worth your time, especially if you are involved in any kind of relationship in which there is a noticeable age difference.  As with any film in which the great Penelope Cruz appears, it is also worth seeing for the sheer physical beauty of this actress, the intelligence behind her craft, and the fire in her eyes.  Here's the trailer:

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