Sunday, November 11, 2007

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (**)

Directed by Sidney Lumet


Sidney Lumet has already established himself as a masterful filmmaker. Few people in the movie business can boast credits that include 12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict. It seems strange, then, a couple of years removed from winning an Honorary Academy Award, he proceeds to cap off his career with a film that is incredibly average, flat, and overwhelmingly melodramatic.

I want to stay away from the statement that the film has too much emotion, because that can never be an issue for a film. What this film suffers to do is comprehend that emotion in any other way than having their characters explode and yell, while giant veins burst out of their tomato-red foreheads. It's hard to get in touch with a character when the faces always look so strained.

The movie centers on the Hanson family, and all the dysfunction that comes with it. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the oldest son, is a hot shot business man, who's encountered big time debt. He needs money--he needs it to pay his debts, to support his drug habit, and a pipe dream in which he plans to move with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) to Brazil. His younger, weaker brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is dealing with child support payments, trying desperately to seem like something more than a loser in front of his daughter.

What is Andy's grand plan to pull him and his little brother out of their financial woes? Knocking off a "mom & pop" jewelry store. No guns, no violence, no victims. Insurance would take care of the owners of the store, so everybody walks away from the incident happy. There is one twist though, that mom & pop store is owned by their actual mother and father. And when the job goes horribly wrong, Andy and Hank both unravel emotionally, as they watch their neglectful father (Albert Finney) ponder who committed the crime.

I should take the time to say that I have a lot of respect for all the actors within the main cast, I'm just a bit confused about why Lumet felt the need to have them strain their faces to the point where the audience finds themselves uncomfortable. Albert Finney in particular, spends essentially all of his screen time with his mouth hanging open. The result is we have a character looking like he's staring down T-bone steak, rather than mourning. Hoffman and Hawke do so much eye-squinting and face-clenching, you wonder how badly their jaws cramped during filming.

Credit must be given to the screenplay by newcomer Kelly Masterson. She's invented a seedy world with desperate characters, and an ending that is true tragedy. Unfortunately, Lumet decides to turn the story into pure melodrama, and in the process makes the characters charmless and annoying.

Take the character of Gina. She meets Andy in rehab, but she is frustrated at the fact that he can't seem to be pleasured by her physically, and starts having an affair with Hank. It's a very dynamic, complex character. What is converted to the screen is an adulterous bimbo who spends half the time naked, and the other half sporting incredible cleavage. She's one-note, and it's hard to sympathize with that.

The film is buoyed by a virtuoso performance by Hoffman. His dependability as an actor comes through once again, cause he seems the only actor who's able to make sense out of his facial contortions. Hawke is sincere in his portrayal of Hank, but he falls back into the over-the-top tempo the rest of the film possesses. Albert Finney walks around the entire film looking like a zombie. His implausibility as a inept father may be the deciding factor to what goes wrong in this movie.

If there is some kind of award for trying, this film would win it. You can tell that the actors and filmmakers working on this film earnestly want to do their best, and it is that which stops this film from being unwatchable. After all, it's not the film itself that is unwatchable, it's the characters. When you make a film about the unexpected consequences when things go horribly wrong (a subject in a lot of movies lately), you have to have create people who you actually care what happens to.

No comments: