Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Immigrant (**)

Directed by James Gray


James Gray makes movies suited for a bygone era. His best film (Two Lovers) has several calling cards of the more personal dramatic films of the 1970's. He doesn't seem to have much an appreciation for this generation's aesthetic. More than any other contemporary filmmaker, he owes a great deal of his style to Francis Ford Coppola - the stuffy but smooth cinematography, a preoccupation with the dimmer aspects of life in America, and when you get a happy ending, it's never the kind of happy ending that you expect. The Immigrant is his first movie since Two Lovers in 2008. It was originally meant to be seen around the fall of last year but ended being pushed back. It's easy to see why. His latest film has what may be his best cast; it's look is lush and committed - from it's opening frames, it's hard not to get the memory of The Godfather Part II out of your head. And yet, it seems sapped of all of its drama. The narrative is so controlled and intentionally paced, it seems to take away from very dedicated performances.

The film opens on Ellis Island, not long after World War I, where Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) wait to enter America after a long trip from Poland. Magda is pulled from the line because of her obvious illness, and when Ewa gets to the front, she is denied access to freedom because of actions she took part in aboard the boat, which places her in low moral standing. She is sent back for deportation. It is at this moment that she meets Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a Jewish business man from New York City, who's taken by her beauty and is able to smuggle her with him to Manhattan. With Bruno she is given a bed, and is introduced to the other women that he employs - all of them also immigrants. Ewa is not interested in becoming one of Bruno's stable - he runs a late night smut show, but also owns a bath house and runs a prostitution ring - but only interested in meeting her aunt in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But when the reunion with her aunt goes much more poorly then planned, she is left only to work for Bruno in an effort to raise money and get Magda off of the island.

Ewa's sense of survival keeps her with Bruno, even though she finds the work disgraceful and Bruno's obvious infatuation with her creates tension between her and the other girls. Ewa keeps her disdain for Bruno obvious to anyone who will see, but Bruno still commits more money, time and attention to her than anyone else. More problems arise when Emil (Jeremy Renner), Bruno's estranged cousin, returns to work as a magician in Bruno's show. Bruno is skeptical, a disgruntled past is obvious between the two. But Emil is a terrific illusionist - his stage name is Orlando - who's able to pull off disappearances and levitations. Emil is also immediately taken by the beautiful Ewa, creating a jealous rage within Bruno. It's not long before the love triangle creates a series of tragic events that could effect all three parties. If Gray's film has one major fault, it's not focusing on the tension between the three of them longer. It really is the film at it's most emotionally exciting and suspenseful.

But the film doesn't really focus even half of the movie on this. It meanders on long passages dealing with forgiveness and spiritual purity. The performances from Cotillard and Phoenix are strong, but too drawn out. We watch them hit the same beats so often that they start to lose their power. As for Renner, easily the film's most entertaining component, lack of screentime really kills any chance for him to really redeem the film's more plodding elements. Gray himself wrote the screenplay with Ric Menello, but I strained to find any real connection or empathy for this immigrant story. Most of the interest instead feels invested in homage, to remembering the great films of the 60's and 70's that really did say something important or illuminating about the torrid American immigration of the early Twentieth Century. Working with the cinematographer Darius Khondji, his images almost do this by themselves. Gray does well with actors. He's able to find their more vulnerable parts, but this screenplay doesn't really give them much of a place to go. Cotillard is trying very hard here, and Phoenix is definitely working along a hot streak of performances, but their relationship doesn't add up to much and it feels forced.

I don't doubt that this was a hard film for Gray to get made. There isn't much of a market these days for the esoteric, unless you're already a proven genius like Paul Thomas Anderson or Mike Leigh, but even those guys try to flee away from the Hollywood system where money-crunching has really robbed the movie people of any balls. There's nothing particularly bad here, but there's a severe dullness that hangs like a pall over the whole film. It's subject matter is dim and it's lighting is even dimmer, like it's custom made for inducing naps. There was a time when Joaquin Phoenix and James Gray seemed to be turning into a steady pairing. I'm sure they'll make movies together again, but the time may have passed on them making each other stars. Phoenix has already produced great work for more starrier directors like Anderson and Spike Jonze, and his image is no longer in need of the kind of repairing that Gray could have provided. No, The Immigrant is not the film most had hoped it would be, and that should have been clear when it's release was so suddenly postponed. There's only so much a floating Jeremy Renner can provide.

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