Wrapping up 2002...

Roger Dodger
Dylan Kidd, 2002

This one won the Skandie for Best Actor and came in second for Best Screenplay, so I thought I'd give it a look. I don't really know what to make of it. The basic idea is that you've got this sexually predatory asshole who imagines himself as an all-powerful chess master manipulating those around him like pawns... and yet he doesn't actually seem all that successful in said manipulations. Then his nephew shows up and asks Roger to show him how to pick up chicks, and Roger is all too happy to play mentor, and it looks as though what's going to happen is that Roger will be the one to learn a lesson from his innocent nephew and develop a conscience. And so he does... until the final scene, when he's back to his old ways and teaching a bunch of nerds at his nephew's school how to get girls. I guess the message is supposed to be that some sort of dialectical synthesis between the nephew's innocence and Roger's confidence is best, but it came off sort of as if In the Company of Men had ended with a coda saying, "Hey, that evil guy was kind of a lovable scamp in a way, wasn't he? Let's hear it for the evil guy!" Anyway, a couple of early laughs but mostly meh.

Gangs of New York
Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan, and Martin Scorsese, 2002

#9, 2002 Skandies

Ah, Manhattan Town. An agreeable sight for an Old Knickerbocker such as myself.

This movie starts with a showstopper: a battle royale between what appears to be a band of postapocalyptic cavedwellers who have devolved back into tribalism and a competing tribe of ragged men in stovepipe hats, then an epic zoom out to take in the surroundings, with the caption: New York City 1846. The history geek in me was primed for a great one. But most of what followed — Leonardo DiCaprio goes undercover in the gang of a charismatic crime boss, is adopted as the boss's presumptive heir, worries that he's losing sight of which side he's on — was just a period-dress version of The Departed. I was pretty bummed that what at first seemed like it was going to be a film of grand historical sweep had instead turned out to be kind of small. It is somewhat redeemed by the ending, in which the world outside the main characters' tiny neighborhood swallows up their tiny story — it's almost enough to make this a Pattern 11 movie, breaking through a false ceiling of quality. But even bookended by a good beginning and a good ending, there's still two hours of Ye Olde Departed in between to sit through.

Time Out
Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantet, 2001

#5, 2002 Skandies

This one is about a guy who calls his wife and tells her he's just come out of a meeting and has another one that evening with such-and-such a client and that he might be late for dinner, etc., when in reality he's just hanging around highway rest stops, having been fired weeks earlier. Eventually he gets people believing that he's landed a diplomatic job in Switzerland, even sneaking into a UN building in Geneva to do research, and goes on to scam a number of old acquaintances with a phony investment scheme based on nonexistent connections made in his fake job. But before long, the tapestry of lies he's built to preserve the illusion that nothing's gone wrong begins to unravel...

In 2009 it's hard to watch this impostor skulk around office complexes without observing that what the people inside those offices are doing is equally fake — that half of them are also defrauding people and the others are dicking around with imaginary money. The protagonist's behavior is also a pretty good metaphor for the way societies, faced with a moment of reckoning, will go to all sorts of crazy unsustainable lengths to maintain the status quo for just a moment longer and therefore collapse rather than taking the necessary steps to negotiate a soft landing. And the malaise that got him fired in the first place? Pretty understandable, really. There's a bit in the middle when he explains why he got fired in the first place: the only part of the job he liked was driving to it, listening to music, thinking about nothing... and eventually he started missing the highway exit. Some characters ask whether he isn't wasting his time in his new (imaginary) job, working on African development — the surface irony being that he literally is wasting his time, dozing in parking lots and studying brochures in case someone asks him about his purported occupation, and the deeper irony being that for the first time he doesn't feel like he's wasting his time. He liked driving; now he spends the day just tooling around between Grenoble and Geneva. And who's to say he isn't right? What was he doing before? Finance, PR, standing at whiteboards drawing graphs... not making anything, not really accomplishing anything concrete. How do people stand it?

And lately I haven't really been accomplishing anything other than cranking out Calendar articles, so I should probably put the Skandie chase on hold until I've cranked out a few more chapters. Yet another affinity I felt for this guy: if I put half as much energy into what I'm supposed to be doing as I put into the ways I waste time...

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