In the past couple of weeks, I went to see 2 films by directors I really admire. Woody Allen's WHATEVER WORKS and Michael Mann's PUBLIC ENEMIES.
There was a lot of anticipation with both, especially as they are released in the summer, up against the usual mind-numbing dreck that explodes like a fireball over a multitude of screens at the multiplex.
WORKS should have been movie heaven. The joining of two of Brooklyn's finest neurotic forces, Woody Allen & Larry David, is surefire comedy gold. While I liked the film for the most part, I could not help but feeling like the movie was largely uninspired. As it turns out, Woody was working for a script he had written ages ago, and meant for Zero Mostel. He had simply dusted it off, added a few modern touches and that was that.
Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm is a modern masterpiece of improvised comedy that is molded into a nerve jangling, hilarious peep into a man's neurosis as he deals with post-success some 3000 miles from his old stomping grounds. Larry David brings a bit of Woody Allen to L.A. but makes it all his own. Unfortunately here, Larry is bolstered to Woody's script (which he apparently stayed very much on page with) and often is held back from letting the somewhat out-of-date material from being something really special.
The movie is essentially about transformations of characters around it's lead, who we know from the get-go will never change, and you often wonder why the script wasn't given a freer hand. Still, Whatever Works still manages to do just that, mostly because it's played well by all and some of it's ideas are interesting. Let's just Hope Woody will find more inspiration as he travels back to Europe for his next picture like he did with the exceptional VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, CASSANDRA'S DREAM and MATCH POINT.
Michael Mann is another director who loves his themes and has a great sense of who he is as a filmmaker. Unfortunately Michael Mann has adapted a style that has worked for him recently (COLLATERAL and MIAMI VICE THE MOVIE) and somehow tries to make it fit for a movie that should have been something else. The almost somber and lyrical styles of those movies worked really well with the action. Here, because it's a story of a hardened criminal in 1930's Chicago, I couldn't help but feel a general lack of enthusiasm rather than excitement.
The best Gangster pictures of the past, whether they are THE PUBLIC ENEMY with James Cagney from 1931 or THE UNTOUCHABLES from 1987, really popped along with the gunfire. There was energy and excitement abound in most of those films. ENEMIES, at nearly 2 and a half hours, felt more like a character drama. And that is fine, except the movie really just wants to be a star vehicle for Johnny Depp. He careens around and smirks and gives his usual charismatic performance, but I couldn't help but miss a more gritty and realistic portrayal along the lines Warren Oates gave in John Milius' DILLINGER from 1973.
Marion Cotilliard gives a fine performance as Dillinger's girl. As does Jason Clarke as Dillinger's right hand man, Red. But, the movie makes a serious misstep when it shifts focus to the law side, as we never once actually care about anyone on the screen. Christian Bale's button downed FBI man is another in a long line of boring Christian Bale performances, and somehow Billy Crudup was totally wasted with a juicy role as J. Edgar Hoover. It's a serious tonal shift as Mann tries to play the Cops Vs. Bad Guys drama like he did before, but so well in HEAT. Even some of the other "Public Enemies" such as Baby Face Nelson, Frank Nitti and Pretty Boy Floyd barely register.
A disappointment from Mann. Here's to his next film, Frankie Machine, about a former mob Hit man. Hopefully it'll be something to get excited about again.