Two backward-looking films to look forward to.
Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Thank God the baby boomers are long-lived, because without them, there’d be almost nothing worth seeing at the movies. Boomers may bankrupt the country with their retirements and suck their kids and grandkids dry with their Medicare Part D, but they remain a large cohort of moviegoers and they remain interested in human-scale stories.
Right now there are two films I can heartily recommend that are pure baby-boomer fare. Both hark back to the kinds of movies that were made when the boomers comprised the only audience Hollywood cared about, before Jaws and Star Wars uncovered the vast demographic conspiracy of teenage boys who would see a movie 11 times in its first three weeks—whereupon everything went slowly but inexorably to hell.
The two movies are radically different in tone, style, and quality. Captain Phillips is smart, crisp, tense, exceedingly well told, and both jangled and somber in the manner of 1970s thrillers like Klute and Three Days of the Condor—even though it’s a true story about the capture of an American merchant ship by Somali pirates in 2009. It’s first rate.
I can’t say the same of the bright, shambling, and silly Last Vegas. But this story of four old friends on the cusp of 70 who go for a weekend romp together in Sin City plays in unexpected minor keys reminiscent of emotionally complicated 1970s gems like Going in Style (a glorious and unheralded movie that begins with George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg watching kids on a playground until the retired Burns says, flatly, “I’m sick of this s—t,” and concocts a bank-robbing scheme for the four of them). Going in Style was actually quite tough. Last Vegas is lovable, which is not such a bad thing.
Mostly, though, what gives both Captain Phillips and Last Vegas their power is that they are about ordinary people. The title character of Captain Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, is a working-class guy who climbed up the ladder in the merchant shipping business to reach executive status and worries that his children have been born into a world in which there is no such clear course to success. Phillips is a model of self-effacing restraint; he has no small talk and little charm. But he’s good at his job, and when his ship is overtaken by four gun-toting pirates, he has to swallow his fear and do what is best for his crew.
He remains in tight control for most of the movie’s running time, before exploding into an extraordinary effusion of emotion in the movie’s concluding scenes. Hanks, who has seemed anesthetized on screen for most of the past decade, all but blows you through the back of the theater.
Hanks overpowers you; the four stars of Last Vegas creep up on you. Michael Douglas, his face a rictus desperately holding back the ravages of time, is Malibu-rich-guy Billy, who has remained best friends with his three buddies from his Brooklyn childhood. Archie (Morgan Freeman) is living under the overanxious supervision of his son in New Jersey. Sam (Kevin Kline), the cut-up of the crew, finds himself unhappily submerged in a Florida retirement community. Paddy (Robert De Niro) is sunk in grief back in Brooklyn after the death of his wife of 40 years, who was also the beloved of the never-married Billy.
Billy declares his intention to wed his 32-year-old girlfriend, and his friends insist on throwing him a bachelor party weekend in Vegas. They find the spark that’s been missing in their lives, and they work to improve the life of each other. It’s sentimental and sitcommy and more than a little lewd. But it’s sweet and supple, and all four of the guys are terrific—even De Niro, who makes so many movies in which he performs so indifferently that a wax dummy is often more expressive than he.
Most surprising, though, is Kevin Kline, who has had one of the more mysterious performing careers of our time. Kline is a genuinely great actor; his Falstaff at Lincoln Center was the finest stage performance I have seen in four decades of dedicated theatergoing. He won an Oscar in 1988 for his turn as the idiot Nietzschean crook in A Fish Called Wanda, and was utterly inspired as a hammy soap opera has-been in the overlooked 1991 farce Soapdish.
But all too often he underplays on screen so profoundly that he seems to melt into the wallpaper or fade into the couch. Here, sporting a gray beard, a retiree’s cap, and two pairs of glasses, Kline somehow conjures up comic magic with nearly every line. It’s almost as though he saw in this part a way to tell the world that he ain’t dead yet.
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