From Ireland to Brooklyn, in a minor key.
Nov 30, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 12 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Colm Tóibín did something interesting and unusual when he wrote his novel Brooklyn, which was published in 2009. He chose to tell an immigration story about an Irish girl just out of her teens who has no particular desire to go to America, no particular drive once she arrives in America, and no particular ideological experience of America. What this girl, Eilis Lacey, goes through is far truer to the American immigrant experience than the grander existential and political dramas around which most such novels have been built.
The year is 1952. Eilis’s more purposeful older sister arranges her emigration in response to a lack of opportunity, both professional and romantic, in their small town. She also arranges for a kind priest living in Brooklyn to take up Eilis’s cause, sort out her housing, get her a job, and set her up in a school where she can learn bookkeeping.
Eilis is a good girl. She does what she is supposed to do, she fulfills everyone’s expectations of her, and she lives most of her life inside her head—where she is far more guarded, and frightened, and more lost without the set roadmap of County Wexford than she ever appears to others. Brooklyn is a book about being deprived of place, about the horror of homesickness, and about the unexpected virtues of simple resilience.
Despite the fact that she moves a continent away to live among people she has never known, Eilis is one of the more passive protagonists in recent literature. You would not think such a character could be the central figure in a successful film. And yet the winsome and affecting cinematic adaptation of Brooklyn finds a way. What director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby do, quite simply, is make Eilis charming.
She remains quiet and watchful, but she has a wry way about her, and momentary flashes of quick wit. More important, they made the wise decision to have the actress Saoirse Ronan inhabit her, and Ronan pulls off the extraordinarily difficult feat the movie needs her to: She is both entirely ordinary and utterly luminous.
The novel wears Tóibín’s meticulous research into the habits, manners, and styles of 1950s Brooklyn very lightly, because these are just the things around Eilis she does not understand and which make her feel displaced. The movie, of course, revels in them, and it left me almost sick with nostalgia for a New York I was too young ever to know.
Eilis lives with five other girls in a shabby but comfortable boarding house run by a sniffy Irishwoman (the wonderful Julie Walters) who was deserted by her husband—a homely lower-middle-class dwelling that will one day be a Wall Street banker’s $4 million home. Salesgirls at a classy women’s clothing store send cash through capsules in pneumatic tubes to an office where change is made and then returned in the same manner. The boys talk of nothing but the Dodgers. Couples go to see Singin’ in the Rain the week it opens.
It seems churlish to complain about the immense charm of Brooklyn the movie, but by making Eilis accessible, and re-creating Brooklyn in a lovely haze, Crowley and Hornby have simplified and to some degree vulgarized Tóibín’s more grave and more ambiguous account.
This happens, as well, with the depiction of Eilis’s budding relationship with Tony, an Italian-American boy who shows up unexpectedly at Eilis’s very Irish church dance. Tóibín makes it clear that while Tony is a likable and decent person whom Eilis has no reason not to love, and that she knows what is likable and decent in him, she is a passenger in their romance rather than a driver. She is still being carried along a current in which others are handling the tiller.
This is important, because Eilis’s story takes a turn in the book’s final section—a turn that throws a wrench into her romance with Tony and forces her, at long last, to make a decision entirely on her own. All of a sudden, and because of Tóibín’s careful preparation, Brooklyn turns into a nerve-wracking page-turner. You don’t know what Eilis is going to do because she doesn’t know, either, and you can barely breathe as she stumbles toward her decision.
The movie’s ending simply can’t generate the same kind of emotional wallop. But like the rest of Brooklyn on film, it’s very, very winning. And I guess that’s more than enough.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.
A scandal, a newspaper, an 'utterly riveting piece of entertainment.'Nov 23, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 11 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
I went to see Spotlight out of a sense of dreary duty. The movie is being touted as an Oscar possibility and has received rapturous reviews, neither of which is any guarantee of quality or enjoyment. Quite the opposite, in fact: Last year’s Oscar winner, Birdman, was similarly praised; I found it annoyingly pretentious and overdone. In addition, I’ve found the past work of its director and cowriter, Tom McCarthy, unsatisfying.
In a lifetime of viewing, some things can’t be watched.
Nov 9, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 09 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
You readers flatter me. You send me emails and letters asking me to review certain movies you’ve seen because you want to know what I have to say about them. At times these missives make me feel guilty, because I know I’m going to let you down. Because it’s often the case that you want to hear my views on a movie I have simply decided I cannot bear to see.
Consider this a critic’s confession.
Steve Jobs gets the Aaron Sorkin treatment.
Oct 26, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 07 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Five years ago in these pages, I called The Social Network “a two-hour exploration of a single question: Is Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, an assh—?” Now Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of The Social Network, has just written a movie called Steve Jobs. It is a two-hour exploration of a single question: Was Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple Inc., an assh—? Steve Jobs has a fancy director in Danny Boyle, who made Slumdog Millionaire.
Unexpected bliss from interplanetary angst.
Oct 19, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 06 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
When was the last time a movie was just, you know, lovable? Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe—all the more so because its lovability was so unexpected, coming as it did from the Marvel comic book movie factory. The same is true of The Martian, a movie so spectacularly winsome it’s almost beyond criticism. How could this have happened with this piece of hard science fiction, full of talk about orbiting distances and vectors and botany, derived from a nerdy novel first published chapter by chapter on the writer Andy Weir’s blog?
If you don’t see this movie—well, you know what happens.Oct 12, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 05 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
If you are a person of a certain age—by which I mean a person who receives unsolicited mailings from AARP—and you don’t mind old-fashioned dirty talk, you will likely find yourself utterly entranced by a wonderful new documentary called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead. That’s especially true if you watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead On Demand, which you can right now, because you can pause it to take those restroom breaks you are probably finding an increasingly urgent call on your attention.
Any ways left to make mobster-monsters interesting?
Oct 5, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 04 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Black Mass is the latest cinematic portrayal of the life and career of James “Whitey” Bulger, the gangster who ran roughshod over Boston for nearly 20 years with the odd assistance of an F B I agent whose secret informant he was. Nine years ago, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed merged the plotline of a Hong Kong movie called Infernal Affairs with l’affaire Bulger and came out with a terrific Oscar-winning picture.
Breathing new life into a very old story.
Sep 21, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 02 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Meryl Streep is so extraordinary she can do anything—anything, that is, except play an ordinary person. She’s only tried to do so twice in her 35-year career as a leading lady, and in both cases she was called upon to embody an unsatisfied suburban wife, first in 1984’s Falling in Love and almost three decades later in Hope Springs (2012).
The irresistible rise of gangsta rap.
Sep 14, 2015, Vol. 21, No. 01 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Just as Philip Larkin sighed that the sexual revolution “came too late for me,” I had already aged out of rap as it emerged with enormous force in the 1980s. I was then in my twenties and, listening to it, I felt for the first time the same sort of generational disdain that adults of the 1950s had felt upon listening to rock ’n’ roll. It was a lot of noise, you couldn’t understand the words, and everybody who performed it was just too angry and hyper-sexualized.
The return of the classic thriller. Sep 7, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 48 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The Gift—a compact picture written and directed by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton—is the best American thriller in 20 years or more. On its own limited terms, The Gift is an almost perfect piece of work; in an extraordinarily controlled debut behind the camera, Edgerton doesn’t make a false move.
The increasingly unwilling suspension of disbelief. Aug 17, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 46 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation makes no sense. Even more striking, this fifth installment in the Tom Cruise movie series based on the 1960s television show doesn’t even try to make sense.
Human-android love is a nonstarter. Period. Aug 10, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 45 • By JOE QUEENAN
In the uplifting, if somewhat confusing, film Tomorrowland, George Clooney plays a brilliant scientist who suffers from a broken heart. Long ago and far way, he fell in love with a girl named Athena when they were children. Athena was smart and spunky and seemed genuinely to like George Clooney as a boy. But over the next four decades, the relationship never went anywhere: It never developed, it never evolved, they did not live happily ever after. Not even close.
Amy Schumer benefits from Judd Apatow’s formula. Aug 3, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 44 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
With Trainwreck, the comedy impresario Judd Apatow has once again made a movie about an irresponsible adult-child who is compelled to grow up by the end of the film. This was the plotline of both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, the two box-office sensations that made Apatow’s career, and it resurfaces here.
But there are fewer laurels for craftsmanship. Jul 27, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 43 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Every now and then, on Twitter or Facebook, I find myself referring to something I really enjoyed as “genius” or “a work of genius” or “pure genius.” Why do I do this? After all, I don’t actually think Richard Benjamin’s performance as an unhinged Jewish Van Helsing in the 1979 Dracula parody Love at First Bite is “genius.” I think it’s hilarious and unexpected and that Benjamin’s turn raises the movie’s comic game.
Inside Riley Anderson is the better place to be. Jul 20, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 42 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
The new Pixar film about an 11-year-old girl’s moment of crisis and change is called Inside Out, and it’s a perfect title—maybe too perfect for its own good. Everything the movie shows going on inside Riley’s head is glorious. And that’s most of what we see, so Inside Out deserves to be called the best American movie of the year so far.