Oct 27, 2007

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

I enjoyed Sidney Lumet's 44th movie for its moxie and its cantankerousness, but it seems to me a very uneven film.
What is thoroughly enjoyable is Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to be the only main character in the film who steadfastly refuses to ham it up. The whole thing is very acty, but he is excellent as a ruthless, cold bastard with major emotional issues. Now, I have, as always, a major issue with the reviewers in this country who have to tell you what the plot is about, thereby giving away its most important surprises. This really drives me nuts. Isn't it enough to say, "it's about a heist gone horribly wrong" and leave it at that. No, they have to spell everything out for you. Please, spare us the details. That way, when the twists come, we will not be expecting them already. But I digress. For the sake of the couple of readers who are presently living in a cave, it will suffice me to say that this film is about a heist gone wrong, and more to the point, about a bunch of utter fuckups. This movie, if anything, is a glorious exploration, well written by Kelly Masterson, of the human capacity for totally fucking up. Everybody in it is a world-class fuckup, or a loser, or deeply corrupt, and I am a sucker for misanthropy.
The other thing I really loved, is that it is an ornery movie. Sidney Lumet, bless him, still believes in the inherent rudeness of New Yorkers, even when the behavior in this town nowadays (at least during shopping hours) seems more suitable, alas, to Des Moines.
In his movie, however, receptionists are still salt of the earth, opinionated broads, and people behind desks ask customers to "pipe down", or "stick their neck" into a hospital room when they inquire for a patient. Service is of one of two types: rude or condescending, whether from a heroin dealer or the police department: nobody cares. Such curdled joie de vivre is exhilarating. As also is the use of great New York character actors. Brian F O'Byrne is hilariously Noo Yawk as one of the criminals, and interesting people like Lee Wilkof, Alice Spivak and Michael Shannon pepper up the screen. There is a wonderful scene between Ethan Hawke and his embittered ex-wife, (Amy Ryan), that just shows the nasty aftermath of a failed marriage. The bile and the hatred are as thick as molasses. Even Hawke's young daughter berates him. Such are the joys of this film. It holds as its central philosophy something that is dear to my heart: the world is a cesspool, stop dreaming.
Much of this movie is darkly funny, and it could almost be a nasty, dark little comedy if it wasn't for the overthetopness of it all. The chewing of the scenery doesn't correspond with the nature of the story. Less emoting may have made it both more chilling and more funny. Hawke is absolutely out of control as Hoffman's baby brother. His mugging is so extreme, it really distracts you from buying into the story, which is already a bit of a stretch to begin with. Marisa Tomei is sadly overused in a seemingly underwritten part. Amy Ryan is very good as a bitter ex-wife, and Albert Finney, well, he is a ham, but, like Mr. Ex-Enchilada used to say, he's a Westphalian Ham, (as opposed to an Oscar Mayer ham).
I found the ending super strained and hard to believe, over the top but without real weight.
Still, I raise my glass to Mr. Lumet, who drums up such raw energy with enviable vigor and zest.

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