Reviews of Colin Firth in 'A Single Man,' Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Nine'
Friday, December 25, 2009
'Tis the season to be . . . a sad, lonely man.
Consider, for a moment, what's on offer today at your local multiplex or art house. In "Nine," Daniel Day-Lewis plays a philandering movie director who, fighting a creative block, comes to terms with his wife, mistress, mother and sundry female archetypes, all from the vantage point of narcissistic isolation. In "A Single Man," Colin Firth delivers a quietly devastating performance as a man mourning the loss of his longtime lover, as he navigates a typical day from behind a scrim of buttoned-down desolation.
Even the most interesting part of "It's Complicated" -- a frothy romantic comedy nominally about a woman grappling with two suitors -- is a lonely guy: a remorseful ex-husband, played by Alec Baldwin in a hilarious burlesque of male midlife angst. (As for "Sherlock Holmes," director Guy Ritchie has reconfigured the Arthur Conan Doyle classic as an action-adventure bromance; but at least Holmes and Watson have each other.)
Oddly enough, it's Firth's understated, virtually wordless turn in "A Single Man" that possesses the most life, or at least enduring truth. He plays George Falconer, a British college professor living in 1962 Los Angeles, who is struggling to put his life back together after the sudden death of his partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). As "A Single Man" opens, George is waking up to another obscenely beautiful day in the gorgeous modernist home he and Jim shared; what ensues is a portrait of a man simply going through the motions, as George dutifully follows the niceties and conventions of civilized society without feeling any connection.
It all sounds terribly dull and inert. But "A Single Man," which has been adapted from a Christopher Isherwood novel, becomes something dynamic and alive in the hands of its director, the fashion designer Tom Ford, making an astonishingly promising debut. As George goes about his day, he has a series of encounters -- with an admiring student (Nicholas Hoult), his best friend, Charlotte (Julianne Moore), a stranger in a parking lot -- during which an almost imperceptible opening-up occurs, and George begins visibly to come back to life.
Viewers will no doubt notice Ford's hand at work in these scenes. When George converses with Hoult's young Kenny, for example, Ford amps up the colors when the camera is on Hoult's electric-blue eyes, leaving poor George flat and colorless. Later, in the parking lot, Ford stages the scene in front of a billboard advertising an Alfred Hitchcock movie, and the sky is a lurid, smoggy pink; the ode to old-school L.A. continues with Abel Korzeniowki's lush, classically inflected musical score.
If these moments demonstrate the obvious, self-conscious will of the director at work, Firth's performance is all nuance and understatement. As George begins to experience quotidian moments of transcendence -- finding unexpected beauty in that parking lot, for example, or in the face of a young girl he crosses paths with at the bank -- he begins to change, the tiny emotional fissures finally bursting in a truly cathartic transformation.
We're presumably meant to go on the same emotional journey in "Nine," in which Day-Lewis plays Guido Contini, a legendary director stumped by his next film. Based on the Broadway musical, which was itself based on Federico Fellini's rapturous "8 1/2 ," the movie version of "Nine" is packed to the rafters with pulchritudinous women, from Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard to Penélope Cruz and Kate Hudson. But they're bit players in what turns out to be a crass, shrill, frenetically staged, male wish fulfillment fantasy, whereby Guido's aging Lothario looks to the Madonnas and whores of his past and present for salvation.
"Nine" is objectionable on many counts, namely forgettable songs, no dancing and director Rob Marshall's fatal tendency to chop his movies up into tiny, incoherent pieces in the editing room. But by far the most unsavory element of "Nine" is Guido himself, a selfish, shallow, self-valorizing creep whose sins are forgiven in the name of artistic genius. Let it be noted that Day-Lewis has injected real humor and soul into villains before ("The Gangs of New York" and "There Will Be Blood," to name just two). But even his charms can't overpower Guido's ravenous self-regard, or "Nine's" uncritical mythologizing of the male artistic ego.
Baldwin's character in "It's Complicated," Jake Adler, shares some of Guido's character flaws. But in a welcome subversive twist, Baldwin plays Jake without a shred of vanity, letting his pants down, his eyes disappear into puffy cheeks and his flab-flag fly. It's a sublime portrayal of a ridiculous man, and thanks to Baldwin's courage and willingness to look like a fool, he lends Jake an ungainly sad-clown gravitas.
Baldwin's unlikely dignity gives "It's Complicated" life, even at its most ersatz. It's certainly dignity that makes "A Single Man" worth following in the course of a desultory day. And it's dignity, above all else, that "Nine" so sorely lacks. As George Falconer and Jake Adler will tell you, just because you're sad and lonely doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your nobility.
A Single Man
(99 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street cinema) is rated R for nudity and sexual content.
(120 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content and smoking.