About two-thirds of the speaking characters in Constantine are either demons or angels. The paraphernalia of exorcism abound, and Keanu Reeves wears a sick and weary look, like someone whose adventure has not been excellent. When I left the screening, my soul cried for succor. I hurried toward Congregation Anshe Tsurres and my spiritual adviser, Rabbi Simcha Feffeferman.
“Rabbi,” I cried, bursting into his study, then halted on the threshold in confusion. The low, dim space was crammed with leotard-clad women, so many that they rubbed against the sloping spines on the bookshelves and pressed the rabbi to his desk. Each wore around her wrist a thread that was as crimson as her perfect manicure. In the sudden hush, I heard steam pipes. Then, from the desk, came the familiar hoarse voice: “You don’t write, you don’t call, a fax you don’t send. At least you could knock.”
Stammering apologies, I began to back away; but the rabbi held me in place by the crook of a finger, saying, “So, we were finished today anyway, yes? Go, be well.” The visitors, obedient, lifted from the carpet a heavy burden of Prada and filed past me, trailing the varied odors of Saks.
“What?” I said when the last had gone.
The rabbi shrugged. “Kabbalists. You think the mortgage pays itself? Listen, better you should close the door and explain what’s the aggravation.”
“I have just seen a movie,” I said, “Constantine, about Keanu Reeves’s struggle for faith. He chain-smokes and coughs up blood and gets photographed as if in appalling fluorescent light, and why? Because he spends all his time punching demons in the face and sending them back to hell.”
“And from this he makes a living?”
“No, it’s not clear how he gets his money. He occupies about 50,000 square feet of prime real estate in downtown Los Angeles–an abandoned bowling alley, with a retro Sam Spade office-studio on the second floor–and he can afford to keep his own car and driver, but a job? No.”
“And this makes him unhappy?”
“He’s unhappy because he’s doomed. When he was a teenager, he committed suicide and then was resuscitated. And because the experience taught him that all the scary parts of Catholic doctrine are true, he knows that the next time he dies, he’ll go to hell forever. Keanu has seen the place–it looks like Century City viewed from the freeway, only all busted up and red–and he doesn’t like it. So he goes around fighting creepy demonic tempters, in the hope that good works will buy him into God’s grace.”
The rabbi frowned, but only because he was now standing on tiptoe before a bookcase, trying to push a paperback copy of The Time Out Guide to Kabbalah into concealment on the third shelf. “Good works, grace. From this, I don’t know.”
“Well, let me tell you, it’s a losing proposition. The angel Gabriel, who in this case is Tilda Swinton dressed in a suit and tie, tells Keanu that he won’t get into heaven unless he stops being selfish and learns to serve others.”
“Ah!” the rabbi grunted, plopping into his chair. “Topper. You remember–Cary Grant and Constance Bennett die and can’t go to heaven because they never did anything good. So they have to haunt Roland Young and make him happy. Not a great movie, but there’s this joke about his wife’s underpants–”
“Please, I beg you. I need you to help me understand this movie. The sorrowful LA gumshoe who has seen too much is no longer uncovering the schemes of licentious tycoons, or even of sci-fi companies with interstellar operations. No more social corruption. He now confronts pure evil, which is simultaneously personal and cosmic. That’s why, when Keanu is approached for help by a devoutly Catholic police detective, Rachel Weisz–”
“How am I supposed to understand something like this? Rachel Weisz is Catholic like I am.”
“Just because she’s got that name–”
“And face. You need I should tie a red thread on her wrist?”
“She’s playing a Catholic! The same way she played the skirt role in The Mummy, I might add. A police detective, sure, but for the whole last reel, she’s pretty much supine, while the ultimate battle is fought over, around and in her inert body. And yet–did I tell you?–she gets to visit the infernal Century City, too, so she can prove to the audience that she’s a true soulmate of Keanu.”
“Rachel Weisz?” the rabbi said.
He lifted his palms, as if this improbability had freighted the atmosphere and he had to guess by how many ounces. Then he rose and shuffled to the dimmest corner of the study, where he creakily lifted a box from a low shelf and brought it back to his desk. It was a Ouija board.
“This,” I said, “is idolatry.”
“And this,” he said, “is giving me a headache, the way you’re banging me a tea kettle over Constantine. Have I seen this movie? No. Do I know from you what it’s about? No. So now, before the migraine starts, we’re going to get some answers. Here, put your finger.”
I protested; but the rabbi grabbed me by the wrists and pulled my fingertips onto the plaquette. He added his own. We held our breath. We heard steam pipes.
After a minute, I said, “The camera angles–”
“Shh! Do you feel it?”
I didn’t. Then the plaquette jumped under our fingers. It clacked onto the board, remained still for a second, and then began hopping faster and faster in a syncopated staccato.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Eleanor,” said the rabbi.
“Eleanor Powell. Wonderful talents she had. By me, she’s always the first to visit. But we need someone for you, boychik. Eleanor! Listen, dollie, young Klawans here needs advice about a movie. A new movie. You know anybody?”
The plaquette rattled out a coda and stopped cold. Nothing. I waited now, with real anticipation, and at last felt the plaquette glide toward the crescent of letters. In rapid succession, it spelled out WE WANT POMES OF SILENCE.
“Yow,” I said. “I think we pulled in James Merrill.”
“Have I met him?” the rabbi asked.
KEENING MY DEARS WE CRY FOR KEANU–
OUR EYES ADORE BUT THE EARS DON’T WANT TO
“You have now,” I said. “Mr. Merrill? A great admirer, and I’m sure our feelings about Keanu are not wholly dissimilar, but if I might discuss this movie with someone more, more–”
I FLY UP YRS
The plaquette wrenched to a halt. “I didn’t mean to insult him,” I said.
The rabbi shrugged. “More than he can say about you.”
But it seemed that the invective had only begun. The plaquette started to move again, with a new brusqueness. It had bustled its way through “fathead dope sap sucker” before I realized a fresh force had taken charge.
“Pauline,” I said. “Long time.”
“Well anyhow you wait around thinking they can’t drain all the fun out and then when you get to it you find it’s like a used-up winesack just a big limp empty shaggy bladder about as attractive too.”
“This is someone you know?” the rabbi said.
“Pauline, are you talking about the afterlife now, or Constantine?”
“He had that loose goofy pleasure in himself a mind as comfortably floppy as the hair over his face that’s what made him so attractive at first not just the teenage Gary Cooper body or the Sabu eyes and even when they made him an action star in Speed he remained the careless one Dennis Hopper seemed to do all the worrying Keanu could slack off while defusing a bomb but then Bertolucci had to go and turn him into a holy man and worse was to come The Matrix.”
“Even though I despised the whole trilogy, I thought Keanu had some nicely underplayed comic moments in the first picture.”
“Well he’s no Brendan Fraser when you see Fraser underplay it’s a choice Keanu has no alternative that’s why he got into trouble when he got stuck being a cyber god by the end of Matrix Revolutions he was blind and bloodied and ready to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world if you can believe that and that’s where he picks up in Constantine still long and lithe but the face is hangdog now he mumbles to himself and squints at his cigarette smoke as he performs an exorcism for a Mexican family who could sue for defamation on behalf of their whole country.”
“Let’s not get into that, or the fact that the one black man in the film, Djimon Hounsou, is cast as a witch doctor, or the suggestion that the minions of evil tend to be a little limp-wristed. Keanu is the only character, Weisz included, who isn’t squashed down to an ethnic or gender stereotype, and so, despite his psychic troubles, he’s the only one who seems normal. Makes me glad that Constantine doesn’t have any Jewish characters.”
“She’s Jewish, this Pauline?” the rabbi asked.
“You see the Brentwood religiosity in Constantine and you understand what Mel Gibson was making The Passion of the Christ against well that and the Jews he can’t distinguish anyhow a good director can get away with a little stereotyping it’s like a little salt but the director of this one Francis Lawrence throws in the whole box him and his screenwriters Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello they’re counting on the audience to want only known quantities a Rachel Weisz who’s still courting the Mummy a Keanu who’s still Neo from The Matrix only crossed with Humphrey Bogart a visual style full of forced closeups and dizzy perspectives so it’s equally recognizable as film noir and comic book a booming score that’s like Carmina Burana heard through a cough syrup hangover the only novelty proposed is the special effects and that offer has become pretty old hat.”
“Of course I agree with you. What bothers me most, though, is the hedged Manicheism. Constantine preaches that humans are mere pieces on a game board, and that God and Satan are the evenly matched players. I don’t know what’s worse, the way the movie abandons its conceit at the end and tilts toward the standard hosannas, or the way it implies that our lives here don’t really matter, except if we give up smoking.”
“Matter I’ll tell you what matters you die and they turn you into Molly Bloom how’s that for indignity.”
But she was cut short. The rabbi, his face even more pale than usual, had lifted his fingers from the plaquette and was walking toward the bookshelf. He dragged from it The Time Out Guide to Kabbalah and threw it into the trash. “This is what my students want from the movies now? No. Better the bank should foreclose.”
“Congratulations, rabbi. You’re doing the honorable thing.”
“And you, Mr. Film Critic? What have you pulled out of this spiritual hooey that’s maybe a little honorable?”
“Me?” I said. “Notice that not once have I talked about Bush.”