Cobie Smulders never walks in Results if she can jog, never jogs if she can run, and when forced to sit prefers to settle her sweatpants on an exercise ball. Guy Pearce, who is older and better socialized but equally committed to personal improvement, conducts most of his conversations on the balls of his feet, as if wanting to illustrate his words with a little shadowboxing. At moments of high emotion, he will grab a ceiling bar in mid-sentence and perform intricate airborne torture on his abs.
He is Trevor, the sincerely uplifting owner of a fitness club in Austin, Texas, and she is Kat, his star trainer (if she says so herself) and the self-appointed disciplinarian of all humankind. Neither can stay still for longer than it takes to enjoy a cool, tall glass of mashed chlorophyll; and yet you can’t imagine an unpleasant odor rising from these beautiful people, even at their most glistening. The scent of overpowered deodorant and long frustration that occasionally wafts from Results emanates exclusively from Danny (Kevin Corrigan), the gym’s strangest, saddest, flabbiest, and most troublesome client, and ultimately its most enlivening.
Not that Danny seems likely to redeem anybody, himself least of all, when he first shuffles into the gym’s office, to slouch next to a life-size plastic model of the human spine and pelvis and blink at Trevor’s yellow T-shirt and positive attitude. What will be Danny’s goal in beginning a fitness program? Trevor asks brightly, bouncing the helpful jargon of managerial science off his perfect teeth. Danny stares, then mumbles, “I wanna be able to take a punch,” in the tone of someone who’s already absorbed a few. His gaze is as unembarrassed as the uncombed tufts of his thinning hair; his speech pattern as unrushed and off-kilter as his gait. As if to make sure he’s been understood, Danny mimes smacking himself in the jaw a few times.
Just as you and Trevor are beginning to wonder if you’re dealing with a mentally deficient bum, Danny volunteers, “I got money,” and contracts for private lessons. When Kat shows up for the first—having bullied the entire gym into letting her claim the new client—she finds Danny’s cavernous McMansion empty except for a scattering of furniture still covered in plastic, a freshly wall-mounted TV, and a complete set of exercise equipment. Asking if he can pay in advance, he writes a check for two years.
A kindhearted comedy about people who work fiercely toward physical perfection and business success, and about the blessings brought to them by a man who pursues neither, Results is writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s latest foray into the byways of American subculture. In his previous film, Computer Chess, he brilliantly recreated the milieu of the grad-school coding nerds of a generation ago. In Results, he gets his fun from a social niche that is more widely shared and contemporary but no less idiosyncratic.
Could any country besides ours have inspired a UK immigrant like Trevor to create the Power 4 Life gym? (The “4,” he eagerly explains, signifies physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength.) In case you don’t know the answer, you find out when Trevor drives halfway across Texas to visit his hero, a Russian exercise master (Anthony Michael Hall), only to hear this more skeptical immigrant laugh at America’s faith in limitless individual achievement. (“Choose your misery” sums up the Russian’s worldview. “You can cry, or you can work.”) Even within our endlessly optimistic nation, among that relatively small slice of the population with money, time, and energy to spend on exercise classes, membership in the onward-and-upward club is not universal. Look at the lapsed client whom Kat chases down on the street, catching her with a cupcake in her SUV. Look at the man who tells Kat he’s quitting the program—quitting!—because “you can’t do this your whole life.” Look at Danny.
A fundamentally un-American character (which is to say, a native New Yorker) who affirms the triumphant randomness of life’s rewards and productively seduces Kat and Trevor from their purity, Danny would be a classic lord of misrule, if not for the depths of awkwardness and pain that are written into the role, and Corrigan’s faultless candor in playing them. Corrigan has dwelled in the bottom half of cast lists throughout most of his prolific career, credited as a variety of thugs, addicts, comic villains, and (to cite the title of one of his few starring vehicles) Some Guy Who Kills People. By dignifying Corrigan in his full scruffiness, even to the point of having him assert a climactic “I’m not a douche bag,” Bujalski has elevated this excellent actor to long-overdue prominence, meanwhile embedding an analogue of Danny’s redemption into the making of Results. More important, Bujalski has also ensured through Corrigan that Results is thornier and more satisfying than it might otherwise have been.
Unlike Computer Chess, which was exceptional in every way—quasi-academic subject matter, largely nonprofessional cast, disjunctive narrative, and self-conscious form—Results does not declare itself to be a cleverly devised artifact. It is content, almost, to be a conventional narrative, satirizing one of the easier targets in American life while proceeding along the well-known track of romantic comedy. But whereas Computer Chess was all about the processes in people’s heads, Results is a movie about bodies, which justifies itself through the enormous pleasure it takes in the athleticism of Smulders and Pearce. Viewers who know her principally from television’s How I Met Your Mother expect Smulders to be a gifted physical comedian, but they might be surprised by the speed and strength in which she revels here, and by the conviction she brings to Kat’s underlying rage. (As Danny notes, it’s one of Kat’s more attractive qualities: “Her whole anger thing just turned me on. It was hot.”) As for Pearce, it seems unfair that an actor pushing 50 should still be able to do oblique crunches like that, or persuade you, even while demonstrating such prowess, that Trevor is essentially a pushover. Nice guys finish last, says the famous sports adage; but fortunately for Trevor and Danny, they have Kat to make them winners.
I reveal nothing you haven’t already surmised when I say that Trevor, Kat, and Danny are all happy at the end. Results would be untrue to its American ethos if they weren’t. If we just work hard enough, we’re all going to be healthy and beautiful and live forever in mutually supportive love, achieving goal after goal. Bujalski doesn’t believe a word of it; but just the same, he’s made Results as a kind of experimental comedy to test the proposition and has discovered he likes it. I bet you will, too.
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No comic—or perhaps I should write “comic”—filmmaker throws the American character of Results into higher relief than Sweden’s Roy Andersson. A director of TV commercials for most of his career, he has painstakingly completed three features since 2000, in a series he describes as a trilogy about the human condition: Songs From the Second Floor; You, the Living; and now A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Having won the top prize at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, A Pigeon goes into theatrical release in the United States in early June, to delight Andersson’s growing legion of fans and perhaps baffle the uninitiated.
No knowledge of the previous films is required to appreciate A Pigeon, but some advice might be useful for those who have not yet acquired a taste for Andersson.
First, abandon all hope. Perhaps you will wait for a plot to develop in A Pigeon, or expect to discover connections among the characters (mere passing figures, most of them), or anticipate that a unifying theme will emerge among the 39 discrete scenes. Don’t bother. Although Andersson is consistent in setting the film in his native Gothenburg and threads a couple of hapless traveling salesmen through most of the episodes, he doesn’t care to be tied down by the normal demands of narrative, including temporality. Within a single scene, the date can be both the present (more or less) and 1709, when Charles XII of Sweden ruined himself and his empire by pursuing war against Peter the Great. The inclusion of this bit of military history tells you all you need to know about Andersson’s notion of human aspiration. Some further evidence, though, in case you need it: He begins A Pigeon with scenes aptly titled “Three Meetings With Death,” and toward the end he presents a tableau called “Homo Sapiens,” showing a monkey being electrocuted in a lab.
Second, prepare for claustrophobia. Andersson goes outdoors for only about half a dozen episodes in A Pigeon. The rest are studies in the geometry of rooms. Using a single stationary shot per scene, with the camera placed far enough back to show you the walls around the characters, he explores dozens of ways that humans can be shut in. His creative exuberance prompts him to view a room on the bias, so that you’re staring into a corner; stick a floor-to-ceiling column in the middle of the shot, obstructing the admittedly limited action; include various configurations of open doorways, through which you can see people going about their business in complete indifference to the scene at hand; and aim the camera toward a street-level picture window, beyond which the troops of Charles XII can march to their doom. So long as you accommodate yourself to Andersson’s belief that we basically live in boxes, you can get relief, and enjoyment, from seeing how many different enclosures he can invent. Bear in mind, though, that many of them feature checkerboard parquet floors—perhaps so we can be pushed around in a game whose rules we don’t understand—and many have doors that might as well lead nowhere.
Third, permit yourself to laugh. Andersson is grim, but he is also in the entertainment business, just like the two continuing characters in A Pigeon.
These sad sacks are the tubby, bossy Sam (Nils Westblom) and his squeaky-voiced, overly sensitive partner, Jonathan (Holger Andersson). Inept salesmen of novelty items, they wander in and out of the scenes in A Pigeon with sample cases in hand, declaring that their mission is to help people have fun. Their stock-in-trade, which they are prepared to show at a moment’s notice: extra-long vampire teeth, the “classic” little bag that emits a sound of hysterical laughter, and a grotesquely ugly latex mask “in which we have a lot of faith.” Notice that two of these three fun items are actually horrific, which may explain why Sam and Jonathan make no sales. Alternatively, you could say that Sam and Jonathan are trying to convert mementos of death and decay into sources of amusement, just as Andersson does, but without his talent for setting up deadpan jokes and his impeccable comic timing.
No ready comparison for Andersson comes to mind other than Samuel Beckett, with whom he shares a spare, precise style and a fondness for vaudeville duos. Indeed, Sam and Jonathan strike me as a Swedish Vladimir and Estragon, who have already seen Godot depart. They quarrel like Beckett’s characters; they reconcile, sort of, realizing they have nothing except each other; they go on. And all around them, in Andersson’s distinctive world of boxes, are people taking telephone calls. “I’m glad to hear you’re doing well,” everyone says—but nobody sounds glad, and you can’t imagine that anyone is doing well. It’s funny.
Film Forum, one of the two theaters in New York that will premiere A Pigeon, is dedicating its presentation to the memory of Jytte Jensen (1950–2015), one of the most beloved members of the local film community, who as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art organized a Roy Andersson retrospective in 2009. There are many ways in which this column, too, could honor Jytte; but let the sadness of her death, and her abiding humor, find their match for the moment in Andersson.
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While waiting like everybody else to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I went searching for interim thrills from the kind of movie that grosses tens of millions of dollars, instead of the small change that Roy Andersson brings in. I found what I wanted in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
It’s the story of a reclusive Internet gazillionaire (Oscar Isaac), a young coder (Domhnall Gleeson) plucked from obscurity and summoned to his mountain lair, and the gazillionaire’s new robot (Alicia Vikander), which he’s built to have a fully self-conscious mind (maybe) in a va-va-voom body. The coder’s job is to decide whether the robot, named Ava, has true intelligence; but soon you start to wonder whether the Internet genius can be trusted—or Ava, for that matter.
Ex Machina is worth watching just as an exercise in suspense, creepy high-tech production design (the house is a cross between a 2001 spaceship and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude), and excellent acting (high-powered from Isaac, nuanced from Gleeson and Vikander). It’s of special interest, though, as part of a recent cinematic trend, in which men become attracted to, and perhaps victimized by, nonhuman things that appear to be women. Ex Machina can’t live up to the very best film of this type, Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing Under the Skin; but it adds to the evidence that the Mechanical Bride, as we’ve known her from Tales of Hoffmann through Metropolis, has definitively changed. Men still think they want her for sex; but as she—it—surpasses them, what they’re really hoping for is a parting moment of pity.