I was watching Mike Tyson knock Robert Downey Jr. to the floor when the thought popped into my head, “Is this what I want from a movie?” It was a pressing question. For the past months, I’d been seeing a lot of films that were so-so but incorporated better-than-average moments–for example, the one that was now unspooling in James Toback’s Black and White. It’s a film that runs 100 minutes, and at the rate it was going, I figured I was going to enjoy about 66 of them. Could I run a review that simply said, “Two-thirds”? There had to be a better measure. So I decided Toback had done me a service when he made Downey hit the deck. If he’d accomplished nothing else by making Black and White–a loopy mix of a film, which is layered like a hip-hop master’s samples–at least he’d forced me to wonder what’s “good” in a movie.
To begin with the standard barstool reply: Who cares? A movie is good if it diverts, amuses, entertains. In root terms, that means it should turn you aside from weightier thoughts, cause you to stare like a hypnotized chicken or perhaps make you feel at home, as a good host would. I see the glimmer of an ethic in that last meaning. A film that entertains is one that invites you in; once inside, you find yourself engaged in a kind of entretien, or conversation. In that sense, a movie that meets the barstool test can be more than a pastime. It might serve a social function by making the world seem a bigger, more interlocutory place, at least for an hour or two–and who among us at The Nation would object to that?
The good news about Black and White is that its world is often open and waiting to be explored. White teenagers from a Manhattan prep school, led by skinny, squeaky-voiced Charlie (Bijou Phillips), delve into Harlem and the funkier sections of Staten Island, meanwhile trying on Negro identities for size. At the same time, the somewhat older black crew around Rich (big-baritone Power of Wu-Tang Clan) ventures uncomfortably into the territory of white-run business offices, the domains of record producers and boxing promoters. As if to add an even more explicit mode of investigation, Toback tosses into the scene a pair of documentary filmmakers from California (Brooke Shields and Downey), who bounce around Rich and Charlie in a perpetual state of gosh-gee.
So far, everyone’s innocent on some level, and everyone’s on new ground. What’s more, a fair number of these people are either playing themselves (like Tyson, who hangs around with Rich) or giving off personality like a thousand-watt bulb, as Downey does. That’s why I decided the abrupt, hilariously awkward Tyson-Downey match was at least part of what I want from a movie–and that’s why I’d describe the film’s informal, catch-it-on-the-fly aspect as good.
But there’s also such a thing as “better.” It’s a condition that Black and White does not attain, given that Toback also shrinks from the world and talks to himself.
Not content to throw together a collage of people and places, Toback added a plot, on the theme of guilt and betrayal. A fine theme; unfortunately, it’s articulated by fashion model Claudia Schiffer as the world’s least-probable graduate student, Allan Houston (of the New York Knicks) as America’s oldest, most naïve college basketball star and Ben Stiller as nobody at all, other than a palimpsest of figures from previous Toback movies. These aren’t so much characters as preconceived notions. Thanks to Stiller, there’s still some amusement and diversion to be had from this part of Black and White–but absolutely nothing to discover.
Is this to say that a film must have a documentary impulse if it’s going to entertain in the better sense? One test of that proposition might be found in Me Myself I, a romantic comedy that’s as genteel in its artifice as Toback’s film is flighty and rude.
Written and directed by Pip Karmel, Me Myself I is an alternate-life story, in which an Australian journalist who’s unhappily marking her thirty-umth birthday discovers what she might have become, if only she’d accepted that long-ago marriage proposal from Mr. Right. One minute Pamela is wearing black leather and sunglasses and writing articles for Sydney’s hippest magazine. The next, she’s literally knocked on her ass by a vision of domestic bliss. (She’d been lurking outside the window of a hunk she’d like to date, only to be surprised by the parting of a curtain and the revelation of wife and kids.) When Pamela falls again, a few scenes later, she awakens inside the fantasy: installed in a suburban cottage where pink roses trail across the trellis, and three snot-nosed children are demanding to be fed. Her first task, managed with quick sidelong glances, is to fake a few parenting skills. Her second is to deal with the shock when Mr. Right steps in the door, too tired from his latest business trip even to peck her on the cheek.
It’s all thoroughly familiar, and yet Rachel Griffiths, as Pamela, has a way of making the familiar seem as habitable as your living room. You might recall Griffiths from Hilary and Jackie, in which she amazingly held her own against Emily Watson, despite being stuck with the role of the normal, stay-at-home sister. Griffiths has a talent for being normal, while catching the uneven heartbeat within. Long and buxom, with a good nose for staring down and lips that are always pursed, she looks like the daughter Juliette Binoche might have had with Sandra Bullock: from this angle a movie star, from that your neighbor down the hall.
When Griffiths at last begins to catch the physical attention of her husband, she does it with a directness and warmth that are utterly convincing. At those moments, she reminds you of what’s missing from most movies today. That makes her a discovery in herself: the new-found-land of Me Myself I.
So there’s something else I want from a movie: Rachel Griffiths. Let the camera document her. Or, better still, let it document a whole group of performers, whose world is inviting, expansive and yet coherent.
* * *
East Is East is the directorial debut of Damien O’Donnell, who has done a fine job of opening up the play of the same title by Ayub Khan-Din. Set within Manchester’s brick lanes in the early 1970s, the film tells the story of a Pakistani immigrant (Om Puri), his English-born wife (Linda Bassett) and their seven children, whom Dad is pushing away, one by one. Uncertain of his place within British society–this is the period of Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant demagogy–he is also unsure of his status within the Pakistani community, which won’t fully accept him until his children have married in. The harder he presses them to accept his arrangements, the more the kids chase after outsiders–a curious concept, since the children are fully English, whatever Powell says. The allure of assimilation gives the movie its conflict; and yet assimilation has already occurred.
Clearly, Khan-Din and O’Donnell are as concerned as is Toback with racial divides and sexual mergers. Still, I was surprised at the degree to which East Is East is genitally organized. The film contains no fewer than four major scenes of urination, which are explicitly linked to the tardy circumcision of the family’s youngest son, Sajid (Jordan Routledge). As if to recover through symbolism what he’s lost through religious rite, Sajid wears a parka through the whole film, always keeping its hood snug around his head. Only when Mom and the elder siblings have risen to assert themselves against Dad–in effect cutting away his patriarchal authority like a foreskin–does Sajid emerge from the wrapper.
There’s so much phallus in this movie–and such a showy introduction of the vagina, for a finale–that the idea of sex starts to float free of the characters and their situation. Sex in East Is East means a genital urge; but it also means the desire to eat pork sausage, or the aspiration to design hats, or the need to be admitted without hassle to the local disco, as if you were as good as white. For Dad, it’s a drive toward rectitude, as much as power; for Mom, it’s a longing for recognition and company, including that of her family. What I like in East Is East, what seems good to me, is the opening up of so many desires, within a decidedly old-fashioned family drama. I also like the one nonsexual scene that sums up all these desires.
It takes place during a family outing to a neighboring town, where the Pakistanis have their own movie theater, operated by one of Dad’s cousins. When the family goes to the show, the cousin personally leads them to the best seats in the house, from which he kicks the current occupants. And when Dad says he wants to watch something other than the film on the screen, it’s too bad for the rest of the audience. The order is sent to the projection booth: Take off that picture, and put on the family’s favorite.
That’s what you and I really want from a movie, and what we should want: everything, right now.