Got a marginalized, compromised character you’d like to turn into the focal point of your film? Call Benicio Del Toro. The forty-year-old Puerto Rican native has put his peculiar stamp of personality on a laundry list of memorable rogues, heavies, and misfits since he first appeared as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy in Big Top Pee-wee.
It’s his eyes, mostly, a variation on Robert Mitchum’s notorious “sleepy” peepers, gazing out at the world at half-mast and often half-interested — only on Del Toro’s weary face the heavy lids indicate not so much bored contempt but profound confusion. Inner turmoil, rueful amusement, that sort of thing. You can read a lifetime of trouble into those eyes.
So we’re not surprised to learn that Jerry Sunborne, Del Toro’s character in Things We Lost in the Fire, is a heroin-addicted attorney who holds the key to all the other characters’ happiness in his unsteady hands — because he actually takes the time to listen to them. A morally heroic junkie lawyer is right up Del Toro’s alley.
Not that Jerry is the only one involved. Wrapped around the story of his redemption from the high life is the sad situation of a recently widowed woman named Audrey Burke (Halle Berry) and her two school-age children, Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and Dory (Micah Berry, no relation). In flashback scenes of Jerry’s strung-out existence, we see how the Burkes’ much-loved paterfamilias, Brian (David Duchovny), fell to a random act of street violence. Turns out Jerry and Brian were childhood best friends, and that Brian — in Duchovny’s almost saintly performance — believed in his smacked-out buddy when no one else would. Jerry shows up at Brian’s funeral at the Burkes’ leafy, prosperous Seattle home, and the rest of the movie demonstrates how healing doesn’t necessarily have to be unbearably weepy.
Halle Berry’s Audrey, her best role in years, provides the nervous center around which Jerry and the kids revolve. As etched by director Susanne Bier, Audrey’s loneliness creeps into every corner of her otherwise orderly life. Compared to that bitter solitude, Jerry’s addiction is a rainy-day run in the park. Brian was, no doubt, a tough act to follow, (“It should have been you, Jerry,” blurts Audrey tearfully). In writer Allan Loeb’s screenplay, Audrey’s race wasn’t indicated, and perhaps surprisingly, race never comes up as an issue. Audrey’s brother Neal (Omar Benson Miller) and various African-American friends form a generous support group for the widow, but her budding romance with Jerry is played out on its own terms as the tale of two wounded souls taking shelter from the storm. That’s generally a recipe for maudlin. In Things We Lost in the Fire (the title refers to one of Brian’s lines, about not becoming attached to “stuff”), every trace of maudlin evaporates in one of Jerry’s lopsided grins.
This is the US debut of Danish move-over Bier, a member of Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 group who directed the 2006 family drama After the Wedding. As in that sleeper art sensation, she gets under the skin of the Fire actors as they tussle with life’s disappointments, although the Dogme-style bobbing and weaving camera may induce Pacific Northwest vertigo into the film’s roster of ailments. Concentrate instead on Halle Berry’s skittish vulnerability, Duchovny’s ghostly touchy-feeliness, Miller’s stoic calm, the comic affability of neighbor Howard (John Carroll Lynch from Zodiac and Fargo), the needy also-ran presence of Alison Lohman as one of Jerry’s group-therapy mates, and especially Del Toro’s manly mug, forever waking up in a fog and somehow finding a way to charm the most self-centered of lovers. He’s moving up in class.
FRIDAY EVENING’S PROGRAM at the Pacific Film Archive is the final installment of PFA senior film curator Susan Oxtoby’s perceptive roundup of ’60s English movies, “Look Back at England: The British New Wave.” Evidently, she saved the most flamboyant items for last — you can’t get much further from the kitchen sink than Bedazzled and If.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, the phlegmatic snob and the boyish klutz, were immensely (well, at least moderately) popular comic entertainers of the pre-Monty Python period. They probably wouldn’t be remembered much today if it weren’t for their inspired teaming with filmmaker Stanley Donen for a “swinging mod” version of the Faust legend, Bedazzled, in which one Stanley Moon (played by Moore), a nerdy fry-cook at Wimpy’s, makes a deal with the devil, here called George Spiggott (the gimlet-eyed Cook), to be something other than himself for a day. Things turn out differently than planned, of course. Stanley flubs his big opportunity, and we’re treated to the appearance of sex bomb Raquel Welch in one of her best roles, as Lust, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Bedazzled (1967) arrived at the end of veteran director Donen’s string of sophisticated ’60s comedies (Charade, Arabesque, Two for the Road) like an olive in a dry martini. They try to make them like this these days (cf. the Harold Ramis remake from 2000), but Donen’s style of comedy somehow doesn’t translate.
The central image of Lindsay Anderson’s If (1968) translates perfectly well, if only as a reminder that once upon a time there were homegrown schoolboy revolutionaries. In director Anderson’s update of Jean Vigo’s similarly hallucinatory narrative of rebellious spirits at a French boarding school (Zéro de Conduite), Malcolm McDowell stars as Mick Travis, the Che Guevara of an English public school. En route to the money shot of Mick on the barricades mowing down his tormentors with a machine gun, we can see clearly, in hindsight, the zigzag line that runs from If to Animal House to Road Trip to Rushmore to Judd Apatow. Long live the revolution.