A Changing of the Guard (I Hope…)
Perhaps it’s my imagination, but it seems to me that in the last year or two there’s been a shift in the roster of actors filling the marquees. Over the last twenty or so years, the actors worth watching — Robert DeNiro, Harrison Ford, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, to name a few — have created such strong personalities for themselves that it’s almost impossible for them to disappear into a character anymore, if they ever could. As these forty- and fiftysomething actors graduate to a kind of elder-statesmanhood, as some of them take on riskier, more personal projects (Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle), there’s a vanguard of twenty- and thirtysomething actors bursting onto the scene — interesting, intelligent actors who are distinguishing themselves from the bland and boring Julia Robertses and Wesley Snipeses by putting their characters before their stardom: Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Ewan McGregor, Ralph Fiennes, Claire Danes, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp.
Dare I even suggest we might be entering a new golden age of film? In a spring and summer of movies full of sound and fury and mostly signifying nothing, there have been a few surprisingly smart, thoughtful, grownup films, most simultaneously Hollywood-old-fashioned and setting the stage for the next century of film: Saving Private Ryan and The Truman Show, in particular. Into that category I’d also put Return to Paradise — a film that is sure to be remembered not only on its own merits but because it saw a remarkable early confluence of talent in Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, and Joaquin Phoenix, all part of the new Hollywood vanguard.
Young American Lewis McBride (Joaquin Phoenix) awaits execution in a bare, dirt-floored cell in a Malaysian prison, convicted of a drug charge. Beth Eastern (Anne Heche), Lewis’s lawyer, has one chance of saving his life — convince Lewis’s friends and partners in crime John “Sheriff” Volgecherev (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) to return to Malaysia, accept their share of the responsibility, and serve time in prison. If one goes, he serves six years; if both go, each serves only three years. But both now have lives in New York, lives neither is willing to give up.
In the hands of a lesser production team (the men behind the camera here are director Joseph Ruben and writer Wesley Strick) and a lesser cast, Return to Paradise might easily have dissolved into melodrama. But the script offers no black-and-whites, only shades of gray, and complex, real characters. Lewis is not the noble prisoner, is not facing his execution with dignity — he feels guilty asking his friends to come back for him, but he does it anyway. Idealistic Tony’s instinct is to go back for Lewis, but he has a successful business and a fiancée who might not wait three or six years for his return. Sheriff is the cynic, an admitted coward with no desire to save anyone, and yet he’s reduced to tears by a pleading video from imprisoned Lewis.
Vaughn in particular is fascinating to watch as his Sheriff slowly thaws under Beth’s hounding and his growing guilt. Sheriff has a brilliant moment as he’s discussing his dilemma with his equally misanthropic father. Discovering that his father’s opinion of him is as low as his opinion of himself, Vaughn conveys his dismay and a new self-awareness with a furrow of his brow and a kind of panic in his eyes, an economy of physicality that nevertheless speaks volumes. And unlike, say, Julia Roberts, who seems to treat us to her freakishly wide grin at every opportunity because that’s her trademark, Vaughn knows to save his dazzling smile until it will have maximum impact — you barely realize he’s been so dour throughout the film until his face is transformed at an appropriate moment of delight.
Heche has been stuck till now in films that hinted at but didn’t quite take advantage of her ability — Six Days Seven Nights, Wag the Dog, Volcano. Return to Paradise showcases her as a major talent. A revelation about Beth late in the movie that had the potential to be a major groaner works because she’d been telegraphing it all along — in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how I didn’t guess.
Phoenix steals all his scenes (as he did in his earlier movies, Parenthood and To Die For). Early in the film, preprison, his Lewis radiates a sweetness and genuineness that still comes through later, when he’s close to losing his sanity after two years in his hellish prison. (Describing his cell to a visitor as a wonderful place to pray, he rocks back and forth, comforting himself, unable to make eye contact.) And Phoenix fills Lewis’s final scene with emotion so raw that it’s difficult to watch yet impossible to look away.
Can these three actors remain as interesting as they are now? We’ll have a few more chances to see them together in the near future. Vaughn and Phoenix star in the upcoming Clay Pigeons, and Vaughn and Heche are reunited in Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. Here’s hoping they resist the allure of being movie stars and stick to being real actors.
Hungry again an hour later
More typical of the kinds of tripe we’ve been subjected to in recent years is Red Corner. This from the official Web site: “Jack Moore (Richard Gere) is a brilliant attorney. General counsel to a large entertainment conglomerate and the best negotiator the West has to offer, Jack has come to China to close the first satellite communications deal the Chinese government has sanctioned.”
Of course Jack’s the best — he’s Richard Gere. And when he’s accused of murdering and raping the beautiful young daughter of a high-ranking general, you know there’s not a chance in hell that he’s guilty — he’s Richard Gere, after all.
Red Corner is a kind of bastard child of The Fugitive — innocent man wrongfully accused, framed by some nasty corporate types whom he pissed off. But Harrison Ford made us fear for his Richard Kimble. Gere, however, doesn’t act. He doesn’t create a character. He’s just his own boring, pretty self up there on the screen. It’s ironic — acting is the grandest kind of pretending, but where real actors are looking for the truth of a character, for performers like Gere it’s all artifice. He offers us nothing to make us care what happens to him.
And God forbid he should look less than pretty. After Jack is beaten up, thrown down multiple flights of stairs, kicked in the face, and kicked in the stomach, his only visible wound is an artistic scratch near one eye — he’s been through hell, but damn he still looks good. It’s like all those times Captain Kirk got into a fight — he never ended up with anything more than a smudge of dirt on his cheek and his shirt torn to reveal one nipple.
Unlike Return to Paradise, which affords respect to the culture in which Lewis runs afoul, Red Corner holds Chinese society in nothing but disdain. Instead of viewing the society as one with its own intrinsic integrity (whether its values are ones you agree with or not), China’s government and policies in Red Corner only provide the bad guys with the opportunity to set up Jack and provide Jack with a reason to get on his soapbox. And you’d better believe that Jack ensures that his court-appointed attorney, Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling), sees the errors of her country’s ways.
I hope I’m right about this shift in Hollywood. We don’t need any more Richard Gere movies. Red Corner is a stinker.
Return to Paradise
viewed at a public multiplex screening
viewed at home on a small screen