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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Unknown White Male (review)

Where’s Your Head At?

You can’t talk about this movie without talking about the fact that it’s impossible to get past the impression that it’s all a giant put-on, not in the James Frey sense, which is about a sad and pathetic druggie demand for attention, but more in a Christopher Guest “I mock but I love” kind of way. Because if the tale of Doug Bruce — who woke up on a New York City subway train one day in 2003 and had no idea who he was, or where he was — is not true, someone would have invented it anyway. It’s that… pertinent.
Cuz there’s so much more going on here than just: Look how interesting and neat this story is, about a 30something guy who was basically born-again — in a not-religious way, though there will be those who will see the film as a metaphor for finding Jesus — and got to rediscover the whole world with the mind of an adult and the innocence of a baby. I mean, sure, it seems to beggar belief that sheer coincidence would have it that Bruce had been a photographer and decided to make a video record of his first days as a new person — what luck for documentarian Rupert Murray, to have ready-made material for his film! And yes, it strains credulity, perhaps, that Murray, making his feature debut here, just so happened to have been a friend of Bruce’s from before his memory loss — how many wannabe filmmakers would kill to have such a fantastic story turn up practically on their doorstep? (That all this happens in New York City, the go-to place for reinventing yourself, is all just happy metaphoric bonus.)

And I can’t get past how, early in his new life, Bruce expresses frustration that he can recall the names of Australian cities but can’t remember his friends and family… but later has to be told who lives at 10 Downing Street and why tourists are checking out the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. On their own, the two scenes are powerful — and powerfully unexpected — in a way that anyone who has not suffered long-term amnesia surely cannot appreciate. Looked at side by side, they make you go, Waaaait a minute…

But here’s the thing: Bruce, an Englishman living in New York, is the absolute prototypical Generation Xer: he had been a high-powered and well-off stockbroker, but before his memory loss had given it up for the artistic life as a photographer. He had been a cynic (though “a good cynic,” one of his friends notes) with an “edge” (as his sister calls it)… but now he’s more relaxed. Less sarcastic. More in touch with his emotions. He’s slowed down and is enjoying life more. He is, in a word, happier for having lost the baggage that had made him what he is.

So Unknown White Male works whether it’s invented or not. That’s exactly where a lot of Xers find themselves today: exhausted from being so snarky all the time, ready to just unwind and loosen up a bit, maybe smell some flowers in a totally unironic way. But though there may be a special relevance to this moment right now and where me and my peers find ourselves, it’s not exclusively an Xer thing. Who, of whatever generation, hasn’t sometimes woken up in the morning and wondered at the turns her life has taken, hasn’t thought about all the lost opportunities, hasn’t considered tossing it all and starting all over again? Who hasn’t felt, once in a rare, startling while, in the midst of a crisis of identity, like she was “wearing someone else’s clothes,” as Bruce describes the process of wearing his old clothes that are all new to him?

It’s a far more universal situation than James Frey’s: few of us, relatively speaking, have battled our way back from an addiction, but almost everyone contemplates, if only as remote fantasy, going out for a ride and never going back (to paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Bruce Springsteen). So whether Bruce (Doug, that is) went out for a ride and never came back — either deliberately (ie, he’s hoaxing everyone) or accidentally (he really did lose his memory) — or the film is a complete sham… Well, it *can’t* be a complete sham, because it’s true in the way that fiction can sometimes be more true that reality.

And it’s hopeful and optimistic in a way that made-up horror stories about rehab never can be: though Bruce has not recovered his memories by the end of the film, he has built a new life for himself, re-created relationships with friends and family who readily accept the new him. They may miss the old Doug sometimes, but they welcome the new one as just another step along the path of a person they love dearly. It’s a heartening and satisfying thing to see.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb

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