Hollywood has had lots to say about the American school system as of late and whether you choose to believe the information presented to you via eye-opening documentaries like Waiting For Superman or fictional phenomenon’s like Fox’s Glee it’s clear that our educational institutions are out-of whack at best broken at worst. No one has been able to depict this disheartening downward spiral quite like director Tony Kaye with his new film Detachment. In it the reclusive auteur focuses on just a few weeks in the life of Henry Barthes a substitute teacher who gets more than he bargained for when he takes a job at a fledgling high school and in the process gives parents professors and kids a much-needed wake-up call.
In this short period of time Kaye dissects the contemporary classroom with unflinching realism. The grainy worn film stock he uses for his verite’ photography coupled with topical subject matter ranging from child prostitution and teen suicide to parental negligence makes the movie appear to be more a documentary than a narrative feature but that’s where Carl Lund’s poetic screenplay comes in. His prose is simultaneously beautiful and brutal effortlessly supplying existential excerpts for star Adrien Brody darkly comic bits for fellow teacher James Caan and up-to-the-minute slanguage for the teenage students. He also uses this star-studded stage (the ensemble includes Marcia Gay Harden Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks among many others) to touch upon the larger sociopolitical issues effecting our schools and children lashing out at numerous initiatives/establishments like “No Child Left Behind” that we’re led to believe have been implemented to increase residential property values instead of grades. Though the script begins to sound like a sermon at times it’s not intrusive enough to become distasteful. Quite simply it’s brazenly truthful.
However excessive exposition can often hurt a film’s momentum and Kaye gets unnecessarily sidetracked with the painful back-stories of his characters. Brody’s Barthes is our central protagonist so the sub-plot involving his aging ailing grandfather is essential in defining him but the filmmaker forces insight into the lives of almost every teacher (and a few of the students) down our throats. Individually each vignette is heartrending but distracting; the majority of them have little connection to the main narrative. Collectively they illustrate many of the problems that contemporary families face and more importantly create an emotional crescendo leading into the inevitably tragic conclusion.
The brilliance of this casual buildup to the film’s climax is a nod to Kaye’s storytelling aptitude. I found him utilizing the kind of in-your-face filmmaking tactics that Spike Lee made commonplace in his early movies most noticeably with close-ups on a few actors who irritably address the camera head-on (like in Do The Right Thing). In addition he intensifies the action with quick cuts and aggressive push-ins that elaborate on each character’s crisis. Perfection clearly isn't his strong point; Kaye frames his shots sloppily at times and doesn't attempt anything groundbreaking but maximizes the potential of tried-and-true lo-fi techniques. His stylistic abilities are second only to Brody’s performance which is subtle sad and sweet all at once. We take an emotional and psychological plunge with the native New Yorker as he navigates a teenage wasteland of sex drugs violence and depression but it’s all just another day at school to America’s urban youth.
Long absent since his freshman feature American History X Detachment is a welcome return for Tony Kaye whose commitment to the integrity of this story is marked by unrelenting bleakness in its tone and uncensored cynicism regarding the state of our schools. He doesn’t portray every educator as a saint or every student as a sinner; through Brody he imparts on us the uneasy truth about the direct correlation between our failure as parents and the failure our children: we're one and the same. The true genius in his film is not represented in the text of his commentary but in his ability to forge an explanatory mosaic from his characters’ varying but related points of view. Because of this there are multiple mini-narratives that run through Detachment and all of them are worthy of your attention.
Bo (Seann William Scott) and Luke (Johnny Knoxville) Duke are cousins--two hell-raisers who drive fast sell moonshine and bed sexy farm girls all across Georgia's Hazzard County. They've got another cousin Daisy Duke (Jessica Simpson) a drop-dead hottie who waits tables at the local watering hole. If someone gets a little too friendly with the gal she's knocks 'em on their ass--and if her cousins get into trouble she shakes hers to get them out of it. Then there's Uncle Jesse Duke (Willie Nelson) who makes the moonshine on his farm tells bad jokes and sings country-western songs. I can't quit thinking about how the Duke family dynamics work. They're all tight-knit cousins right? But Uncle Jesse isn't the father to any of them. So like where's the rest of the Dukes? There's gotta be other siblings parents maybe. It perplexes me. But I digress. Suffice to say the Dukes are always outrunning--and out-jumping--the local law enforcement in their souped-up Dodge Charger the General Lee. The boys are also constantly doing battle with the crooked county commissioner Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) who cooks up one nefarious plan after another to make Hazzard County his own personal cash cow only to be thwarted by those darn Dukes. Dagnabbit.
Although some diehard fans of the TV show may disagree the casting for this feature film redo is pretty spot on. Knoxville and Scott do just fine as the rip-roarin' Duke cousins bantering about one upping each other--you know boys stuff. Nelson's still got the whole pigtail thing going for him but he looks like he's having a good time. Reynolds does too but he's definitely a lot slicker--and a lot better looking--than the show's original Boss Hogg Sorrell Booke. As the bumbling police veteran character actor M.C. Gainey who always plays bad guys at least gets to show off some comedy chops as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane. Michael Weston (Garden State) as the wimpy Deputy Enos Strate is sufficiently reduced to a puddle whenever Daisy is around. And then there's Simpson. My my my. It's obvious the camera (and whose ever behind it) loves every inch of her and she tends to light up the screen whenever she's on it. Of course playing Daisy in her acting debut isn't much of a stretch but Simpson still shows a comic flair. The singer-turned-actress could actually become a fairly serviceable comedic actress if she plays her cards right.
This is what director Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers) had to say about making The Dukes of Hazzard: "I had a poster of Daisy Duke [played in the original show by Catherine Bach] on my wall when I was nine that was very inspiring and when you combine the prospect of a new Daisy Duke with the opportunity to send the General Lee flying through the air again it was impossible for me to say no." Well Jay actually you could have said no and maybe the whole Hazzard as a feature idea would have gone away. It's perfectly suitable to have a television show be about nothing but cars flying through the air hot women in skimpy clothes and idiotic behavior. We'll always accept brain-friendly crap on TV. But to be subjected to an entire feature-length film of mindless stupidity is just too much at least in Hazzard's case. Sure watching the General Lee perform seemingly impossible stunts is fun. Apparently 28 Dodge Chargers had to be converted into the multiple General Lees needed for the film and the parts had to be hunted down on the Internet in junkyards or by word of mouth. Still after about the 100th time the car jumps over something you've had quite enough.