The basic premise of most crime revenge dramas is how much of our humanity we're willing to trade to get back what the other people — the ostensible baddies — have taken from us. Oliver Stone returns to this familiar stomping ground with Savages a splashy adaptation of Don Winslow's novel about a unique love affair a major marijuana-dealing business and an increasingly violent pissing match between two SoCal growers and the Baja Cartel.
Stone's frenetic visual style is in full swing but even this Oscar-winning auteur can't quite raise the film from mediocrity. It's hard to care whether or not Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) rescue their gorgeous mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) from the cartel if O isn't engaging enough to persuade us she's worth the bloodshed. O (short for Ophelia — an allusion to her earthshaking climaxes) is not a well-written character to begin with but she's even less engaging as played by Lively. Johnson is unconvincing as the bleeding heart Ben and the details his character is given — extra earrings a shoddy-looking tattoo on his neck even white boy dreads at one point — undercut his believability even more. Kitsch is given a few prominent scars and a mean squint but he doesn't quite bring the weird slightly empty vibe of Chon to life.
On the villain side Benicio Del Toro chews every inch of scenery from Laguna Beach to Tijuana as Lado. He's rocking an intense moustache that he strokes when he's lying or being a creep (which is most of the time) a vaguely mullet-like wig and a fondness for torture. Salma Hayek takes no prisoners as the head of the cartel nicknamed Elena la Reina who is both a frustrated mom whose college-age daughter is blowing her off (aw!) and a brutally tough woman in a man's world. John Travolta definitely enjoys a bit of Pulp Fiction ridiculousness as Dennis a DEA official who's in Ben and Chon's pocket. It's hard to tell just how funny Savages is aiming to be. Lado Elena and Dennis are cartoonish but Ben Chon and O are earnest — which is to say a little bit boring.
The double- and triple-crossing is practically moot as is the wacky technology that Ben and Chon employ; it's like The Social Network meets surfers. The real meat of the movie is the flash and violence but it's not the kind of thing that stays with you like Stone's Natural Born Killers. Savages doesn't have the same lingering aftertaste. It's not that a movie needs to have some sort of message with its pointed commentary on the media's bloodlust but the gist of Savages — that we're all savages at heart or that we can easily become a savage given the right circumstances — is not that interesting or unique.
Oddly enough Savages pulls a few punches when it comes to its source material (hard to believe when the movie kicks off with a glimpse of an abattoir-like enclosure and close-ups of men begging for their lives just as a chainsaw revs in the background). Winslow's book is a quick enjoyable read with an interesting on-page style that's hard to replicate verbally. It has a sort of ADD-addled feel that the movie tries to but doesn't quite capture. While it's not always fair to compare an adaptation to the book it's based on Winslow is both the author and one of the screenplay writers so some of the choices made behind the scenes don't quite add up. Cut are significant and menacing back story for Lado and all of the zestiness out of O. Why add in certain plot points and take out others unless it was to give one of its big name stars more screen time? The most interesting part of the story the love story is treated like a wink wink homoerotic thing than an actual relationship between three people who adore each other which is how it's portrayed in the book. It's hard not to be a little disappointed especially given Stone's no-f**ks-given attitude. (Or as O would say baditude.)
That said it is a somewhat entertaining diversion and a nice tour of lifestyles of the rich and criminal. Lively is all tangled tan limbs and luxurious hippie clothes and the homes they frequent whether on Laguna Beach or a desert compound are meticulously decorated with exquisite expensive taste. Santa Muerte imagery also figures heavily in the background of many scenes. The scenery is gorgeous — even the marijuana looks amazing. It's good for adults to have another R-rated choice in what's usually a season dominated by blockbusters but in years to come you'll more likely to reach for your old True Romance DVD than Savages.
Misery loves the Savages--always has. Ever since they were kids Wendy (Laura Linney) and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have been plagued by the blasé blues. Even though they went their separate ways the siblings have remained somewhat close geographically--she lives in Manhattan he in Buffalo--and in their discontentment. But what made them this way in the first place their father (Philip Bosco) is about to reunite them. After losing his mind to dementia and his longtime girlfriend (Rosemary Murphy) to well death the old man officially needs to be looked after and that’s where Jon and Wendy reluctantly come in. Despite having not seen their estranged father in ages they fly out to his Arizona senior-citizen-friendly community immediately upon word of his downfall. What they didn’t plan on however is staying more than a couple days. Ultimately they take him back to Buffalo and place him in a nursing home about which Wendy constantly feels guilty. Now forced to live together and look in the metaphorical mirror the siblings Savage learn about self-discovery mortality each other and how to revive a decades-old rivalry as though it had never gone away. Given the way Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly one-up each other in The Savages you’d think there was a real sibling rivalry at play. Of course it’s merely two of today’s very best actors giving par-for-the-course flawless performances. In so doing they create something beyond chemistry: a relationship so fractured and imperfectly perfect that it could only exist between an aging brother and sister. Whether the scene calls for fireworks or subtlety solo or together Linney and Hoffman are always up to the task. Linney is especially wide-ranging as Wendy still fights her midlife crisis. The veteran actress is often heartbreaking because Wendy is often heartbroken even when she tries to convince herself otherwise but Linney still manages to leave the window of hope cracked open--for us and her character. She truly encompasses everything in this her best performance to date. Hoffman is slightly more of a supporting player here but no less impactful. The Oscar winner is apathetic through much of the film but his terse outbursts of anger and/or sadness are stark reminders of his awe-inspiring range as an actor. Perhaps the most savage Savage is the patriarch played with grace by longtime actor Bosco. But instead of vilifying Lenny or making him worthy of all your pity Bosco makes him a rollercoaster of emotion as per Lenny's dementia. It’s been nine years since writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ last--and only other--feature-length film the twisted coming-of-age tale Slums of Beverly Hills which has given her plenty of time to think grow older and think about growing older. She philosophizes aloud in The Savages a movie that addresses everything you don’t want to but with a sardonic edge to it; in fact maybe this is as much a coping mechanism for her as it is an artistic endeavor. While the movie is primarily about the title siblings it essentially explores the human condition under their guise. But Jenkins does so in a way that is never preachy never obnoxious never sappy and always astutely observed. It’s her naturalistic approach to moviemaking that will turn what is ultimately a sharp dramedy into too much of a downer to please casual moviegoers looking for lighthearted fare in wintertime--this is NOT Little Miss Sunshine--but those who go in looking for a drama will be moved occasionally to laughter. Because The Savages is that rare deep movie: heavy on symbolism and meaning light on pretense and contrivance.
On the one hand it’s a comedy. We meet Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) a thirtysomething knee deep in a pre-midlife crisis with a way too patient fiancé (Mark Ruffalo) and a nowhere job. Her anxiety is only exacerbated when she visits her picture perfect family in Pasadena CA a place she’s never felt like she belonged especially after her mother died. But then it gets weirder when Sarah finds out her family was the inspiration for The Graduate. It seems Sarah’s grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) was the Mrs. Robinson and that her mother ran off with the same guy briefly right before she got married to Sarah’s dad. Sarah becomes obsessed with finding this “other” guy Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) believing he might be the key. He’s a key all right--to a night of drunken lust. But none of this is going to solve Sarah’s problems now is it? She’s got to find her own answers in her heart. Excuse me while I go throw up. Maybe Jennifer Aniston should just write this year off. Not only did she lose a husband to another woman she also hasn’t made very smart choices in her career. Derailed completely missed the track and now this comedy is no better suited to her talents. Aniston is much better playing sweet and quirky rather than messy and neurotic and honestly shines brighter when co-starring with strong comedic talents such as Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly) or Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty). (That’s why we’re holding our breath for her next film The Break Up with [real-life boyfriend?] Vince Vaughn.) Shirley MacLaine making a habit out of being the best thing in an otherwise dull movie (In Her Shoes anyone?) is a hoot as grandma. Costner doesn’t look anything like Dustin Hoffman thank goodness but has zero chemistry with Aniston. And who knows what the hell Ruffalo is doing wasting his talents doing this romantic comedy crap. Just say no Mark. As a director Rob Reiner hasn’t had much luck lately either. This is the first movie he’s directed since 2003’s Alex & Emma--and we all remember what a success that was. To be fair Reiner apparently took over the reins from screenwriter Ted Griffin (Matchstick Men) who was making his feature film debut ten days into production and changed things quite a bit. That’s not surprising because Rumor quite simply lacks direction. It wants desperately to be a comedy with a hint of relationship drama but somehow misses the mark on both. Now the idea of a Graduate update is somewhat intriguing. Reminds me of Robert Altman’s The Player in which The Graduate’s original screenwriter Buck Henry pitches a sequel of sorts to a studio development exec. It’s meant to be a joke of course but somewhere in the spoof there might’ve been a sliver of mad brilliance. Too bad Rumor ruins it.
Flimflam man matchstick man con man--there are all kinds of names for them but Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) is a slightly different sort of con artist. He is an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe whose habits include opening and closing a door three times before walking through it; keeping a house so fastidiously clean it reeks of disinfectant; and displaying so many physical ticks it's hard for him to carry on a normal conversation. Watching him you wouldn't dream Roy is a consummate professional who along with his partner Frank (Sam Rockwell) has spent years amassing a small fortune doing mostly short con jobs. But Frank is getting restless for a really big score and convinces a reluctant Roy to go in on a difficult job with huge payoff potential. The wrench in the plan however is the unexpected arrival of Angela (Alison Lohman) the 14-year-old daughter Roy suspected he had from a doomed relationship 14 years earlier but had never met. She's a precocious sweet-faced junk food-eating wild child who proves to be just the spark Roy needs to get past his hangups. This is where the film really takes off becoming more a character study than a typical who-is-swindling-whom scenario. Roy and Angela bond immediately and when the spunky Angela finds out what Daddy does for a living she is instantly smitten. In fact she talks Roy into teaching her some tricks of the trade and takes to it like "a duck to water." The web of deceit eventually gets more and more tangled as Roy's burgeoning paternal instincts cloud his fine-tuned judgment out in the field--and unfortunately the results are tragic.
It does seem a little odd Cage would decide to take another highly neurotic part after wowing audiences as quirky Charlie Kaufman in last year's Adaptation for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. One would think he'd want to try something else. The fact remains Cage is really good at playing this type of characters but with Roy he goes a little over the top as he races through a pharmacy twitching grunting and making "whoop!" sounds while trying to get a prescription filled. Sometimes its funny sometimes it's forced. When Angela shows up Roy's quirks become more subtle as he slowly sheds the neurosis and starts to care about the girl. Fresh-faced Lohman (White Oleander) rises up to the challenge of working with the seasoned likes of Cage and Rockwell and does an outstanding job as the wayward teenager who becomes the bright light at the end of Roy's dark tunnel. The two have an instant connection on screen and their scenes are what truly give the film its energy especially when Angela shows how the apple doesn't far from the tree. Accepting the fact she's a natural con artist she tells Roy "Mom was wrong. I didn't just get your elbows." Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) was born to play the wisecracking and confident Frank; you get the feeling he could actually be a successful con man if he tried.
For obvious reasons more than a few comparisons have been made between Matchstick Men and Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 Paper Moon which follows a con man and his adopted daughter as they swindle their way through the 1930s Dust Bowl. Although Matchstick Men doesn't quite live up to that classic under the steady guidance of Ridley Scott the film is still a gem in its own right. Producer/screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey turn in a wonderful script full of vivid and interesting characters and the versatile Scott is able to elicit the exact performances needed to make the film come alive. With films ranging from sci-fi (Alien) to epic (Gladiator) to personal (Thelma & Louise) the versatile director consistently is able to create scenes in which the characters don't even have to speak for you to still understand them. And with Matchstick Men it's clear Scott is slightly in love with Roy and Angela. One of the more poignant scenes is where Roy takes Angela to lunch for the first time at a greasy diner and as a typical teenager the girl stuffs a hamburger in her mouth. The neurotic Roy watches his newfound daughter with simultaneous disgust and amazement.