Three new films open this week and all have either stories within stories or dual plotlines – not all of which work.
The Longest Ride
Directed by George Tillman Jr.
The most obviously separated storylines occur within “The Longest Ride,” the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel (“The Notebook,” “Dear John,” “Safe Haven”). And nothing in the film is likely to surprise anybody who’s seen any of the previous adaptations of his work.
Britt Robertson plays Sophia, a studious art major who gets dragged to the rodeo by her sorority sisters, in search of cute guys. There, she sees Scott Eastwood’s Luke, a championship bull rider trying to make a comeback on the professional circuit after a significant injury. And, naturally, Sparks’ sparks fly at their first encounter.
Later, on their first actual date, they find a crashed car and pull an old man (Alan Alda) from the wreckage, along with a memory box filled with old letter and photographs. Sophia sits with him at the hospital and proceeds to visit him on a daily basis as he recovers. It’s the kind of development in the kind of movie that allows Sophia, without explanation, to go from being the student who doesn’t have time for a single rodeo to being the student who has time to kill at the hospital every day, without any great explanation or commentary. There are clearly details we’re supposed to track and others that are best forgotten.
These visits set up our two distinct timelines, as she tells Ira (Alda) about her life and he recounts his younger life and marriage through his cherished letters that she reads aloud to him. He’s of an age that his own youthful romance was interrupted by World War II and his marriage was one of constant compromises and sacrifice. These conveniently parallel Sophia and Luke’s problems – she’s more of a City girl with a promise of an art gallery internship in New York, while he’s a down home farm boy with no appreciation of modern art.
Both storylines are pretty straightforward, albeit with manipulative health related concerns and hurdles for the respective characters to overcome or deal with – but that’s the nature of the beast. Robertson and Eastwood are solid, with Eastwood bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father (Clint Eastwood) at a similar age). Jack Huston and Oona Chaplin play the younger Ira and his beloved Ruth in the period scenes – which mostly play quite well, although some accents tends to wander. If there’s a weak link, it’s with Alda’s portrayal of the older Ira, who never seems quite as infirm as we’re given to understand him to be. I’m a fan of Alda’s work but it seems a little off here and there’s also a slight mismatch in Huston and Alda playing the same character at different ages. That said, it’s far less jarring than in some of these romances where the lead couple, over time, are played by pairs of actors who looking nothing like each other (such as last year’s “The Best of Me”).
The overall outcome is reasonably pleasant and entertaining at an unremarkable level. I think I most enjoyed simply watching the younger Eastwood from different angles and wondering whether he’ll age like his father. Which doesn’t say much for the story itself, all of which can be seen coming a mile away.
Written and Directed by Dan Fogelman
I watched “Danny Collins” a few weeks ago, at a small press screening, and wrote a comment for the studio which read (paraphrased): This felt like two films mashed together, but fortunately I enjoyed them both.
Al Pacino plays Danny Collins, a veteran singer (think of someone like Neil Diamond) who has been touring for decades when he’s given a long lost letter, written by John Lennon, encouraging Danny at the beginning of his career and warning him to stay true to himself. It’s a story inspired by a similar, real letter, written by Lennon, to an actual musician who had cited Lennon as an inspiration in a press interview.
However, when Danny finally receives it, his career has been nothing like the career the letter might have encouraged. He’s been singing and re-singing his greatest hits, most of which were written by other people, and losing a little piece of himself during every performance for so long that it takes combinations of drugs and alcohol just to get him on stage.
I’ve long found this to be a fascinating subject matter. I’ve been to several concerts of iconic performers where it’s obvious that the audience wants the golden oldies and only reluctantly sits through anything remotely new. And there are many bands and singers making a living on tour doing the same thing Danny Collins is seen to be doing, whether or not they fuel their performances in quite the same manner. It’s part of a culture in which we claim ownership of our celebrity idols and expect them to be what we want them to be, rather than who they want to be – and I think it contributes to despair and, in some cases death, as well as potentially creative stagnation.
But back to the movie and the other part of the story: Danny also has a son (Bobby Cannavale) whom he has never known. They’ve known of each other’s existence but they’ve never been a part of each other’s lives. So, while trying to reinvent himself as a singer and songwriter, Danny also tries to connect with the family he’s never been a part of.
The two stories do actually fit together quite nicely while still feeling distinct. And each has enough material and inherent conflict to be the basis of some stand-alone films, without either feeling like it was short-changed by the combination. It’s a very successfully conceived and executed balancing act in that regard.
The film is also helped by multiple strong performances, not just in the father/son pairing but with noteworthy supporting work from Jennifer Garner as the newly met daughter in law, and especially from Annette Bening as the manager of the hotel where Danny holes up and Christopher Plummer as Danny’s long time and long suffering manager and best friend. And in what are often overlooked and relatively minor kinds of roles, Josh Peck and Melissa Benoist do some neat cameo work as two young hotel employees who provide a welcome generational contrast.
“Danny Collins” is enjoyable on multiple levels – it’s touching, dramatic, thought provoking and, at times, flat out funny. I had had certain misgivings going into the screening as I don’t think it was especially well represented by its previews, and there’s too much going on to capture well in that format. But if you give the film a chance, it’s likely to win you over.
While We’re Young
Written and Directed by Noah Baumbach
The first half of Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” is some of the funniest material I’ve watched so far this year. I was laughing out loud so much I felt like I ought to start apologizing to my colleagues.
It stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a long-married, childless couple, Josh and Cornelia, whose lives have somewhat stagnated as their friends are starting families and embarking on new chapters. Josh teaches documentary filmmaking while struggling with a project of his own that has made little progress in many years. Cornelia produces documentaries for her father (Charles Grodin), one of Josh’s former mentors and an award winning filmmaker.
When Josh meets the much younger Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), he and Cornelia rapidly begin to modify their behavior to match them, seeing in them so much passion and eagerness to live life in the moment. It’s these scenes, that play like a four-way character study, that contain most of the humor, much of which relates to some combination of mid-life crisis themes and inter-generational contrasts. And some of it is very insightful and, perhaps for some, counter-intuitive as the older couple are the ones tied to their phones and social media accounts while the younger couple are out and about, seemingly living life to the fullest, rather than simply observing it at arm’s length.
Up to a point I was thinking this might have been my favorite film of the year and I wish Baumbach had left it at that, as just an observation of generational politics and dynamics. However, the film slowly becomes more plot driven as Josh helps Jamie film his own documentary project and slowly realizes that much of their interactions have been manipulated. There’s more here regarding different attitudes towards intellectual property, for example, that would fit the earlier scenes but the overall tone and style of the film shifts to something much more narrative than the first half, suffering in the process. The performances start and remain strong but the tonal shift is disorienting.
While the two films are enormously different, I was reminded of “Fight Club” – a film for which I generally find myself in the minority of non-fans. When that film was released, I described it as being (for me) the perfect film to get called out of half way through, to perform life-saving surgery or some such task, so that you could feel that you had seen half of something wonderful while also doing something meaningful. I don’t recall feeling the same way again about a film quite as strongly until now, with “While We’re Young.” I wish I had just watched the first half – while it was funny.