Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Company Men: Tribulations of the Great Recession

Last year, Up In The Air gave us the dark comedic corporate side of the story. This year, The Company Men picks up the other side of the story and tells us what happens to all those millions of white collar workers laid off in the Great Recession.

The movie tells of three men at different stages of their career, all working for a major transportation conglomerate called GTX (rebranded a decade or so ago, like KFC, from its origins as a more humble, more local Massachusetts ship building facility). Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, the 37-year-old MBA, hot-shit director of sales who is laid off in the first round of downsizing. Chris Cooper is Phil Woodward, the seasoned, fifty-something Senior Vice President who gets let go in the second round. And Tommie Lee Jones is Gene McClairy, one of the top senior management working under his college roommate, best friend, and CEO, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson).

McClairy fights Salinger every step of the way during this corporate "downsizing," acting as the moral voice defending the employees and integrity of the company, until he becomes a casualty himself. This sets up Salinger as the movie's heavy: the super-wealthy, overpaid, unsympathetic CEO who just wants to raise the company stock price (admittedly, it's a good idea to do so to prevent a take-over and even more painful cuts, but this point gets glossed over). Salinger is building a new, extravagant high-rise corporate headquarters in downtown Boston, and would rather let people go than give up his extravagant lifestyle, his corporate perks, or that marble inlaid office building.

I understand why the movie has to do this - it needs a heavy to keep the drama focused - but by painting Salinger in one dimension and making McClairy the only voice of sympathy, the movie backs away from the complicated issues that drove the downturn. CEO pay is excessive and pointing fingers is justified, but this tactic seems unnecessarily reductive. We're treated to a constant backdrop of financial news and Presidential oratory about the ongoing recession, which is the movie's strategy to broaden the issue from that of a single company and its asshole CEO to a larger economic context, and while it's a nice technique, it just isn't enough to give this story the depth it needs.

What the movie has going for it, however, is its acute sensitivity and portrayal of male ego, age, and class. Bobby and his wife inhabit a well-furnished, modern, suburban home on his up-and-comer $160K a year salary; but that's a mere apartment compared with Phil Woodward's extensive house, itself just a burp on the lawn of McClairy's sea-side mansion. At the bottom of this rung of American commercialism, which seems intricately connected to male self identity, is Bobby's brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), a carpenter who seems to be the only man in this story - besides Salinger - who isn't getting laid off, and who lives in a small, two-bedroom house which is the one where everyone seemingly wants to hang out. You know where this movie is going - Bobby has to learn to swallow his pride and accept Jack's help - and soon, it seems, everyone in the story is working for Jack. Ironic, since construction was hit hard too in the recession, but since Jack is meant to be the blue-collar moral rock of the story, we'll let that slide.

Bobby and wife also need to give up their nice house and their meager dollop of privilege and move in with their parents, but all this humble pie seems to be making Bobby a better husband and father.

It's a hard subject for a movie to take on and do well - and I commend this one for doing it. All the performances are as nuanced as you'd expect from such a cast of fine actors, even if the pattern of angst, disbelief, acceptance, and faith is bit a predictable. It's a typical down-and-out-then-pick-back-up Hollywood story, especially with the Hollywood ending. But along the way it paints a realistic view of the pain that many Americans have been going through. It also gives a poignant picture of the decimation that has happened to American manufacturing. I would have liked more from it - more chances, more complexity to the issues, and more unexpected insights - but the movie does its work.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Somewhere: Hanging Out in Sophia Coppola-land

While Blue Valentine may be considered an actor's showcase, Somewhere, the new movie by Sophia Coppola (director of Lost In Translation), is clearly a showcase for its director.

Coppola has developed a unique style – a kind of modernized Italian neo-realism, or Andy Wharholism, with the camera as a watchful eye. Her scenes are drawn out and interminable, immersing you in the full moment of time: the smoking of a cigarette, the breezes of a California afternoon. She has patience enough to let us catch so much of the mood of the scene that you can practically feel the soft dappling of the California humidity on your skin as you watch the characters lie about by the pool. During these scenes Coppola is training you to focus your attention on all the details that eventually tell this story: the character's expressions, the background surroundings, the sounds and sensations of their insulated, time-absent, esoteric celebrity world. It’s such a departure from modern style, with its MTV-inspired crash cutting and Michael Bay bombing soundtracks, that you want to track down the young Ms. Coppola and give her a big hug. This is the pure pleasure of cinema, and she seems to be the only person left on the planet who appreciates it.

As in Lost in Translation, Somewhere is intrigued by the idea of celebrity – by its trappings, its absurdities, and ultimately, its meaninglessness. This time, instead of a more experienced, world-weary actor, she focuses on a younger-but-aging world-weary actor, Johnny Marco (played with perfect pitch by Stephen Dorff). Johnny spends most of his time at the Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, a famous celebrity hangout, receiving private lap dances from models, hanging out with sex-starved groupies, smoking, drinking, and generally waiting about for the next phone call from his manager, which will tell him what interview or makeup session he needs to attend next.

The movie opens with what looks like a road, and a car coming along it…until we see the same car going back along another road and disappear in the other direction, then hear its engines, and see the same car come roaring back on the first road into the frame again. It’s a trick of perception, see – what Coppola is filming is really a circular race track, not a straight road – and even though we get the joke on the first loop, she makes us sit through three more for good measure.

That’s basically her strategy through the entire movie: first observe the humor, then see the pathos, then keep going and going until you have to admit the point. Coppola manages to find the right poignant absurdity in all these tedious routines – from the blond twins who perform for Johnny in his bedroom (just enough out of sync and with little enough booty showing to be at once pitiable and captivating) to the process of creating a plaster cast of Johnny’s head (which we are taken through in thorough detail, lavishing every slurp of plaster the makeup team lathers on his face). That cast is for a mask to make Johnny look like an old man, but we’ve pretty much gotten the picture from the start – Johnny is bored with his life and afraid of growing old in his aimless state – but Coppola is going to be merciless in holding our gaze to every little excruciating moment that Johnny has to live through.

She also manages to make this far from boring for us, since Johnny lives in an intriguing, rarefied environment of absurd celebrity. A young wannabe actor asks Johnny whether he trained formally or studied any method. The answer is no: he just fell into it, like he seems to be doing with all of his life. That falling leads him to start taking care of his daughter from a former marriage (when her mother needs to leave town), and the two of them get whisked off to a celebrity reception in Italy. Here Coppola makes the most of celebrity absurdity as Johnny is feted and adored in a language he barely understands: if the meaningless of it all hasn't been driven home before, it certainly is now.

Fortunately, there is someone in Johnny's life who doesn't take him as simply an asset to be whisked this way and that: his pre-teen daughter, Cleo, played with wonderful unpretentious by Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota). Elle caters to all the small details - whether it be dressing up nicely for a televised event or making eggs Benedict for breakfast - that Johnny ignores. That attitude of care eventually becomes infectious for Johnny, and in the movie's one moment of progress, he gives cooking his own plate of spaghetti a try.

But Coppola isn't going to let this film end without keeping it as ambiguous as she can. That unswerving devotion to not telling us what anything means may be, in fact, what keeps this film, and perhaps Coppola's work to date, from rising from indie-film darling to broadly popular greatness. It's clear from looking at both this film and Lost in Translation that Coppola sympathies with the young woman's point of view of an older, famous, cynical, father figure: she paints that father figure with love, obsessive attention, and tenderness. But I think we've gotten the full picture of that subject now. For her next trick, I'd like to see her move on.

These are both miraculous movies, road maps of film making that shouldn't be missed. But now that Coppola has become a master of her own style, if she can next find a subject of broader relevance and weightiness, she will truly become one of the industry's most valued artists.

Blue Valentine: Anatomy of a Doomed Love

Blue Valentine isn’t nearly the heartbreak that it could have been, but this inventive, spare film nevertheless manages to be about a whole lot more than the simple breakup of a couple. For one, the inventive story telling, which jumps back and forth between the beginning and end of the relationship, provides a powerful point/counterpoint rhythm to this couple’s tale. If you’d re-arranged the story and told it with a straight timeline, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or meaningful as it is.

Much of the meaning of the movie, in fact, comes out of not knowing what you don’t know about this couple. As their few days of disintegration progress, you’re filled in with critical missing pieces of back story that shed light on conversations and arguments. For example: when Cindy, the wife, accidently runs into an old acquaintance in a convenience store, an argument ensues about why she didn’t mention this to the husband right away. You get the current about jealousy, but it’s not till later – nearly the end of the movie – that you get the full sense of what that scene imports.

Once you know the entire sequence of events and all the facts of the story (that is, once the story ends), it’s obvious why these two never would have lasted. Theirs is the kind of young-person’s relationship or first marriage (or whatever you want to call it) that’s all too common. But from the outset, you don’t know that…the movie immerses you in this couple’s ignorance about themselves (as well as in the extended pressures of their economic and cultural status), and that, perhaps, is its unique genius. When Dean accidently meets Cindy at an old folks home where they are both taking care of elderly wards (Dean takes care of an Army vet he happens to be moving; Cindy takes care of her grandmother. Both of these old people provide convenient mirrors to their own aimless young lives that they are trying to understand), they “meet cute” and – given the violence of Cindy’s previous boyfriend and the loneliness of Dean’s life – they’re immediately smitten with each other.

Riding along the top of this movie – and propelling it along – are the two magnificent performances from Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Without these, you would have a thin movie indeed, and both deserve the Oscar nominations they will hopefully receive. The “present” moment in this film opens three years after they’ve been married. Their dog escapes its pen in the yard…a few hours later, Cindy finds it dead on the side of the road. The movie allows the two actors to fully express the complex emotions of this event – from recriminations to sadness to tenderness and finally, perhaps, a kind of resignation, as each of them mourn the dog both in their own individual way, and also as a couple.

As a dog owner, I found that heavy handed but nevertheless effective. That dog is their dead relationship, and over the next 48 hours the two of them do their utmost to revive it, going through the same sequence of emotions. Dean rents them a hotel room at a couple’s getaway (the “Future room,” ironically, considering that future is what these two have little of). Like most men, Dean is making his version of a genuine attempt at intimacy, one that’s physical. But like most women, what Cindy wants isn’t sex but talk: she needs them to discuss the weighty issues that have gone unresolved between them.

What results is an hour and thirty minutes of yeoman’s acting, interspersed with flashbacks and bits of history. Almost like a stage play, the story introduces its themes: differences between male and female intimacy, living up to what it means to be a man or a woman, fear of repeating parent’s mistakes, differences between class. Designed to provoke discussion, the movie sets up a prism whereby the viewer might justify one character or the other based on one’s own class or gender. That’s why it’s worth seeing with someone with whom you can discuss it afterwards, and in this great couple’s argument, decide who was right.

But as I said at the start, once you know everything, it’s pretty obvious how they got here – if not to them, then to us. That obviousness, I feel, takes away from the puzzle of viewpoint the movie is trying to create. If the couple had been older, or their problems had been less of a cliché, the discussions about the relationship might have carried more weight.

Nevertheless, the movie is fascinating, and both Williams and Gosling are hard to take your eyes off of. Their performances raise this common relationship to an uncommon film, which is a true actor’s art.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Casino Jack: Abramoff Deconstructed

Following in a long line of movies about the recent crooks in Washington (including Inside Story, Wall Street Two, and more on the way), Casino Jack focuses on the antics of Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbiest convicted of influence peddling and other high-profile schemes and rip-offs.

The release of the movie is timely, as it opens with scenes of Abramoff flying former House majority leader Tom Delay around to various junkets and resorts as part of Abramoff's attempt to buy favors in Congress, something for which Delay was recently convicted. And if Matt Taibbi's recent article on John Boehner is to be believed, the practice or corporations buying-off Congress is hardly over.

The casting of the film is great - particularly Kevin Spacey as Abramoff and Barry Pepper as his sidekick, Michael Scanlon (or Scallion, as one of the characters refers to him). Spacey brings a manic bravado to the character that helps us understand how it was possible that a putz like Abramoff could rip of Indian tribes for millions of dollars, bribe nearly every important elected Republican official, and have the chutzpah to buy a fleet of floating casinos. He portrays Abramoff as both a megalomaniac ("I work out every day!" he says in the mirror, to pump himself up) as well as some kind of Zionist benefactor, opening kosher restaurants and Hebrew schools to satisfy some insatiable need to re-create the world in his image.

Meanwhile, Pepper's Scanlon is a happy-go-lucky, inept prick who has the good (or bad) fortune to follow in Abramoff's wake, sucking up the flying millions on the way.

Together, Abramoff and Scanlon concoct a scam to get themselves hired as consultants to an Indian tribe that needs to keep the Feds from approving a casino for a neighboring tribe. Abramoff uses his bought-off buddies in Congress (most specifically Robert Ney) to scam the Indians into believing he can block the neighboring casino from happening if only the Indians will pay him a hefty sum of twenty million. When the tribe elders balk, Abramoff rigs the internal affairs of the tribe to have the nay-sayers thrown off the council.

All this sounds like it might make a fascinating expose, the way Charles Ferguson does in Inside Job, or a dramatic diatribe a la Fair Game. But the team behind Casino Jack are more interested in creating a political farce a la In the Loop or Charlie Wilson's War.

The problem here is that the complexities of the real-life story are difficult to simplify for the kind of dark comedy that Casino Jack wants to be. The first half of the movie is narration-heavy as Spacey has to handle the narrative weight of explaining Abramoff's complicated schemes as well as giving us a glimpse into his character. Spacey's intense performance also overshadows the black comedy the writer and directors are searching for, and the film takes a while to establish its tone.

At first strident and expository, Casino Jack finally gets its strut when Jon Lovitz enters the story as Adam Kidan, a two-bit Jewish mattress-store owner who's loosely connected to the mob. I've never thought of Lovitz as brilliant, really, but he brings just the right kooky energy to the plot as Abramoff tries to set up the unpredictable Kidan as a front for the floating casino he wants to buy from a heavy-handed Greek having trouble with his taxes. Kidan proceeds to screw things up, and gets his mob friends (particularly Maury Chaykin as mobster Big Tony) into the picture. Lovitz and Chaykin are both brilliant as half-harmless, half-scary fuckups who proceed to ruin Abramoff's life. There's this great bit where Big Tony rubs Kidan's hand saying "kissela, messela" as a relaxation technique, then gives him a sudden "boo," as a scare. It's a great metaphor for how Big Tony goes about doing his mob thing.

Both Big Tony and Kidan are even bigger sociopaths than Abramoff...and Scanlon a bigger fuck up...which is ultimately what takes down Abramoff and associates at the end. By the time we're in the final hearings with McCain, the movie is truly a great black comedy of political malfeasance.

The problem that I have - more than how long the movie takes to get there - is that the malfeasance in question is a lot more serious than the charismatic Spacey allows it to seem. He does almost too good a job making us like this Abramoff crook. But after all, what Abramoff did wasn't a movie - it was criminal - and almost like Abramoff himself, the film doesn't quite want to deal with its consequences.

I like this movie, I really did. The second half is a fantastic black comedy of the influence peddling of the Bush years. It's just that when you really know about everything that happened, you feel more like crying than laughing. I'm not sure the movie knows quite how to handle that tone.

Green Hornet: Lacks Sting

This movie is a tough call. Normally I find it pretty clear whether to mention a movie as worth seeing ("of note") or better to stay away. There are a lot of nifty things in this film: that cool black car, some fine karate-style fighting, some great visual framing of explosions and car chases, and a deadpan performance from Academy award-winner Christoph Waltz as fashion-envious bad-guy Chudnofsky. The end credits are fun too. These are all the elements to make a fine, Saturday afternoon matinee, the kind of ten-dollar entertainment I was hoping to see.

Unfortunately, the elements just don't hang together, largely due to a too-juvenile script by writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. That's sad to say, because it's not that Rogan doesn't give it his all, skinnying up for the film and adopting some nifty judo moves. Jay Chou as Kato also does his best stepping into the role played by Bruce Lee. But even as a film aimed at fourteen-year-olds (as this one seems to be), Green Hornet fails to deliver the goods.

Part of it is that the combination of Rogan-style deadpan Dangerfield shtick with super-hero Freudian motivation just misses the mark entirely. Rogan plays Britt Reid, heir to newspaper mogul James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), who has built his paper, the Sentinel, into a bastion of public good. He's also straight out of a different economic era - more Randolf Hearst than Arthur Sulzberger, who recently predicted the end of print journalism. The Reids live in an impossibly huge L.A. mansion, with Britt particularly leading the luxury party life of a spoiled brat. Rogan tries to give Britt his typical dorky insouciance, but since he's rich and kind of an asshole, he's just not that likable (even if his father did rip of the head of his toy when he was boy).

The problem with the movie is that even after Dad dies and Britt and his "manservant" Kato (who used to be his father's mechanic) decide to play dress-up as crime-fighting bad dudes, Britt never grows up. He constantly remains the spoiled, dorky asshole through to the end of the film. That leaves you wishing this movie would kick into gear...start sending the hero down some kind of life lesson... but the only lesson Britt gets is that he can tear up the city with impunity just like he did when he was a rich playboy.

The only adult in the film seems to be Waltz's Chudnofsky, a syndicate boss psychopath who controls all of L.A.'s street gangs. At least Chudnofsky has a sense of perspective: he actually listens to the advice of a cocky criminal after he shoots him in the face, and keeps his cool when assassinating mouthy henchmen. He makes a perfect foil to the juvenile Hornet and his bad-ass but equally inexperienced side-kick, and there's a nice motif being started about youth and wisdom. Sad to say, it's never thought through, like most of this messy story.

The movie is like one of those Monty Python sketches, where just as the bad-guy might impart some pithy comment, a ten-ton anvil drops on his head. Dead, now...and the good guys can move on with their next fight-fest.

There's also Cameron Diaz, as Lenore Case, the token hottie-petottie. It's a bit sorry to see Rogan referring to Diaz as "old" - and Diaz slumming herself, or so it seems, to make a buck trotting her ass in this cartoon fluff. Diaz has played this type before (The Mask comes to mind), but much better, and with more gusto. If anything makes me feel old, it's this movie and the way it so lamely recycles what was once a comic original (and yes, I'm referring both to Diaz and to the part).

In the end, it seems that the only original touch in Green Hornet is a discussion about whether bad guys should wear Armani, or good guys a green Zoot suit from the fifties. That's probably only there because the producers told Rogan he needed to make a "modern," Green Hornet, with modernized version of the original camp humor, and not a fifties re-hash, and that was the only way he could think of to explain the cool Fifties outfits. Director Michael Gondry does have one inspired moment where he splits the screen again and again to show how Chudnofsky sends a missive to the massive underworld to go out and kill the Hornet: the continually splitting screen is like a bee pollinating the criminal gardens of L.A., one by one, until the entire landscape is polluted. It's both a great visual metaphor for Chudnofsky's control of the city, and a nice Hornet-y touch. Unfortunately, it's an isolated moment that's far too rare.

Overall, I think the movie would have been better without explaining the outfits, without the lame psycho-paternis back story, and without the juvenile competition over the hottie-petottie - just more car chases, bullets, and karate. It wouldn't have made any more sense, but it might have been more interesting to sit through, and more worthy of being a Saturday matinee of note.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Black Swan: Arty Dive

Well, I’m going to disagree with the great majority of critics on this one. While it’s racking up raves and notoriety for its arty approach and dancing from Star Wars heroine Natalie Portman (as well as its lesbian scene – thrown in to draw in some straight men, no doubt), I believe Black Swan is what we in polite circles call pretentious twaddle. (If Twaddle was a dance step, my movie companion – a former ballet dancer – said, this movie would be full of it).

I fully get what this movie is trying to do. The movie itself – ostensibly about a too-perfect, overly coddled New York ballet dancer who could finally get the chance to move from the core to the lead of Swan Lake, if only she could find her inner sexually liberated “black swan” – is itself a modern retelling of Swan Lake. Portman’s character, Nina Sayers, is the white swan. Mila Kunis plays Lily, the new dancer from out of town, or the black swan. And Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel - perhaps you'll recognize him as the French art thief from Oceans Thirteen), is the producer who ravishes his female dancers. He's Prince Siegfried and perhaps Von Rothbart as well, there to bring out the sexual yearnings of the white swan. Just like Swan Lake, the white swan is upstaged by the black swan; and the events in the lives of the dancers are meant to parallel the original story. The parallel is a rather lose one, until the final scene, where we’re presented with a puzzle: was this ending just the imaginary Swan Lake inside the story, or is the story now Swan Lake? The curtain comes down without telling us about whose reality we’re in at this point: another great twaddle move (since the movie has played with reality so much, it hardly matters by this point).

Add to the art-house ending all and sundry psycho-sexual thriller clichés as the story drapes this ballet. Nina is not only coddled and child-like, sleeping with teddy bears in her late twenties, but protected by a too-attentive and jealous mother. She’s a personality on the verge of a psychological splitting, imagining that she sees her sexually liberated self coming towards her in a subway, and the movie plays with doppelgangers, hallucinations, and of course, what’s real and what isn’t. All this seems to be more in service of titillating us with reality fake-outs and Natalie Portman pleasuring herself on camera than of any great story.

Personally, I liked the dancing and staging, though my dance experienced companion was squirming at Natlie Portman’s moves. “A real dancer would never have this dilemma,” he told me, referring to Nina’s trouble mastering the more sultry and sexy Black Swan part. “By the time someone is ready for a lead they would easily be able to play these two different roles.” That ruined the entire premise of the movie for him, though not being a dance expert myself, I was willing to give the story a pass on this point. For me it was, however, just more evidence that this movie is more about arty pretention and the idea of seeing Portman turn into a sex temptress than it is about anything real.

While I wouldn’t say the film is terrible – some great work has gone into staging the dance numbers, even if my friend thinks Portman’s work doesn’t quite rise to believable professionalism. I just can’t go along with those who find some deep meaning in the film. To me, this is exhibit A for those who complain that the art world can, at times, be without content and simply about pushing psycho-sexual buttons. If you want to see Portman push those buttons, by all means, don’t let me deter you.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The King's Speech: Oscar Caliber

From afar it seems like it can’t be much, this movie about a king who stutters. It sounds like that other indie film about a disabled King and the attentions to his impediments, about the ministrations of subjects and the vanity and fallibility of royalty, a very narrow, Shakespearean thing indeed. But with its fine performances – Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, and Helena Bonham Carter should all be remembered at Oscar time – and its perfectly written, tidy three-act script – The King’s Speech delivers what is oftentimes the hardest thing to do: a straightforward, well-told story, rich with many layers of meaning.

The movie opens in the late 1920’s, with the invention of radio and the imperative that King George as well as his two boys – the older David, and the younger Bertie – deliver a radio speech to the subjects of the realm. The problem is that Bertie has a stutter…such a severe stutter that he’s unable to utter nary a word of his speech, both to his own mortification and the embarrassment of his father. His wife, Elizabeth, deeply feels Bertie’s humiliation. Seemingly the one person in the family who wasn’t born to – but has mastered – the protocols of royalty, she seeks out to discretely, and with proper disarming etiquette, find Bertie some help in the speech department.

First, I have to pause and say that I love this role for Carter. Typically a Harry Potter witch or Tim Burton harpie, it’s exciting to see her open up and play a person of grace and magnanimity, albeit with her typical wry wit and breezy ministrations. She’s playing against type, and it makes the performance all the more interesting.

In fact, Rush and Firth are also playing against type – as we shall see – and this may be one thing that imbues such a seemingly simple story with so much tension.

From here out, however, I must note a SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the movie, I suggest you skip now to the end if you want the plot to remain a surprise.

When Elizabeth does encounter Rush’s Lionel Logue - a speech therapist (don't you love the name "Lionel Logue" for a speech therapist?) who advertises an unconventional manner – it takes a bit of convincing, as he recognizes her royal highness right away. He will only take on the prince as a client if he’s allowed to do his typical treatment, which is to essentially treat Bertie not only as an equal, but as a friend, as well.

So the first thing that The King’s Speech does is turn typical class distinctions on their head. It’s prince Bertie who is bone-headed, stubborn, and ungrateful, while Lionel needs to show both the patience and perseverance of the better man. In essence, Bertie is not only taking speech lessons from Logue, he’s also learning how to be a better King. This is where both Rush and Firth play against type, with the normally stand-up Firth needing to show flashes of anger and impetuousness (as well as hidden royalty, ready to be shaped) and Rush bringing the type of humble, middle-class, confident “menschness” that one would hardly expect from the man who plays characters like Pirate Barbosa.

It’s a good thing that Bertie is taking these lessons, too, because something else is going on in the background of this story: the rise of Hitler, and the approach of World War Two. If the country goes to war, a great King is going to be needed.

Unfortunately, Bertie’s older brother – David – isn’t up to the task, something which becomes all too clear when he starts taking up with a loose American woman who has sympathies with the Nazi party. If we know anything of history, and even if we don’t, we can see where this affair is going to lead Bertie.

Yes, Bertie’s overbearing father eventually dies…and David abdicates the throne…all on the eve of the outbreak of war. So Bertie is to be sworn in as King, though his lessons with Lionel have hit something of a snag.

And this is how something as simple as conquering a stutter becomes a stand-in for the heroic efforts that all men are called upon to perform in trying times such as these. Bertie has his own calling – to deliver the speech that will buck up and galvanize the nation – and his own inner demons to conquer in doing so. He’s found a willing partner in Lionel, if only he can see past his own class prejudices and personal demons to accept his help.

Thus the double meaning of the title. The King’s Speech is not only the manner of his stutter, but also the text of content that he must deliver to an anxious nation. That speech could easily determine Britain's ability to endure the blitz. In this way, then, the King’s determination to conquer his stutter is symbolic of a nation’s courageous efforts to endure the war. His acceptance of Lionel compared to David’s impetuous marriage to a commoner symbolizes the conflicting ways in which Britain begins to emerge into a modern, less classist age. And there are many other things, to boot – too many for a simple movie review.


That’s a lot for a little movie ostensibly about a stutter, told in an unpretentious, classic three-act style. But this movie carries it all off without a flaw, shining a light on this fascinating time and this interesting man. Come Oscar time, I expect it to carry at least a Royal flush of nominations.