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Demme’s Dazzler

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Debra Winger plays Kym and Rachel’s mother, Abby, and when we see her again onscreen, it’s hard not to smile. She’s family. But Abby turns out to be a painfully limited woman, and with Winger in the role, we feel Kym’s disappointment more acutely. I don’t mean Winger is disappointing: The performance is beautifully modulated, a layer of maternal warmth over a layer of fearshe turns mean when threatened, then ices over. I mean that when Winger’s face hardens and becomes masklike, it evokes feelings we’ve all had when people we loved didn’t rise up to comfort us. I’ve never seen a movie with this mixture of fullness and desolation. Rachel Getting Married is a masterpiece.

Joel and Ethan Coen will have a good giggle when they see Ridley Scott’s conspiracy thriller Body of Lies, which delivers with a straight face the kinds of shots and setups the brothers wickedly burlesqued in Burn After Reading. The movie isn’t witty or memorable, but it keeps you on edge, and it’s the first war-on-terror film to weave its anti-U.S. politics so deeply into the narrative that the characters don’t need to speechify. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the idealistic CIA operative whose methods and morals are constantly undermined by his chummy Langley-based boss, played by Russell Crowe with glasses and 30 extra pounds. It’s a kind of sick joke to cast Crowe, one of the most crazy-intense actors alive, in the role of a man who’s entirely removed from the consequences of his actionsto the point where he can kiss his kids on a Virginia playground while talking tactics into his headset. To this big slug, who barely seems connected to his own body, everyone is expendableinformants, contract employees, agents. He’s American callousness personified, and American incompetence, too: In spite of his technology, he’s too far away to see what’s happening on the ground.

Scott’s ground game isn’t bad; his style is less techno-whoosh and more muscular than usual. But he lets nothing interfere with pacing, including hitting some basic dramatic beats. The moment when DiCaprio comes up with his ingenious scheme to smoke out an elusive terrorist? Missing. The moment he realizes how he’s been used? Murky. The big payoff? Muted. The film has one indelible asset: Mark Strong, who plays the Jordanian spymaster Hani. He’s sleek and lounge-lizard sharp like a young Andy Garcia, and he could be bigger than Garcia. The Jordanian holds all the cards, and opposite two superstars, Strong is the only actor who holds the camera.

Mike Leigh’s enchanting/disturbing Happy-Go-Lucky opens October 10th after a run at the New York Film Festival; I’ll have a review next issue.

I don’t want to let New York’s 40th anniversary pass without mentioning the movie critics who’ve contributed so much to its reputation: Judith Crist, John Simon, Molly Haskell, David Denby (for two decades), Peter Rainer, and Ken Tucker. Bars don’t get set much higher.

Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Body of Lies
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Warner Brothers. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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