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Debt Collection

Capitalism light (Confessions of a Shopaholic) and dark (Gomorrah). Plus: Joaquin Phoenix’s swan song?


The makers of Sex and the City are lucky that their movie came out eight months ago, instead of now, on the other side of the time warp, when rabid designer-label consumption seems even more dismayingly out of touch. That era is gone, baby, gone. Indeed, any film set in the world of media or finance or real estate in which the central topics of discussion are dating and fashion instead of layoffs, foreclosures, and the end of Life As We Know It belongs to a distant past, like Judy Garland all atingle over those wondrous inventions at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Whatever else it is, the aggressively silly romantic comedy Confessions of a Shopaholic is in sync with the curve: Its theme is addiction to spending, its suspense tied to maxed-out credit cards and a bulldoggish bill collector. If the movie didn’t pander so madly to the audience for Sex and the City and Legally Blonde, it might have been a comedy touchstone instead of a cringeworthy footnote.

The dizzy white-girl comedienne du jour is Isla Fisher, poised to seize a share of the Reese–Sarah Jessica–Kate–Drew–Sandra–Renée market as budding journalist Rebecca Bloomwood, who confesses in voice-over that she can’t resist the siren call of the shop window. The movie has a nifty premise for an excesses-in-capitalism farce: With $16,000 in credit-card debt, Rebecca uses her anxieties as the springboard for a column on financially prudent shopping in a money magazine edited by British dreamboat Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy, whose name—a mash-up of Hugh Grant and Mr. Darcy— was made for chick flicks). But what if her readers—and her handsome boss—discover her hypocritical profligacy? The movie lifts off when it goes surreal or slapsticky, when clothing-store mannequins come alive and woo the riven addict, and when Rebecca ducks into stairwells to avoid the collection agent (Robert Stanton). Fisher is one of the few non-American actors liberated by a Yank accent: The broad syllables suit her open face and headlong tread.

It’s too bad we never get a sampling of Rebecca’s columns, and that’s not a quibble: We’d admire her more if we heard her critique what she loves most dearly. But this is not a thinking woman’s chick flick; idiocies abound. It’s the kind of comedy in which male execs are taken with the heroine’s graceless interjections because they’re stunned by her brilliance. Although it would have meant rewriting Sophie Kinsella’s best seller, Confessions would have been livelier if Rebecca had fallen for her debt collector instead of the rich Brit—if fiscal responsibility became madly sexy.

The chief problem with the film is its hyperdrive editing, for which I don’t entirely blame director P. J. Hogan or scissorhands-for-hire William Goldenberg. Jerry Bruckheimer produced the movie, and this is tempus Bruckheimerus, with actors forced to squeal and pop their eyes if they want to register. I was torn by the presence of such performers as John Lithgow, Joan Cusack, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Lynn Redgrave (in the illustrious role of “Drunken Lady at Ball”). They are all working far below their abilities. Yet they are working. These hard times have softened this critic’s lordly disdain and triggered a new empathy: Take that sitcom job! Go out for that Verizon commercial! Save yourselves!

I was stoked for Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, a far bloodier critique of capitalism. Based on a nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, the movie centers on the gangster-centric economy of Naples, a hub of drugs, high-fashion sweatshops, and toxic waste. In Saviano’s excitable yet exhaustively detailed first-person account, there are no traces of glamour in the bosses of the Camorra crime network, who style themselves after Hollywood gangsters but operate with the ruthless efficiency of totalitarian dictators to control wages and suppress dissent. Garrone sets the film in a vast, crumbling, cement public-housing project that has become a kind of narcotics warehouse, and he skips among seven protagonists—including a 13-year-old who falls in with low-level enforcers; a gifted tailor who risks his life (for money) to teach the art of haute-couture knockoffs; and a couple of loose-cannon punks who think they can get away with pilfering guns from mobsters.

Garrone’s camera studies the everyday business of Naples, training the same impassive camera on brutal murders, sewing patterns, and children tapped to drive trucks full of deadly chemicals. The poison of the system gets under your skin. But Gomorrah isn’t memorable. The structure feels random, and the characters remain at arm’s length. Next to HBO’s The Wire, which depicted an enormous financial ladder and also brought to life the characters on every rung, the movie is small potatoes: excellent journalism, so-so art.

James Gray’s movies (The Yards, We Own the Night) have their share of shopworn melodramatic devices, but they’re too emotionally rich to dismiss. Their authenticity—and their passion—is in their texture. In Two Lovers, his first feature without guns, Gray’s usual leading man, Joaquin Phoenix, pudges himself up to play Leonard, a suicidal depressive who has moved back in with his anxious Jewish family in Brighton Beach, where he works as a delivery boy for his dad’s dry-cleaning store. He’s fixed up with a nice Jewish girl (Vinessa Shaw) who’s lovely and wants to take care of him; and that would (and should) be that except one day a woman backs into his line of sight (and the frame) and, damn, it’s a shiksa goddess. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow! Leonard’s attraction is seismic. This is The Heartbreak Kid (the original) with none of the laughs but its heart right there on its sleeve.

Although Paltrow is radiant (and she nails the character’s ditzy sense of entitlement), it’s Phoenix’s movie. He is, once again, stupendous, and stupendous in a way he has never been before: His face is a graceless blob, his eyes searching for something, someone to define him. (Can Phoenix really be abandoning acting for rap? Oy.) Two Lovers is much ado about nothing, but so are most hopeless crushes in which everything in the universe seems suddenly at stake.

Confessions of a Shopaholic
Directed by P.J. Hogan.
Walt Disney Studios. PG.

Directed by Matteo Garrone.
IFC Films. R.

Two Lovers
Directed by James Gray.
Magnolia Pictures. R.



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