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No Happiness Please, We’re British

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Joshua Goldin’s debut feature, Wonderful World, is a thesis drama, which means it comes to a philosophical point—which further means it’s easy to dismiss as too messagey. But its thesis isn’t pat. It doesn’t reduce its characters’ motives—it illuminates their contradictions. Matthew Broderick plays Ben Singer, a former musician (he made records for kids) who’s soured on the business and burned his bridges. Poor, divorced, working as a proofreader, he sees a culture that caters to people’s worst instincts, a culture he wants no part of. His negativity has infected his young daughter (Jodelle Ferland) to the point where she hides from him; his ex-wife (Ally Walker) says, “She still wants to think the world is a nice place.” Only Ben’s Senegalese flatmate Ibu (Michael K. Williams) offers a convincing counterargument. Over chess games he invariably wins, he talks about game theory, and its suggestion that people can act in ways both opportunistic and moral.

Game theory, at least as articulated here, is a pretty good way to approach the world without becoming either a spokesman for mindless positive thinking or a David Mamet–like cynic given to parables of betrayal and one-upmanship. And it’s a great way to survive Hollywood. When Ibu goes into a diabetic coma and his sister (Sanaa Lathan) arrives from Senegal, Ben falls in love and mounts a vindictive lawsuit against the city. Like a child, he both overidealizes and overblames. What’s fascinating about Broderick is how quickly he went from the can-do juvenile of WarGames and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to the sad-sack embodiment of middle-aged defeat. But maybe he was so inspiring in his youth because you could glimpse the future worrywart. His rapport with Ferland is remarkable—and so is she, her confusion about what to make of the dad she loves right on the surface.

A lot of Wonderful World doesn’t jell, and Williams, who played Omar on The Wire, sports an accent so convincing you get only every third word—although maybe that’s a plus, considering his didactic lines. But the movie is unfailingly likable and finally impressive. Goldin doesn’t settle for easy answers, and he makes you think that no one should.

There’s no serious drama to speak of in The Last Station, which centers on the final days of Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) as two momentous forces compete for the rights to his life’s work: his wife (Helen Mirren), who wants to keep his estate and copyrights, and his acolyte (Paul Giamatti), who wants the world to have free access to his Christian-anarchist-pacifist-ascetic writings. Adorable James McAvoy as Tolstoy’s new aide has to choose sides: It’s Giamatti’s jowls and priggishness versus Mirren’s moist eyes and Kerry Condon’s lovely breasts. Some contest. The movie has its evocative moments, but it’s so rigged on the side of anti-intellectualism that you’d never guess that Tolstoy’s late work inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The tony cast emotes like mad, but polished Brits are so temperamentally unlike Russians that every four-syllable patronymic sounds like iambic pentameter.

My language cannot do justice to adman Nobuhiko Obayashi’s delirious 1977 Japanese horror-fantasy House, which will have its American theatrical premiere at the IFC Center. You’d have to imagine Pee-wee’s Playhouse with a witch that eats schoolgirls, only amped up by a factor of 100. The best thing in this wild assemblage of collage and cartoon and fairy tale is that the girls, when they’re eaten, scream with glee as their cut-out body parts spin around the frame. It’s cannibalism as the ultimate kiddie ride.

Fish Tank
Directed by Andrea Arnold.
IFC Films. NR.

Youth in Revolt
Directed by Miguel Arteta.
Dimension Films. R.

Wonderful World
Directed by Joshua Goldin.
Magnolia Pictures. R.

The Last Station
Directed by Michael Hoffman.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

House
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi.
Janus Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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