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Are You Kidding Me?!

Chloe is a feast of rich and nuanced performances—until the world’s lamest plot twist kicks in. Plus: Edward Norton’s perfect co-star.

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Few films go as obviously and bewilderingly wrong as Chloe, but for the first hour it’s a potent little melodrama in which the smooth, super-controlled storytelling contains the theme of unruly obsession like a straitjacket. A wealthy Toronto OB-GYN, Catherine (Julianne Moore), feels more and more estranged from her husband (Liam Neeson)—and from her own aging features in the mirror. It doesn’t help that she stares at the private parts of young, sexually active women all day. It also doesn’t help that she stares out her office window and often sees a creamy, angel-faced blonde (Amanda Seyfried) on the arms of various older men. When she finds an intimate text message sent to her husband by one of his students, she decides to hire the blonde, a hooker named Chloe, to test her husband’s resistance. The test-the-spouse idea never turns out well, and using someone who looks like Seyfried doesn’t exactly tip the scales in favor of fidelity. When Chloe relays what happened, Catherine listens with dread, but also something else. Perhaps—it’s hard to tell—she’s turned on by the thought of living through this alluring young woman.

Director Atom Egoyan likes to “mediate” his subjects, to frame his characters with video screens or camera lenses or telescope sights or doors and windows—anything to reinforce the ways in which they’re cut off from one another and the soulless modern world. (His home base, Toronto, helps: It’s not exactly the City of Love.) With Chloe, Egoyan is directing for the first time a feature-film script he didn’t write (it’s by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a French film called Nathalie … ), and for once he doesn’t overworry the material and fracture it into too many little screens. He goes with the story, and his distancing devices don’t call attention to themselves. And, anyway, he can get only so far away from Julianne Moore. She’s extraordinarily raw and affecting. She doesn’t hide behind another accent, and she barely seems made-up: Her skin is translucently pale, her freckles more prominent than ever before. She looks as if a strong sun—literal or metaphorical—would incinerate her. Neeson lost his wife in the middle of making this film, and it shows. He often looks haggard, encased in his own private woe. That makes the chasm between this fictional husband and wife seem even more unbridgeable.

Egoyan is an expert at isolating people, but he’s less sure of himself when it comes to how they connect. So what happens to the character of Chloe is the worst kind of surprise, the “Huh?” that throws you fatally out of the movie. Seyfried can’t pull off the transition—she seems out of her depth. But what actress could have? She’d need to have written her own backstory, maybe even her own separate script. It’s like we’ve fallen through the looking glass into a Lifetime TV Fatal Attraction knockoff.

The enjoyably rambling crime picture Leaves of Grass addresses the eternal conflict between the Socratic view of the world, which argues that the goal of life is to control and channel one’s passions, and the ribald surrender to instinct. I’m not reading into it: The theme is announced. It’s announced, in fact, during the first minute of the film, by the trim, lucid Ivy League classics professor Bill Kincaid (Edward Norton), although his paean to rationality is somewhat undercut by the openmouthed lust of his female students, especially the busty girl who delivers a Latin oration while trying to hump him over his desk.

It’s also undercut by the back-and-forth cutting between the prof and his Okie identical twin, Brady (Norton, too), a prodigious marijuana grower and imbiber who drawls his own odes to the bud structure and crystal density of his exquisitely engineered hydroponic dope. The unkempt Brady, under threat of being knocked off by a local kingpin, lures his estranged sibling to sweet home Oklahoma, where the poor, studiously self-contained Bill gets beaten to a pulp by goons who think he’s his brother. When Bill and Brady share the screen, Norton—not a self-effacing actor—gets the rare opportunity to upstage himself, which he does over and over and with increasing gusto. He has found his ideal co-star.

Written and directed by Tim Blake Nelson (who also plays Brady’s slow, steadfast sidekick), Leaves of Grass is part goofy drug comedy, part shocking bloodbath. It’s a riot of tones and genres, but unlike that other recent hybrid, Pineapple Express, the parts add up to something larger. Nelson, like the writers of the classic Roman and Greek dissimilar-twin comedies, turns our irreconcilable dual natures into the stuff of farce—in this case farce set in a cruel, perhaps godless universe. It’s certainly a fatherless and motherless universe. The brothers’ dad threw himself with suicidal fervor into the Vietnam War and died young. Their mother (Susan Sarandon) surrendered to sixties self-gratification and smoked pot with her kids. One son went to seed, but at least had a genius for cultivating that seed. The other suppressed a part of his essential nature, but at least had a genius for finding ancient texts that suggest why doing so is a good thing. Neither is whole, but as comic characters they’re 100 percent there. They have goofball stature.

Leaves of Grass has plenty of off notes. Some of the action is flat-footed, and Nelson depicts Tulsa’s culturally incongruous Jewish community with too hammy a hand. But at its best, the movie reminded me of Charles Willeford’s Miami-set crime novels, which shamble along amusingly and erupt, without warning, into gory (and often tragic) violence. There’s also a dash of Joel and Ethan Coen: hyperliterate dialogue for brains and bumpkins alike, all of them blinkered (and made rabid) by self-interest. Nelson’s heart, though, is more on his sleeve. He has made Bill’s love interest a pretty schoolteacher (Keri Russell) who catches giant, wriggling catfish with her bare hands (“noodling”) while reciting Walt Whitman on the existential necessity of unabashed passion without drawable restrictions. Too good to be true? Yes. But I think I’ve found my new feminine ideal: a Whitmanesque noodler.

Chloe
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Leaves of Grass
First Look International. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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