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My Brilliant Career

After failing miserably in his profession, the hero of the French-made Time Out succeeds wildly in a fake job; Showtime, starring Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy, is a special waste of talent.

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Though a glass darkly: Aurelien Recoing as Vincent in Laurent Cantet's Time Out  

Time Out, from the french writer-director Laurent Cantet, is a hushed, small-scale masterpiece that moves into the shadowlands of tragedy. Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) is a bourgeois family man who, unbeknownst to his brood, has recently been fired from his position as a mid-level corporate consultant but still pretends to go to work each day. In reality, he spends his time driving the highways and sleeping in his car, sometimes overnight. Eventually, he invents a new job for himself that he claims takes him frequently to faraway Geneva, working to help Africa for the United Nations. In order to keep money coming in, he spins an investment scam and bilks several of his old friends and colleagues. Ultimately, Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), a toothy, sixtyish hotel manager who is also a career thief, enlists him in smuggling fake designer goods into France. Vincent sinks further and further into a miasma of seediness and deception, and yet -- this is the greatness of the film -- he is never so alive as when he is tranced out by his own duplicity.

If all the movie were saying is that Vincent is another casualty of corporate culture, it would not be so profoundly unsettling. Cantet confounds our expectations: Instead of showing us a modern man who is bereft without the work that gave him his identity, Cantet gives us someone whose identity is fulfilled by the void. His illusory existence has more gravity, more vibrancy, than his comfy home life, complete with three children and doting parents and a wife, Muriel (the extraordinary Karin Viard), who suspects something is amiss but looks the other way. Muriel is a schoolteacher who had higher ambitions for herself and feels penned in by her middle-class routine. Her unspoken complicity in Vincent's deception is a folly that enables him to stoke her fantasies of success as well as his own. She's devastated by how closed-off he has become, and yet she wants the lie to be true.

At one point, Vincent confesses to Jean-Michel that the only thing he really liked about his old job was the long road trips he made alone. We don't need to be told this, really; it's right there in Vincent's bright, glassy eyes when he drives with aimless purposefulness down the highways. Probably he is a man for whom being a husband and father was, at bottom, an alien existence -- just one more entrapment. Vincent may strike a chord with contemporary audiences bent on seeing his predicament as a parable of corporate woes, but he's closer to a character out of a Hawthorne story ("Wakefield," to be exact). The breach in his soul is what gives him his soulfulness. He presses on with his schemes and disappearances knowing full well that he is only buying time for himself, and there is a kind of madness in this. Aurelien Recoing is a celebrated French stage actor making his first major movie, and he gives Vincent an eerie, disaffected calm; a phantom made flesh.

Vincent feels real pain in scamming a hard-up friend who has sought him out, and he tries to make amends. But he operates in a world in which people unwittingly encourage his deceptions because they want their lives to be better. On some level, Vincent must feel that he is ministering to their fates as he is ministering to his own. He's delusional and starkly realistic at the same time, and Cantet doesn't try to psychoanalyze him; he recognizes that what motivates Vincent is probably unknowable. Certainly he is unknowable to himself. In the end, when he is found out and brought back into the life he once lived, he looks permanently riven. The big blank space inside has been revealed for all to see, and he can't sit comfortably in his own skin anymore. A job interviewer, impressed with him, asks Vincent if he is ready to take charge and he answers, "I'm not scared." He's petrified.

Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro have made any number of lame movies on their own, but there's a special wastefulness connected to their first co-starring vehicle, Showtime: It's lameness times two, and then some. De Niro plays a tough-talking L.A. cop who creates a public-relations problem within his department when he shoots at a meddlesome news camera during the aftermath of a drug raid; to stave off a lawsuit from the cameraman's network and to show he's a good guy, he is required by his boss to appear on a weekly reality-TV cop show. (It's the audience for this comedy that should be suing.) His partner for the show, played by Murphy, is a fast-talking cop and publicity hound who would much rather impersonate a policeman on TV than be one in real life.

At first, of course, they don't get along. And then, of course, they do. Routine jokes alternate with routine car chases and shoot-outs. The chemistry between the two stars is near-zilch: They're not even acting together a lot of the time, and when they are, Murphy serves up his standard loudmouth act while De Niro, wisely, seems to have his mind on other things than this movie. (Maybe he's figuring out where to put his paycheck.) The only funny sequence comes courtesy of none other than William Shatner, playing himself as an acting consultant to the two cops. He imparts the wisdom he gleaned while starring in T.J. Hooker and simulates throwing his body onto the hood of a getaway car. What can you say about a movie in which William Shatner outperforms Robert De Niro?

Ice Age, which features expertly rendered woolly mammoths, sloths, saber-toothed tigers, dodos, and much more, is yet another marvelously funny digital-animation feature. Maybe Hollywood should consider making all its movies this way: Along with Shrek, Monsters, Inc., and the Toy Story movies, Ice Age beats the pants off most of the new live-action stuff. . . . Kissing Jessica Stein, directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, is a New York comedy about two women, played by the film's co-writers, Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, who meet through the personals; one is mostly gay and "downtown," the other essentially straight and neurotic Jewish. A love match ensues that shades into friendship. It all works on the level of a sprightly sitcom: lesbianism for the Lucy-and-Ethel crowd.

Time Out
Directed by Laurent Cantet; starring Aurélien Recoing and Karin Viard.
Showtime
Directed by Tom Dey; starring Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy.


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