Sea, Sun, and Hungry Sex

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Studios

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx play super-detectives “Sonny” Crockett and “Rico” Tubbs in Michael Mann’s gargantuanly expensive Miami Vice remake, and it’s a stellar runway on which to model their preternatural cool. The look of the movie is rougher than the old TV show’s—swervy, jittery, video-grainy. And Farrell and Foxx aren’t sleek pretty boys like their predecessors: They wear roomy suits to accommodate their pumped-up physiques. But the vibe endures—the entrancing interplay of the torrid and the torpid. In the eighties, the combination often seemed like a commercial for cocaine (mounds of it), but it’s really that old Mann-ly existentialism. Like the protagonists of Thief and Heat, Crockett—probably named after Davy—longs for a connection, finds it fleetingly (hungry sex, woozy alienation, hungry sex), and (while his black brother heads home to a fine lady) is invariably left alone with his wardrobe.

Early reviewers have labeled Miami Vice a disaster, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It’s a sensational trip—gorgeous, gaga. Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, does nothing so mundane as establish the characters of Crockett and Tubbs, the way he did in the TV pilot. He simply plops the duo down mid-story, in a throbbing Miami nightclub on a stakeout. By and by, Tubbs sees a flashy pusher lead a drugged-out young woman to the exit and can’t contain his righteous fury. Fighting his way toward the bad guy, he deftly breaks a bodyguard’s fingers, and Crockett throws his muscular arms around Tubbs and says, “Easy, easy, easy—his day will come.” His day never does, whoever he is, since a short time later a friend of the pair’s dies gruesomely after running afoul of some sneering Aryan dealers, and Crockett and Tubbs (and their team) are drafted by the Feds to whiz off to Haiti posing as drug smugglers.

This they do prodigiously—Mann’s alter egos are masters at their trade (law enforcement or lawbreaking, interchangeably). What follows is scene after scene of macho glowering—of men sizing one another up, scanning their adversaries’ faces for signs of duplicity or weakness. But it’s the big cheese’s mistress (Gong Li), with her leggy ice-queen affect, who inevitably mesmerizes Crockett. He catches a glimmer of vulnerability under her ultracompetent pose and knows she’s squishy—like him. The movie is so money: Crockett asks her out for mojitos and off they speed toward Havana in a boat that would make Batman squeal in awe.

There isn’t a lot of gunplay in Miami Vice, but there’s plenty of action. Mann lingers on Foxx’s rippling back as Tubbs and his woman (the luscious Naomie Harris) get it on in the shower—he’s aiming to steam up your glasses. Mann ladles on the mood-rock, and sure, it’s a little much: A project that began in the early eighties with the late Brandon Tartikoff handing Mann a piece of paper that read “MTV cops” is always going to carry a whiff of camp. But Mann isn’t detached; he’s in there working it, doing bebop variations on old themes. He and his cinematographer, Dion Beebe, make everything strange—the hard horizontal lines of office buildings, the maze of tributaries off Biscayne Bay. Shots of Crockett and Tubbs’s team are near hallucinatory in their mixture of amorphousness and brisk efficiency. The violence is fast, messy, discombobulating—much of the climactic shootout is Cops style, from a limited video vantage, the soft pop-pop-pop of distant guns far eerier than the usual overamplified cannon roars.

Disorientation cuts both ways, of course: As a thriller, Miami Vice is only semi-coherent, with an ending that leaves more than one thread dangling in the surf. But who needs another ordinary buddy-cop movie? To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, confusion is a small price to pay for beauty.

We’re on familiar ground with Woody Allen’s Scoop—although shooting in London has given the prolific (too prolific?) writer-director some fresh locations and accents. Last winter’s overpraised Match Point was a British translation of Crimes and Misdemeanors and bore the dubious message that if you get away with murder, God doesn’t exist. Scoop is a British translation of Manhattan Murder Mystery and bears no message whatsoever. Much the better! The movie is hit-and-miss, but its peppy spirit boosts it over the net.

It begins with a peppy spirit—the ghost (Ian McShane) of a newly deceased Fleet Street legend who appears to a young American journalism major (Scarlett Johansson) while she’s taking part in a vanishing act by a third-rate magician (Woody Allen). The ghost has learned that the wealthy son (Hugh Jackman) of a lord is a notorious serial killer, and since he can’t publish the story himself, he wants the girl to nail it down. Come to think of it, why can’t he publish it himself? Why not materialize in front of his editor? Oh, right: That would kill the premise, in which the girl and the kvetching magician are bumbling sleuths, the girl falls for the handsome aristocrat, and farcical mayhem ensues.

As an actor, Allen is both welcome and borderline insufferable, like a favorite uncle with uncontrolled flatulence. He can’t modulate the fluttering hands and spasmodic stops and starts; he’s like a Woody Allen impersonator. Actually, he is a Woody Allen impersonator—the persona having long since lost its connection to the man. That said, the performance is almost a triumph. He’s wonderful when he jabbers nonsensically at a succession of puzzled English nobles—he has a touch of Groucho. If he hadn’t conceived of the man as a Broadway Danny Rose–ish loser, both he and Scoop might have soared.

Johansson doesn’t have the natural buoyancy to play a screwball Nancy Drew; her normal delivery (which many find alluring) suggests lazy self-entitlement. But she’s smart enough to know what’s needed (a young Diane Keaton), and manages to rouse herself. Jackman gives the wittiest performance as the movie’s breezy straight man. Although McShane deserved a better exit and the windup makes no sense, this is the first Allen picture since Sweet and Lowdown that doesn’t leave a bad odor in its wake.

Little Miss Sunshine is an enchanting anthem to loserdom—a dark comedy that piles on setback after setback and yet never loses its helium. It centers on a family road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California—to a kiddie beauty pageant in which 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a finalist. It’s odd, because Olive isn’t kiddie-pageant material: She’s a pretty, unaffected little dumpling with a stuck-out tummy. She clearly doesn’t have a prayer. But a fierce determination clings to the family’s have-a-nice-day yellow Volkswagen bus, which looks so tacky against the mythic desert vistas. The bus needs a group push to start, but it never stalls. Like the movie, it runs on sheer pluckiness.

At first, I feared the directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, would hit the QUIRKY button too hard. But Michael Arndt’s script has so much comic invention that the whimsy doesn’t stagnate, and the characters grow in stature and become affecting. Olive’s dad is a failed entrepreneur, and Greg Kinnear finds layer upon layer of vulnerability in his can-do sitcom heartiness. As the foulmouthed, heroin-addicted grandpa, Alan Arkin shows off the kind of genius timing that leavens his character’s nihilism, and Paul Dano plays the weirdo brother (who has taken a vow of silence in deference to Nietzsche) with such angry, beseeching eyes that the teenage misfit is more than a one-joke character. As Olive’s Proust-scholar uncle, who has just botched a suicide attempt after losing a lover to another gay Proust scholar, Steve Carell gives a superb interior performance—a man who could easily take to his bed in a cork-lined room were it not for a plump little girl.

The key to Little Miss Sunshine is that every single one of these people is going to come up against a major obstacle and, in the great American tradition … lose. Lose crushingly. Lose enough to make a person want to pack it in. But when life hands them a lemon, they don’t just make lemonade. They learn to spike it with whiskey and dance their friggin’ heads off.

Miami Vice may well have been the flashiest show ever, what with the coke, the cigarette boats, and the truly random roster of guest stars and celebrities-to-be. Among those who dropped by were Miles Davis (playing a pimp), Leonard Cohen (the head of Interpol), Julia Roberts (a Mafia mistress who helped Crockett after he lost his memory), and, of course, James Brown, who gave a glimpse of his future loopiness as Lou De Long, a cult leader obsessed with the impending arrival of aliens.

Miami Vice
Directed by Michael Mann. Universal. R.

Directed by Woody Allen. Focus Features. PG-13.

Little Miss Sunshine
Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Fox Searchlight. R.


Sea, Sun, and Hungry Sex