Body Issues

Photo: Michael Gibson/Courtesy of Universal Pictures

What can you say about a man who leaps from a helicopter over Manhattan without a parachute in the hope that by increasing his heart rate he’ll transform into an iridescent lime-green behemoth so he can take on an even bigger behemoth? That he knows he’s living in a computer-generated universe in which gravity is a feeble suggestion and nothing is remotely at stake, and that when he hits the ground he’ll be replaced by a special effect. The Incredible Hulk is weightless—as disposable as an Xbox game.

It’s also fairly entertaining: swift, playful without pitching into camp, and acted with high spirits. It’s subtext-free—unlike its lumbering, Ang Lee–directed predecessor, Hulk, in which it wasn’t enough that Bruce had an anger-management problem: He was also a Freudian basket case with a buried trauma, something vaguely to do with his dad, mom, and a butcher knife. (This would be followed by an even more solemn misfire, Superman Returns, in which Superman seemed to have returned from Gethsemane.) With all its pretensions and no payoff, Hulk turned out to be a dreaded Franchise Killer, something scarier in Hollywood than mad-cow-tainted beef at a burger joint.

The chief fault of The Incredible Hulk is that it aims to be the diametric opposite of Lee’s, and it jettisons what actually worked. Hulk had a slow, careful buildup, so director Louis Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn play the whole Bruce Banner–belted–by–gamma-rays thing in strobelike fragments over the opening credits. It’s like the projectionist left out a reel. Leterrier made the Jason Statham Transporter thrillers, which are so hyped up they don’t seem to have a present tense. The first half of The Incredible Hulk feels like one of those trailers where you think, “Are they showing the entire movie?” Yes! Things don’t settle down until Liv Tyler glimpses Edward Norton holding a pizza carton in a doorway and chases him into a downpour. She doesn’t care that he wrecked her lab, killed a few of her colleagues, and put her in traction. She wants to stand by her Hulk.

For Bruce, Norton is an inspired choice. His aw-shucks number is endearing, yet behind it there’s a trace of a sneer. Tyler, as a renowned scientist, doesn’t make Jennifer Connelly’s mistake (in the last film) of looking as if she has ever hovered over a Bunsen burner. She is blissfully unencumbered. She tries to buy Bruce pants with very elastic waistbands. When he mumbles something about having to catch a bus, she holds his eyes and twitters, “At least let me walk you to the station”—and she’s so adorable you want to hug her with the biggest, greenest arms imaginable.

For a while, Leterrier wisely keeps those big green arms in the shadows, but when the Hulk explodes into the light it’s clear that Bruce’s anger hasn’t made him humongous—it has made him digital. (There’s more of a disconnect between Norton and his cyberself than there was between Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.) The military throws everything it can at the special effect before it decides it needs him to battle another special effect—Tim Roth as the overweening Hulk-hunter turned hulkier hulk and driven insane with power. Like Iron Man, this is a movie in which the solution to terrible weapons we’ve built and over which we’ve lost control is more and better weapons. The Incredible Hulk comes down to child-men smashing things to demonstrate their potency—but at least the carnage is confined to ones and zeroes.

Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s documentary Chris & Don tells the story of a gay English blue blood who in the fifties picked up a working-class stud muffin 30 years his junior on a Santa Monica beach and became obsessed with him. Primed as we are by a culture rich in both homophobia and dirty old men, we can be forgiven for anticipating a sordid cautionary tale. It’s a shock—a happy shock—when Chris & Don recounts a love that approaches the transcendental.

Chris is Christopher Isherwood, famous for Berlin Stories—which was the basis of Cabaret and inspires in Chris & Don an unfortunate tangent about how wrong Isherwood thought Liza Minnelli was for Sally Bowles. Don is Don Bachardy, an unsophisticated Californian given to movie-star worship—and most impressed, at first, by Isherwood’s acquaintance with Montgomery Clift. Eyebrows are raised when they move in together. But a fascinating thread emerges in interviews with friends and in excerpts from Isherwood’s diary—read via the magic of movies by Michael York, who played the author’s alter ego in Cabaret. Chris’s ideal love would have to be someone outside his class, who wouldn’t remind him of everything he fled (going as far, you’ll recall, as Weimar). And in Don he recognized a fellow artist—albeit one with vastly different gifts. The young man evolved into a marvelous portrait painter, with an eye for the detail that turns a likeness into an X-ray.

Isherwood passed away in 1986, but Bachardy still lives in the house they shared and still paints attractive young men in stages of undress. He speaks in an English accent that is distinctly Isherwood’s. The creepiness dissipates the more you get to know him. After Bachardy became successful in his own right, he and Isherwood had periods of estrangement, took lovers, and pushed the limits of domesticity. But he was there at Isherwood’s deathbed, drawing him compulsively, then drawing his body for hours after his passing. The sequence, like the movie, is stunningly open and heartfelt. We look at those final drawings of Isherwood and sense what Bachardy is doing: capturing surface details in a feverish attempt to go beyond them—to get to the core of his lover’s being. Chris & Don is the rarest of documentaries: a realistic portrait of the human spirit.

Given that meter maids and meter men are among the most reviled human beings on the planet (critics come close), a love story between meter people doesn’t sound too enticing. The director of Expired, Cecilia Miniucchi, doesn’t shy away from the matter: The uneasy courtship happens between scenes of drivers’ dashing up and shouting, “I’m here! Don’t do this! Asshole!” It’s very traumatic. But somehow the more torturous the movie gets the more touching. Samantha Morton is Claire, a nice meter maid who takes care of her stroke-victim mom (Teri Garr) and hasn’t had a boyfriend in years. Jay (Jason Patric) is single, too, and even though he’s ruggedly handsome, it’s easy to see why he’s alone. He’s poison. Tight and prickly, he abuses what little power he has—over those unlucky enough to be parked at expired meters and those unlucky enough to fall for him. Patric has never backed down from his characters’ dark sides, and Jay is among the most bilious romantic leads in history. But you know what Claire sees in him: a wounded bird who might, with nurturing, fly. Morton is one of those tingly actresses whose skin barely covers her soul, and to watch her search for tender mercies in a crazy-hostile world is a gift. The film is appallingly good.

It seems only yesterday that M. Night Shyamalan cast himself in Lady in the Water as an author who receives a message from a narf, who tells him the story he’s working on will inspire a child who will grow up and change the world. The theme of Shyamalan’s The Happening is just as grandiose—the end of human life—but his confidence seems gone. A high-toned revenge-of-nature horror picture, it’s a little depressed, with only gross-out shocks (gushing jugulars, bodies run over by lawnmowers) to relieve the torpor. Something is making people stop what they’re doing and kill themselves. Bad reviews can’t be the culprit because it’s not just megalomaniacal filmmakers who are affected. Philadelphia science teacher Mark Wahlberg makes the vaguely creationist case that science is inadequate to explain the higher mysteries, like why honeybees are disappearing and his wife (Zooey Deschanel) has gone frigid. Wahlberg figures it out the way Paul Giamatti in Lady in the Water figured out the narf was endangered by a rogue scrunt—in big, furrowed-brow close-ups that would kill the career of a lesser actor. All that’s missing is the head alien of Plan 9 From Outer Space dropping by to lecture the populace for disrespecting nature: “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”

Five years after Hulk tanked, Marvel decided to finance a new version starring the famously opinionated Ed Norton. Admitting that Norton’s rep “scared the bejesus out of me,’’ director Louis Leterrier says it was smooth sailing until postproduction, when he and Norton lobbied hard for a longer, artsier cut than Marvel wanted; soon Nikki Finke was blogging about the “Hulk-ing feud.” Norton stopped talking to the press, but later sent a 257-word explainer to Entertainment Weekly: “Our healthy process, which is and should be a private matter, was misrepresented publicly as a ‘dispute,’ seized on by people looking for a good story.”

The Incredible Hulk
Directed by Louis Leterrier.
Marvel Enterprises. PG-13.

Chris & Don: A Love Story
Directed by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi.
Zeitgeist Films. NR.

Directed by Cecilia Miniucchi.
MCR Releasing. NR.

The Happening
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Warner Bros. R.


Body Issues