Hope Floats

Photo: Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Kimberly Roberts lost her mother to AIDS when she was 13; lived on the street; sold cocaine; straightened out her life; married an addict (now clean) whose face she’d slashed with a razor blade; wrote vivid rap songs about all she’d survived; and wound up residing in New Orleans’ predominantly African-American Ninth Ward—where, on August 29, 2005, she turned her camcorder on marooned friends and relatives when Katrina smashed into the city and the levees buckled. Her shaky footage is the centerpiece of Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water, and seen through her eyes—those of a person who’d gone from chaos and nihilism to faith—the catastrophe and the impulse to document it seems especially heroic. As her family huddles in an attic with a view of the water rushing through the streets, higher than the stop signs, pouring into houses, of people fighting the current to keep from going under, with 911 operators telling her there’s no one coming to the rescue “at this time,” the film is at once infuriating and affirming. No matter how bland the bureaucratese in the disaster’s aftermath, what happened to Kimberly Roberts and her husband, Scott, and her drowned uncle and her hospitalized grandmother left to die is right there on the screen—always in the present tense.

Lessin and Deal met Kimberly and Scott after the couple had managed to make it to safety, and the film they’ve woven around her first-person footage provides the bitter political context: the mayor unconcerned, as the storm approaches, about the lack of public transportation; the dissembling president (“I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees”); the stunned FEMA appointee, “heckuva-job” Michael Brown. There is simply no one from the government there as the water rises, and those who are—officers at a naval base blocks away—train their guns on a crowd in desperate search of shelter. The filmmakers cut back and forth between those last days of August and the couple’s return, two weeks later, to their devastated neighborhood, where they find a decomposing relative and, amid carcasses of dogs, their own pets, alive and frisky and destined to be shot by National Guardsmen for reasons unspecified. The Robertses ruminate bitterly on a country that directs its vast resources elsewhere—to Iraq, for example—but always end their exchanges with praise for the soldiers’ good works and thanks to God.

As someone of bounteous hope but little (formal) faith, I found Kimberly’s religious ejaculations a bit trying. She and her husband trek north to a relative’s house in which there’s no water, and when a man shows up to turn it on, she exclaims, “When you trust in God, he sends miracles your way!” Five minutes later, the man returns, now ordered to shut the water off, and this time God goes pointedly unmentioned. But I admit that my perspective is that of a privileged New Yorker who has never had to summon comparable spiritual resources. Whatever sparked and has sustained Kimberly’s resolve is indeed a kind of miracle. The rap that she performs for the camera, “Amazing,” is just that, an explicit (and profane) account of her sordid past capped with an irresistibly upbeat refrain—a potential smash. That faith brings her and her husband back to New Orleans despite continued government neglect—even as New Orleans pours its resources into luring tourists back to the French Quarter. In one scene, Kimberly and fellow refugees line up for FEMA assistance at some kind of ranch, where a sign overhead points to Gate B—CATTLE ENTRANCE. You can’t make this stuff up. You can, however, capture it on film for all time. Trouble the Water is ineradicably moving.

Why can’t Americans make comedies as playful but serious as Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (opening August 29), based on a book by the great Czech satirist Bohumil Hrabal? Is it because we can’t stand the thought of a hero who is at once indifferent to politics and entirely shaped by them? Jan Ditte (Oldrich Kaiser) emerges from a Czech prison after nearly fifteen years and is exiled to an abandoned village—once occupied by Germans—on the border. As he mulls over his life, we see flashbacks of him as a slight, Chaplinesque fellow (Ivan Barnev) who wants only to be rich and manages to accommodate himself to all sorts of people—generals, kings, industrialists, and, eventually, the invading Nazis. The flashbacks are in the style of silent comedy, their magical naïveté at odds with Ditte’s cynical view of human nature and the encroaching horror of Nazism. Menzel’s touch is sprightly, lyrical, mischievously understated—his hero neither good nor evil but blessed (and cursed) by tunnel vision. How could he have guessed what the Commies would make of his wealth—or that bad luck would be his redemption?

Most mainstream American comedies these days are satires not of real life but of film genres—two giant steps removed from the world. The newest specimens, Hamlet 2 and The Rocker, are decent late-August time killers made inconsequential by their facetiousness. The first is a fable of a failed actor (Steve Coogan) who becomes a failed high-school drama teacher and has his faith restored by a class of (initially) uncooperative ethnic minorities—a parody of Dangerous Minds. I’ve always had a soft spot for Andrew Fleming (Dick), whose rhythms are less pushy than other American comedy directors, sometimes winningly, sometimes to the point of flaccidity. This one is on the limp side but gets points for weirdness. Coogan’s mopiness is oddly riveting. And the inspirational climax, a musical extravaganza in which Hamlet goes through a portal in time and joins forces with Jesus, is so god-awful it is very nearly inspired.

With a half-decent climax, the go-for-it parody The Rocker would have been pretty good bordering on good instead of just okay. Its appeal rests on Rainn Wilson, of NBC’s The Office, a large, misshapen fellow whose features swim in the middle of his big face and whose movements are the opposite of fluid. He plays Fish, a drummer unjustly chucked out of a heavy-metal band that went on to superstardom who now has another shot with a group of high-school kids. I liked a lot of The Rocker (Christina Applegate, as the mother of the group’s lead singer, is blessedly grounded), but it’s depressing when the best thing you can say about a comedy is that its second-rateness is pleasantly in sync with its unmagnetic hero.

Trouble the Water
Directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin.
Zeitgeist Films. NR.

I Served the King of England
Directed by Jiri Menzel.
Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Hamlet 2
Directed by Andrew Fleming.
Focus Features. R.

The Rocker
Directed by Peter Cattaneo.
20th Century Fox. PG-13.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Hope Floats