Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is a pompous, interminable hash. Billed as a precursor to the legend we know, it’s rich in bogus historical context, along with enough mud, blood, and clutter to overwhelm our happy memories of Errol Flynn’s grin and Olivia de Havilland’s radiance. Here, Robin and Marian are played by a scowling Russell Crowe and a grim Cate Blanchett, who has the face of a wooden squaw* stained by decades of cigar smoke. I can’t remember a more un-fun-looking couple.
Scott, convinced he has much to say about oppression and social justice, presents a Robin who returns from the Crusades with post-traumatic-stress disorder after helping to slaughter tens of thousands of guiltless Muslims and goes on to write the Magna Carta. In between, he travels to Nottingham and informs Marian of her husband’s death. Amid all the gritty, mucky, barnyard realism, Blanchett receives the bad news with a mask of stoicism, turns away from Crowe, totters, puts a fluttery hand to her heart, and promptly regains her composure. It’s Blanche DuBois Goes Medieval. Crowe follows this spectacle by taking a bath, which allows the newly single Blanchett to behold him in his jiggly splendor. While the aging stars grit their teeth and pretend to be sweet on each other, a bald French spy affecting an English accent pushes King John to tax his subjects so ruthlessly that the French will be able to cruise across the Channel and plate escargot by suppertime.
In a Ridley Scott film, war is hell—on the eyes and ears. He jams together disparate whackings and hackings and uses a flickery, quasi-slow-motion as if he thinks it will smooth out the gaps in continuity. If his aim is to deglamorize battle, he misses the most vital component of humanism: to present the dead as individuals instead of anonymous founts of CGI gore. As in Gladiator, it all comes down to righteous vengeance. Robin leads the Saxons against the French pig-dogs who skewered Max von Sydow as Marian’s blind father-in-law—a cause we embrace because Von Sydow alone among the hams seems to be having a good time.
The first printed verse to refer to the figure of Robin Hood (who probably existed) is this, from the thirteenth or fourteenth century: “Lithe and Lysten, gentylmen / That be of frebore blode I shall tell of a good yeman / His name was Robyn Hode / Robyn was a proude outlawe / Whyles he walked on grounde / So curteyse an outlawe as he was one / Was never none found.” Read it out loud. It has the swing, the panache, of the Flynn–Michael Curtiz production of The Adventures of Robin Hood in all its goofy Technicolor romanticism.
Here’s an example of Ridley Scott’s modern, revisionist sensibility: Waiting for the Frenchies to land, Robin throws open the visor of a suspiciously effeminate soldier: “For the love of God, Marian!” Undeterred, Marian flings herself on the bald Frenchman who murdered Von Sydow and then (just like a girl!) tumbles into the surf and requires rescue. This allows Crowe to emit the slow-motion cry of rage: “NooooOOOOOOHHHHH!” Before the bad guy can finish off Marian, he charges, knocks the blackguard over, appears to get caught between two boats (it’s hard to follow the action), then sees his foe fleeing on horseback: “NooooOOOOOOHHHHH!” A moment later he carries the stunned Marian up the beach in his arms, neglecting to remove her layers of armor and chain mail beforehand. It’s fun to think of what happened after that: the pain in Crowe’s groin, his realization that he has just given himself an inguinal hernia, and his cry when Scott yells “Cut”: “NooooOOOOOOHHHHH!”
It’s too bad Robert Eisenberg used the name Boychiks in the Hood for his excellent book about Hasidic life, because Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers—inspired by the story of Hasidic Jews recruited in the nineties to serve as “mules” for bringing Ecstasy into the country—could use a snazzier title. It could use more sex and violence, too, although there’s only so much you can do with a story that ends not with carnage but some jail time and brokenhearted bubbes. The congenitally high-strung Jesse Eisenberg plays 20-year-old Brooklyn black-hat Sam Gold, who’s starting to chafe under Orthodoxy’s restrictions, especially when the family of the girl he wants to marry nixes him in favor of someone more scholarly. (On their one and only date—sitting on opposite sides of the sofa—she says she wants eight kids. And the poor sap is still torn up about losing her!) Sam is easy pickings for his neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha), who’s like a Hasidic Honest John in Pinocchio: “Hey, pssst, kid, yeah you, with the payis … ” Yosef is great because he says “fuck” a lot and talks about sex. And, by and by, Sam discovers he’s pretty good at managing Hasidic couriers and likes being fondled by a badass Israeli drug dealer’s dyed-blonde Jewish moll (Ari Graynor). On the other hand, he feels shame when his bearded father looks up from the Torah and sees My Son the Drug Mule.
Holy Rollers fuses a somber, old-world palette with a jittery urban unease—a good mix of tones. It’s also wonderfully acted. Eisenberg is peerless at playing man-boys who overintellectualize and fall over their own feet. Bartha is irresistibly good-bad company. The problem is that Asch depicts Sam’s situation as either/or—i.e., a choice between reading Torah and making babies or smuggling drugs and going to jail. The film never raises the sure-to-ruffle-feathers question of how fundamentalist outsider cultures sometimes foster secrecy and deception. It’s too holy in its certainties, like those fifties sex-ed films where you don’t listen to Dad and wind up with chlamydia.
Solitary Man is another routine morality play, this time the aging-Lothario-gets-his-comeuppance number. But it’s smoothly written and smartly paced, and Michael Douglas is riveting. Douglas has had, at various times, a horndog reputation, he’s the son of a legendary world-beating horndog, and something in his dimpled chin-smirk will always signal “I get more than a toilet seat.” As felonious car dealer Ben Kalmen, he uses his star vanity to generate an amazing amount of sympathy for this incorrigible lech—especially when the younger actors gaze on him with pity and contempt and we think, “Hey, he’s not so bad … ” Among the supporting actors who worship Douglas, even as they feign contempt, Olivia Thirlby is especially eloquent. Jesse Eisenberg (yes, again) plays the gawky kid Douglas tutors in the art of the pickup—a role he first played in Roger Dodger. But his excellent final scenes, after his character has gotten laid, suggest there’s life for this fine young actor after virginity.
* Several readers have brought it forcefully to my attention that the word “squaw” is not a quaint residue of old Westerns as I had thought but an offensive slur, both racially and sexually charged. I apologize for its use in the above description.