Hollywood Royalty

Photo: Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company

With his pursed lips and edgy rectitude, Colin Firth is ideally cast as an uptight fellow in serious need of therapy in the middlebrow masterpiece The King’s Speech. The uptight fellow is Albert Frederick Arthur George, better known as King George VI, father of Elizabeth II, and the therapy is for a crippling stammer. But it’s a stammer with strong psychological (not to mention commercial) overtones. The therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), is both a commoner and a foreigner who insists on flouting protocol and addressing his royal client as “Bertie.” He doesn’t want to focus on the larynx or diaphragm. He wants to know when and how the stammer began. He wants to know about childhood traumas. Logue is Australian, but it’s easy to imagine that he’s Austrian—Freud-trained and Jewish—and here to administer an emotional enema, to purge this Über-Wasp of Waspishness. No wonder Harvey Weinstein thinks he has—ding-ding!—the year’s Best Picture.

He just might. The King’s Speech has a cunning, crowd-pleasing shape. It opens in 1925, when its protagonist, now the Duke of York, addresses—or attempts to address—a crowd at Wembley Stadium and can barely get out two words in succession. The newfangled microphone, the wireless radio: These are not his friends. The movie closes a decade and a half later, on the eve of war with Hitler’s Germany, the sky over London speckled with barrage balloons, the nation waiting anxiously for a speech by its king over the airwaves. Have the psychic clots been loosened? Can this man who was shamed into tremulous, childlike obedience by his overbearing father, George V (Michael Gambon)—forced to wear splints to correct his knock-knees and to write with his right hand to “correct” for left-handedness—now project unwavering patriarchal authority? We, along with the king’s subjects, hang on every measured syllable.

The 73-year-old screenwriter, David Seidler, reportedly had a stammer in his youth and read avidly about George VI, but he waited until the king’s wife (a.k.a. the Queen Mother) died, at age 101, before going public with his Oedipal take on George’s journey to (relative) fluency. Seidler and director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams) wisely play the relationship between the king and his therapist as a prickly comedy of manners. Rush wears roomy suits and, opposite Firth in his invisible corset, has a way of looking disheveled even when he’s all spruced up. Plopping himself down on the throne in Westminster, daring the outraged George to have him hauled off to the Tower, Logue is the therapist as court jester. The goal is provocation, to get the king to sputter and then vent and then curse with dismaying fluidity. There is one, final element of suspense: Will lowly Logue lumber back to his Harley Street den, unheralded? Or will King George VI, although possessed of the divine snobbery of kings, be moved to recognize his shabby therapist as a friend?

It’s a prizewinning combination, terribly English and totally Hollywood, and Firth is, once more, uncanny: He evokes, in mid-stammer, existential dread. I do have quibbles, some of them large enough to border on being issues. It’s hard to accept Guy Pearce, who plays King Edward the abdicator, as Firth’s older brother: He looks, acts, and is almost a decade Firth’s junior. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill is a splendid impersonation—of Alfred Hitchcock. I’d have treasured even more scenes with Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth (the Queen Mum), that rare blue blood who hasn’t had the life force bred out of her. More seriously, the director’s style is often as constipated as his leading man’s: Hooper cuts back and forth between a character on the far left of the screen and one on the far right as if he’d got his drama degree at Wimbledon.

One last issue: While the address to which The King’s Speech builds was of some symbolic importance (although not as much as George’s decision to keep his family in London, in harm’s way), it seems, I don’t know, wrong to feel so flush and happy and relieved when, after all is said (without stammering) and done, the country is on the brink of blitzkrieg. This is the sort of sleight-of-hand that bolsters the case against Hollywood, which trivializes history for the sake of bogus scenarios of self-realization. It’s also a sleight-of-hand that wins Oscars.

Check out Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway on the cover of Entertainment Weekly looking nekkid nekkid nekkid—a great come-on for Love & Other Drugs, and not even false advertising. In the movie he is nekkid, and she is even nekkider, and they are very beautiful together in the nekkidness. The movie’s first half is a state-of-the-art Zeitgeist sex comedy, even if it’s set in 1996. It was morning in our brave new psychopharmacological world, and Big Pharma salesdude Jamie Randall (Gyllenhaal) is at its hub, sweet-talking (and more or less bribing) physicians (and receptionists) into prescribing his SSRI (Zoloft) over an even slicker rival company’s (Prozac). He’s such a supple, smooth-faced, blue-eyed cutie that his transparently fake ingenuousness is more winning than other people’s genuine ingenuousness. And when word percolates up that his company has found the Holy Grail, the “fuck drug,” and called it “Viagra,” he really has the world by its gonads. Even better, he’s seeing gorgeous artist Maggie Murdock (Hathaway), with her dark eyes and swarm of dark ringlets and insatiable compulsion to get nekkid with him and then kick him out: She’ll be disappointed, she says, if it turns out he’s not a “shithead” and wants to commit.

This is gratifyingly slick and manic and mood-elevating. But Maggie has early-onset Parkinson’s (incurable, even by Big Pharma), and pretty soon you get the feeling she’s so commitment-averse because she’s afraid to show her deep-down, little-girl neediness. You also get the feeling that director Edward Zwick—who started with Thirtysomething and moved on to Oscar-bait war movies—has rediscovered his inner Jason Reitman. Like the charismatically irresponsible heroes of Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, Jamie must develop a social conscience and learn to love.

Love & Other Drugs is crazily uneven, jumping back and forth between jerk-off jokes and Parkinson’s sufferers sharing their stories of hope. It’s the sort of movie in which half the audience will be drying their eyes and the other half rolling them. In the first hour, Hathaway is impressive. She seems finally to have grown into those enormous features; her face no longer looks like a Disney Channel Halloween mask. But Zwick should have dialed her down a notch. By the end she’s a painful reminder of Liza Minnelli, another overeager, oversize-featured actress who tried to do too much with her too-muchness and left us crying for less.

The King’s Speech
The Weinstein Company. R.

Love & Other Drugs
Twentieth Century Fox. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Hollywood Royalty