September brings the higher trash like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, which is every bit as dumb as August’s Conan the Barbarian but awash in neon-lit nightscapes and existential dread, with killings so graphic that you can’t entirely believe what you’re gagging at. (You’ll never have to ask, “Is that person dead?”) The hero (Ryan Gosling) is called “Driver” because that’s what he does, and what he does is what he, you know, is. Driver opens the picture with a monologue that mixes cold facts (“There’s a hundred thousand streets in this city”) with coldly pragmatic edicts to the criminals he carries to and from their high-pressure L.A. heists. (“I give you a five-minute window … Anything happens a minute either side of that, and you’re on your own.”) Driver is an anti-blowhard: taciturn, watchful, holding a matchstick between his teeth the way he holds his emotions in check. But he’s also one of God’s Loneliest Men. He needs someone to love, to risk everything for—to give him a Reason to Drive.
Refn, a Dane, is the sort of man to take Hollywood action movies to the next slick, amoral, and unbelievably vicious level. In Drive’s production notes, he says, “I’m very interested in the dark side of heroism, how that unstoppable drive and righteous adherence to a code above the average person’s can shade into something that is quite psychotic.” Right, the duality—we get it. But Refn doesn’t recoil from that psychosis: He digs its potential for splatter. The murders are what gore freaks call “ultra-wet,” with the camera stationed happily in the middle of crimson showers. Without the extreme violence, Drive would be a lifeless rehash of such self-consciously existential thrillers as Walter Hill’s The Driver and Michael Mann’s Thief instead of, “Oh, shit, oh, God, this is so friggin’ hard-core!”
Give Refn points as a mechanic. He’s deft. In an early heist sequence, Driver uses his knowledge of the urban maze to evade both cruisers and copters, and it’s such a tight, twisty piece of staging that you wait for Driver to show off his genius for geography again. But after that, it’s all exploding heads and slashed throats.
Why would Gosling, a fascinatingly cerebral actor, take a role so far inside his comfort zone? Does he long to strike action-icon poses—to be the new Nic Cage? He’s sane enough to keep the movie from drifting into Cagean camp, but considering where it does go, that’s a hollow victory. Driver’s bare apartment is down the corridor from a pretty young mother (Carey Mulligan) and her lonely little boy, who make Driver’s (and the movie’s) sap rise and lead to some moist domestic montages—until the husband and father (Oscar Isaac) gets out of prison and takes back what’s his. But the ex-con is in debt to thugs who threaten to kill his wife and son if he doesn’t commit a robbery, whereupon Driver—who has given up driving—is driven to make one last drive …
People will line up for Drive for a look at some of the hottest actors of the moment—and see little indication of what made them hot. Mulligan brings nothing to her part but drab earnestness, and Christina Hendricks (as a moll) looks as if she wandered onto the wrong set. It’s fun to see Bryan Cranston—closer every week to finding his inner psychopath in Breaking Bad, from which Refn could learn much about mixing extreme violence and moral complexity—gimp it up as Driver’s sweet, luckless mechanic. But the only surprising turn is by Albert Brooks as a shady businessman who plays his cards close to the vest. There’s something magical about this performance: You can taste Brooks’s pleasure in not, for once, having to work so hard to open himself up and be crazily, humiliatingly vulnerable. Now he can relax and stay inside himself and open other people up—with a straight razor.
America has a new A-list auteur—amazingly enough, a screenwriter, and, even more amazingly, given Hollywood’s biases, a woman. Aline Brosh McKenna’s films include The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, and now I Don’t Know How She Does It. All are smart comedies centering on smart, harried, ambitious women who fight off obstacles thrown in their path by threatened males and, often, females—before they realize, in shame, that they’re in danger of losing the humanity that separated them from their type A adversaries. McKenna has a gift for screwball dialogue: She gets the connection between headlong rhythms and psychological desperation. The problem is that her screenplays have soft centers, not female-squishy but Hollywood-squashy, her heroines’ heroic assertions of independence coinciding with her own surrender to commercial conformity. In the context of so much wit, the pandering is scary.
McKenna has a lively source in Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, composed of diary entries by a British woman juggling life as a wife and mother of two with a career in a male-dominated financial firm: Pearson’s whirligig rhythms make you feel as if you’re multitasking just reading the book. In the film, directed by Douglas McGrath, the setting is Boston and the heroine, Kate Reddy, played by Sarah Jessica Parker—and yes, I cringed at the casting, too, especially when, watching the trailer, I heard Parker deliver the narration in the same voice she used for Carrie in Sex and the City. But Kate is funnier—less arch—than Carrie, and Parker reminds you what a dizzy, all-in, high-risk comic actress she can be when she’s not too busy showing off the couture. Her furtive but furious scratching when her kids give her lice is a showstopper, and McGrath and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh frame her beautifully when she sings “A Bushel and a Peck” over the phone to her son while the firm’s handsome boss, Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), gazes on. McGrath’s gentle touch can be a tonic.
The movie is a grab bag of gimmicks, but a high percentage of them work, like the animated lists (Kate is a compulsive list-maker) that appear on the walls above her bed. In modern faux-documentary fashion, characters talk to the camera as if they’re being interviewed about Kate. Christina Hendricks (best friend) is giddy and charming, and Olivia Munn has contrived the perfect voice for Kate’s joyless assistant, a monotone with a hint of a hysterical quaver. But there’s too much of the rich, nonworking mother who bashes Kate from an elliptical machine, and too many lines like another mother’s at a birthday party: “Is this cake organic?” The you-can-have-it-all ending is more McKenna pandering.
The most striking gap in I Don’t Know How She Does It is the lack of a distinctive voice for Kate’s husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), who’s confined to lusting after Kate and registering disapproval of her business trips. He’s, like, an object. So is Abelhammer, although Brosnan brings worldliness and a touch of melancholy to the part. But hey, it’s kind of cool to see men as objects in a mainstream comedy. The Male Gaze, after all, has been well (maybe too well) transmitted. Women still have juicy secrets to spill.