11 August 2005

Goddamn their confusion.

On the one hand, I can't pretend to be completely unbiased about Pretty Persuasion, a very black comedy that opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. I have slept on the fold-out couch of its screenwriter and co-producer, Skander Halim, and he, by turn, has taken one look at my couch, which does not fold out and which comfortably seats maybe 1.5 normal-sized people, and immediately announced, "There's no way in hell I can sleep on that." (I gave him the bed, which was kind of a Pyrrhic victory for him given that the mattress was delivered the next morning.) In Rotterdam two years ago, we split the cost of a rather expensive hotel room when an idiot colleague, who shall remain nameless until someone inevitably outs him in the comments, neglected to inform us that his own hotel room, which the three of us were supposed to share, was roughly the size of a Greyhound lavatory. What I'm trying to say is that there's a history of awkward temporary accommodation here that precludes 100% objectivity in my appraisal of this particular motion picture. Also Skander is a good friend of mine.

On the other hand, honesty tends to trump loyalty for me in situations like these, and I suspect that my 57 rating for Pretty Persuasion (up from a 52 the first time I saw it, at its Sundance premiere; in the letter grade schema that's basically a middling B-) is pretty close to what I would have allotted had Skander and I never met. It's not as if I'm overlooking the film's numerous flaws as part of some fraternal rah-rah campaign. In Variety's classic "crix pix" parlance, I am Mixed. I can't recommend Pretty Persuasion to you without reservations, even though I was quite willing to see it a second time just to savor the dialogue's numerous cherry bombs (not all of which were in the script) and a host of sharp, funny performances. But I can tell you, with a clear conscience, that it's a good deal more interesting, ambitious and impassioned than many of the reviews suggest.

If anything, the movie is way too ambitious. Skander was about 21 years old when he wrote the first draft of the screenplay, and Pretty Persuasion feels very much like the product of an angry 21-year-old liberal (and Canadian) determined to cram everything that's wrong with America into a single bitter draught of satirical hemlock—to provoke peals of guilty laughter that wind up stuck in the throat. Which is to say that it's both admirably corrosive and (at times) disappointingly sophomoric, taking scattershot aim at a host of eminently worthy targets. It's a movie that has the courage and the dudgeon to introduce us to its protagonist, Kimberly Joyce, a privileged and frighteningly intelligent teen played with blistering eloquence by Evan Rachel Wood, and then immediately have Kimberly matter-of-factly tell her new Muslim friend that while she respects all races, "I'm really glad I was born white." (This charming sentiment is followed by an exhaustive, in-order-of-preference rundown of desirable ethnicities, with bonus points awarded to black women who possess Caucasian features.) Equally biting and timely is the film's exploration of the sexual double standard, by which young girls are simultaneously rewarded and punished for carnal enthusiasm. Unfortunately, some of the satire's force is diluted by cheap shots and crude exaggerations. To my mind, the most injurious scene is the one that formed the basis of Skander's short film "Family Dinner" (which I didn't much like; his second short, "Guest Room," is terrific, though), which attempts to "explain" Kimberly's burgeoning psychosis by depicting her father, mother, stepmother and putative boyfriend as grotesque, rapacious caricatures. Much of this material is less funny or acute than simply shrill, and the stuff with the absent mother (who's so not-there that she thinks Kimberly is five or six years older than she actually is) verges on bathetic. All of it falls under the general heading of Trying Too Hard to Do Too Much.

Still, better to overreach than to underwhelm. For all its flaws, Pretty Persuasion is obviously—obviously!—a movie with a very serious and heartfelt agenda, which makes it rather bewildering that so many reviews have dismissed it as insincere and gratuitously outrageous. "Cynical, eager-to-shock Sundance indie...wears its notion of incorrectness with a smirk," harrumphs EW's Lisa Schwarzbaum...though I must say I almost prefer that to Owen Gleiberman making it sound like a salad dressing in the ads ("brimming with zesty shock value!"). "Shock for shock's sake," shrugs some chick I've never heard of. Are these people kidding? Can they really not perceive that every tasteless joke masks an undercurrent of pain and anger? A third-stringer for the Village Voice even has the temerity to claim that the film is "predicated on a streak of misogyny," a charge supported by a single line of dialogue spoken by a clueless character for whom we have zero sympathy. (That's like citing dialogue by one of the husbands in The Stepford Wives as evidence of Ira Levin's misogyny.) Yeah, maybe I'm partisan, but that doesn't make these folks any less dimwitted.

Being heartfelt doesn't make a movie good. Frickin' Seabiscuit was heartfelt. And I'm not making any great claims for Pretty Persuasion, which joins such highly touted efforts as Murderball, The Squid and the Whale, Last Days, Millions, Good Night. And, Good Luck and The World among a long list of Really Intriguing Films That Didn't Altogether Work for Me. (Other movies that I've given a 57 over the last few years: Lost in Translation, Gangs of New York, Tarnation.) But opportunistic it ain't. And if you'll allow me just a brief shake of the pom-poms, I do think it's well worth seeing—on its own terms, as an intermittently hilarious and remarkably daring comedy, and as the first volley from a promising new talent. Look for his directorial debut, The Smallest Couch of All Time Ever, sometime next year.