I saw three films today at the Cannes Film Festival, each a resounding bust. Okay, one —Yorgos Lanthimos‘ The Lobster, a dryly amusing Bunuelian parlor piece about societal oppression — felt partially successful, or at least intriguing for the first 45 minutes to an hour, but the second hour disassembled. The truth is that I was bored and hating on it almost from the get-go. I was even thinking about bailing as it went along but I figured “c’mon, be a pro, stick it out.” And I did. I never wanted to quit Woody Allen‘s Irrational Man or Gus Van Sant‘s The Sea of Trees but there was never the slightest doubt that they weren’t cooking or coming together either.
I know when a flick is really laying it down and dealing exceptional cards, which Lászlo Nemes‘ Son of Saul did in spades Thursday night. The all-but-universal consensus is that Saul is the shit, but today’s trio all felt like wipe-outs. To me, at least. There were some Irrational fans and a fair-sized contingent of Lobster lovers, to be fair, but I think they were being kind or talking themselves into their own private lathers or something. For me the absorption just didn’t kick in.
The Van Sant film, which ended around 9 pm tonight, was initially greeted with one or two souls applauding, but this was immediately followed by a chorus of boos, loud and sustained for a good five or six seconds. I wasn’t feeling the hate as much as lethargy and disappointment, which began to manifest fairly early. The symphonic, rotely soothing score by Mason Bates (i.e., the kind of music that tells the audience “you’ll be okay, this is a film about caring and compassion, no rude shocks in store”) told me right away that Trees would be one of Van Sant’s Finding Forrester-like films — an initially solemn, ultimately feel-good drama about “redemption” and rediscovering the joy and necessity of embracing the struggle rather than dying by your own hand blah blah.
It’s not ineptly made or anything. It starts smoothly and delivers what most of us would call “professional-level chops” along with an emotionally earnest lead performance from Matthew McConaughey as a Massachucetts high-school teacher and widower looking to commit suicide under the shade of Japan’s Aokigahara forest. But Chris Sparling‘s screenplay jerks the manipulation chain once or twice too often, and the general scheme of the thing (see above) just felt tired and pat to me. Some were complaining that only McConaughey’s woes seem to matter to Van Sant with scant attention paid to the anguish of Ken Watanabe‘s character, whom McConaughey encounters in the “suicide forest” and whose life he tries to save all through, but there’s a third-act twist…forget it.
One of the most striking things about Woody’s Irrational Man (Sony Pictures Classics, 7.1) is Joaquin Phoenix‘s pot belly. It’s stand-back huge. He looks pregnant. I fully recognized the familiar, dissolute, older-guy malaise that his college professor character is suffering from during the first 40 minutes or so (which the gut is supposed to be a metaphor for, I presume), but nothing Phoenix says or does during the entire film has a chance against that mound of pudding hanging over his belt.
Irrational Man‘s basic theme, which Allen expounded on somewhat during an early afternoon press conference, is that we all need distractions to maintain a sense of well-being lest we confront the basic horror of existence. Irrational is essentially about the perverse nature of Phoenix’s distraction, an act that he feels will make the world into a slightly better place. The fact that it’s not a creative but a destructive one provides the slight story tension, but his irrational act is discussed and dissected so relentlessly by a Greek chorus of onlookers that a kind of “alright already” settles in.
The film plays like a less engaging cousin of Woody’s Match Point. A guy tweeted today that it could be called Kvetch Point.
Irrational Man isn’t the first Woody late-period film that feels lazy, flat and first-drafty. The screenplay feels half drawn from Woody’s standard pool of existential gloom and half composed like a Nancy Drew (or Miss Marple, as one British journalist suggested) murder mystery with Emma Stone‘s character, a student of Phoenix’s who gradually lures him into an affair, piecing together the evidence.
My filing activity today wasn’t much to speak of either. I had a four-hour break between the Irrational Man press conference and the 7 pm screening of The Sea of Trees, but I blew it again by deciding to catch a fast nap before filing. I woke up two and half hours later. I’ve only been managing three or four hours of sleep between midnight and dawn, and that shit catches up with you.