Monday, December 12, 2005

fool's gold

Directed by: Steven Gaghan
Rating: as messy as the exxon valdez

why do people think gaining weight is the mark of great acting? it's all de niro's fault. everyone's always talking about how much weight he gained when he played jake la motta in 'raging bull', the 'astounding physical transformation.' and they're right, his physical commitment to the role is amazing, along with the absolute ferocity of his performance: the primal streak of viciousness that underlies all of de niro's work, but most specifically his films with martin scorcese.
the problem though is that de niro already staked his claim to greatness in a series of films that required no weight gain at all. starting in 1973 until 'raging bull''s release in 1980, de niro made 7 films including 'mean streets,' 'the godfather: part ii,' 'taxi driver,' 'new york, new york,' and 'the deer hunter.' groundbreaking, influential, timeless. there are a million superlatives one could pour all over these films, but none of them required him to gain weight.
so all these actors search for legitimacy by playing people who are out of shape, which makes an odd sort of sense for hollywood, the only place in the world which gives people awards and accolades for gaining weight.
and oddly these are the thoughts that swirled through my mind as i watched george clooney and the 40 lbs. he gained for his new film 'syriana.' actually, to call it a george clooney film is a bit misleading. there are so many actors, and so many stories in this movie i got that nervous feeling i get sometimes when i'm at a bar on sundays trying to watch five football games at once, and can't keep track of all the scores.
'syriana' is about oil. about how people lie, steal, cheat, and kill; for and because of it. about how it is an undercurrent of all of our lives, whether we accept it or not. that a film like this is even possible in today's political climate is remarkable. steven gaghan, george clooney, steven soderbergh et all set out to change the world with this picture. but sadly, in the mad rush to inform the public about the seedy nature of the oil industry and our government's explicit involvement in said deception and corruption, the team behind 'syriana' forgot to make an actual movie. gaghan, who directed and wrote the screenplay along with ex c.i.a. agent bob baer, throws too wide of a narrative net to create a taut thriller; invests no time in building his characters and in the process loses any sense of epic drama; and with all the fictional plot elements lacks the bare-bones impact of straight documentary.
'syriana' follows a similar structural pattern to 'traffic' (written by gaghan,) connecting four narratives to tell one overarching story. his direction lacks focus though, and the small moments he presents us with to humanize the characters, such as jeffrey wright's alcoholic father or george clooney's angry young son, are dealt with in such a hasty manner that they become distractions, almost as if you were watching a completely different movie starring the fat george clooney from 'syriana.' gaghan jumps from one narrative to the next, almost as if on a timer, and the audience is never given time to fully grasp the nature of the character and his motivations.
not surprisingly, the one instance where gaghan plays his cards right is in the narrative depicting a young man's transformation from oil field laborer to holy warrior of the jihad, just as in 'traffic' it is through the eyes of benicio del toro, an outsider, that we bear full witness to the vagaries of the international drug trade. gaghan manages to humanize what we consider monstrous, and in the process open our eyes to the fallability of american government and industry. we are no different from colonial nations that rose and fell before the united states; we want no cultural exchange or exchange of ideas, merely any natural resources or anything else of worth. we take oil from the middle east, diamonds from africa, labor from south america and asia, all at minimal expense. mazhar munir, who plays wasim khan the laborer turned mujaheddin, uses his childish, innocent face to convey beautifully all the doubt, fear, and desperation that lead to such a horrific decision. if only this entire film could be as starkly honest and affecting as these scenes.
many of the other performances in the film, however, come out flat; victims of cutting room floors and poor directing decisions. with attention divided between so many stories, each one felt like a dry stream drawn from a shallow river. clooney shows moments of fire as wronged c.i.a. man bob barnes, but mostly we are left with silent shots of a tired man who looks short on breath, and bares a tremendous resemblance to george clooney if he were to gain fifty pounds. matt damon is left with no room to show how he deals with the loss of his young son, and amanda peet, playing damon's wife, is given a woefully underwritten and underrepresented role. gaghan's choice of two of today's most boyishly charming actors in damon and clooney, who at 44 still seems to have the youthful energy of a 25 year old, to play such unglamorous characters might fill the seats, but it doesn't help the story. people want to see damon and clooney having fun and playing it loose, which is when they're at their best. to see them toiling and wearing away under accumulated pressures (and clooney under accumulated fat) draws the audiences attention away from the message of the film.
finally, 'syriana' comes off as wholly effective diatribe. the audience draws out of this unfocused, unfiltered picture some very uncomfortable truths. the most important truth is expressed through a fine performance from jeffrey wright as corporate lawyer bennett holliday. wright, an actor of breathtaking versatility, is the vehicle through which gaghan shows us the corruption and capitulation of the american government and like many of us, wright hides his exasperation and shock with a smirk and a shrug, because he grudgingly accepts what the rest of us give scant thought to: that whether we like it or not, oil is still king.


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