Paint by Numbers

Pollock is just boilerplate biopic; Keanu makes a convincing jerk in Sweet November.

Directed by Ed Harris
Sony Classics

Sweet November
Directed by Pat O’Connor
Warner Bros.

It was a relief when the Oscar nominations were announced this week to see an acting nod for Ed Harris in Pollock—I’d have worried about his mental state if he hadn’t picked up some sort of honor for his eight years of hard labor. This relentlessly bleak Jackson Pollock biopic was reportedly Harris’ obsession from the time he read Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. He commissioned the script; rattled the cup to get the picture financed; leapt into the director’s chair when no one else could do his vision justice; learned to prowl over a large canvas while dripping and flinging paint; and gained more than 30 pounds to play the artist in his dissipated final year. High-strung even in laid-back parts, Harris in Pollock carries the mental baggage that comes with any self-destructive genius role, plus the weight of Pollock’s legacy, plus the weight of directing his first feature. Harris doesn’t have to act wired—the challenge would have been to walk across a room without looking like he’s on the brink of spontaneous combustion.

It’s no wonder that Pollock is stretched like a tightrope—even when it needs to loosen up and breathe rather than cling morosely to its downward trajectory. The movie is a series of flashy scenes that work on their own histrionic terms but add up to nothing you can’t predict in the first five minutes: The life of our greatest homegrown Abstract Expressionist is a biopic painting-by-numbers. Pollock opens at a gala reception, where a young woman approaches the painter with an issue of Life magazine featuring his work. He autographs the spread, then stares off into space, his eyes going wider and wider, a semaphore signaling “HAUNTED.” What is he gaping at? Life? His life? The abyss? Ninety minutes later, after a flashback that brings us up to Pollock’s sudden stardom, it turns out he’s looking at his wife, Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), who smiles back at him as if to say: “We did it, Jackson. We’ve arrived.”

It isn’t clear why Pollock’s gaze is so doom-laden, unless he’s having a premonition that the birth of his celebrity will bring about the death of his vision. Yes, that might be it, the movie’s elusive thesis. It’s hard to say, though, since the script, by Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller, offers little evidence that Pollock’s fame finally overwhelmed his precarious artistry. Frankly, I don’t see any interpretation of his rise and flameout at all—just a lot of biographical details that can be added up anyway you please. Actors love to play scenes where they get progressively drunk, call people terrible names, and throw furniture. So the screenwriters give Harris a multitude of opportunities to clutch at whiskey bottles and belt down shots, sob with unspecified regret, shake violently, and storm out of rooms. He even gets the ultimate Oscar-bait bonbon: upending a Thanksgiving dinner table.

It’s certainly refreshing that Pollock doesn’t portray his artistic process as that of a raging, paint-splashing primitive. As art critic Robert Hughes has pointed out, even a cursory glance at Pollock’s abstract masterworks suggests a delicate hand and a finely tuned sensibility, in which the prairie transcendentalist meets the painstaking aesthete. The movie pays lip service to Pollock the student of Wassily Kandinsky and El Greco, but it doesn’t exactly bring his breakthroughs to dramatic life. Anyone who could write a line like Krasner’s “This isn’t Cubism, Jackson, because you’re not breaking down the figure into multiple views” needs to spend less time with art history textbooks and more time listening to how people actually speak.

Pollock could be more aptly titled Pollock and Krasner, since it dates the beginning of the painter’s career from a visit by the chattery Brooklyn native (“I thought I knew awl the abstract artists in New Yawk and I don’t know Jackson Pawlawk”), who becomes his goad and press agent and ultimately his jailer. Their scenes together are the heart of the film, and they’re certainly vivid. But there should be more humor in the union of this pale, spooked WASP and this dark, nervy Jew who knits and watches over him, extolling his genius, luring him into the country, monitoring his drinking, and rationing his social life.

As Krasner, Marcia Gay Harden is so focused that she’s frightening. She smokes, glares out from behind those thick black glasses, and seems always poised to snatch some treat from Pollock’s quivering fingers and steer him back into his workshop. There’s something eerie, too, about the way she ushers into Pollock’s life the critic and Artforum pooh-bah Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), who would become his loudest champion but also his most repressive judge: “You’re retreating into imagery again,” he announces in one scene. “Paint is paint. Surface is surface. That’s all it should be.” How are we supposed to take the pronouncements of this windbag? The script gives you no clue. Did Krasner think Pollock needed that kind of constant pushing? Perhaps. In one scene, she gives him amphetamines to help him produce, but this near aside has no follow-through. Was Pollock on speed the whole time he dribbled his greatest abstract works? No wonder he burned out! Amphetamine withdrawal would explain the weight gain, the violent tantrums, maybe even the state of near-narcolepsy in which he ended his life. Celebrity shmelibrity—those pills’ll kill ya.

I daresay there’s a subtext here, but I wonder if it’s intentional. Here’s this talented rascal who drinks too much and lives an impoverished life but has things more or less together. Suddenly, he’s seduced by a matronly shrew who cleans up after him, organizes his time, tells him he’s a king, promotes him to anyone who’ll listen, give him pills so he’ll work harder, and turns him into a raging fame addict—all of which makes him so miserable that he obliterates himself with booze and drives into a tree. I don’t know what Pollock is supposed to be about, but as it stands—by default—it’s the most blood-freezing Jewish-mother nightmare ever filmed. Pollock would give Woody Allen the willies.

Sweet November is a remake of a movie from the ‘60s that combined the most ridiculous elements of the counterculture with the most ridiculous elements of the ‘50s Hollywood romantic weeper to create something even more ridiculous: ridiculousness squared. Charlize Theron tries to look adorably knock-kneed as the klutzy free spirit who rescues doomed puppies, disdains watches, and thinks one’s days should be spent not working but romping in the surf. Keanu Reeves is Mr. November, a driven ad executive (he wakes up each morning chanting, “Big dog … top dog …”) who can’t help being smitten by Charlize’s bizarre attentiveness. Reeves has spent a few years sleepwalking through his parts, but somewhere along the line he got the message that you can’t act if you don’t put out. He’s not as good as he was playing a menacing Georgia wife-beater in The Gift, but he’s an awfully convincing jerk. That said, I kept waiting him for him to point out that, given the state of San Francisco real estate these days, it’s hard to reconcile a life of endless surf-romping with a life of having a roof over one’s head. Who, I wonder, thought it was time to update this tale of a terminally ill free spirit who picks up a new man each month for the purpose of transforming his life and liberating him from capitalist acquisitiveness? And will he feel as confident about this movie’s message when he’s out of a job?