Crash of the Titans

Brando and De Niro stumble through The Score; Bully is boorishly clumsy; Legally Blonde doesn’t meet the bar.

The Score
Directed by Frank Oz
Paramount Pictures

Directed by Larry Clark
Lions Gate Films

Legally Blonde
Directed by Robert Luketic

Twenty-five years ago, the prospect of Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro teaming up in a movie would have been unimaginably thrilling: two Vito Corleones, the former the greatest American film actor of all time, the latter (it seemed likely) the greatest of his generation. The always-flaky Brando was by then flaking off into the ether, finding diversion only in one-upping his co-stars; but his perversity at least kept him right there in the moment, toying with the bizarre possibilities of his lines even as he threw them away. The young De Niro, meanwhile, was incapable of artifice: Every impulse seemed to travel through a mile-long cerebral loop before it finally expressed itself in word or gesture. Think of what—with the right direction—these two weirdo geniuses might have triggered in each other. Why, De Niro might have … Brando might have …

Forgive my lapse into fantasy. I’m doing anything to keep from confronting the actors today, the movie at hand.

It’s called The Score, an appropriately generic title for a droning, high-toned little heist picture with no dash and no raison d’être. No raison, that is, apart from its actors’ payday—which, in light of their Method training, should have given more urgency to the characters’ pursuit of the mother lode. No, that’s not quite true: De Niro and Brando can collect just by showing up, whereas their characters have to perform.

The opening sets the perfect mood. While cracking a safe in a mansion, master-thief Nick (De Niro) is forced to hide by the arrival of a pair of would-be lovers. The two have a spat, the male stomps off, the female discovers Nick’s tools; and the thief quickly shoves her against the wall, orders her not to turn around, swipes the contents of the safe, drives away in a van, swaps the van for a car, swaps the car for a boat, drives off in yet another car, returns to his Montreal apartment, and wearily closes his eyes. What have we learned? That the script, by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs, and Scott Marshall Smith, consists of tight scenes that build to punch lines that never come. That the movie’s hero is a) obsessively careful; b) nonviolent; c) a resident of Canada; and d) drop-dead boring.

If you like scenes of people poring over blueprints or of sundry mechanical contraptions snapping open and shut, you’ll love The Score. Video monitors go snowy and security guards say, “Hmm … must be a loose wire,” while cool thieves look at their watches and whisper things like, “On my mark, you have 30 seconds to drill through the bars, straddle the lasers, and plant the explosive.” The plodding attention to process recalls Mission:Impossible (the TV series, not the hot-dog-Tom-Cruise-oriented films), and I suppose there’s something soothingly narcotic about it—or would be, if you managed to forget about the days when De Niro and Brando kept your eyes shocked open with their unpredictability.

The Score does have a spark plug in Edward Norton, who plays Jackie, a gung-ho kid who works on Nick to rob Montreal’s customs house—a riskier target than usual and closer to home. It must have been strange for Norton to show up for work with idols Brando and De Niro and discover it was his job to carry their scenes. (You can imagine them saying, “You act, youngster. We’ll react.”) Norton is smart and skillful, but a part this synthetic makes him seem more callowly actorish than usual: a drama school showoff instead of a filled-in human being.

And the meeting of the Titans? A nonevent, a veritable competition to see which of them can put out less. De Niro stays inside himself—which might be true to the character but makes you long for the relative flamboyance of, say, Peter Graves’ Mr. Phelps. As Max, Nick’s employer in crime, Brando trundles into the nightclub Nick owns (legitimately, on the up-and-up) wearing a sport coat the size of a circus tent and seems poised to do some seriously fruity capering. Reportedly, the actor wanted to play Max as a screaming queen (perhaps in the mode of his old nemesis, Truman Capote) but was dissuaded by director Frank Oz, whom he reportedly told, “I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want.”  

Brando’s way might have been offensive, but it would have been more fun to watch than this spent old homosexual whose only narrative function is delivering exposition. (Once regarded as the most masculine of actors, Brando is now in his element at his most epicene.) Even muzzled, Brando is still Brando: He manages a ga-ga fillip here and there (“I’ll believe that when the pigs eat my brother”—who’s his brother, Hannibal Lecter?), and he doesn’t hit a false note. But it’s sad to hear him running short of breath and even sadder to see him exploiting his own torpor for pathos. This is the first time he has made a show of going out with a whimper.

If it didn’t slow to a crawl in the last half-hour, Larry Clark’s Bully would make a killer party movie for aging potheads, a Plan Nine From Outer Space (1958) with nudity and splatter. The film, which aims for the flat, quasi-improvisational tone of Clark’s Kids (1995), is a riot of sleazy camera moves, bad acting, and maladroit profane dialogue. It’s based on the true story of a murder committed by a group of fairly well-to-do teen stoners around Hollywood, Florida, as chronicled in Jim Schutze’s 1997 Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge; and all the incidents and many of the lines come straight from the book. But with Clark at the helm, gritty realism has a way of becoming grisly venerealism. The film is a procession of lurid howlers—an unwitting burlesque of “sociological” teenpics. It makes Kids look like a masterpiece of humanism.

The story’s hook is that the victim, Bobby Kent (played in the movie by Nick Stahl), is a bad guy—a sadist, rapist, and druggie thug with a bullyingly homoerotic fixation on the dim but essentially decent Marty (Brad Renfro). It’s Marty’s new girlfriend, the slightly pudgy Lisa (Rachel Miner), who decides that she and the hunk-of-her-life can never be free as long as Bobby—who knocks Marty around and has even roughly mounted her—hovers over their lives. The second part of Bully, in which Lisa enlists the aid of addled peers (among them a supposed teen-age “hit man”) in planning the murder, is like River’s Edge (1986) re-enacted by a convention of retards. (See this article in Slate for a discussion of “correct” terms for the mentally disabled—there’s just no better word for the characters here.)

Schutze’s book is prurient and finger-wagging—I was uncomfortable with its clinical disinterest in nearly everything but its teen-age subjects’ idiocy. But the movie is in a different league of uncleanness. From the start, the director seems most in harmony with Bobby the bully, who greets Ali (Bijou Phillips) with the line “Welcome to the party, bitch” while Clark’s camera travels up her thighs to her rear end before coming to rest on her breasts. That’s Clark’s preferred mode of introducing female characters—legs and crotches first, with poor Rachel Miner playing key scenes topless for no discernible reason. I can imagine the director would argue that it’s artistically right to shoot these actors this way because their characters have reduced themselves to body parts. (It’s Rachel’s dissatisfaction with her body that fuels her worship of the well-built Marty.) He’d probably say, “This is the real reality, and if you can’t take it, you’re a sissy prude.” Well, from where this sissy prude sits, Bully looks like a middle-aged blowhard getting his rocks off while pretending to tell it like it is.

If only he weren’t so boorishly clumsy. In one climactic scene, Clark puts the camera in the middle of his teen-age plotters and revolves around. And around. And around and around and around and around and around and around and around … I guess he’s trying to demonstrate that the scheme has developed a life and momentum beyond these hapless individuals; but, as a colleague pointed out, “A shot like that would get him laughed out of film school.” The picture’s other comic high point is when a girl named Heather (Kelli Garner) tells the story of her grandfather, an abusive alcoholic who killed his wife with a claw hammer, then shut himself in a room with her for two days drinking and having sex with the corpse … all with Heather’s young mother in the house. “It fucked her up,” adds Heather, who goes on to explain how her mother then fucked her up—but by that time I was nearly on the floor. Heather’s story, according to Schutze’s book, is true, but as it’s used in the film it’s like as a psychological striptease to make you ooh and ahh. Laughter seems the only sane response.

Larry Clark is the anti-Jean Renoir, which if you care about movies is like saying he’s the antichrist. Where Renoir would work to find humanity in the most unprepossessing visages, Clark searches for the inhumanity in the most comely. His shock-the-liberal- bourgeoisie aesthetic is especially troubling to those of us who came of age with the punks (and John Waters, David Cronenberg, Stuart Gordon, Charles Bukowski, etc.)—who believe in the importance of having artists who will test the boundaries of “good taste.” But, as Waters has said, there’s “good bad taste” and “bad bad taste,” and a key element of the latter is that it’s entirely fueled by hatred. Larry Clark leaves you thinking that it’s great the bully is dead, and it’s great the morons are all behind bars. My most hopeful thought was that it would be great if he never directed again.

Beginning with its title sequence, Legally Blonde rides in on every dumb-blonde joke and stereotype ever conceived, then climaxes with its heroine, now a beleaguered law-school student, complaining that no one can see past her hair—that she’s morally outraged with being regarded as a walking dumb-blonde joke. She should sue the director and writers. The movie is a passable, broad fish-out-of-water comedy with a high concept: “Rich, seemingly bubbleheaded blonde goes to Harvard law to impress her preppy ex-boyfriend, then proves smarter than everyone else.” I half-admire its exquisite balancing act, squeezing laughs out of its leading lady’s wardrobe, vocabulary, gestures, and cretinously oblivious Beverly Hills sense of entitlement, while simultaneously demonstrating her brilliance, sturdy ethics, and unflappable egalitarianism. This might not work with anyone but Reese Witherspoon. Apart from having a great camera face—gorgeous but funny-looking, with acres of cheekbone and a strong jaw that ends in a goofy little chin—she’s a disarming blend of insouciance and steel: Laugh at her dingbat antics and that laser stare will incinerate you on the spot. The new feminism?