Bitter Vengeance

Dinner Rush is a marvelous revenge comedy; Don’t Say a Word is a noisy mess. 

Directed by Bob Giraldi
Access Motion Picture Group

Don’t Say a Word
Directed by Gary Fleder
20th Century Fox

Two weeks ago, with the horror of the terrorist attacks still raw, I wrote a column about the impossibility of reviewing films in the face of so many lives lost and so much sorrow, anger, and incomprehension. I’m not going to recant anything now, but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that works of art, including movies, have nothing to offer us in our present, traumatized state. We need movies desperately, maybe more than ever.

Not all kinds of movies, though—not the ones that seek to shut down our feelings in the name of helping us to win. In the HBO series Band of Brothers, there’s a scene in which one bad actor tells another bad actor that the secret to fighting a war is to accept the fact that “you’re already dead”: That way you can go on to kill without scruple or compassion and to regard the deaths of others with detachment. Having never been in battle, I have no right to comment on the sense of this advice under fire. But it would be catastrophic to aim to dehumanize ourselves in the face of a war on our home soil. This is a time to become more, not less, sensitized to the impact of violence on our souls.

A start is the brilliant column by Robert Wright that appeared in Slate last week. While Wright argues that the impulse for retaliation is inherent and adaptive, he also suggests the ways in which it can be ruinous and even insane. The cruelest irony was well-explored by Shakespeare and the Jacobeans—the near certainty that the revenger will be tainted, warped, even destroyed by the quest to “set things right.” And here, not coincidentally, is where we meet Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida, which regards itself as an instrument of justice. This is a case in which the impulse to retaliate has engendered a profound, potentially species-ending evil.

As someone paid to see films, I get a whopping dose of retaliation fantasies every month; I have a front-row seat on the stranglehold they have on popular culture. In these death-wish scenarios, which play out in movies with budgets from half a million to $200 million, vengeance is not only unambiguously right, it gives you sexual currency to boot—it makes you, in the language of the genre, a real man. A real country, too. During World War II, many societies were buoyed by propagandistic tales of Allies kicking Nazi or Japanese butt: Heroism was celebrated and sacrifice extolled. I don’t mean to repudiate the role that such melodramas play in holding nations together in periods of anxiety and incalculable loss. But the kind of film I find myself hungering for would not be epitomized by Back to Bataan (1945) or Saving PrivateRyan (1998)—and certainly not by pseudo-satirical celebrations of fascistic militarism like Starship Troopers (1997), in which the enemies are conveniently insectoid. Star Wars (1977) leaves a creepy taste, too: Have you any doubt that the pilots who steered their planes into the World Trade Center towers thought the force was with them in their battle against the evil empire? At the same time I turn away from jingoist uplift, I don’t yearn for bleeding-heart jeremiads about the inherent evils of militarism; I don’t question the necessity for this specific war.

What movies does that leave us then—for our souls’ sake?

We could start with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a crazy and exhilarating portrait of prejudice in four different eras, from Babylon to modern America, and still one of the most daring cinematic attempts to chart (and draw parallels within) the history of man’s inhumanity to man. Next could come Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), with its tragic vision of the borders between people, classes, and countries. (The Nazis called it “Cinematographic Enemy No. 1” and sought to destroy all prints.) You will never shake off the death of Anna Magnani in Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945), the stunning neo-realist melodrama filmed (on the fly) in the rubble of Rome at the end of World War II. René Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952) begins with a little girl’s parents being strafed with bullets while they shield her from Nazi warplanes; she emerges with her dead puppy and works out a game with a peasant boy to build a cemetery for all the animals they find in the streets. Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) can be experienced again and again for the way it evokes both the kinetic charge of battle and the mournful cost of heroism. Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) is the last and best in his devastating trilogy of life in the Polish resistance during World War II. The Tavianis’ The Night of the ShootingStars (1982) is perhaps the greatest tragicomedy of war ever made, a magically irreducible weave of horror, farce, and lyric compassion. Brian De Palma’s Casualties ofWar (1989) is a more grueling but no less humane study of what happens when warriors develop a sense of entitlement—the conviction that anything is permissible in the name of payback. David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999) is an outraged examination of the moral chaos of the Gulf War, after which Iraq’s Kurdish people were forsaken by a U.S.-led coalition that had promised to support their insurgency.

Of course, there is room in this new era for mindful escapism, too. We should make a point of singing, dancing, and playing our music loud. As the Clash once put it: “Sharif don’t like it.”

Next week I’ll be writing about major new movies by David Lynch and Jacques Rivette and about the serious urban-vigilante thriller Training Day. But I frankly have to work back up to films of such scale and ambition. In the meantime, these notes on Dinner Rush and Don’t Say a Word will have to suffice.

Dinner Rush is a marvelously nasty comedy set in a trendy Tribeca Italian restaurant—a marvelously nasty revenge comedy, my embrace of which would seem to fly in the face of all that I wrote above. But our military could learn something from the extraordinarily adroit, calm, and farsighted way in which this particular revenge is exacted. Danny Aiello gives a beautifully subdued performance as Louis, the restaurant’s steady patriarch, whose longtime partner is gunned down by two Queens hoods when he refuses to give them a piece of the business. The rest of the movie takes place on a single, long, tumultuous evening, during which those same hoods show up to make Louis an offer he can’t refuse—along with throngs of others, including a powerful art dealer (the blandly imperious and wonderful Mark Margolis), a cryptic Wall Street yuppie (John Corbett), and one of the city’s most formidable restaurant critics (Sandra Bernhard).

The fun comes from the deft way in which the veteran MTV director Bob Giraldi and his canny screenwriters, Brian Kalata and Rick Shaughnessy, juggle the sundry plot lines and relationships in the manner of virtuoso chefs on the line of a Michelin three-star kitchen. You have the hilarious tension between the old-school red-sauce Italian restaurateur and his celebrity-chef son (Edoardo Ballerini), whose dishes are awesomely vertical combinations of such elements as lobster, truffles, carpaccio, and pumpkin risotto. And you have subplots galore, among them the one about the pathological gambler nephew (Kirk Acevedo) who’s into the hoodlums for twenty grand and also into the chef’s main squeeze. In a couple of places Giraldi gets overly fancy (some baffling out-of-focus shots and an overambitious score), but you can taste his love for the notion of the restaurant as the ultimate showbiz experience: It’s in the texture, the details, the lyrical montages of cooking and plating and serving. That love is also in the setup for the aforementioned act of vengeance, which has a Machiavellian lesson at its core: Al-Qaida has so far been two steps ahead of us; we have to be three steps ahead of them.

Don’t Say a Word also has several plot strands—sure-fire audience-grabbers, like the dad blackmailed into helping some killers who’ve kidnapped his daughter and the mom with the broken leg who has to outwit the relentless assassin. This kind of construction—in which multiple plot lines converge—can work gangbusters in a great thriller novel: Check out anything by George P. Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane. But director Gary Fleder and his hapless screenwriters don’t have a clue as to when cross-cutting will intensify the audience’s emotions and when it will dissipate what little tension has been built up. The movie is a big, noisy mess, with a howler at its center: Overrouged psychiatrist Michael Douglas (“You sick sonovabitch! You hurt my little girl and …”) has to plumb the repressed memories of dishy head-case Brittany Murphy (made up like Linda Blair in The Exorcist [1973]) while the clock ticks down: It’s Shrink for Your Life.

The one interesting moment at the Times Square screening I attended came during two stray shots of the World Trade Center. Thirty or 40 people clapped. They didn’t whoop, they didn’t laugh; they just spontaneously, politely applauded. It was as if they were saying: Our minds are elsewhere now, in a place where movies should fear to tread.