Bloodless Bandits

Barry Levinson’s caper movie has no violence—or soul; The Operator is self-involved; Diamond Men shines on; My First Mister is Albert Brooks’ first soap opera; Iron Monkey defies gravity.

Directed by Barry Levinson

The Operator
Directed by Jon Dichter
Black Wolf Productions

Diamond Men
Directed by Dan Cohen
Panorama Entertainment

My First Mister
Directed by Christine Lahti
Paramount Classics

Iron Monkey
Directed by Yuen Wo Ping
Miramax Films

Last Saturday I watched the sneak preview of Bandits with an attentive but subdued New York audience—an audience that seemed hungry for escapism but couldn’t quite make the leap to giving a shit about which overpaid-movie-star bank-robber (more-facetious-than-usual Bruce Willis or shticky-dweebish Billy Bob Thornton) was going to end up with Cate Blanchett. It’s an imaginatively made film; but how did the director, Barry Levinson, distract himself from the meaningless (at best) storyline? Maybe by roughing up the surface of the movie, throwing in lots of jiggly, hand-held footage and cool shots from bank security cameras. The trade-off for his freewheeling technique is that much of the dialogue is post-synchronized, which pretty much kills the performances: There’s nothing like hearing an archly written, badly looped line like Blanchett’s “I’m feeling quite fragile at the moment” in the middle of a car chase to make you hate the actress, the screenwriter (Harley Peyton), and the studio.

It goes without saying that in a week of airstrikes on Afghanistan and the threat of more horror in U.S. cities, it feels insane to go about our business as usual—especially if that business means shelling out bucks to see star vehicles with zero connection to any aspect of our lives. And I’m less inclined than ever to embrace the dim romanticization of outlaws. Levinson must think he’s on safe ground morally by keeping Bandits bloodless, as if the absence of carnage somehow makes kidnapping and armed robbery wholesome. When Blanchett asserts that it’s wrong to rob banks, Willis replies: “The money’s federally insured. The government steals money from people, we just take it back from them.” So by extension it’s OK to stick up the box office if you’re less than entertained.

Just when I start to get all shrilly moralistic, a shrilly moralistic thriller comes along to remind me that art has to play by its own rules. The Operator has a good 21st-century paranoid premise: Gary (Michael Laurence)—a nasty yuppie lawyer and Clintonesque womanizer who’s barely keeping chaos at bay—gets a wrong number and vents his rage at a telephone operator (Jacqueline Kim). She chooses not to let him off the hook. Soon she has access to his cell-phone numbers, his credit cards, and every other key to his sleazy materialistic life. A karmic avenger, she tells him she wants to liberate him from his meaningless cravings, to free him from attachments—to destroy him as a means of saving him.

The problem with The Operator is that she does. Everything goes according to plan, which means no twists or surprises. It doesn’t take long after his car gets repossessed and his wife locks him out of the house for Gary to stumble through an African-American neighborhood (with close-ups of wounded-eyed black kids to underline the economic disparity in the world), where he finds hope in the sermon of a preacher he has previously kept off a jury. The writer-director, Jon Dichter, gives the philosophical discussions some sparkle, and he handles the scenes in which the operator hovers on the fringes of the protagonist’s perception (just where he isn’t looking) with wit and elegance. It’s too bad he’s building to Lamp Unto My Feet or any other Sunday-morning homily. Worse, the operator herself never emerges as a dramatic character—or a real person. (What is the effect of this pursuit of vengeance on her life?) And so a movie about a man forced to stop thinking of himself as the center of the universe ends up feeling suffocatingly self-centered.

Ever since Quentin Tarantino relaunched Robert Forster in the vastly underrated (by me, too) JackieBrown (1997), I’ve looked forward to another good vehicle for this actor—whose unassuming, monotonous regularity is miraculously charged with soul. He finally has it in Diamond Men, Dan Cohen’s even, finely observed road movie about a traveling salesman trying to hold onto his job. Forster’s Edward has just recovered from a massive heart attack when he learns from his company that he’s uninsurable. His slim hope of holding on to a paycheck lies in training his impetuous, horny young replacement (Donnie Wahlberg) in the careful art of selling diamonds to small-town jewelry store owners. His apprentice, meanwhile, makes it a mission to find some tail for his depressed mentor.

The movie would be better without its twist happy ending, which is more appropriate to a caper comedy than a death-of-a-salesman odyssey. But Diamond Men has an appealing openness: Cohen doesn’t fall into the Mamet trap of equating crafty salesmanship with macho flim-flam. And the movie has an intriguing wild card in Bess Armstrong as an ex-prostitute turned Zen masseuse. I’m not sure if she’s meant to be brilliantly evolved or an idiot—or if the actress is really good or really, really terrible. But her chemistry with Forster is terrific. He’s such a likable actor that even the bad hair transplants—which lower his hairline way too much—don’t make you laugh at him. He’s the anti-William Shatner.

I don’t know what’s up with Albert Brooks’ hair in My First Mister—it’s too thick for his sagging features and tired eyes. Director Christine Lahti’s strategy is to make him look as unprepossessing as possible, but there’s an extra dash of masochism in his unstylishness, as if he welcomed the chance to show the world what a mopey, exhausted schlub he really is. It’s a measure of Brooks’ stature that he survives the self-sabotage and comes through with his most engaging performance in years—relaxed and in the moment, as if relieved (for a change) not to have to sell his own material.

For the first hour, the movie is pleasantly shambling. The story revolves around Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski, who looks like Helen Hunt stretched out), a pierced, alienated, death-obsessed punk who develops a peculiar fixation on her 49-year-old employer. The pair become each other’s only friends—but will they be lovers? He recoils at “the F word”; I didn’t recoil until “the C word,” when what looked like a quirky character study suddenly congealed into a maudlin cancer opera. Oh, Albert, where is thy shame?

It’s fun to think of Harvey Weinstein getting so bent out of shape by the success of Sony Picture Classics’Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) that he hauled a 1993 Yuen Wo Ping kung fu picture out of mothballs and has gone on to give it a lavish restoration and release. As luck would have it, it’s a good one. Iron Monkey has a rollicking, comic-book Robin Hood plot and more furiously entertaining fight scenes than the ones in Ang Lee’s solemn martial-arts art movie. In these horrible days, watching the human body defy gravity might be the best escape imaginable.