The Movie Club

Spring Breakers: James Franco’s cornrowed wannabe gangster has invaded my consciousness.

Entry 5: The gratifyingly frank, unprurient, smokin’ hot middle-aged lesbian sex of Concussion.

Robin Weigert in Concussion.

Photo courtesy Concussion Films/Weinstein Co

Stephanie, Wesley, Mark:

I hope creative studio marketers are paying close attention to our conversation here, because Stephanie’s declaration (concerning Her) that she “would rather watch Jordan Belfort blow cocaine into 100 hookers’ butt cracks” strikes me as the best Oscar-campaign blurb imaginable for The Wolf of Wall Street. For my part, I didn’t need any more hand-wringing from Wolf: I found Marty to be plenty censorious of his coke-Hoovering protagonists, indeed almost to a fault. What I wanted more of was just modulation, counterpoint, that syncopated musicality that made Goodfellas like a grand Italian opera, building periodically from comic gangster recitative to soaring directorial arias (Ray Liotta’s paranoid coked-up day, the massacre montage over Eric Clapton’s “Layla”). Goodfellas may be the last Scorsese movie that I really loved. Those that have come since have often seemed either ponderous and labored (Hugo, The Departed) or committed to a scene-by-scene “whoa man” intensity at the cost of structural coherence or thematic nuance (Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island—a movie I mention with trepidation, because every time the title comes up a bat cave’s worth of cinephiles swoops in to inform me I’m watching it wrong). Wesley’s defense of Wolf as a “parade of sensations” sounds so sensuous and life-affirming, I almost want to watch the movie again, or at least I want to want to—but then I remember how, as witnessed at the time, that sensory parade felt as joyless and compulsory as the one performed by the tighty-whitie-clad marching band to celebrate one of Stratton Oakmont’s many drearily similar swindling triumphs.

I think Mark’s made the case I would have made for Her beautifully, and I’ll leave it at that, adding only that I experienced the movie less as the wussy gynophilic drama Stephanie describes than as a rare and welcome example of speculative science fiction in the utopian tradition. I’m tired of being asked to conceive of the future solely as a monochrome post-apocalyptic wasteland stalked by insectoid robots and Christian Bale. Her imagines a different possible future, one in a much more direct line from where we are right now, which will contain not only capitalist drudgery and technology-enabled alienation but color, pleasure, laughter, sex, maybe even the possibility of love. I still giggle when I think of the scene in which Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is trapped in an awkward conversation with his OS girlfriend’s new crush: the artificially reconstructed consciousness of the late Zen philosopher Alan Watts. Who hasn’t had to chat with a romantic rival that galling at least once?

Maybe I’m just a simpleton—I should have stipulated that right up front—but I found many of Her’s ideas about technology and the future of consciousness genuinely interesting to think about. I like how Jonze’s script just slightly extrapolates our current technology-related pains and pleasures: our steadily ballooning sense of interconnectedness, our bewilderingly sped-up lives. And Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, alone onscreen for all those scenes, is so intimate, so permeable—it’s hard to believe this is the same man who played the rageful, distant World War II vet of The Master, or the low-functioning stoner version of himself of I’m Still Here. Phoenix is a shaman of an actor, capable of transformations that seem to pull their power from some primal source. Theodore Twombly may be something of an emo milquetoast, but Phoenix’s ability to become him is downright scary.

Wesley, you and I bumped fists briefly over Concussion in the last round, but let’s revisit it for a minute, because I suspect that many, many people out there missed the chance to see Stacie Passon’s debut film, which zoomed by almost unheeded sometime in the fall. (I would likely have missed it had it not been for Andrew O’Hehir’s trumpetlike manifesto on its behalf—one of the best favors a film critic can do for another, though I think we should all agree it’s best to limit oneself to a maximum of two trumpetlike manifestos a year.) Concussion isn’t for every cinematic palate; it’s an extra-vinegary salad of chopped cactus without the spines removed. But there’s a refreshing astringency to its clear-eyed satire of the fatuous upper-middle-class milieu in which it takes place. The story is Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour by way of Real Housewives of New Jersey, with a transfixing Robin Weigert as a lesbian stay-at-home mother turned high-end (lesbian) escort on a whim. I can’t think of a lead character this year who was simultaneously as badly behaved and as impossible not to feel for as Weigert’s frazzled, cranky, philandering Abby—she makes Llewyn Davis look like a sparkling dinner companion. Concussion feels almost European in its keen observation of small social hypocrisies and ironies, not to mention its gratifyingly frank, unprurient, and frequently smokin’ hot depiction of middle-aged lesbian sex. In this second round, can you each toss out the title of one movie that was to you this year what Concussion was to me—an under-celebrated surprise you’re glad you managed to pluck out of the oncoming rush before it washed past?

Oh and Stephanie, one last thing on Spring Breakers: I have a counterpart to your story about letting that neon-hued irritant of a movie get its hooks in you. Filling out my brand-new 2014 wall calendar with some basic dates for the new year, I found myself printing in large block letters across the last two weeks of March, “SPRAAAANNNNGG BREAK.” James Franco’s cornrowed, Gatsbyesque wannabe gangster had invaded my consciousness, outliving the movie that spawned him, replicating like a virus. It feels almost wrong to label Franco’s Alien a “character”—he’s an impersonation of a parody of a stereotype, or a travesty of a mockery of a sham, or something. But he’s an indelible creation, and months after the rest of the movie has receded into a blur of Skrillex beats and slo-mo jiggling, Franco’s squinty, grill-toothed smile remains, hovering in the air like the Cheshire cat’s.

Sprang Break 4ever,