Reel Time

24-Carrot Bliss

Wallace & Gromit cheese off a Were-Rabbit, Clooney has a Good Night, and Baumbach harpoons a squid and a whale.

A delightful big-screen debut

In a perfect world, we would not need the righteous civics lessons of Good Night, and Good Luck, or the bitter dissection of divorce that is The Squid and the Whale, or any of the brilliant works that help to reconcile us to a violent and chaotic reality. But we would need Wallace and Gromit.

“There will always be an England,” TheNew Yorker tells us, and Wallace and Gromit suggest that we’ll always need that, too—an England of row-house backyard vegetable gardens under low, gray skies and proper, oblivious (and obliviously proper) gardeners, an England that never much concerned itself with the loss of the Suez Canal or the dimming of an empire. For that England, the more urgent problem is rabbits.

In their first full-length feature, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (DreamWorks), an absolutely magical fusion of deadpan Ealing comedy and Gothic horror, the pair run a pest-control outfit called “Anti-Pesto” that “humanely” dispatches the beasts who threaten potentially prize-winning carrots, pumpkins, etc. Wallace and Gromit’s alarm system and rabbit-vacuum-cleaner (which deposits the creatures in a glass jar, in which they spin around with apparent pleasure) would make Rube Goldberg sit up and salute; and Wallace (voiced, as ever, by Peter Sallis) has even managed to endear himself to an aristocratic sock-puppet beauty (with red hair sticking out at right angles from her head like a pair of sausages) called Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter).

Alas, the ever-enterprising Wallace isn’t content with giving hundreds of rabbits a home in his basement. He wants to reform them. He wants to brainwash them into swearing off vegetables altogether. And his Frankensteinian endeavors end up producing the most fearsome rabbit since Monty Python and the Holy Grail—requiring his dog, Gromit, always the smarter of the pair, to bail him out of a bigger and potentially more lethal mess than ever before.

Directed by the knighthood-worthy Nick Park and Steve Box, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a bloody delight on every level. The puns, it is true, are cheesy—but only in the sense that the cheese-loving Wallace reads East of Edam and Waiting for Gouda. The double-entendres will have parents in a cold sweat trying to explain why the grown-ups in the theater are choking on the floor. “Well, you see, nuts are sort of … like cashews … but they can also be … dash it …”

The stop-motion animation represents the best of both worlds: the meticulously hand-fashioned and the miraculously computerized. Peter Jackson will be lucky to have anything as thrilling in his upcoming King Kong as the revelation of the giant Were-Rabbit—in pieces, as Gromit gives chase in an automobile across once-manicured, now serially trashed lawns. But Jackson will not have Gromit to cut to: Gromit with the young-old face that sees all but says nothing, Gromit that acts when only absolutely necessary. For he knows what we know—and love: that there will always be an England… 11:50 a.m. PT

Saintly, but not totally off the mark

Elsewhere in this magazine, Jack Shafer has brought such fine, principled skepticism to bear on the historical foundation of George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (Warner Independent Pictures) that my case for it will no doubt seem lightweight. Here goes: It’s a damn good movie!

There is no contesting that it’s a self-congratulatory hagiography of Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and that Clooney and his co-screenwriter, Grant Heslov, are highly selective in how they portray Murrow’s fight to broadcast a damning assessment of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his overweening anti-Communist crusade on the timorous CBS network. But it’s also a passionate and rousing piece of filmmaking—a civics lesson with the punch of a good melodrama.

Although most of Good Night, and Good Luck is set in the CBS studios, it’s anything but static. Clooney and his cinematographer, Robert Elswit, use high-contrast black-and-white to evoke both the era in TV and the starkness of the forces in play. The movie never settles into one of those loitering period pictorials. It feels electrified; it has the chain-smoking jitteriness of its protagonist. Cigarettes, by the way, are everywhere, and the way the white smoke curls against the deep blacks is both beautiful and ominous: You don’t need to be told that Murrow perished from lung cancer.

Jack is obviously correct that Murrow did not lead the charge against McCarthy. But since when does TV news ever lead charges? With the exception of such programs as Frontline (and, at the opposite extreme, administration mouthpieces like Fox News), the medium generally lags behind print in afflicting the powerful, constricted as it is by the interests of its sponsors (Murrow’s principal underwriter, Alcoa, looms large in this movie) and the celebrity status of its anchor people. (They are fat targets, indeed: See “Rather, Dan.” A weighty subplot here revolves around the disintegrating psyche of Ray Wise’s local anchor Don Hollenbeck, who finds himself regularly pilloried as a pinko by a powerful tabloid columnist.)

More important, the larger battle for Murrow and Friendly in Good Night, and Good Luck is with the network itself. CBS employees have been ordered—on pain of termination—to sign loyalty oaths to the United States; and a gutless midlevel executive (Jeff Daniels, here fatted by complacency) all but begs Murrow to choose another target—preferably, heh-heh, Joe Kennedy. He threatens Murrow with the worst fate imaginable for a journalist with pretensions: more puffy celebrity interviews. (The one shown here, from Murrow’s Person to Person, is with a coyly closeted Liberace.) In a big oaken office reeking of power, chairman William Paley (a wittily grave Frank Langella) argues that McCarthy’s going to self-destruct anyway and hints that such a broadcast could imperil the network’s standing and the careers of its employees. (See “Rather, Dan.”)

Not all of Good Night, and Good Luck clicks. I found the moody interludes between acts—smoky jazz numbers, often ironic in context, sung by Diana Reeves—a mite self-conscious. The subplot featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson as secretly married CBS employees (such alliances were against the network’s rules) seems shoehorned in. As much as I like Strathairn’s crisply understated performance, saints don’t do much for me. And I could have done with at least the suggestion that some rational people at the time believed Soviet Communism was a threat and that there might have been spies in the State Department.

But Clooney’s (and Murrow’s) straightforward message—the movie’s raison d’etre—that “we should not confuse dissent with disloyalty” feels especially vital. It wasn’t too long ago that Andrew Sullivan was labeling writers who raised questions about the evidence for an invasion of Iraq “fifth columnists” for the enemy. (Although Sullivan has furiously backpedaled on the war, he has not, to my knowledge, recanted that characterization.) Bill O’Reilly declared such critics “Enemies of the State.” (The words appeared in bold letters on the screen.) And Ann Coulter topped the best-seller lists with her assertion that most Democrats are guilty of “treason”—which, the last I heard, is punishable by death. (The unhinged Coulter wished actual fiery destruction on staffers at the New York Times—odd timing, given that the faux First Amendment martyr Judith Miller was well into her neocon campaign of disinformation.)

None of those writers or TV personalities has the power to imprison, thank heaven. But, like McCarthy, they are happy to resort to the ultimate smear, the political “smart-bomb.” That’s why the stand of such a middle-of-the-road figure as Murrow mattered then and, in Good Night, and Good Luck, matters now. … 2:51 p.m. PT

Correction: Andrew Sullivan writes: “Can you substantiate this smear? Actually, a double smear? If you cannot, would you correct? And did you even bother to check before you wrote it?”

I’m not sure why this is a “double smear” (Is the second one being lumped in with Ann Coulter?) but I do owe Sullivan a correction. I’ve been reading him for many years, since the beginning of his blog, and once even encountered myself as the object of a “Poseur Alert.” (I was grateful when he subsequently apologized, not having read far enough in my piece–to the end of the first paragraph–to discover, before ridiculing it, that it was a parody.) Anyway, I never dreamed that he’d dispute this characterization. But I can only infer that he wants—very wisely—to make a distinction between his enthusiastic, post 9/11 support of the general “war on terror” and his enthusiastic support of the invasion of Iraq.

It’s a matter of record that, after 9/11, he wrote, “The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.” But although he thumped the tub for the “eagles” who dared to wage war on Iraq and relentlessly attacked (with Sontag or Chomsky or Begala prizes) those who dared to question the administration’s motives, he was relatively balanced on the subject of the war’s critics, calling them only “objectively pro-Saddam” and renaming the un-eagle-esque BBC “the Baathist Broadcasting Company.” Although Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan wrote in the American Prospect that “Sullivan is setting a truly frightening precedent: the pre-emptive definition of any opposition to U.S. policy as essentially treasonous,” Sullivan has since proven that he can give it to Bush with the best of us “paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist” fifth columnists. I admire him a great deal, and apologize for distorting his position.

Clarification: The last sentence is not meant to be entirely snarky. I do admire him, just not for this stuff.

A whale of a film

The best reason to see Noah Baumbach’s blistering autobiographical divorce drama The Squid and the Whale (The Samuel Goldwyn Company) is Jeff Daniels as the teenage protagonist’s father, Bernard Berkman, a novelist and a titan of self-absorption whose ego envelops his son like a squid. Or is he the whale? I think he’s the whale and the mother is the squid: Whales are blowhards while squids have vagina-dentata-like … Never mind. I don’t really understand the metaphor anyway, although it makes for a stunning visual climax when the boy, exhausted from all the psychodrama, trudges into New York’s Museum of Natural History and contemplates the ancient origins of life. The image obviously resonates in Baumbach, and so this domestic tug-of-war taps into something deeper than the specifics of his Park Slope, Brooklyn, upbringing.

Anyway, the part of the father, closely based on the novelist Jonathan Baumbach, is a classic portrait of wounded vanity, and Daniels—a fine, self-effacing actor who rarely gets a chance to dominate a movie—rises to the occasion and then some. He wears a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard that takes the focus off his cute little cleft chin and puts it on his eyes, which blaze with indignation at the lack of attention being paid him. After early success, Berkman no longer attracts much notice from critics, while his wife, Joan (Laura Linney, in a part based on Baumbach’s mother, the former film critic Georgia Brown), enjoys increasing success. Bernard paternalistically suggests changes in her prose, she nods and doesn’t take them, and so the balance of power shifts—fatally. It isn’t long before Bernard leaves their gorgeous brownstone for a crumbling house in a less desirable neighborhood.

The older son, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), shares his father’s anger at his mother’s ascension, while the younger Frank (Owen Kline), is more of a mommy’s boy. (I don’t mean that pejoratively.) Baumbach’s riskiest strategy is to turn his alter ego, Walt, into a snotty little creep, echoing his dad’s imperial dismissals of books like A Tale of Two Cities (“minor Dickens”) without actually having read them. Hypercritical, he laments the abundance of freckles on the face of his lovely quasi-girlfriend (Halley Feiffer), but his greatest victim is himself: When he’s caught trying to pass off a song he sings at a school assembly as his own, it’s clear that he’s judging himself by standards too high ever to begin to create anything. You can look at The Squid and the Whale as the truest kind of artistic coming-of-age story: a cathartic piece of self-criticism. 

The movie isn’t “minor Baumbach,” but it feels more like a good, tight short story than a novel. Its scheme is a little tidy: Under the sway of his dad, Walt is furious at his mom (he even calls her a whore); then it hits him that his dad is a monumental egotist who doesn’t completely see him. So maybe he was too hard on his mom … What makes the film feel unfinished is that Joan remains elusive and un-filled-in: Her soothing pet names for her sons become more and more irritating, her easy mockery belies her warmth, and her sexuality is a source of unease. (She had a long-term affair with a neighbor, the father of one of Walt’s friends, and, shortly after Bernard is banished, takes up with her tennis instructor, played by William Baldwin.) The hole in the film isn’t a reflection on Linney’s performance. It’s as if Baumbach, his hands full of oily whale blubber, didn’t want to deal with an exploding sac of squid ink. And who can blame him, really?

The irresolution and anxiety is right there in Baumbach’s filmmaking—in how he still can’t shake his angry, competitive father from the frame. What keeps this from being an “I hate Dad” orgy is how alive Baumbach is to Bernard’s pain—and to Daniels’ performance, which has an aura of bewilderment and incomprehension, like a dethroned king who looks around and finds only a single courtier—his son. Driving around Park Slope, Bernard is outraged when an on-street parking space he occupied a few hours earlier is gone: Everywhere he looks he sees signs of his diminished potency. What kills our sympathy, finally, is that he can’t help using what little power he has left to best his son. When they both eye a nubile student of Bernard’s (a radiant Anna Paquin), there’s little doubt who’ll end up sleeping with her. (Movie trivia buffs will have reason to feel even more righteous anger: Paquin played Daniels’ daughter in the wholesome Fly Away Home.)

The Squid and the Whale ends up reinforcing the thesis of Elizabeth Marquardt’s new book (full disclosure: edited by my wife) Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. Marquardt’s contention—which will be embraced by knee-jerk social conservatives but is worth considering anyway—is that while many divorces are justified (and, in the long term, healthy) there’s no such thing as a “good” one. Traveling between parents, children must do what they aren’t equipped to do: take sides, keep secrets, weigh opposing lifestyles, and reconcile their parents’ different worlds in a way they wouldn’t ordinarily need to—even in a home riddled with conflict. Marquardt says this emotional labor “restructures childhood itself.” And while I haven’t examined her data (and am not a child of divorce), I can think of few pieces of evidence more compelling than the image of a young boy staring hopelessly at a giant squid and whale. … 10:35 a.m. PT

Correction (10/18): The original version of this article stated that Anna Paquin’s character was both a student of Bernard’s and a classmate of Walt’s. She is, in fact, only a student of Bernard’s.