starring Sigourney Weaver, Anthony LaPaglia, Irene Walsh, Jim Simpson
screenplay by Anne Nelson and Jim Simpson, based on the play by Nelson
directed by Jim Simpson
by Walter Chaw As it manifests itself in popular art, the instinct to revisit the sins of the past for the purposes of reconciliation will as often take the unbecoming forms of self-congratulation or exploitation. The same urge to couch criticism in terms of personal reminiscence ("It's good because it reminds me of my cat"), the same compulsion that drives middlebrow cineastes to donate five bucks to the ARC after a screening of The Other Sister, informs this variety of salutary cinema. Very fond of taking the correct stance on issues that are not particularly controversial, films like Jim Simpson's The Guys (based on a briefly-timely stage play by Anne Nelson) allow for simpering middle-class navel-gazers to feel as though they're involved in some way with events outside the breakfast nook. When Joan (Sigourney Weaver) says that she feels impotent in the face of 9/11 because she's merely a journalist (devaluing the amazing work of THE NEW YORK TIMES following the atrocity) and grieving fire captain Nick (Anthony LaPaglia) responds, "Well, that's your tool," we're dealing with self-righteous self-aggrandizing. And when Joan marvels, "When was the last time someone needed a writer," the only possible response is: right around the time someone decided to adapt "The Guys" for the screen.
Needing someone to write four eulogies for his fallen men, hangdog Nick seeks out silly bird Joan in her sister's beautiful brownstone, where he waxes rhapsodic about a quartet of composites further reduced by Joan's rote eulogies. Cliché-ridden and packed with maudlin platitudes (exactly the sort of things that are insufficient in the face of tragedy since time immemorial), The Guys misses no opportunity to try to manipulate an emotional response. The important thing to remember about irony is that, as a literary fixture, it first found footing following the horrors of The Great War--so that 9/11, far from being a death of irony, is a rich wellspring of irony. Irony, crucially, is what's most missing from The Guys: the collision of a man-of-action with a hand-wringer (a scene, one of the few not a forced dialogue between Joan and Nick, in which Joan flaccidly "comforts" a pair of ethnic short-order cooks, is paternalism at its most embarrassing); the interplay between a woman in a privileged cocoon and working-class men she would have disdained a few weeks earlier; and the idea that it's only through the storytellers that any act of heroism is ever memorialized--opportunities, each, that are squandered with an appalling lack of artistry.
Static and packed to the gills with weeping pathos, The Guys operates under the protection offered films on sensitive topics with a palpable cynicism. It's a beyond bad film that figures because it's "important," it doesn't need to respect medium and form--that it doesn't need to be anything except simple-minded, earnest, and utterly without controversy. The picture isn't art, it's therapy, and as therapy, it's aimed squarely at the demographic that Joan represents--a realization that begins to veer dangerously into the realm of exploitation. It's my strong suspicion that the actual friends and family of fallen New York Firefighters have no such need for things like The Guys, which, after all, makes a shallow fiction of fact. The urge in the United States to moderate collective tragedies into easily-digested cud for bovine mastication on the Oprah show is precisely the sort of dangerous impulse that reduces those bloody tragedies to candy-coloured odes to martyrs of unclear causes and undetermined wars. Righteous anger is appropriate, misty-eyed reverie egregiously premature. Originally published: July 4, 2003.