starring Paul Giamatti, Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell
screenplay by Neil Burger, based on a story by Steven Millhauser
directed by Neil Burger
starring Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie
screenplay by Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden
directed by Ryan Fleck
by Walter Chaw Out of the gate, Neil Burger's The Illusionist threatens to become the Viennese magician version of Amadeus, with Paul Giamatti's Inspector Uhl subbing for Salieri and Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) his rabbit-hatted Mozart. But the film resolves itself in no time into something a good deal more mundane: a twisty crime drama complete with gauzy Guy Maddin visuals that cements Norton as the gravitas-heavy young actor most likely to be cast as Heathcliff in a badly-considered community theatre adaptation of Wuthering Heights. It's tedious and protracted, if not otherwise offensive--an elaborate piece of fluff that does its little tricks to the medium-delight of its tiny, undemanding audience before fading into the wings. Though it's tempting to laud it for having no pretensions to greatness, it's equally tempting to stay home and laud it from there.
Giamatti and Norton are facing Janus heads of actors, the homely/less-homely versions calved from the same school of over-emoting and scenery-chewing. Their dry-humping exchanges relegate the eternally-misused Rufus Sewell to evil Crown Prince Leopold, who molders in swaths of opulence and in-breeding while slavering over his aloof lady-love, Sophie (a largely mute Jessica Biel). When Giamatti and Norton square off in a fit of Method technique, the urge to knock their heads together in a cathartic spasm is overwhelming. A nickelodeon-hued flashback shows young Eisenheim the commoner courting young Sophie the highborn, telegraphing their reunion over a special locket, eventual tragedy, and even more eventual triumph in broad, self-satisfied strokes. It's easy to see the cinematic allure of the piece (which began life as a Steven Millhauser short story)--not so easy to appreciate the literary possibilities of a story free of any ambition beyond allowing its A-list character actors the opportunity to work their mouths around stilted dialogue in an awkward bit of Victoriana. The irony of a film called The Illusionist sporting no discernible magic is just too choice to ignore.
With pretensions to be something meaningful, Half Nelson is another movie anchored by a mad Method performance by an insane character actor (this time Ryan Gosling, the new Ed Norton). It talks about Harvey Milk and the Communist Manifesto and the Civil Rights Movement and the CIA installation of Pinochet and the madness of a majority that still believes there were weapons of mass destruction in an Iraq...and it does so as backdrop to the disintegration of privileged white boy Dan (Gosling), a teacher at a rough inner-city school nursing a crack habit. Until it gets too obvious about itself (somewhere around the halfway mark (like an addict nursing a jones, as it happens)), that sense of futile outrage at the fruitlessness of trying to affect change in a world that has never been more informed yet remains incapable of avoiding (recent) history's harshest lessons lends a nice feeling of indignity to what is already a pretty fair genre inversion.
I have to admit to feeling dismay when I heard we were in for another white teacher/black student piece, but Half Nelson manages to sidestep the standing-on-desks bullshit, replacing it with something that feels like The Big Chill in its throwback to good old-fashioned Flower Power outrage. (In its way, it's a nice, unexpected, companion piece to this year's V for Vendetta.) Name-dropping Rosie Grier's "It's All Right To Cry" from Marlo Thomas's well-remembered but horrifically obsolete Free To Be You and Me (and Marshall Tucker Band's now-rhetorical "Can't You See") suggests a genuine sadness over ideals left castrated and bleeding beneath an avalanche of depressing truths about the state of our eroding union. The voice of its outrage is married to the nihilism of the modern age.
The story of a basehead befriending a girl (Shareeka Epps) headed for the wrong side of the law feels appropriately like doom--The Wizard of Oz reconfigured for the Wasteland. Maybe not surprisingly, what damages the film for me to some extent is its hopefulness: I don't even think it's cynical anymore to be unhopeful and I do wonder if I'm actually embarrassed that Half Nelson pulled my strings. What saves the film is the character of poor, conflicted, nuanced Dan as the new face of the American liberal. He's among the finest explanations we've had thus far of why the Left can't seem to muster a compelling resistance: in the face of all this outrage and insult, under the weight of almost four decades of poisoned passion, the voices of our best intentions find themselves tongue-tied and thunderstruck, sick on smack with their heads against a toilet--as slow in coming to our defense as the punchline that serves as this picture's surprisingly understated grace note. Half Nelson suggests that our stupor might be wearing off. I hope it's right. Originally published: August 18, 2006.