Frances McDormand Is an Unpredictable Curmudgeon in HBO’s Magnificent Olive Kitteridge

When we first meet the title character in Olive Kitteridge, she considers the revolver in her hands and looks up at the cloudless sky above the woods one last time. The 25-year journey (and the accumulation of mistakes and bad luck therein) that leads the elderly Olive to that moment of despair unfurls in director Lisa Cholodenko’s (The Kids Are All Right) two-night, four-hour HBO miniseries (airing at 9 p.m. on Sunday, November 2, and Monday, November 3).

Olive’s played by Frances McDormand, who optioned Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning novel and, with Cholodenko, has created one of the most captivatingly complicated screen characters in recent memory: a small-town wife, mother, and math teacher with a zealotry for frankness that accelerates her undoing. In possession of an acid tongue that could corrode steel, Olive wears her intelligence like a crown. She even holds up her family’s history of depression to her adoring husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), and resentful son, Christopher (Devin Druid as a teenager and John Gallagher Jr. as an adult), as a badge of superiority: “Happy to have it. Comes with being smart.”

The miniseries allows us to indulge in the unkind pleasures of Olive’s truth-bombs, but it’s also keenly interested in exploring the inevitable results of her callous honesty: her social isolation, her self-importance and self-doubt, and the eventual erosion of her ability to feel compassion. Olive is no simple lovable curmudgeon like the one co-star Bill Murray plays in the current theatrical release St. Vincent. Her tragedy lies not in her imperious mistreatment of others, but in her genuine bafflement when told she’s intolerably cruel, even if her assessments are wholly correct.

Olive wasn’t always so clueless. Cholodenko’s masterful miniseries, told mostly in chronological order with the occasional flashback or -forward, is a fascinating study of the transition from middle to old age, as well as a poignant portrait of hard-to-bridge parent-child relationships. It also paints impressionistic pictures of the kind of New England hamlet where all the smart kids leave and know better than to come back as it changes over a quarter of a century: Chain stores take over; vacationers have to be tolerated. Suddenly it’s no longer fashionable to sew one’s own dress.

But Olive Kitteridge is most powerful when it focuses on the central couple’s mutually admiring, equally wandering-eyed, entirely codependent union. Theirs is the kind of marriage rarely seen on screen — an obviously imperfect match, but a sufficiently functional one nonetheless. The miniseries’ first chapter illustrates how well they work together even while projecting most of their romantic sentiments elsewhere. Henry gives a local depressive (Rosemarie DeWitt) pep talks when she comes in to fill her prescriptions, while Olive visits her at home after school. Meanwhile, Henry nurses a crush on his new, doll-like assistant (Zoe Kazan), whose doe-eyed helplessness makes him feel important, while Olive steals flirty moments with the English teacher at the school (Peter Mullan).

And yet, Olive and Henry’s relationship isn’t without passion, even ardor, at least on his part. Henry buys her greeting cards and flowers just because, and even when she tries to justify throwing them out with the dinner leftovers with explanations like “I already read it” and “you know I don’t like clutter,” she fishes them out of the garbage can and displays it by the kitchen window for his sake. Some years later, he brings her another uxorious greeting card, signed only with a simple “H.” She rewards his spontaneous affectionateness with a deep hug even while wordlessly judging him for his slight effort.

Cholodenko ably blends heartrending drama and black humor, especially when Olive opens her mouth to add her sardonic commentary to the proceedings. (Sometimes she needn’t even say a word; in a delightfully earthy detail, Olive intermittently punctuates a conversation with a burp, especially around those she believes to be putting on airs.) The absolute comic highlight of the miniseries happens to be one of its most devastating scenes, when Olive and Henry can’t help bickering about long-held grudges — which leads to confessions of some potentially marriage-threatening secrets — as they have a gun held to their heads by a robber. Winning an argument for the Kitteridges is graver than a life-or-death situation.

The first installment also boasts a sizable body count, with a pair of violent deaths in the first hour and a couple of possible suicide attempts in the second. There’s no need for a dead blonde to wash ashore in a plastic sheet — ordinary life holds plenty of mysteries and misfortune. “Save us from shotguns and fathers’ suicides,” reads a note at the local bar, quoting the poet John Berryman. Since the narrative skips over months and years, the miniseries occasionally feels lacking in any other momentum than the inexorableness of death, especially in the first half. But the changes in Olive’s relationships with Henry and Christopher reveal just how crucial that overall sense of storytelling over two decades and a half is to where our protagonist ends up — and how she might survive it.

The passage of time isn’t as visible on McDormand’s face as it is in the costumes and sets, but otherwise the Fargo actress is superb: formidable as a mountain and moody as the sea. Her droll one-liners land in the most cutting way possible, and she manages a kind of pugnacious verbal tango with Jenkins, who movingly evinces Henry’s innocence and emotional neediness, as well as his inadequacies as a spouse.

“People are never as helpless as they think they are,” declares Olive at a funeral, partly to reassure a mourner that she’ll survive the death of her loved one, partly so she can be done with comforting that mourner already. Just because she’s self-reliant doesn’t mean Olive can’t use all the help she can get.


4 Minute Mile Is For Fans of Any Sports Underdog Movie

“You’ve got something deep inside you, and you’ve got to face that fear,” an ex-track coach (Richard Jenkins) tells his pupil (Kelly Blatz) in 4 Minute Mile. “Otherwise you’ll turn out to be me — and you don’t want that. But if you do face that fear, it’ll change your life.”

Ham-fisted dialogue dominates this picture, with characters expressing central plot points in a manner that makes hammering a nail seem subtle. This isn’t the film’s only problem — 4 Minute Mile is cobbled together with every sports underdog cliché imaginable. There’s the talented youth (Drew) from a troubled background striving for a better life with his skill (running); an older brother (Cam Gigandet) who’s mixed up with the wrong crowd; a poor, helpless mother (Kim Basinger, in a thankless role); and an adoring female who sees only the good in our hero (Analeigh Tipton).

Of course there’s also Jenkins’s alcoholic ex-runner, glory days far behind him. Watching Jenkins work with this material is a bit like watching LeBron James ball with middle schoolers; he valiantly tries to make the most of it. Unfortunately, the narrative is so formulaic as to feel immediately contrived, with seemingly every plot device taken from another film.

Additionally, director Charles-Olivier Michaud’s formal approach is to treat the film like something between a made-for-TV movie and a Gatorade commercial, with lugubrious slow-motion photography and roving Steadicam shots that convey motion but not movement.

Lacking self-awareness, the film suffers from its inability to understand its presentation.


The Maudlin Lullaby Is Off-Key

Rarely has the terminal seemed as interminable as it does in Lullaby, writer-director Andrew Levitas’s tedious saga of a family reuniting at the deathbed of their paterfamilias.

With business bigwig Robert (Richard Jenkins) intent on pulling his own plug after a 12-year battle with cancer, his estranged son, Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund), who long ago abandoned his clan to pursue a music career on the West Coast, returns to New York, where he acts out like a spoiled brat mostly interested in Dad’s decision to give away his fortune.

Also upset are quietly moping wife Rachel (Anne Archer) and angry daughter Karen (Jessica Brown Findlay), who files a legal injunction to stop Robert from killing himself.

A quartet of unbearable types whose sheer unpleasantness makes even their suffering hard to sympathize with, they’re joined in this protracted drama by Jennifer Hudson as a sassy nurse, Terrence Howard as a featureless doctor, Jessica Barden as a teenage cancer patient who shares cigarettes with Jonathan (and, eventually, a faux-prom night dance and kiss), and, in a pointless supporting role that feels like she accidentally wandered on set, Amy Adams as Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend.

Memories are shared, grievances are aired, regrets are expressed, and apologies are made, though like Hedlund’s singing, this maudlin film’s portrait of mortality and grief is egregiously off-key.


In God’s Pocket, the Late Philip Seymour Hoffman Gives an Understated Performance of Workaday Melancholy

Literally funereal from its first scene, God’s Pocket is a bit of site-specific miserablism brought to life by an ensemble whose every actor — the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a connected schlub, Christina Hendricks as his grief-stricken wife, John Turturro as Hoffman’s only real friend, and Richard Jenkins as the lecherous, alcoholic reporter who serves as the community’s de facto voice in a local paper — is more interesting than the part he or she is playing.

They bet on sure-thing horses that aren’t, haunt the local watering hole until last call, and wax poetic about the old days, though there’s little reason to believe things were ever much better; everyone is in a hole and determined to keep digging.

Theirs is a tribal mentality that’s wary of outsiders and quick to turn on members who don’t maintain the status quo, and to be banished from God’s Pocket is usually to take a dirt nap.

The story, which follows Hoffman as he scrambles to piece together the $6,000 needed to cover his stepson’s funerary costs, could have worked well as a pitch-black comedy, but first-time director John Slattery (Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling) takes the material so seriously that the mood never changes much after leaving the funeral home.

Hoffman’s character’s workaday melancholy, suggested in an understated performance, is the clearest expression of the neighborhood’s unglamorous refusal to accept its meager lot and quit striving for just a bit more.


A.C.O.D. Is a Hysterical Mess With A Bit Too Much Self-Editing

A.C.O.D. is an anomaly of sorts, a comedy jam-packed with screaming, nagging, and chronic discomfort that you nonetheless want to spend more time with than you’re given. The film is willfully messy and disjointed, so as to mirror the chaos within real-life A.C.O.Ds (Adult Children of Divorce).

It’s at its acerbic, spryest best when the characters are at their least likable. Carter (Adam Scott), an anxious thirtysomething restaurateur, has spent his life trying to micromanage his shrill, antagonistic parents (Catherine O’Hara and Richard Jenkins), and the film’s predictable trajectory concerns Carter coming to realize the futility of such a mission and focus on himself.

But the cast transcends the familiar crises. Jenkins and O’Hara imbue even the crudest dialogue (they call the other’s new wife and husband “Cuntessa” and “Fuckface,” respectively) with jazzy, pitch-perfect precision. Jane Lynch, as the unctuous self-help author profiling Carter, has played arrogant New Age airhead roles to death, but is still hilarious all three times she prides herself on her own trite psychobabble (“I just coined a new term!”) Even the sometimes smarmy Scott is convincing as an overworked mensch.

But A.C.O.D. ultimately suffers from a rare affliction: an overkill of editing. Whole scenes—especially the farcical finale—peter out just at the simmering point, and Jessica Alba (as a fetching, sardonic fellow A.C.O.D.) disappears midway through. Director–co-writer Stuart Zicherman replaces the obligatory outtakes section with clips of crew members discussing their parents’ divorces, but the film’s ending is too pat and fuzzy to warrant this bleak slice of life. Zicherman should have trusted his dark instincts; he did too much micromanaging of his own.


More Vampire YA in Let Me In

An orphan for all practical purposes, 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has been left to sprout like a weed. At home, he gets sparse recognition from his divorcée mother; at school, he absorbs castrating taunts from a pack of bullies who’ve gleaned “eternal victim” from his spacey stare.

Owen fills the unstructured hours by sucking Now ’n’ Laters, fantasizing about empowering self-defense scenarios, and peeping across the courtyard of his apartment complex. Here, he spies a potential playmate moving in, a girl around his age. Watching her shuffle through the snow in bare feet, led by her embalmed, middle-aged guardian (Richard Jenkins), you might suspect they’re part of a penitent religious cult. You suspect worse soon after, when the town experiences a ritual murder with vampire tracks.

The setting of Let Me In is Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1983. The feathery, slow-falling snow comes with the material’s Scandinavian pedigree: Swede John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Let the Right One In, filmed by Tomas Alfredson in 2008, was enough of a boutique hit to attract this American remake by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves. Lina Leandersson’s mysterious neighbor is replaced by Chloe Moretz’s Abby, waifish, home-school-creepy, and even more socially maladjusted than Owen. On the common ground of isolation, they thaw to each other. Unknown to Owen, if not the viewer, is the fact that Abby’s trauma has something to do with the killings, which her guardian is seen to be involved in, which she may be a party to, and to which Owen, as their courtship deepens, will become an accomplice.

Reeves adopts the International-style flatness of Alfredson’s film, a mixture of “philosophical” long shots, brittle scoring, slowed-pulse performances, and blankness passing as clarity. In an opening that assigns Elias Koteas’s cop to investigate the killings, it’s clear this will be a movie with lots of dialogue pitched as if there’s a colicky infant sleeping in the next room. Reeves’s alterations include feeding the plot through Koteas’s police-procedural and a Significant Effect in which Owen’s Mom is seen always with her face just out of frame or as an out-of-focus blur. His greatest addition shows off his knack for action-verisimilitude, a suspense scene culminating in a sustained one-shot inside a getaway car as it backs over an embankment, so perfect and jarringly felt you want to bust out clapping when it’s done.

Lindqvist’s novel and its permutations are akin to the Twilight franchise in their marriage of “doomed young lovers” and vampire tropes. But where Steph Meyer preaches abstinence, Let Me In keeps its hungry carnivores well-fed, as meek Owen gets a confidence boost from supernatural protection, on the way to a grisly Revenge of the Nerds.

Americanizing the material, Reeves contextualizes the story squarely in Moral Majority country. Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” address plays prominently during Let Me In’s prologue. Owen’s Mom’s chintzy Christian décor and grace over silent dinnertimes are presented as further evidence of the all-encompassing lameness of ’80’s flyover, where the only joy is smuggled in on vinyl, on the forgotten LPs from Freur and the Greg Kihn Band, who Owen and Abby illicitly enjoy.

If irreligious, Let Me In believes in the sanctity of suffering, with close-ups of Smit-McPhee swallowing his shamed tears to the Northwest Boychoir. The child performances are credible, likewise the feel for pubescent isolation and vulnerability. But Reeves’s measured style barely conceals a pandering Young Adult sentimentality as the movie approaches ultimate comeuppance for Owen’s tormentors—wish fulfillment without the elan of Piranha 3D’s douchebag mass-slaughter, facile compared to the irony of Massacre at Central High or the head-on collision of morbid faith and polyester pop in Carrie, two movies that anticipated suburban-school killings instead of skating around their consequences.

Let Me In is a slow build-up to irreparable action, to Owen and Abby’s joining paths as a fatal couple. There is no fork in the road for Owen along the way. He is given nothing to leave behind. And there is scant indication that the rest of humanity is anything more than livestock for sensitive souls to feed on. There’s a human tragedy somewhere here—but aggrandized puppy-love romance and stylish revenge fantasy is all that lingers.


The Visitor is Tired and Poor

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A lonely dwarf, a wisecracking Cuban-American, and a grieving mother walk into each other’s lives, laugh together, cry together, and heal each other’s emotional wounds. Cue Sundance prizes, Miramax pickup, glowing reviews, and surprisingly robust indie box-office. The movie is The Station Agent, and it was the sort of exercise in forced whimsy and catharsis that managed to coast by on the charm of its performers, so long as you didn’t stop to ponder why the film’s writer-director, Tom McCarthy, had his characters descend into near-hysterics upon their first encounter with Peter Dinklage’s vertically challenged train hobbyist. Clearly a believer in leaving well enough alone, McCarthy has, for his second feature, made another movie about an unlikely threesome—except this time, he’s decided to get political, making a liberal-guilt-trip movie about first-world ignorance of third-world culture.

Like The Station Agent, The Visitor opens in a state of mourning, with 62-year-old economics professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) staring longingly out the window of his Connecticut home while a solemn piano sonata plays on the soundtrack. Even before we know what exactly Walter has lost, we know he’s lost something; like almost every other scene in the movie, this one wears its meaning on its sleeve. Then Walter reluctantly travels to New York to give a paper at an NYU conference, only to find his long-untended Manhattan apartment occupied by . . . a young Syrian emigré, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab (Danai Gurira), who have been swindled into thinking the place is theirs. At first, Walter kicks his unexpected houseguests to the curb, but, of course, there wouldn’t be a movie here if Walter didn’t think better of that decision and tell the couple to stay as long as they need to. That’s when things take a turn for the pious.

I’d call Walter’s meet-cute with Tarek and Zainab accidental, but pretty much nothing in The Visitor happens by accident. It’s a screenplay that seems to have sprung from one of those how-to screenwriting seminars you see advertised in the back of movie magazines. That mournful piano music? It turns out to be a performance by Walter’s late wife, a classical concert pianist. And Tarek, wouldn’t you know, is a musician too, only he plays the African drum. And before long, he’s teaching Walter how to play. And not long after that, this supposed East Coast intellectual who lectures at seminars on “economic growth in developing nations” is chowing down on his first-ever shawarma and stopping on his lunch break to listen—really listen—to the young black kids beating on their plastic buckets in Washington Square Park.

So, East meets West and everyone is a little bit the better for it—until the ugly face of post-9/11 racial profiling intrudes, landing the undocumented Tarek in a subcontracted government detention center where the walls are lined with posters that say things like “The strength of America . . . America’s immigrants.” Irony alert! That’s Walter’s opportunity—and ours—to become outraged that such things can happen in the supposed Land of the Free, while Tarek and Zainab marvel, wide-eyed, at the fact that some rich old white dude could possibly care about their well-being.

Soon Tarek’s doting mom, Mouna (played by the excellent Israeli-Arab actress Hiam Abbass), shows up and everyone piles onto the Staten Island Ferry for a tour of relevant New York landmarks—Ellis Island, Ground Zero—just in case we didn’t get the point that this is a movie about liberty under siege. Like every other Muslim character in the film, Mouna practically walks on water, but Abbass has an emotional gravity that helps to counterbalance the movie’s epic banality whenever she’s on-screen. Jenkins isn’t so lucky; one of the most resourceful character actors out there, he’s been hemmed by McCarthy into a fussy, mannered performance in which everything is externalized—crippling grief in the first part, righteous indignation in the second.

McCarthy unquestionably means well, but he’s made one of those incredibly naïve movies that gives liberals a bad name, and which does more to regress the sociopolitical discourse than advance it. “I was struck by how little I knew about the region,” McCarthy says in the movie’s press notes, remarking on his trip to the Middle East as part of a U.S. cultural-outreach program. “With all the news and the headlines and the drama, we can forget that there are human beings on both sides of this.” Is McCarthy really this dense, or does he think he’s the enlightened one and we are in need of his counsel? I hope the former, but, on the basis of The Visitor, I fear the latter.


Classless Class Action Flick Guilty of Viewer Harassment

The lead plaintiff in Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, the first class action sexual-harassment suit, began work at the northern Minnesota iron mine in 1975 and, with 14 other women, won a multimillion-dollar settlement in 1998 after a grueling, sometimes humiliating legal saga. Given the battle’s enormous toll on the women’s physical and psychological health, it’s a perplexing irony that the movie “inspired by” the case suffers such a bizarre failure of nerve. Just like her film ancestor Norma Rae, North Country‘s fictionalized Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) has two kids by different fathers and is living with her parents (Richard Jenkins and Sissy Spacek) when she takes a tough, often dangerous job. At the mine, the film’s leering army of Cro-Mag aggressors subject Josey and her female colleagues to all manner of insults, pawing, intimidation, and surprise gifts (dildo in the lunch box, semen in the locker). When Josey lodges formal complaints, the abuse only escalates, as does the false consciousness among the women co-workers—everything was fine until that loose bitch showed up!—and even her own son calls her a whore.

Having established Josey as the focus of the entire iron range’s enmity, the filmmakers panic, and North Country spectacularly self-destructs in a climactic courtroom free-for-all. (The extended cacophony entails lawyer Woody Harrelson screaming, “YELLOW OR RED!” during cross-examination and miner Frances McDormand, diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, thumping a bench in mute appeal.) When it’s revealed on the stand (spoiler alert!) that Josey’s older child is the product of rape by her high school teacher (the crime is duly re-enacted), the irrelevant disclosure inspires a tide-turning show of solidarity from her heretofore dubious audience. Why? Have they gone Spartacus because she’s more palatable as an object of pity than of defiance? Or more insidiously, does her testimony become credible the moment the scarlet letter for Teen Slut falls from her chest? No answers are forthcoming, but one thing’s certain—we like our victims chaste (cf. The Contender, Philadelphia) or we don’t like them at all.


Chicken Pun: Pet Rooster Spurs Farm Boy’s Homo Awakening

A terse coming-of-gay dramedy, The Mudge Boy boasts all the ingredients necessary for maximum indie voltage: a socially awkward teen protagonist with a funny last name; a bland, anywheresville setting; and a supporting cast of intolerant yokels to whom urban audiences can feel superior. Director Michael Burke’s first feature arrives fresh from the Sundance incubator (his screenplay was developed at the writers lab, and the completed project debuted in competition), but despite its chic pedigree, the film projects a shy modesty, a virtue largely attributable to Emile Hirsch’s unflashy performance as the titular 14-year-old farm boy—an outcast with many eccentricities, not the least of which is his tendency to stick the head of his pet rooster in his mouth.

Farm animals, being the object of much teenage sexual experimentation, provide a significant backdrop to this tale of homo awakening. Duncan Mudge meets his first crush, Perry (Tom Guiry), over the wet muzzle of a plow horse, and they subsequently bond in cattle barns and chicken coops. Burke renders his protagonist’s dysfunctionality in mile-wide strokes: Overly attached to the memory of his deceased mother, Duncan wears her clothes around the house, to the consternation of his stoic father (Richard Jenkins). Needless to say, Duncan’s oral/poultry fixation registers as a kind of fellatio, while his name (Dunkin’ Fudge) presages a rape scene involving the increasingly homophobic Perry. Goofily handsome, Hirsch inhabits his character’s outsiderness with compassion, whether he’s warbling a hymn to an inattentive church congregation or sweetly ingratiating himself to the local cool kids. The Mudge Boy ultimately tips over into teary reconciliation, but at least it’s a movie that readily admits to wanting its chicken and eating it too.