Steve Martin

The Man with Two Brains (1983, Carl Reiner)

The Man with Two Brains does not age well. It’s a case study in not aging well, even more so because when the three writers—director Reiner, star Steve Martin, and George Gipe—can’t figure out how to do an ending so they just do an extended fat joke… well, it’s hard to continuing giving the film a pass. Not after a racial epithets joke, which the film doesn’t even realize is lazy.

Because it does recognize its easy jokes. There are a lot of easy, easy, easy jokes Brains wants to get away with and it usually is able to do it thanks to Martin or co-star Kathleen Turner, but the finale doesn’t use anyone well. In fact, it’s a call back to a completely different section of the film they probably don’t want to be recalling.

The movie’s got a really peculiar structure. The first act is about Martin falling for evil gold digger Turner (not knowing she’s an evil gold digger) and her refusing to consummate the relationship. So boss Peter Hobbs (who’s pleasantly sturdy and game for even the fail jokes) sends Martin off to Europe for a conference; a little continental seduction and so on.

In Europe, Martin meets mad scientist David Warner, who’s—oh, right. Martin’s the world’s premier brain surgeon. Anyway. He meets Warner, who’s a mad scientist who wants to transplant brains he’s been keeping alive thanks to hydroxychloroquine or something. Warner’s oddly disappointing in the film. I was expecting something from him and he never does anything. The film’s got problems with the supporting characters though; Warner’s butler, Paul Benedict, gets more personality than Warner in fewer scenes with less exposition. Reiner’s direction is… not great. He and Martin (and Gipe) are trying a lot of different things, some things are a lot less successful than others.

And even the big successes are often qualified. Like when Martin is prowling the streets to find a woman to murder so his soul mate—a disembodied brain voiced by Sissy Spacek—can find a new home. It’s all very complicated, with the brain stuff being Martin finally getting free of animate costars and getting to do his wild and crazy guy thing in the spotlight. It’s better when he does it opposite other cast, specifically Turner, who frequently can’t hold her femme fatale. Martin so funny she’s laughing. It’s brings Turner almost too much personality.

Back to that successful sequence—Martin lurking the streets of Vienna, looking for a woman to murder. All of a sudden the backlot shooting starts to work—Reiner and cinematographer Michael Chapman(!) shoot Two Brains like they’re trying to figure out how to not make it look like a sitcom but end up making it look more like one because of how they compensate. Like Joel Goldsmith’s ludicrously inappropriate synth score; it ups the zany so you don’t think too much about Martin’s premeditated murder scene and so on, but it’s also terrible. And doesn’t help the scene. Ever. In fact, it’s always actively hurting it.

Overall, Two Brains doesn’t have the pieces to succeed. The story’s not there. The plotting isn’t there. The pacing’s there. The direction’s not there. Martin and Turner do an excellent job doing absurd caricatures (at best, Martin does just mug occasionally), but it’s like no one’s curating the gags or even taking note of their successes. It’s got its ambitions just no idea when they realize.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Reiner; written by Reiner, Steve Martin, and George Gipe; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Bud Molin; music by Joel Goldsmith; production designer, Mark W. Mansbridge and Polly Platt; produced by William E. McEuen and David V. Picker; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steve Martin (Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr), Kathleen Turner (Dolores Benedict), Sissy Spacek (Anne Uumellmahaye), David Warner (Dr. Alfred Necessiter), Peter Hobbs (Dr. Brandon), Randi Brooks (Fran), and Paul Benedict (Butler).


Pennies from Heaven (1981, Herbert Ross)

Pennies from Heaven is about how being a woman—particularly in the 1930s—is awful because you exist entirely for male consumption. If not sexually, then as production. The film’s supposed to be about how life’s just unfair for dreamers, in this case lead Steve Martin, who’s just trying to make the American Dream work for him; what’s standing in his way is wife Jessica Harper not wanting to give him her father’s estate so he can open a record store. He’s a traveling sheet music salesman in Chicago; he covers the rural points west.

We know Martin’s a dreamer because he daydreams in musicals. All of a sudden the movie will switch over to a big musical number with Martin and other actors lip-synching to period recordings. The musical stuff is good. Ross’s direction emphasizes the production, which is… fine. But the actual production of the numbers is excellent. Great choreography, so on and so forth. Martin’s very good at the dancing.

The same cannot be said about his “aw shucks” performance. Though some of the problem is Dennis Potter’s script; no one speaks his dialogue well until the second half of the movie, when Christopher Walken shows up and Bernadette Peters starts her fallen woman arc. Until that point, it seems like Potter’s dialogue just isn’t catching. But then all of a sudden Peters makes it breathtaking and it’s clear the problem’s a combination of Martin, Ross, and Potter, not Peters or Harper.

The film’s well-aware it’s about how being a woman is lousy—Peters gets seduced and knocked up by married Martin, who then abandons her multiple times, and finally ends up hooking. Harper—who manages to be the character with the least agency in the film, which is something because Martin’s got almost nil—is the cold fish preacher’s daughter wife who won’t give Martin enough sex or the money to start his store. Even though Martin humiliates her and then some cops humiliate her later on, Harper’s never presented sympathetically. If only she gave him some sugar (or the money sooner), look what might’ve been avoided.

Because somehow when it comes time to address Martin’s exploitation and mental abuse and manipulation, the movie just skips it. He’s the hero, after all, the dreamer who can’t find his American Dream. Again, it’s a combination of script, acting, and directing. Pennies from Heaven is only going to work if Martin’s transcendent.

And he’s not. Worse, he’s markedly better during the musical numbers than the dramatic, which makes the dramatic feel like a strange stagy vanity project, but one where he’s unenthusiastic about it too.

Nothing is worse than unenthusiastic vanity projects. Yes, he’s got the enthusiasm for the musical numbers—which disappear during at least twenty minutes of the film; it gives Peters a chance for some great acting in a middling film, but it also all drags. Her character’s ostensibly obsessed with Martin but he’s clearly a doofus. Yes, she’s supposed to be all in because of some kind of animal magnetism but… Martin hasn’t got any. The film cheating Harper out of getting rid of him at some point is a disservice to the work she put into her performance.

Wondrous photography from Gordon Willis—maybe thirty percent of Ross’s shots are good and there are some way too stagy ones—but Willis makes them all work. The film’s gorgeous.

Great dancing from Peters, Walken, and Vernel Bagneris (who’s got the majorly thankless part of the forgotten man). But he’s also really vile man. The only guy who’s not criminally creepy in Pennies from Heaven is Francis X. McCarthy, who plays a kindly bartender.

The end seems like it’s going to flop, then seems like it’ll do the right thing, but then it turns out doing the right thing is the wrong thing for the film anyway. Because it just isn’t going to work out. It just can’t.

Shame to waste the truly spectacular Peters performance.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Herbert Ross; screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on his BBC television serial; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Richard Marks; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Bob Mackie; produced by Nora Kaye and Herbert Ross; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Steve Martin (Arthur), Bernadette Peters (Eileen), Jessica Harper (Joan), Vernel Bagneris (The Accordion Man), John McMartin (Mr. Warner), John Karlen (The Detective), Jay Garner (The Banker), Robert Fitch (Al), Tommy Rall (Ed), Eliska Krupka (The Blind Girl), and Christopher Walken (Tom).


Roxanne (1987, Fred Schepisi)

Roxanne is a charming romantic comedy. Wait, I think it might need an additional qualifier—it’s a charming romantic situational comedy. I’m not one to sit around and debate stakes with romantic comedies, but even for a romantic comedy… Roxanne’s got some low stakes. Maybe because of how closely screenwriter (and leading man) Steve Martin followed his adaptation of the source play (Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac) but also maybe not.

Martin is a small ski resort town’s fire chief. His department is made up almost exclusively of volunteers, all of whom seem really bad at their jobs at the fire department and—possibly—even worse at their day jobs. Mayor Fred Willard, for example, has no apparent skills as a firefighter but he’s a terrible mayor. Though good looking enough compared to the other men of the town he can still hang a couple ski bunnies off his arms. Then there’s stereotypical eighties pig John Kapelos, whose best pick-up line involves confusing his target with a recent Playmate because his worst pick-up lines involve his dead animal shop. Martin would be a major catch if it just weren’t for his abnormally large nose, which makes him the target of ridicule—leading to fistfights, which are always a mistake for the teasers because Martin’s a badass—as well as some sympathy. God-sister Shelley Duvall is his only real friend, but more because all the guys are varying degrees of idiot. It’s unclear how the town functioned with the untrained fire department before the film starts, which, again, doesn’t really matter because… situational comedy. There’s a very low bar for reality. Like how the town doesn’t have any sort of law enforcement; even if Martin kicking his teasers’ asses up and down the picturesque streets is self-defense, you’d think there’d at least be a police report. Or hospital visits.

Everything changes with the summer arrival of Daryl Hannah, who all the guys lust after but only Martin really loves for her insides; she’s a smart, accomplished astronomer. They have a cute, funny meeting where Hannah’s locked out of her house and Martin helps her get the door unlocked. Only Hannah’s managed to lock herself out in the nude (thanks to a wonderfully shitty cat—Roxanne knows its cats). Charming. Situational. Comedy.

Simultaneous to Hannah showing up in town (she’s renting from Duvall, who’s apparently an exploitative landlord, something the film doesn’t dwell on but does establish) is professional firefighter Rick Rossovich starting with the fire department. He’s there to help Martin whip them into shape, so it’s unclear why it takes so long for Rossovich and Martin to actually meet. Like, who’s supervising him his first three days. Rossovich lives in the firehouse, how does Martin keep missing him. Oh, wait, doesn’t matter. Situational comedy.

Turns out Hannah’s on the rebound and looking for an easy summer lay and hunk Rossovich is just what she wants. And Rossovich is all about Hannah because… well, she’s blonde and has legs. Actually, her being blonde might not even figure in. The legs get talked about. I’m assuming on the blonde. Only Rossovich has severe social anxiety. He’s also a himbo. And he’s also a slut. But Martin likes Hannah enough he agrees to encourage Rossovich on her behalf, which leads to him writing Hannah love letters ostensibly from Rossovich but really from him. Because romantic comedy.

After the first act, Hannah’s just around as romantic conquest, but she’s still really likable. Martin’s great. He’s got occasional comedic set pieces, which usually work. Rossovich is… low okay. The part doesn’t require much and Rossovich doesn’t bring much. He’s also got a decided lack of chemistry with Hannah. It’s not clear from the start—since their relationship is so complicated—but once he starts flirting with bimbo cocktail waitress Shandra Beri, who he does have chemistry with… well, it’s a ding.

Though director Schepisi relies on his cast to do their own acting. Especially the firefighters. None of them are as funny as they ought to be, especially Michael J. Pollard. Though it could also be John Scott’s editing. There’s something off with the film’s cuts. Schepisi shoots it wide Panavision, which works well for the medium to long shots and not so well on the close-ups. Again, might be Scott’s cutting.

Roxanne is funny and cute. Could it be more? Maybe? It’s hard to imagine it with Martin, Hannah, or Rossovich having any more depth though. Martin and Hannah certainly seem capable of essaying that potential depth… Rossovich not so much.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Schepisi; screenplay by Steve Martin, based on a play by Edmond Rostand; director of photography, Ian Baker; edited by John Scott; music by Bruce Smeaton; production designer, Jackson De Govia; produced by Daniel Melnick and Michael Rachmil; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (C.D. Bales), Daryl Hannah (Roxanne), Rick Rossovich (Chris), Shelley Duvall (Dixie), Shandra Beri (Sandy), John Kapelos (Chuck), Fred Willard (Mayor Deebs), and Michael J. Pollard (Andy).


The Spanish Prisoner (1997, David Mamet)

Every moment, every line of dialogue, every shot–every use of sound–is so precise in The Spanish Prisoner, it’s sometimes hard to comprehend of Mamet put it all together. There are not a handful of precise moments, or a few precise scenes. Minute after minute, from the first shot, everything in the film is precision.

But none of the filmmaking precision–Carter Burwell’s score is the most obvious, but Gabriel Beristain’s photography and especially Barbara Tulliver’s editing are essential components as well–none of these components would matter without the acting. Between Ricky Jay, who delivers his lines–usually quotes–with enough memorability, even though Mamet never makes them obvious, the viewer can call back to them and how they relate to the film’s events.

Or lead Campbell Scott, who is simultaneously sympathetic and annoying because of his deep-seated desire for wealth, so much it causes him to ignore a possible romance with nice, regular girl Rebecca Pidgeon. She’s a little annoying herself, which often implies the pair is perfect for one another.

The important part about Scott, Pidgeon, Ben Gazzara (who has the perfect voice for Mamet dialogue), Jay, Felicity Huffman and Steve Martin (cast against type as a mystery man) is how they’re able to sell their roles. Mamet’s dialogue should put a glass pane between the viewer and The Spanish Prisoner, the unreality should pulse, but thanks to the cast (and Mamet’s direction) it feels realer than real.

It is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by David Mamet; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Tim Galvin; produced by Jean Doumanian; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Campbell Scott (Joe Ross), Rebecca Pidgeon (Susan Ricci), Steve Martin (Jimmy Dell), Ben Gazzara (Mr. Klein), Felicity Huffman (Pat McCune), Lionel Mark Smith (Detective Jones) and Ricky Jay (George Lang).


Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987, John Hughes)

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is probably most impressive technically. The narrative is problematic but not a bad narrative, it’s just a problematic one. Director Hughes can’t decide if he wants Planes to be a comedy with John Candy or a comedy about Candy. Candy’s able to be sympathetic while still being unbelievably annoying–his performance is the film’s finest–but Hughes doesn’t know how to use him. Planes is Steve Martin’s picture or it’s Martin and Candy’s, but it’s never just Candy’s. Though Hughes pretends otherwise.

As for the technical qualities. Donald Peterman’s photography and Paul Hirsch’s editing are sublime. Peterman and Hirsch turn Hughes’s often mediocre composition into beautiful visuals. Ira Newborn’s score, which has some ill-advised eighties remix, also creates these amazing moments more appropriate for a film in the Cinéma du look movement. They’re some of the most memorable scenes in Planes and are startling to see in an American buddy comedy.

The narrative’s also peculiar because Hughes puts the big blow-out between Martin and Candy early in the picture. The later minor ones are still funny, they just don’t resonate. The choice probably hampered Hughes’s narrative pacing, but it deepens Planes.

In the supporting cast, Edie McClurg is obviously the standout. Dylan Baker’s real funny too. As Martin’s wife (Hughes plays with juxtaposing the stories, then drops it), Laila Robins is perfect–though the filmmaking might have more to do with it than her acting.

Planes is a fine time; its singular scenes near transcendence.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written, directed and produced by John Hughes; director of photography, Donald Peterman; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Ira Newborn; production designer, John W. Corso; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Neal Page), John Candy (Del Griffith), Laila Robins (Susan Page), Michael McKean (State Trooper), Dylan Baker (Owen), Carol Bruce (Joy), Olivia Burnette (Marti), Diana Douglas (Peg), Martin Ferrero (Second Motel Clerk), Larry Hankin (Doobie), Richard Herd (Walt), Susan Kellermann (Waitress), Matthew Lawrence (Little Neal), Edie McClurg (Car Rental Agent), George Petrie (Martin), Gary Riley (Motel Thief), Charles Tyner (Gus) and Kevin Bacon (Taxi Racer).


Three Amigos (1986, John Landis)

Three Amigos is beautifully made. Whether it’s the silent era Hollywood scenes at the opening, the silent movie in the movie, or the Western the film quickly becomes… it all looks fantastic. Landis even brings in the singing cowboy genre–the scene with the animals accompanying the song is wonderful. The locations desire some credit, but it’s primarily Landis and cinematographer Ronald W. Browne. Amigos‘s style goes a long way towards its success.

The film frequently has stretches without a laugh, at times even deviating to ominous and disturbing. The excellent performances make up for the lazy pace.

Oddly, co-writer, executive producer and top-billed actor Steve Martin is not one of them. Martin is good, but he’s in the middle of a trio of numbskulls. Chevy Chase has more to do as the idiot of the bunch and Martin Short gives the best performance of the three as the secretly intelligent one.

But the best performances in the film are from Alfonso Arau and Tony Plana. Arau is the bad guy and Plana’s his head stooge. From his first frame, Arau is likable. He and Plana get better writing than the three leads, if only because they’re morons. The most successful moments for Martin, Chase and Short tend to be gags.

Joe Mantegna shows up for a hilarious small part, as does Fred Asparagus. Kai Wulff is good as the scary German aviator.

Amigos isn’t great, but it’s pretty darn good. Though Elmer Bernstein’s score is tiresome.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Landis; written by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman; director of photography, Ronald W. Browne; edited by Malcolm Campbell; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Richard Tom Sawyer; produced by George Folsey Jr. and Michaels; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Lucky Day), Chevy Chase (Dusty Bottoms), Martin Short (Ned Nederlander), Alfonso Arau (El Guapo), Tony Plana (Jefe), Patrice Martinez (Carmen), Philip Gordon (Rodrigo), Kai Wulff (German), Fred Asparagus (Bartender), Jon Lovitz (Morty), Phil Hartman (Sam) and Joe Mantegna (Harry Flugleman).


The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley)

The Muppet Movie takes it upon itself to be all things… well, two things. It has to be appealing to kids and adults. The film is split roughly in half between the audiences, with the adults having more to appreciate in the star cameos–some cute, some hilarious (Steve Martin in short shorts)–and terrible puns and the kids have the songs.

To keep the kids amused during the more “adult” parts, there are the Muppets. The level of puppetry on display here is staggering, particularly once one realizes only a couple of the Muppets have moving eyes. The others just give the impression of moving, lifelike eyes through head tilts and reaction motion. Jim Henson and the Muppet performers show a masterful understanding of how the slightest motion implies real animation.

But the adults also have to be kept amused during the song sequences, which is a little harder, even though the Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher songs are great. There’s occasional humor, but there’s also amazing filmmaking. Director Frawley does a great job, as does Isidore Mankofsky’s photography and Christopher Greenbury’s editing. The Muppet Movie‘s beautifully made… and they know it.

The script frequently breaks the fourth wall, including references to how great some of the previous shots came out. The only bad shot is during Dom DeLuise’s cameo, like his close-ups had to be reshot.

The film’s idealistic and infectious. If you can believe the Muppets are real… you can believe in the film’s positive, inspiring message.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jim Henson; released by Associated Film Distribution.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird).

Starring Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Carol Kane (Myth) and Steve Martin (an insolent waiter).


Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988, Frank Oz)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels manages to have a full, three act plot–with all the twists necessary for a confidence picture–but it also is constantly funny. Oz juggles his two leads but mostly relies on Steve Martin for the more immediate humor. With Michael Caine, Oz and the screenwriters tend to be a lot quieter… letting the humor build. Martin gets the gags.

Deciding the better performance–between Caine and Martin–is difficult. Caine has a lot more to do in terms of range, but Martin has to be doing something almost every frame of film.

I’ve seen Scoundrels before, but I never fully appreciated the film’s successes. For example, Oz uses montages a couple times to hurry the plot along and each scene in the montage is hilarious, but the film never pauses to laugh at itself. It never loses momentum, even during the more outrageous gags.

And Scoundrels has a lot of potential speed bumps. The first act alone has a micro-three act structure built into it, as the focus transitions from Caine to Martin (it shifts throughout the film). Then there’s the appearance of Glenne Headly, who arrives during the second act. She’s an essential player and is absent during the first act. Actually, Headly probably gives the film’s best performance.

Anton Rodgers and Ian McDiarmid, who both have big parts at the start, slowly fade away. Rodgers in particular has some fantastic scenes. Barbara Harris is great in a small part too.

Scoundrels is outstanding.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Oz; written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Stephen A. Rotter and William S. Scharf; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Roy Walker; produced by Bernard Williams; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Steve Martin (Freddy Benson), Michael Caine (Lawrence Jamieson), Glenne Headly (Janet Colgate), Anton Rodgers (Inspector Andre), Barbara Harris (Fanny Eubanks), Ian McDiarmid (Arthur), Dana Ivey (Mrs. Reed), Meagen Fay (Lady from Oklahoma), Frances Conroy (Lady from Palm Beach), Nicole Calfan (Lady in Dining Car) and Aïna Walle (Miss Krista Knudsen).


It’s Complicated (2009, Nancy Meyers)

It’s not difficult to come up with compliments for It’s Complicated. Alec Baldwin is very funny. Unfortunately, he’s very funny playing a slight variant on his character from “30 Rock.” Similarly, John Krasinski is very affable. Unfortunately, he too is simply playing a variation on his “Office” character. The film is from Universal (or NBC Universal) and both those television shows air on NBC. One almost has to wonder.

Without the two of them, there might be a somewhat silly but still sincere divorce romance for Meryl Streep and the ludicrously second-billed Steve Martin (if anyone ever deserved an “and” credit, it’s Martin in this film). Both of them turn in solid, nearly believable performances.

If Meyers had wanted the film to be serious, I’m not just sure she could have handled it, I’m sure she could have handled it well. Instead, It’s Complicated feels like something spun out of “The View.” Streep appearing in this film is even more absurd than her appearing in Mamma Mia! Martin’s on par, but he’s still at least acting his character, not just acting a character from his tv show. Though his–and the film’s–best moment is when he’s a wild and crazy guy.

Meyers started her career as an amazing director. It’s hard to tell if she still has those skills. Most of her composition is for home video, wasting John Toll’s cinematography. However, it’s editors Joe Hutshing and David Moritz who do the most damage overall. It’s hideously edited.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Nancy Meyers; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Joe Hutshing and David Moritz; music by Hans Zimmer and Heitor Pereira; production designer, Jon Hutman; produced by Meyers and Scott Rudin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Meryl Streep (Jane), Steve Martin (Adam), Alec Baldwin (Jake), Lake Bell (Agness), John Krasinski (Harley), Rita Wilson (Trisha), Mary Kay Place (Joanne), Alexandra Wentworth (Diane) and Hunter Parrish (Luke).


Traitor (2008, Jeffrey Nachmanoff)

Traitor is the Superman IV of terrorism movies. I suppose I need to explain. I think Tom Mankiewicz once told Christopher Reeve you couldn’t have Superman messing around with the real world. Traitor is a Hollywood terrorism movie–in the vein of Telefon, The Assignment, Nighthawks or even The Jackal–except it takes 9/11 into account. The result is a goofy concoction–one I’m sure the filmmakers think is well-intentioned, but comes off as one of the most xenophobic things I’ve seen in a long time.

Simply put, in the world of Traitor, all Muslims–except one or two–are terrorists ready to kill innocent children, even if they have innocent children of their own. These Muslims tend to be Middle Eastern–Traitor has a ludicrous sleeper cell plot point with a female suicide bomber who would have been inserted long before women became suicide bombers–but there’s also a couple Africans. Not African-Americans, who the film has an awkward relationship with, but African immigrants. Not to be pointing fingers at writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, but I think Louis Farrakhan would have done a much more even-handed tale of a black American Muslim who discovers himself (working for the U.S. in Afghanistan in the 1980s with Osama Bin Laden no less) and finds his Middle Eastern brothers a little confused when it comes to the articles of faith.

As for the film’s approach to religion… another pitfall. It really tries hard in some ways, but it can’t escape its active contention (i.e. ninety-three percent of Muslims are heartless, unthinking mass murderers–worse, they all dream of some day getting to be mass murderers), so it’s laughable in the end. But there’s a lot to laugh at in Traitor, starting with its handling of the FBI.

Since 9/11, common knowledge of what American intelligence agencies do has skyrocketed. So when FBI agents Guy Pearce (he’s an Arabic languages PhD who couldn’t find another job… really) and Neal McDonough (he’s a big tough mean agent, who doesn’t know his partner is a PhD) wing around the world–Yemen, France, Canada, maybe England–it seems somewhat unrealistic. They don’t appear to have a boss, either.

Pearce’s performance is somehow good and somehow not. Technically, it’s a great performance, but the character’s so insanely stupid it’s hard to take him seriously. McDonough is bad. Cheadle’s decent–I kept wondering what the filmmakers would have done if they hadn’t signed him–if bland. As the only Arab terrorist with any elements of humanity, Saïd Taghmaoui is amazing–he gives the film’s best performance and if it’d been about him, it would have been something. As the heartless terrorist–who doesn’t even follow Islam’s basic tenets–Alyy Khan is awful. The rest of the cast is, generally, fine.

The first twenty or thirty minutes of Traitor is good. Until the last couple scenes, it’s on a steady decline but it takes a huge plunge at the end.

Nachmanoff’s direction is better than his writing–it’s fun to see them work cross-purpose. Nachmanoff goes the steady-cam route here (for realism, I’m sure), but he’s got tons of goofy Hollywood dialogue.

And Mark Kilian’s music is good. So good I’m surprised I don’t know his name.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff; screenplay by Nachmanoff, based on a story by Steve Martin and Jeffrey Nachmanoff; director of photography, J. Michael Muro; edited by Billy Fox; music by Mark Kilian; production designer, Laurence Bennett; produced by Don Cheadle, David Hoberman, Kay Liberman, Todd Lieberman, Chris McGurk, Danny Rosett and Jeffrey Silver; released by Overture Films.

Starring Don Cheadle (Samir Horn), Guy Pearce (Roy Clayton), Saïd Taghmaoui (Omar), Neal McDonough (Max Archer), Alyy Khan (Fareed Mansour), Archie Panjabi (Chandra Dawkin) and Jeff Daniels (Carter).


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