At the 6:30 p.m. showing of “Against the Current,” a film by Peter Callahan, the director spoke to us before the showing and was enthusiastic about “my first visit to Chicago.” He described himself as doing all the tourist things—the architecture cruise, the search for the perfect deep-dish pizza—and said, “This film is many years in the making. It’s serious. It’s silly. It’s a little bit of everything. Prepare yourself for that.”
“Against the Current” is Callahan’s first film since his 2001 movie “Last Ball” was the only U.S. film in the New Director’s competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain. That film had nobody recognizable, star-wise, in it, but it did have a family whose last name was Corcoran, my maiden name, so I paid attention. A high school dropout, Callahan eventually earned a Master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and tonight’s “Against the Current” is his second big release.
It was big in another way for the fledgling director who has gone 8 years between films. This time, there are some recognizable big name stars in the title roles. Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love,” television’s “Flash Forward”) plays Paul Thompson, on whose intended suicide the film focuses, and Justin Kirk (Uncle Andy on “Weeds,” “Angels in America”) is his best friend, Jeff Kane.
Paul has suffered the death of his wife and child five years (prior to the start of the film), and he never recovered. It is goal to swim the length of the Hudson River, from Troy to the Verazanno Bridge, a distance of 150 miles in time for the 5th anniversary of the death of his wife and unborn child. Then, he is going to kill himself—or so his two companions deduce.
His best friend Jeff (Justin Kirk) will drive a boat beside him. For reasons that are never made clear and make no sense, Jeff, a bartender, invites a schoolteacher friend and former bar employee named Suzanne (Michelle Trachtenberg) to accompany them on the journey. This makes no sense, since Jeff is married and of course his wife will object. It also seems totally implausible that the schoolteacher traveler is there for any other reason than to become the new love interest for the suicidal Paul and the “raison d’etre” that will help him to change his mind about living life. But am I jumping too far ahead. Because I will neither confirm or deny that this happens, primarily because I left the film so that I could make it to the “surprise” film, and all I can tell you is that, if I were a betting woman, I’d lay a heavy bet on that ending. Otherwise, the guy’s going to get a gun and shoot himself, and how bad an ending would THAT be? But, again, left 10 minutes before it all played out. Hustled down to get a seat for the free film that you could only get in to if you were wearing a Festival tee shirt, which meant that I had to buy a THIRD one, since I left both of mine at home, one meant to be a gift and one worn and in the dirty clothing hamper. So, far from being “free,” the film cost me another $20. “But oh, well. If it is going to be John Cusack in “Shutter Island,” I said to myself, “it will be well worth it.” It wasn’t, but the shirt is nice, in its defense (“So many subtitles; so little time”).
Mary Tyler Moore has a brief role as Suzanne’s dotty, judgmental mother. The trio spends the night at her house along the route with her boyfriend, her sister, and Suzanne’s nymphomaniac cousin, a college student.
The dialogue is very well written and Uncle Andy from “Weeds” is just the guy to deliver it in the perfect sardonic fashion. Joseph Fiennes is his usual intense self, but, given the subject matter, that is appropriate. (Is it just me, or does anyone else think this guy is wound too tightly and needs to lighten up? Does he ever smile spontaneously? I’m getting nervous just watching him as the lead on TV’s “Flash Forward.”)
One area that is superb is the cinematography and the location shots of the Hudson, which, given the fact that the Director grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, is probably not coincidental.
There are some odd conversational gambits, like whether there will be doughnuts in heaven or hell, but, to quote the character Suzanne, “Totally eccentric. I like it.” She was commenting on the two best friends since grade school, but it fits for the writing and the film, as well. The only thing I did not like is the very obvious ploy of having Suzanne “along for the ride.” I like to have things be a bit subtler, rather than trumpeting a plot development as soon as the actor has said his (or her) lines.
It’s pretty ironic to have the two companions attempt to talk Paul out of his obsession with killing himself by saying things to him like, “”They’ve (other sufferers) found a way to go on. It’d be selfish to kill yourself. It’s a hostile act.” Later in the journey downriver, Paul is put in the position of telling his best friend Jeff (who has strayed with the nympho cousin) to work to save his marriage. The exact lines from Fiennes are: “You can have a future, a child. You gotta’ hang in there and make it work.” Anyone else beside me see the large sign blinking IRONIC above the lead character’s head? (*Note: there were no APPLAUSE signs, like you get at late night talk shows, however.)
Does Paul kill himself after he swims the length of the Hudson? Does Uncle Andy capsize the boat? Do Paul and Suzanne fall in love and ride off into the sunset on a pontoon? I’ll never tell, primarily because I can’t. I left to make it down the hall to Theater Eleven in time for the “Surprise” film. More’s the pity. “Against the Current” had it all over “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” I’d pay money to see the first, but not the last.
I enjoyed “Against the Current”, but it seems, to me, that Director Callahan might need to step up the pace if it really took him eight years between his first and second films.
Following “Against the Current,” I went to the “Surprise Film,” because I thought it was going to be “Shutter Island,” Martin Scorsese’s horror film with John Cusack. It wasn’t. The “special film” was Heath Ledger’s last onscreen appearance in the Terry Gilliam film “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Personally, I think we would all be better off remembering Ledger’s brilliant turn as the Joker in the last “Batman” movie.
The synopsis of the film describes it as “a fantastical morality tale, set in the present-day. It tells the story of a Dr. Parnassus and his extraordinary ‘imaginarium,’ a traveling show where members of the audience get an irresistible opportunity to choose between light and joy or darkness and gloom.” I can only repeat that, by misreading the clues in the Cinema/Chicago bulletin and thinking this was going to be Scorsese’s new film “Shutter Island”, I selected “darkness and gloom” for myself, even though the costumes and sets were darn colorful.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Terry Gilliam’s sets and art direction and costuming. However, the plot is as gossamer as a cloud and just as likely to change in inexplicable and not-that-great ways. When Ledger walks through the mirror at the imaginarium and into the imaginary land behind the mirror, he becomes Johnny Depp, Jude Law or Colin Farrell—offputting, unnecessary and not that interesting. Why not stick with Heath Ledger? Is the plan to lure unsuspecting theatergoers in with the news that these four heartthrobs are all “in” it…more or less? (Mostly less, in the case of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.)
The female lead, Valentina (Lily Cole), Dr. Parnassus’ (Christopher Plummer’s) daughter is gorgeous, but I didn’t believe for a second that she was just about to turn sixteen. If she is sixteen, then I’m twenty-nine. (The actress was actually born in 1988, which makes her 21. Is there a shortage of 16-year-old girls in Hollywood pining to play their correct age? Just wondering.)
The write-up suggested that there would be a series of “wild, comical and compelling characters.” As MeatLoaf used to say, “two out of three ain’t bad.” The compelling part escaped Gilliam in the film.
Terry Gilliam was brilliant as the designer/visual side of Monty Python, and I have enjoyed films of his such as 1985’s “Brazil.” I even enjoyed Tom Waits playing the devil, although he looked exactly like gay film director John Waters, pencil mustache and all, but I did not enjoy this film. It made me sorry I had left the Q&A with Director Callahan to make the beginning of this one.
Of the two, the one I chose that was NOT a “surprise” was much more interesting, watchable, and deserving of box office success.