Friday, April 11, 2014

The Road to Perdition


The endless days of confinement in my boudoir here at Chateau Maine as my fractured femur continues to heal are most wearying. Even the gilded caryatids which support the frieze above the dressing room door are starting to bother me. As soon as I'm well, I'm going to get rid of all the neo-classical rococo detailing in favor of a more functional post-modern design. Something along the lines of the lobbies in the new W hotels. Doreen's idea of a balanced diet, which seems to involve forgetting my meal trays most of the time, is doing wonders for my waistline and I'll be absolutely svelte by the time this cast comes off. My next trip to the orthopedist is scheduled for mid August. The plaster is supposed to be removed then.

Things have been quiet downstairs over the last week or so. I've been using the blessed peace to enjoy Lesterene brand shrimp and avocado scrub facials, the New York Times Sunday crossword, and late night infomercials. I've been making some notes so the next round of advertisements for MNM brand products are more memorable than ever. I'm also starting to think about my next career move. I've been away from the public eye far too long. My most recent attempts at stage success have been a bit on the unsuccessful side so it's time to get back in front of the camera and show Hollywood what a real star's capable of doing.

Last night, I had my binoculars focused next door on Johnny Carson's house. He was having some sort of do in his media room with a number of media types and my balcony was in such a position that I could see the screen quite clearly. I could even hear fairly well as his windows were open to catch the breeze wafting in from Malibu. After the usual cocktail party chitty-chat, they showed a film of which I was unaware entitled The Road to Perdition. I was delighted as I always enjoyed those Bing Crosby/Bob Hope treats (and played a cameo or two in them). I settled in with my binoculars trained on the screen hoping to enjoy some singing, dancing, and effortless joking. This film, however, was grimly serious and the only musical number was an Irish reel set at a wake. Bob and Bing did not make an appearance.

The Road to Perdition is a prohibition era gangster story, the type of film that Warner Brother's used to make with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. Warner's used to toss these stories off in ninety minutes or less. This one drags on well over two hours. Tom Hanks, looking bloated and wan, plays Michael Sullivan, a soldier in a distant outpost of Capone's army. His local boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), is his surrogate father figure and has helped Michael establish himself as a successful family man with a wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh in a thankless role) and two sons (Tyler Hoechlin and Liam Aiken). No one asks too many questions about what Daddy does for a living. One night, the older son, Mike (Hoechlin), stows away in the family car as dad and Rooney's wastrel son, Connor (Daniel Craig) head off to take care of some business. As Mike watches, Connor commits an unnecessary murder, forcing dad to shoot others to control the situation. Connor then tries to protect himself by silencing little Mike but only succeeds in killing his brother and mother. Father and son are forced to flee and dad vows revenge on Connor against a backdrop of the Capone organization trying to control their warring operatives. Father and son bond together through a series of incidents which include narrow escapes from a hired assassin (Jude Law), serial bank robbery, and various events that play out like the plot of a minor Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Writer David Self, working from a comic book (excuse me, graphic novel) by Max Collins and Richard Rayner, attempts to capture soaring themes of fate, the nature of fathers and sons, and the role of biologic family versus family of choice. These themes are obviously what drew director Sam Mendes to the material. By trying to bring these to the surface over the rather obvious plot mechanics, the film feels like it's about much more than it really is. It keeps reaching for grand, operatic passion but collapses into hopeless melodrama time after time. Most of the fault lies, I think, with Mendes, who tries to suffuse the proceedings with more symbolism and subtext than the material can bear. He's helped by the gorgeous cinematography of Conrad Hall who creates lovely compositions. Certain scenes, such as a climactic gun battle in a deluge of old testament proportions or the death of a major character in front of a picture window facing out on Lake Michigan are just lovely to look at. They have a spare feeling and focused emotion such as a Hockney designed opera. Mendes, a gifted stage director, has, unfortunately, directed these moments as if they are for the stage, lingering too long on his compositions and not allowing the story to move. The film is in bad need of an editor to trim about twenty minutes.

Most of the performances have been gathering critical hosannas. I'm not sure why. It's probably because it's the only wide release film of the summer aimed at thinking adults rather than adenoidal teens. (And even then, it's still based on a comic book.) Paul Newman does his grizzled elder statesman with aplomb, but it's a role he's played repeatedly for the last couple of decades. He has one greatish moment when he chooses the son of his flesh over the son of his heart but most of the rest is pretty pedestrian. Tom Hanks give a muted performance which seems to confuse constipation and bloat with restrained great emotion. I kept wanting to leap from my balcony with an extra large bottle of Philip's Milk of Magnesia for him. Jude Law seems to have wandered in from another film entirely. His character seems to be Chaplin's Little Tramp as reimagined by Clive Barker and his appearance, body language and actions are disconcerting to say the least. As this character doesn't appear in the original graphic novel, I'm not sure who to blame for him. He's really not necessary other than as plot device and the film would have done just as well without him. A few of the supporting cast fare better. Stanley Tucci puts in an appearance as an oily and unctuous Frank Nitti and Daniel Craig's dissipated Connor has a couple of good moments. Jennifer Jason Leigh has next to nothing to do so I assume all of the scenes that attracted her to the role ended up on the cutting room floor.

The film isn't bad, it's just full of missed opportunities and bloat (like Hanks' gastrointestinal tract) and shows that Mendes needs to work with a gifted editor as well as a gifted cinematographer if he's to realize his potential as a director.

Irish wake. Tommy gun in garage. Driving lessons. Multiple bathroom murders. Gratuitous back room bordello. Gratuitous comic accountant. Gratuitous saintly farm couple. Butcher knife in chest. Wisecracking waitress. Lamp explosion.

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