Grace on Broadway

I took Firecracker to see GRACE on Broadway last week, a play starring Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and the still-fierce Ed Asner. It is a funny but surprisingly dark and thoughtful look at the mechanics of faith, religious or otherwise, and how it changes how we adapt to what the universe throws at us.

Rudd Arrington Grace

It begins with a murder-suicide, so you know what you’re getting into from the opening line. Then it dials back and shows what led up to it. The acting is phenomenal, and made me wish Rudd did more drama. He and Arrington play a couple from Minnesota who move to Florida for a real estate deal, to open a Gospel themed hotel chain. Michael Shannon plays a science geek who has survived what I call an everyday tragedy: the horrible things we hear of, but accept as normal until they happen to us or someone we care about.

Michael Shannon Grace

Once they break through his bitter shell, he’s quite funny and a bit nerdy, not the usual Shannon character. Very refreshing. Ed Asner is a force of nature, and also plays against type. He is a German immigrant who survived the horrors of World War 2, which erased God from his universe. The story reveals how each character came to their faith or lack thereof, and is not about whether there is a God at the wheel of fate or not, but how the characters deal with the worst life has to offer. And yet, it still manages to be very funny between these heartrending epiphanies.

Grace Asner
It’s not DOUBT, but it gives you plenty to think about. Which is stronger armor against the world, optimism or pessimism? If faith is your crutch, what happens when life kicks it out from under you?

GRACE runs at the Cort Theater in Manhattan until January 6th. If you’re a Paul Rudd fan, check the schedule. He has a sub during Hanukkah and I am not sure if he is returning.

Shotgun Stories

Channeling David Gordon Green and using his cinematographer, Shotgun Stories is an excellent breakout film by Jeff Nichols about two sets of sons of a now-reformed alcoholic bastard of a father, who finally meet. At first it sounds like a redneck joke, but give it a chance. Michael Shannon plays Son- wearing scars from a shotgun blast on his back and simmering with unrequited rage. His brothers are Boy- a likeable basketball coach who lives, as they say, in a van down by the river- and Kid, the youngest and most lost of the three. He lives in a tent on Son’s lawn. But he’s got a girl he wants to marry someday. Their names make evident how little they were cared about by their runaway father and their “hateful woman” of a mother. We meet them through quiet, muted vignettes of their poor, common lives- working at fish farms, trying to run an air conditioner off a car battery, holding court on the front porch. It could be a joke on Arkansas if it wasn’t handled by someone who grew up there.
One day mom shows up to tell them their Dad has died. In a brief scene we learn all there is to know about their past. “When’s the funeral?” “You can find out in the paper.” “You going?” “No.” Well, Son and his bothers do go, and find their father’s new family grieving over his coffin. Son says that whatever good he did after he left them will never erase all the wrongs he committed, and spits on the corpse, sparking a blood feud. The “new family” only knew a loving father, and is outraged; the first set of boys only knows an abusive monster.
It does not spiral into a revenge or rednexploitation film from here, even though it easily could. If anything, it resembles the excellent Dead Man’s Shoes, but is much more reserved. Amazingly, first time actors- especially “Boy,” and “Shampoo,” a local instigator who seems to treat the two sets of sons like ants to make fight- hold up to Michael Shannon’s organic ability and piercing eyes. If you thought he stole the show in Revolutionary Road you owe it to yourself to rent this.
Like Green’s All the Real Girls and George Washington, Nichols’ Shotgun Stories deftly captures the feeling of small town rural life, and makes us pay fierce attention to its subtle maneuverings. This is one of the best overlooked films of last year and encapsulates the pain of being wronged, and the difficulty of coming to peace with it. The film does not end as you might expect, and even when no one’s inner rage is bursting forth, it’s a good time sitting with these boys. And if you pay close attention, you’ll learn the shotgun story.

Revolutionary Road

If you haven’t seen a Hollywood drama since the early ’60s, you might be under the impression that in suburbia, everything is sweetness and light, and the rows of identical houses full of ticky tacky are inhabited by the shiny happy people enjoying their Pleasant Valley Sundays. But if you’ve seen The Swimmer, or The Graduate, or American Beauty, you might have an inkling that they are just as miserable as everyone else.

I’m being needlessly harsh on Sam Mendes’s new film Revolutionary Road, based on a groundbreaking novel by Richard Yates, because 46 years later the story is still very powerful but sort of predictable and hackneyed, held up only by the performances of its leads. The opening is excellent- we go from the night they met at a bohemian party in Manhattan and found a spark of passion, to the middle of a marriage in discord; April (Kate Winslet) has just performed in a lackluster play, and her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is taking her home, and making it very clear just what he thought of it. Frank works for an IBM-clone, just a cog in the corporate machine; April raises their two children at home. Both have betrayed their dreams and moved to suburban Connecticut, because that’s what “you’re supposed to do” when you settle down and have kids.
They’re driving each other crazy, so April suggests that they sell the house, take their savings, and move to Paris, where she can support them doing secretarial work while Frank figures out what he wants to do- and isn’t trapped in a mind-numbing office job. They tell their neighbors, who think they’re being silly. The woman who sold them their house, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates, excellent as usual) finds it “whimsical” and is disappointed; she was trying to get them to befriend her troubled son, because they seemed so “grounded.” But of course they can’t break the shackles of conformity, no matter how hard they try, and shatter like rockets they just couldn’t reach escape velocity.

The acting was phenomenal, but for me it always felt like I was watching suburbanites in a clever diorama. At times it felt like a stage play, and other times like a camera in a zoo. One problem for me was that as a fan of the TV show “Mad Men,” I’ve seen this era portrayed in great detail, by excellent actors, with characters similarly bound by the rules of the times. This reminded me of Mendes’s American Beauty, which had hackneyed and pandering concepts uplifted by a few excellent performances. I can’t fault Yates, for he wrote a great story- it’s just not portrayed that well. Their children seem like furniture. Affairs are treated as expected, and we don’t see enough of the dream they lost to see what they’re missing.

I fully expect Kate Winslet to be nominated for the Oscar; not sure if she should win, I haven’t seen Rachel Getting Married yet. She’s fantastic, as she watches her dream die and makes great sacrifice to try to keep it alive. Leo does well, but I’m sorry, he was too boyish for this part. He looks like a mad little boy smashing furniture. Sure, they wanted to get the Titanic twins (and Kathy Bates) back together again, but I don’t think he was the best choice for this part. Dylan Baker (Happiness) is perfect as one of his fellow office drones, though.

It’s one of the better dramas, but flawed. It kept me engaged, and the performances will grip you, but you can see what’s coming. And you’ve seen these dreams crushed before. Rent Mad Men, and maybe read Yates’s book. Sam Mendes needs to stop filming suburbia in this cold manner, when it’s been done better by Todd Field, with the excellent film Little Children.

4 out of 5 petulant frenzies.