Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Fred Ward died on May 8. He was rock solid, always welcome, a character actor at ease playing ham-and-eggs bikers, but with a touch of the poet. He made a fascinating Henry Miller in Henry and June, and as Gus Grissom on The Right Stuff he was the conflicted heart of the movie, a standout in a great ensemble.
I would like to point out three films that seem to be largely forgotten, all of which benefit from a dose of Ward. One is John Binder’s Uforia, a shelved movie briefly re-discovered in 1986. My review of that is at my 1980s website.
The others are Stephen Belber’s Management, a skewed 2008 comedy, and Christian Carion’s 2009 Farewell, in which Ward plays Ronald Reagan, an inevitable piece of casting. See below, in two reviews originally published in The Herald.
Jennifer Aniston can make big multiplex movies, but every now and again she scratches an indie itch with something smaller and odder: thus The Good Girl, one of her best performances, and the new Management, a genuinely strange little romantic comedy.
The story begins at a nondescript motel in Kingman, Arizona, where Mike (Steve Zahn), the childlike son of the owners, is smitten by Sue (Aniston), a customer. Somehow they have a tiny little intimate encounter, which is all Mike needs to gather all his money and fly to the corporate headquarters outside Baltimore, where Sue works.
This would be peculiar in itself, because stalking has little charm. Mike’s puppy-dog manner is not promising, either, except in the way it evokes pity from Sue.
As writer-director Stephen Belber’s story develops, these mismatched individuals keep colliding, mostly because Mike won’t let his infatuation die. Eventually he follows Sue to Aberdeen, Washington, where she has gone to stay with her boyfriend, an ex-punk yogurt magnate played, inevitably, by Woody Harrelson.
Right there you get a measure of this movie’s quirkiness: it’s a romantic comedy set partly in Aberdeen. How often does that happen?
This is one of those films with all the right ingredients, apparently—but somehow the cooking process must’ve been a little off. Because although it has truly funny moments and some extremely appealing performances, Management can’t find that seamless groove.
I like it, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you can swallow the ill-formed premise, there are insights and observations here to enjoy.
Belber, a playwright whose work includes the Richard Linklater film Tape, has a nice eye for woebegone American places, and people. Fred Ward and Margo Martindale are just right as Mike’s hard-working parents, and James Liao is a cut-up as Mike’s best buddy in Aberdeen.
Steve Zahn is an innately comic presence, and his zonked innocence keeps his character from becoming overly creepy. Both he and Aniston are playing screwball-comedy ideas, not real people—it helps to remember this as you try to make the film make sense.
Aniston’s patented facial reactions and deft comic timing are put to good use here, but she doesn’t have a fix on the somewhat bewildering Sue. I’m not sure what actress could unlock this character, however. She exists not in Kingman, Arizona or Aberdeen, Washington, but only in a place where clockwork zaniness has a chance to play out.
Two French films arrive this week, and curiously enough both have their stories set in Russia as well as France: The Concert and Farewell.
Correction: Farewell is technically set in the Soviet Union. This one rolls out in the early 1980s, as the Cold War staggers along, with communism and capitalism throwing punches at each other like two exhausted boxers in the ring. Loosely based on real events, the film examines a longtime KGB operative, Sergei, who has decided to become a double agent for the West. A great lover of French culture, Sergei arranges to pass his documents to a French engineer, Pierre, currently posted in Moscow.
Pierre isn’t a spy; he’s simply been recruited by French espionage to be the middleman. The initially bumbling nature of his spywork gives the movie a nicely comic undertone, and even the arguments with his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) seem to belong in a comedy about a henpecked husband.
The film does take more serious turns, and indeed attempts a global reach, as we see scenes that travel all the way to the White House. Ronald Reagan’s unwieldy “Star Wars” program is depicted as a crafty strategy to bluff the Soviets into giving up the nuke race; think of it as the “we’re crazier than you are” approach.
Reagan is played by Fred Ward, who seems to be enjoying himself in a role he doesn’t burlesque, whatever the temptations might have been.
The strength of the film stays with the men in Moscow. Both roles are played by accomplished film directors: Guillaume Canet, who did the thriller Tell No One, is the nerdy-looking Pierre, and the internationally renowned Emir Kusturica, who directed Underground, plays Sergei. Kusturica, a looming fellow with a shaggy manner and a face that radiates a certain wry pessimism about life, really makes the film. He suggests how a true believer in the Soviet cause might also have a weakness for decadent western music and French champagne—a marvelous character right out of a John le Carre novel.
Director Christian Carion orchestrates Farewell as less a thriller than a chess match. It may not reach above the level of a good TV-movie, but the basic satisfactions of a spy picture are here, and Kusturica’s memorable presence clinches the deal.
May 20, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.