SUVs and Other Junk: Benicio Del Toro Works Alone

Maui Time | October 19, 2007
SUVs and Other Junk

Benicio Del Toro Works Alone

Things We Lost In the Fire (Two Stars) (694 words)

By Cole Smithey

Same old story: foreign director (in this case Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier--“After the Wedding”) makes an American debut movie that goes flop with a resounding clamor. Successful architect Brian Burke (David Duchovny) takes time away from his protective wife Audrey (Halle Berry), and two darling kids, to help out Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) his longtime friend-turned-junky. Jerry is shaken out his nodding fleabag existence after Brian gets killed on his way back to the suburbs, and Audrey picks up the charity baton by inviting Jerry to live in her garage to clean up his act. Allan Loeb’s mechanical script is riddled with so many Alcoholics Anonymous moments that it comes off as a rehabilitation promo reel. Del Toro pulls off a tight-wire dramatic performance that keeps the film afloat, but can’t obscure the constant hiss of pop psychology that pierces nearly every scene.

The movie starts off at a deficit due to the miscasting of Halle Berry, and more significantly David Duchovny. The actors’ combined effect of perfect skin, coats the screen in a wallpaper sheen that repels all subtlety of character and life experience. An early scene, written to win the heart of the viewer, has perfect-poppa Brian describing iridescent light to his mop-haired son, while the two hang out in their neatly lit backyard swimming pool at night. Brian confirms that iridescent means glowing from the inside—just like the child. The cringe-worthy moment foreshadows the film’s tone of sugarcoated melodrama. These guilt-struck characters seem like they enjoy feeling bad.

Audrey is vocal in her disapproval of Brian’s friendship with Jerry, who she views as a lost cause. The issue is a primary hitch in the couple’s relationship and it hints at too much windy protesting, so much so that we might even wonder if Jerry sired one or both of the couple’s children before his addiction took over. From Brian’s point of view, we get that the two men have remained fiercely loyal over the years. One symptom of that allegiance comes through in Jerry’s perfect memory of details about events in Brian’s life and stories about his children that even Audrey isn’t entirely privy to.

The movie is about Audrey’s mourning process, and how she extends her deceased husband’s ideals to help Jerry recover. The scene that sums up Audrey’s confusion comes when she invites Jerry into her bed to use him as a sleep aid. Jerry’s discomfort with the intimate-but-platonic situation is offset by Audrey’s obvious exploitation of him as a kind of house slave. It’s a failing in the script that Audrey doesn’t take advantage of the sexual opportunity that Jerry provides, since she reacts later with an amount of revulsion that would be logically supported had she crossed that line of intimacy.

Addiction movies are a losing-bet genre. Uli Edel’s “Christiane F” (1981) and Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” (1996) are the best of the bunch because they invigorate their stories with raw humor and pulsing soundtracks that propel the action that necessarily comes down to someone sweating in the sheets. They have a panache that sweeps up the audience in an active environment of reckless rebellion that confirms the cynicism of its characters.

Audrey is a half-hearted skeptic making a half-assed attempt at helping a man she wants to sleep with, and whose children already look up to as a surrogate father. And yet neither the screenwriter nor the director sees the emotional motives at stake. The only person who understands his impulsive wisdom beyond the shallow source material is Benicio Del Toro, and it’s his commitment to his role, and to the story, that keeps things interesting. It’s not often you see an actor doing the job of ten people to make a movie work. Benicio Del Toro has yet to hit his stride as an actor because he hasn’t yet discovered the right director and project to let him run full out. But when he does, it will be a very special moment in cinema.

Rated R, 118 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)


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