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March 18, 2009 8:33 pm
The Age of Stupid
Monday morning is a good time for film distributors to get at film critics. Emerged from the weekend, we are fragile, vulnerable and all but photophobic. Bright lights and noises disturb us. Herded into a carbon-efficient press show – no coffee from Java, albeit a rainforestful of press handouts – we sit down before The Age of Stupid. This is the latest climate change documentary and it lectures us sternly and pitilessly – yet also intelligently and provokingly – for 89 minutes.
The title tells all. The word “stupid” is used as in “it’s the ecology, stupid”; the word “age” as in “you felt young when you came into the theatre, but awful warnings can age you mightily”. Soon we feel nearly as old as Pete Postlethwaite, playing the choric old-timer who mans an archive in 2055 and punches a screen to conjure the film gobbets that explain to us why and how Planet Earth – sometime around AD Now – committed suicide.
The six stories he shows are all real. There is the American palaeontologist who helps Shell find offshore oil, while seen moonlighting with heroic incongruity, in one sequence, as a Hurricane Katrina rescuer. There is the aspiring Nigerian doctor growing up in a village whose waters are polluted by petrochemicals. There is the English windfarm developer failing, mostly, to sell windfarms. How we critics – by now properly aroused – seethed at the Bedfordshire villagers united in protest against the turbines. “Fogeys! Luddites!” we snarled, before each of us remembered his tally of air-flights during the past year and retreated into guilty passivity.
The Age of Stupid presses all the right buttons. More cleverly, it chooses to leave some buttons unpressed. In one story, a jovial entrepreneur in India is shown launching a new low-cost airline. Neither Postlethwaite, as chorus, nor Franny Armstrong as director (last conscience-raiser, McLibel) bestows any critical inflection on these scenes. We – given the proper, arduous responsibility – are left to admire or anathematise.
The film’s star is surely the French climbing guide who has watched his Alpine glaciers evaporate. Whitehaired veteran Fernand Pareau could be an Adorable Snowman or a grizzled “Not-Yeti”: a man determined to keep crying “Pas encore!”, with doomed defiance, as the precious frozen tracts dwindle to trickles and his tourists descend by ladders into ravines once brimful with ice.
We are destroying our habitat. We are the new dinosaurs doomed to extinction. The Age of Stupid extends its multimedia claws (websites, television ads), asking you to help. Save a forest; take a train; hug an iceberg. My chosen task will be to kidnap every windfarm protester, forcing him/her to read the complete works of Miguel De Cervantes, wherein it is written: “Thou shalt not go up against windmills, or not without the risk of appearing foolish, dotardly and antediluvian.”
Watching Paolo Sorrentino’s praised-by-some Il Divo is like being spat at by a cobra for two hours. We admire the venomed virtuosity even while writhing with pain and revulsion, or succumbing, eventually, to a growing numbness. We are meant to be repelled by the protagonist of this satire, its true-life target: Italy’s seven-times prime minister and serial criminal intriguer (claim his foes) Giulio Andreotti, a man who has attracted as many enemies as his successor in the nation’s “man you love to hate” stakes, Silvio Berlusconi. Accused of everything from causing the death of Aldo Moro, the terrorist-kidnapped former PM, to cosying up to Cosa Nostra, Andreotti is played by Toni Servillo with serpent features, leathery skin and prosthetically enhanced ears that suggest his next evolutionary stage will be a fruit bat.
Yet I was less dismayed by Sorrentino’s portrait of Andreotti than by Sorrentino’s portrait of himself. The half-blown misanthrope who made The Consequences of Love, a bleak Nabokovian jewel, and The Family Friend, a bitter pill gilded with craft, is a full-blown hater of humans here.
He malignly rages not just at a man whose crimes will be little known to non-Italians (bemused without footnotes) but at a society – or political class – so infused with seeming wickedness that there is no change of mood music, however much the story twiddles its station-tuner.
How this filmmaker loves to loathe people. How he sets up his cinematic stunts – from palatial tracking shots to near-hallucinatory close-ups – to pillory the pillars of society. How he gloats as he maps the mazes of malevolence. His Andreotti boasts, or confesses, that he has “a vast archive instead of an imagination”. Sorrentino, we do not doubt, has both. But they live under the same artistic roof, a dystopic and, in this movie, dispiriting mausoleum, inhabited by the dead of heart, the blind with ambition, the dismal of scrutiny.
Hollywood fails to come up with hoped-for light relief. Duplicity is fluff with edges, like a surreally vaporised Rubik’s Cube. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen fly out amid the debris, playing lovers who are also industrial spies. “I wondered what happens if two people fall in love who are also professional liars,” writer-director Tony Gilroy has said. How original – assuming one has not seen Mr and Mrs Smith, Prizzi’s Honor or Hitchcock’s Notorious.
Gilroy (ex-scenarist of the Bourne trilogy) takes one step back for the large leap forward his auteur career achieved in Michael Clayton. Callow ingenuities of plot are no substitute for depth and wit of characterisation. Roberts, returning to the screen after maternity leave, looks prettily benumbed, as if she had forgotten what it was like to be ambushed by the daily duty of delivering ditzy dialogue. Owen virtually re-lives The International, his features stuck in their default mode – gritty – as another mega-plot ricochets between the corporate high-rises.
When American cinema is not telling rat’s-maze stories of city life, it ventures out among the country mice. These live – if you believe Hollywood – everywhere between Los Angeles and New York. Pick your intercoastal county: it is full of glorified hillbillies scored for quaint music, rural utterance and picayune comedy-drama.
In a blind tasting you could hardly tell Diminished Capacity from Bottle Shock. One is about a gaggle of country folk trying to sell a near-priceless baseball card, the other about Napa Valley wine-growers trying to steal a march on the French. Both are cast with distinguished fall-out from the star system: Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Bill Pullman, Virginia Madsen. And both prove that the spirit of Ealing comedy is not dead but sleepeth, albeit migrated to another continent.
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