What’s New with Joe Swanberg and Woody Allen

happy-christmas-melanie-lynskey-joe-swanberg One of last summer’s nicest surprises was Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, a transportation of his mumblecore skills into the slightly larger arena of less mumbly indie comedy. Swanberg was hardly the first DIY-grade filmmaker to get access to movie stars and a nicer rig, but his loose, improvisational style fit particularly well with stars Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, and Anna Kendrick, who created a complex yet low-key portrait of a sorta-love sorta-triangle. For Happy Christmas, which comes out next weekend in New York but is already available on-demand, Swanberg has turned halfway back around: he’s cast himself again in a starring role, now acting in his real-life Chicago house, opposite his real-life baby. But Melanie Lynskey plays his wife, and Kendrick returns to play his little sister, an irresponsible twentysomething who crashes back into his life around the holidays, staying with his family while she sorts out a move to Chicago.

Accordingly, Happy Christmas looks like a hybrid, too.

Swanberg shot it on 16mm film, giving it the warm if incongruous feeling of watching modern-day but past-shot home movies—not least because all of the sets he doesn’t personally live in look a bit underdressed. It makes sense, though, because Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Lynskey) have largely retreated: he leaves the house mostly to work at his spare offices, while Kelly stays home, tends to their child, and doesn’t get much writing done (she’s supposed to be working on her second novel). Jenny (Kendrick), meanwhile, reeling from a bad break-up, goes out to parties with her more levelheaded friend Carson (Lena Dunham, very funny), drinks too much, and flirts with the babysitter (Mark Webber).
Swanberg, who looks and acts a bit like if Colin Hanks had some of his Hanks DNA sapped away, is a nominal lead, but cedes the best material to his costars (and his baby, it must be said, is hilarious). As a writer-director, he again avoids a fully written script, lets his actors roam through this material. On paper, Kendrick’s Jenny is not so different from the Olivia Wilde role in Drinking Buddies (the charming fuck-up), but the performers make these characters their own. While Wilde used her confidence as a way of papering over her personal bumbling and possible alcoholism, Kendrick turns more inward; there’s a nervous squirm underneath her tentative smiles and semi-rolling eyes, and she gets bolder and brattier when she drinks (she also has immediate friend chemistry with Dunham; if she weren’t so famous she could jump into Girls with no problems). Based on the gulf between how endearing Jenny is and how endearing she should be, Kendrick may also be the most charming actress working. Lynskey, playing a more reasonable but still restless character, is also excellent (and versatile; she played the more Jenny-like role in the underseen and wonderful Hello I Must Be Going). Despite the friction created by her fumbling, Jenny does form a sweetly awkward bond with Kelly, half distracting her and half pushing her further in her creative life than Jeff does.

This is where Happy Christmas derives its tension; though some of its character dynamics are familiar, it generates meta-textual suspense over whether it’s going to be the movie where the free spirit enlivens the squares or the movie where the self-destructive interloper wrecks everything. In a neat way, it’s not quite either. But unlike Drinking Buddies, where Swanberg and his actors knew just what to resolve and what to leave hanging, this in-between quality keeps the movie from hitting a fully satisfying endpoint; it ends as if it had to be cut off before the characters make more serious decisions. Woody Allen, similarly productive and interested in human-scale stories, has a better handle on smallness—and he should, after fortysomething movies in about as many years. Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, out this weekend, ends better than Swanberg’s film, but it’s the latter who realizes his work should run under ninety minutes (in a post-screening Q&A, Swanberg explained a post-credits scene as an add-in to make sure the movie was long enough for international distributors). Even around 100 minutes, Magic is a bit too long.

magic-in-the-moonlight-posterIt’s also been dismissed as one of Allen’s “off” movies, a bit of inconsequential piffle made on a self-imposed deadline. Yet any true student of Allen should recognize the difference between Moonlight and a truly limp effort like Curse of the Jade Scorpion (Allen’s weirdest tell: many of his lightest, most inconsequential comedies run longer than any of his other movies). Like Scorpion and the unfairly maligned Scoop, the new film deals with illusionists and magic; unlike those films, it uses a simple premise about a haughty magician (Colin Firth) enlisted to debunk a “spiritualist” (Emma Stone) to directly address a major Allen theme about the conflict between belief and rationality. If it has an opening section both airy and a bit dull, enough to lull you into thinking maybe this will be the aforementioned piffle, the movie does deepen as it goes. It may be light, but not many throwaway confections have a monologue where the hero wrestles with the very idea of prayer. Moonlight is far from Allen’s best, but like Midnight in Paris, it has a short-story clarity that works in its favor.

Both the Swanberg and Allen films, minor as they are, have more vitality than Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, a surprisingly lifeless John le Carré adaptation with an unsurprisingly strong performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles. He plays Günther Bachmann, a German anti-terrorism operative trailing a sad-eyed Chechen (Grigoriy Dobrygin) through Hamburg, where he may be seeking asylum via an activist lawyer (Rachel McAdams) or may be planning something else. Corbijn, last seen training his camera on George Clooney’s quiet assassin in The American, depicts espionage by evoking office drudgery (paper cups of coffee abound, and then eventually flasks start showing up), a clever bit of cinematic underplaying enhanced by Hoffman’s as the weary Günther. The German accent lowers his voice, rendering it growlier, and his pauses sometimes make him sound like Kiefer Sutherland’s perpetually breathless doctor in Dark City. In one of the film’s best scenes, he interrupts a conversation with a CIA operative (Robin Wright) to lumber over to the background, remaining out of focus as he decks an abusive stranger.

Mostly, though, A Most Wanted Man proceeds as a series of mildly tense conversations with Hamburg backdrops. Though the movie comes out via Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, it feels very much of a piece with the Focus Features International Intrigue series: The Constant Gardener, Closed CircuitThe Debt, and the newest version of le Carré ‘s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. These movies tend to seem a little more complex than they actually are; their murkiness is supposed to describe motives and morality, but it really just lowers their volumes into a sometimes-indistinguishable hum. Tinker is the best of the Focus spy pictures, and unlike that film, Most Wanted Man doesn’t give its impressive ensemble much color; the token moral ambiguity coats the whole movie in gray. It makes the warm grain of Happy Christmas look all the more inviting.

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