By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Home of the Brave,” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2006]
All the words we like to think apply to our nation’s servicemen — honorable, noble, courageous — can also be applied to Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave,” a coming home drama about a group of National Guardsmen back from a tour of duty in the current Iraq war. But plenty of other, less desirable words — patronizing, heavy-handed, clumsy — apply as well. The film’s heart is in the right place. Its mouth, not so much.
The four combat-shocked veterans Winkler follows upon their return to Spokane, WA seem cast less for their performances than the potential for metatextual irony. Samuel L. Jackson, the only contemporary actor whose screen presence is super-heroic enough to believably survive a bout with snakes on a plane, plays a battlefield surgeon devastated by his inability to fix his patients. Jessica Biel, an actress with an entire persona based around her complete physical perfection, plays a driver who loses a hand after a mine explodes under her truck. Cheekiest of all, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, a rapper whose reputation rests on the number of gun battles he’s survived, plays a character who loses his mind after accidentally shooting a civilian in a botched raid. That’s great stunt casting for sure, but not great acting; none convincingly bring to the screen a sense of real emotional or mental trauma.
The entire ensemble is loaded with pretty people who don’t look, sound, or act like real soldiers, let alone ones crippled (both literally and figuratively) by their experiences. The crucial Guardsman who dies “over there” is played by “One Tree Hill”‘s Chad Michael Murray, and the final major character is played by actor Brian Presley, who looks like Jim Caviezel but prettier, with perfectly mussed hair (particularly impressive in the oppressive, moisture-destroying heat of the Iraqi desert).
Winkler wants his audience to acknowledge there is more to being involved in the Iraq War than simply remarking that you “support the troops” when someone asks you your stance on it. These soldiers we’re so supportive of with our lip service sympathy return from this brutal war where, arguably, no amount of good work can undo the bad that’s already been done, shattered by what they’ve done. They deserve better, from the war and from us.
But they also deserve better than a film like “Home of the Brave” which exploits their pain by turning Iraq War veterans from real people to mouthpieces. “You want us to come back like nothing happened!” one of the veterans remarks at one point. The key word there is “us” — the screenplay by Mark Friedman doesn’t even attempt to disguise its didacticism by trying to personalize the experiences of its protagonist. So it’s “us” who come back, not “me.”
The sour taste of such blatant sermonizing is accentuated by Winkler and Friedman’s holier-than-thou attitude, most noticeably in a scene where Presley’s character bumps into Biel’s at his new job, selling tickets at a Spokane multiplex. After comparing anti-depressants, Presley launches into a thinly veiled anti-Hollywood rant. “I sell these stupid tickets to these stupid movies!” he grumbles and Biel agrees. “It’s like they don’t care what’s going on over there!” she replies. A fair point, but the potential accuracy gets lost in the utterly tactless storytelling. It’s difficult to successfully educate people when you’re actively and openly insulting their intelligence. More importantly, should the director of “At First Sight” and “The Net” really be pointing fingers at bad moviemaking?
Jackson’s triage unit is a far cry from Altman’s in “MASH” and 50 Cent’s combat shocked meltdown doesn’t even rate with Sylvester Stallone’s in “First Blood.” The first really great fictionalization of the Iraq War experience, at home and abroad, is yet to be seen.
“Venus” is a movie both sweet and sour, one likely to warm your heart at times and chill you to the bone at others. Rarely I have been so equally touched and repulsed by a film. Basically a British “Grumpy Old Men” with a heaping dash of “Lolita,” the new film by director Roger Michell offers aging superstar Peter O’Toole a showcase for his chops, both comedic and dramatic, and whatever else you think about it, there’s no denying the 74-year old actor still has a spring in his step and a mess of charisma.
In a storyline eerily similar to the much less heartwarming and somewhat less creepy “10 Items or Less,” O’Toole plays a famous actor who chances into a life-affirming pairing with a younger woman. But “Venus” diverges from that path in the details of the relationship between O’Toole’s Maurice and teenage Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), which takes on an additional sexual dimension. Initially, lonely Maurice takes up with Jessie simply to get her away from his good friend Ian (Leslie Phillips), the uncle who can’t stand her. But he’s quickly entranced by Whittaker’s sad, beaten-down beauty. He takes to calling her Venus after the painting the two discuss during an afternoon at the museum.
Though the screenplay by Hanif Kureishi (working with Michell a third time following “The Buddha of Suburbia” and “The Mother”) plays their partnership for laughs, the pairing strikes me as an altogether disturbing one, and not simply for the vast gulf between their ages. Once Maurice reveals his feelings for Jodie, “Venus” settles into a rhythm of his lecherous glances and her demurring rejections; that is, until she wants something from him, whereupon she humors him until she draws out whatever it is she desires. The she treats him poorly again, then asks for more. Her comment by way of a hello upon missing one of their dates, “I’m sorry I didn’t come and meet you. You can smell my neck,” characterizes a lot of their interactions. Despite “Venus”‘s air of wistful nostalgia, the material strikes me much darker than Michell implies. If Maurice and Jodie’s story is superficially one of education and happiness, it’s not far removed from one about a kindly old man whose ill-advised attraction to a young, callous woman proves his undoing.
In a way, that makes O’Toole’s performance even better. No matter how discouraged you are by the film or his character’s behavior, you want to keep watching where O’Toole will take you. To call the performance fearless is cliché and understatement: the physical stunts O’Toole is called upon to do are remarkable all by themselves, without even taking into consideration the Maurice’s erotic appetites. He and “Venus” are both at their best when they’re not bogged down by his obsession with Jodie. A brief, wordless scene where Maurice visits an outdoor theater covered in fallen leaves and silently returns to some moment in his past says more about him than all his monologues put together. O’Toole, standing there alone with the cold and his memories is a window into a far better movie than the one Michell wound up with.