By Matt Singer
[Photo: “The Architect,” Magnolia, 2006]
A lot of movies feel too long. “The Architect” is the rare one that feels too short. These characters, and the emotions they stir up, can barely be contained in a movie just 81 minutes long. Filmmaker Matt Tauber may have bitten off more than he can chew for his directorial debut or at least more than he can chew in such a short amount of time but that doesn’t make watching him mull things over any less interesting.
Anthony LaPaglia, who also serves as the film’s co-executive producer, plays Leo, an architect and college professor living in quiet, upper middle-class splendor in suburban Chicago. But the veneer of a happy, successful marriage, family and career hides a darker truth (doesn’t it always?). Leo’s wife Julia (Isabella Rossellini) is distant and moody and seems perched on the verge of a mid-life crisis, and his two kids (Hayden Panettiere and Sebastian Stan) are bored by their static lives and confused by their emerging sexuality.
Leo is largely oblivious to his family’s problems and equally unaware that a housing project he built has, in part because of his designs, fallen into disrepair while becoming a breeding ground for crime and gang activity. A proactive single mother living in the project named Tonya (Viola Davis) is campaigning to have the buildings, ironically named “Eden Court,” demolished, and she comes to Leo hoping to get his signature on the petition, believing that the builder’s acknowledgement of Eden Court’s failures will lend her extra credibility.
In his lectures, Leo teaches that humanity shapes its environments and, in turn, environments shape their inhabitants. When an environmental turns sour, who is to blame? The people who created that environment, or the people who lived in it, were shaped by it, and perhaps spoiled it? “The Architect” doesn’t know for sure.
Tauber seems to suggest that Leo’s work in Eden Court leads to disaster because of the architect’s fundamental misunderstanding of human beings, up to and including his own family, which falls into ruins much like a decaying building. The ways in which our lives are related to our surroundings, and vice versa is easily the first-time director’s most fruitful element, and his treatment of the two parallel families, Leo’s and Tonya’s, offers many useful points of comparison and intersection, though Tauber might have been better served to include more imagery of Chicago and its architecture to further support his arguments.
When “The Architect” drifts into subplots about white suburban malaise, suicide and sexual identity confusion, it assumes a perspective and tells stories it feels like I’ve seen hundreds of times this year alone. Ten years ago, it was a radical idea to suggest that the American dream of the big house and the white picket fence was meaningless. Now it would be radical to suggest the opposite.
The film raises questions it doesn’t and, in some ways, can’t answer. But that’s fine. It’s worth seeing the film to consider them and trying to answer them yourself. “The Architect” is the starting point, not the end result.
At the other end of the spectrum lies “10 Items or Less,” a film that feels heavily padded at just 82 minutes it’s just one minute longer than “The Architect” but that minute feels like it lasts at least a half an hour. This self-indulgent piece of heavily manufactured sentimentality and poignancy features Morgan Freeman goofing off around the Los Angeles suburbs. He’s the only one laughing.
He plays an unnamed movie star, one of the biggest in the world, who’s taken a self-imposed exile from his success for several years. He’s preparing to return with a small independent film in which he’d play a grocery store manager. Since Freeman’s character hasn’t shopped retail in years, he needs to do some research. He gets dropped off at a place that could never be mistaken for a supermarket, Archie’s Ranch, and when his ride never returns, he bums a ride from cashier Scarlet (“Spanglish”‘s Paz Vega). Eventually, she reveals that she has a big job interview later in the day, so Freeman hangs around, wearing out his welcome by and helping Scarlet prepare by teaching her the wisdom he’s accrued as a rich, carefree actor.
Freeman’s nameless celebrity (he appeared in “that Ashley Judd movie”) is intended as a benevolent force for heartwarming good, but comes off a creepy and unwelcome intruder. His “research” involves mimicry that borders on outright mockery. His lessons (“We’ve got to get this to wardrobe!”) are worthless, and his attempts to become a man of the people by slumming with the lowly proles who work for a living devolves into disturbingly sincere “branded entertainment” showcases for Target (where Freeman marvels at the remarkably low prices) and Arby’s (where the two stars have a wait for it burping contest!). The movie is as out of touch with reality as its subject.
The jokes are so unfunny and the drama so uncomfortable, it’s shocking that the film was actually written and directed by an established filmmaker, “Moonlight Mile”‘s Brad Silberling. Though Silberling’s made numerous Hollywood entertainments, this film amounts to little more than pandering and meandering. And at just 82 minutes, there aren’t enough compelling ideas for something half as long. In this case, it’s “10 Items or Less” …much, much less.