By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Breaking and Entering,” Weinstein Co., 2006]
Like a lot of movies lately, Anthony Minghella’s “Breaking and Entering” proposes that all rich, successful white people are, in fact, wildly miserable, and that the criminals who intrude on their seemingly perfect (but secretly terrible) lives are a great deal more complex than they imagine them to be. But this discouragingly “Crash”-ian premise slowly develops into an impressively un-“Crash”-ian film of subtle acting and surprising humanity.
Since films like these work on equivalences, the story is perched between two symmetrical immigrant families living in London. Swedish-American Liv (Robin Wright Penn) struggles to relate to and understand her possibly autistic 13-year-old daughter Bea (Poppy Rogers), while Serbian-Muslim Amira (Juliette Binoche) can’t control her slightly older son Miro (Rafi Gavron). Social status determines whether poor behavior manifests itself in unacceptable ways: Liv and Bea live in interior-decorated splendor, and Bea receives therapy, gymnastic lessons and all-around coddling to cope with her disorders; Amira’s job as a seamstress and tailor barely provides for her son, and she has neither the time nor the energy to follow through on her threats when she suspects Miro is falling in with a Serbian gang of thieves.
Will, played by Jude Law, brings the two families together when his plush architecture firm’s new offices in seedy King’s Row are burgled by Miro. His home life with Liv and her daughter a constant struggle, he becomes obsessed with the break-in as a means of escape he pays a prostitute (classy-but-sexy supporting actress du jour Vera Farmiga, who occupied a similar place in the narrative of Scorsese’s “The Departed”) to act as a low-rent therapist. “Are you happy?” she asks. “Happy enough,” he replies with pouted lips. Will’s attitudes are subconsciously embedded in his architectural designs, which cover over social problems instead of fixing them.
Thus is the way of what may as well be called “malaise porn,” where audiences who feel guilty about their own financial success can wallow in the misery of people who work too hard while desperately searching for love and happiness while ignoring the love and happiness right in front of them all along. No one in malaise porn ever enjoys their work, or their spouses, or children, until they royally screw up all of those things and suddenly realize the errors of their ways. “Breaking and Entering” adheres to all of those tenets, particularly early in the film, but Will’s dilemma gets particularly interesting once he catches Miro in the act of raiding his office and follows him home. Though it makes little sense why he wouldn’t turn the robber in, he doesn’t, and instead begins to insinuate himself into Amira’s life.
At that point we expect melodrama to follow, but Minghella has other, better ideas. Actors are often described as being cast “against type.” The phrase is never used for directors but, in this case, it should be: “Breaking and Entering”‘s final act is far more effective than it otherwise might be, simply because of Minghella and our expectations about how an “Anthony Minghella film” should look and sound. He teases tawdry outcomes like blackmail or murder, but settles instead for understanding and honesty. Out of the malaise porn comes something refreshingly truthful.
“Breaking and Entering” opens in New York and L.A. on December 15th (official site).