Saturday, April 24, 2010

"All right, you cunts," Nog Has Assembled a Few Thoughts on Kick-Ass / Plus, Nog and Greenberg!

No, the title of the post is not just me being more vulgar than usual, but a reference to the already-notorious line by 11-year old Hit Girl in Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass. The film has generated a surprising amount of controversy in its first week of release, from the righteous indignation of Ebert ("morally reprehensible") to the even more righteous indignation of the New Yorker's Anthony Lane ("violence's answer to kiddie porn") to the overheated praise of Time's Richard Corliss, who believes it will redefine the superhero movie ("Smart, important and deadly").

The true verdict, I think, is somewhere in between. Is having an 11-year old girl say "cunt" and dish out ultra-bloody vigilante justice a relatively cheap trick to illicit a visceral shock? Sure. Is it "morally reprehensible?" Not really. The film has points to make beyond its surface shocks and, when the tone of the film truly clicks, it feels honestly subversive in a way that rarely occurs in mainstream, multiplex cinema. There is something about the way the everyday mundane teenage world rubs up against a world of over-the-top comic book violence here that's a little unsettling: the film asks us to revel in its vigilante justice (go ahead, it says, enjoy the expertly staged and wildly graphic bloodshed of Hit Girl et al) while never explicitly condemning these actions. The cast throws themselves into the mayhem full tilt, but what you'll remember is Hit Girl (and maybe Nic Cage, as Big Daddy, encouraging his daughter's every kill while mimicking--presumably?--the strange stilted speech pattern of Adam West's Batman). Recommended? Sure, you might as well have an opinion in the Kick-Ass debates, don't you think?

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God bless Noah Baumberg, who keeps giving us quiet, insightful character studies in an era when no one wants them (Greenberg, his newest, managed one week at Olathe's 30 screen multliplex before being replaced with a few screens of the new Jennifer Lopez rom-com).

As good as the film is as a whole, perhaps it will be best remembered for giving us Greta Gerwig, very impressive as the love interest of Ben Stiller's titular Greenberg. The opening scenes follow Gerwig's Florence as she drives through LA, the camera almost uncomfortably close to her face. She isn't doing much, just occasionally brushing the hair out of her face, but there's a vulnerability in her eyes that really gets at what the film is about at its heart. Florence is young, 25 ("I still get carded"), with a tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve. Greenberg is 40, recovering from an undefined "breakdown." He's neurotic and angry and irresponsible, with a tendency to lash out at whoever gets close to him. In the hands of your average shitty Hollywood screenwriter, this would turn into a film about Greenberg "growing up" and learning to let his guard down. And, I suppose, that element exists. But the characters are treated sensitively and the writing is so wonderfully nuanced that there is virtually no resemblance to a traditional romantic comedy. Watch the long mid-film conversation where Greenberg tells Florence about how he and his long-time friend call each other "man" as a way of mocking the way average guys talk and thereby distancing themselves from a world they find distasteful, to which Charlotte tries to respond with a similar story as a way of bonding, only to have Greenberg violently reject the story as incomprensible and use it to further the proof he's seeking that the divide between them can't be bridged. These are real people, with complex emotions and motivations, and Gerwig and Stiller nail them. Baumbach wisely uses certain qualities that define the Stiller "persona" (the neuroses that quickly escalates into manic behavior) but he employ these qualities subtly and, always, in service of character. With films like The Squid and the Whale (which I love) and Margot at the Wedding (which I wanted to love but didn't), Baumbach's critics have accused him of a certain condescending attitude toward his characters, but I think he's transcended that here. He honestly feels for Florence and Greenberg and, chances are, you will too (unless you've wandered into the wrong theater thinking you're about to see a hilarious new Jennifer Lopez flick).

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