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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Todd Haynes jumps back on track with...

Screen Grabs: Todd Haynes jumps back on track with twisty drama ‘May December’

Unfortunately, Taika Waititi's 'Next Goal Wins' doesn't quite follow in the same footsteps.

Despite the ever-increasing monotony of Hollywood feature releases as corporate product—it’s seldom considered a plus for franchise movies to have much individual personality—there are a few directors who still manage to forge their own idiosyncratic path within (or at least adjacent to) the mainstream. High on that relatively short list is Todd Haynes, who has made a string of great films from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story to I’m Not There and The Velvet Underground, one of the all-time great rock films. Not only that, but he has never repeated himself, a feat more extraordinary than it sounds. (Think how many Scorsese movies feel basically cut from the same cloth, good as they may be.)

I was a bit disappointed by his last two narrative efforts: 2017’s Wonderstruck was a World of Henry Orient-like sophisticated childhood whimsy that didn’t quite work, Dark Waters two years later a perfectly decent whistleblower drama that was nonetheless strangely generic for Haynes. (it didn’t help that a just-prior documentary on the same real-life subject, The Devil We Know, felt much more stirring.) But he is back on track, more or less, with the new May December—a twisty psychodrama that nods to both the upper-middle-class soap operatics of his own Far From Heaven and the identity-blurring gamesmanship likes of Bergman’s Persona, while waxing more caustic than either.

The director’s frequent muse Julianne Moore plays Gracie, who 20 years ago caused a major stir in Savannah, GA (where she still lives) and beyond. Then, she was a seemingly happy married wife, and mother to several children.

All that got chucked away when she commenced an affair with a 13-year-old student 23 years her junior. It was found out, resulting in a prison sentence for Gracie and gawping national tabloid coverage. But when she got sprung, she and the by-then-fully-“legal” Joe (played as an adult by Charles Melton) recommenced their relationship—marrying, raising three children, staying right in the same community they’d scandalized. They were, it seems, meant for each other after all. (Samy Burch’s screenplay is based on his novel, which was inspired by the actual case of the late Mary Kay Letourneau, who met her long-term paramour in Washington state when he was 12.)

Now that discomfiting past, which Gracie and Joe have apparently overcome—if only by the unconscious daily practice of cocoon-like denial—demands to be examined again. Or rather, someone is demanding as much. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is a celebrity actress who is going to play Gracie in a new film she promises will be nothing like the rather tawdry TV-movie treatment this story has already endured. The project is happening whether or not the real-life couple wants it to, and one senses they don’t. But given that lack of control, Gracie figures she might as well at least try to influence the end result to her benefit by cooperating with the visiting star’s pre-production attempts to “research” her.

Needless to say, everything about this is… weird. Elizabeth, the kind of emotional vampire who’s been glamorously phony for so long she can no longer see it, ingratiates herself as an ally with people who don’t trust her—why would they?—but must pretend otherwise. She sniffs out the politely buried tensions between Gracie and Joe, between the couple and their children, between the family and everybody else. She also interviews members of Gracie’s “old” family, with whom she claims to be on good terms. The reality is more ambiguous, particularly when it comes in the form of son Georgie (Cory Michael Smith), a hot mess who has nothing good to say about mom—though he may simply be a more clumsily overt version of her own manipulative personality.

Its faintly ironic air underlined by the deliberately retro melodrama of Marcelo Zavros’ score (which makes extensive use of the Michel Legrand theme for Joseph Losey’s 1971 The Go-Between), May December is like a deceptively all-American-looking version of the decadent “games people play” arthouse movies Europeans made in the 1960s. We’re encouraged to doubt every moment, every motive—Haynes’ direction has seldom been so luxuriantly tricksy before. But despite the visual Persona quotes and whatnot, you’d be unwise to take it as much more than a highest-end lurid potboiler, a sleight-of-hand enterprise that plays with complicated actions and psychology yet never really says much about them.

Portman (who originally brought this script to the director) clearly enjoys playing a shallower character than usual—but her relative subtly only delays our realization that Elizabeth is just a narcissistic user, a diva stereotype, nothing more. Moore delivers for Haynes as usual, and all the supporting actors are fine. But the sole performance here that really connects on a deeper level is Melton’s, because Joe is the most fully realized character. His own kids with Gracie now grownups heading out the door, he’s just beginning to grasp that in living as an adult (and husband, and father) since mid-childhood, he’s never actually shaped his own life. He bought the true-love scenario Gracie contrived for them both—but now he’ll have the unsettling leisure to doubt it. By contrast, the two leading women’s roles are constructs, with some contradictory elements that feel gimmicky rather than revealing.

Still: While it may not be profound, May December (which opens Fri/17 in area theaters, then begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 1) is juicy entertainment executed with rarefied intelligence. Landing somewhere just below the top tier of Todd Haynes films, it nonetheless benefits hugely from his refined sensibility, which once again arrives at a result not quite like anything he’s done before.

If only one could say that about Taika Waititi and Next Goal Wins. Actually, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the New Zealand writer-director-producer-actor’s own films all have more or less the identical wry, antic, oddly sweet, simultaneously cute ’n’ crude tenor—something similar might be said of Wes Anderson, or numerous other plucky auteurs. It’s a style that’s more adaptable than you’d expect, accommodating cult comedy (What We Do in the Shadows), sentimental formula (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and superheroics (Thor: Ragnarok). Maybe Jojo Rabbit was a stretch too far—I don’t think the Third Reich needs whimsy—but it was not a disgrace. However, Thor: Love and Thunder saw everything that was delightful about his first CGI behemoth curdle into lazy schtick. And now there’s this POS.

Next Goal Wins has evidently had problems—it started shooting in late 2019, with Armie Hammer in a support role. Then reshoots were required, but unfortunately by then Hammer had become persona non grata in the world, due to sexual abuse allegations he has disputed. Amidst a general abandonment of his acting career, he declined to return, requiring the role be entirely re-shot with Will Arnett. So, this much-delayed production has had bad luck.

Yet that doesn’t do enough to explain its extreme mediocrity, the way Waititi seems to be imitating himself (and not his good stuff, more like Eagle vs. Shark and that 2nd Thor), or the tediously formulaic nature of the whole project. The idea isn’t bad: Dramatizing a same-named documentary from a decade ago, it chronicles the kinda-sorta comeback of American Samoa, long considered one of the worst football (i.e. soccer) teams in the world, whose 2001 31-0 loss to Australia is cited as a landmark amongst humiliating defeats. In desperation, they hired a foreign coach—Thomas Rongen, here played by Michael Fassbender—to whip them into shape.

So, one might expect an inspirational underdog sports comedy… not my favorite thing, in general. But yeesh, this movie makes The Mighty Ducks look poppin’-fresh by comparison, it’s so stale, and convictionless, and desperate to be petted. Even the theoretical bonus points earned by a subplot about a trans player (Jaiyah Saelua, played by Kaimana) and having Elisabeth Moss in a support role (albeit wasted) just roll over and play dead. There are few things harder to bear than an entertainer who only wants to charm, and misses. I trust that Taika Waititi has bigger and better things still in him…but hope to gawd that he never makes anything smaller and lesser than Next Goal Wins, which opens in theaters Fri/17.

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