Monday, January 16, 2012

Jim is observing the MLK holiday weekend. He's spent it at a pair of movies: The Iron Lady and Carnage. The former is a wonderful starring vehicle for Meryl Streep, one that should get her a long overdue third Oscar (the others were for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice). Much has been said about this avowed feminist liberal playing Margaret Thatcher, the alternately beloved and hated former Prime Minister of England, in a part that's both candid about Thatcher's limitations but on balance sympathetic. More than anything else, though, The Iron Lady is a meditation on personal power, political and otherwise, and its limitations. Like J. Edgar another movie that portrays a notorious character but humanizes him in his long-term (gay) relationship, The Iron Lady shows that Thatcher's implacable enemy is time itself, which robs her of power, her beloved husband, and her sanity. (A note of praise here for Jim Broadbent, who plays Denis Thatcher, and Alexandra Roach as the young Margaret.) Streep cannot have failed to consider that her own vast artistic powers are no less perishable. So it is that she, and we, must cherish them while we have them.

Carnage, by contrast, is a bad movie. This is not just because the two middle-aged bourgeois couples (Kate Winslet/Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster/John C. Reilly) who meet in the aftermath of their sons' scuffle on a playground are repellent people. Rather it's because the scenario we're given just seems implausible. Given the emerging frictions that emerge in their discussions at the Brooklyn apartment of Foster/Reilly, there's no way these people would remain in each other's company for the interminable 80 or so minutes that they do. Nor are Foster and Reilly believable as a married couple (she's writes about antiquities and genocide; he owns a cookware supply company). The actors are all terrific; Foster in particular combines sanctimony, rage, and self-pity all too plausibly. In recent years she's spent a good deal of time playing unpleasant and/or weak people, demonstrating a sense of reach that's admirable, even though it's paid poor box office dividends (The Rabbit, anyone?). But here her work is in the service of a script (based on the Broadway play) and a director (Roman Polanski) whose determination to undermine elite pretensions is itself undermined by such thoroughgoing misanthropy -- and, perhaps, misogyny -- that one is less repelled by the critique of social convention than the commentary itself.

Best at a time like this to remember another child of a different (black) elite who marshalled his gifts in the name of compassion. Happy 83rd, MLK.