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From Asghar Farhadi’s stateside debut, 2011’s A Separation, through his fourth and latest U.S. release, Fireworks Wednesday, one thing is clear: The Iranian writer-director likes characters who like to yell. Particularly married couples, whether the romance is over (The Past, A Separation) or just strained (About Elly). Fireworks Wednesday falls among the latter. Released in Iran a decade ago—since 2013’s The Past, the U.S. has been watching Farhadi’s filmography backward—Fireworks gives a carefree bride-to-be a glimpse of what worn-in wedded life can look like. And it ain’t pretty.
Set on the eve of the Persian New Year, the film first introduces us to Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti, the titular character in About Elly) giddily riding on a motorbike with her fiancé as he takes her to her house cleaning agency. As she waits for a job, Roohi runs into the seamstress of her wedding dress and is able to try on the poufy white gown. She’s radiant and over the moon, so she hardly protests when given an assignment that’s far away.
After having trouble getting past the gate of her employers’ apartment building, Roohi finally meets the domestic upheaval that awaits. Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) is on the phone and already agitated when he lets her in and vaguely waves her toward an area strewn with broken glass to start. When his wife, Mozhde (Hedieh Tehrani), comes home, the tension ratchets, with Morteza halfway out the door claiming he’s been called into work and Mozhde bitterly reminding him that he had promised they’d talk that afternoon while their young son (Matin Heydarnia) is at school. Because there’s a countdown on: The next day the family is leaving for Dubai for the holiday, so the time for a serious sit-down without the kid within shouting distance was now or never.
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Mozhde also isn’t happy that Morteza hired outside help when a neighbor was willing to clean. But the obviously stressed woman keeps changing her mind—which leaves Roohi like a dust-busting deer in headlights, unsure of what to say or do. Soon enough, though, she’s turned into a pawn, carrying out tasks for both Mozhde and Morteza that have nothing to do with housework yet involve plenty of dirty laundry.
Roohi might be uncomfortable simultaneously airing and abetting family secrets, and she may even second-guess her impending nuptials. As Farhadi (along with co-writer Mani Haghighi) does so well, his dialogue hisses with vitriol and his cast delivers it with realistic venom, even the little boy. Alidoosti is an immensely appealing presence regardless of how pressured her character feels; Tehrani as the suspicious wife, however, anchors the film’s anger, her face mostly set to fury but her expressions also flitting between sorrow, doubt, and remorse.
Although Fireworks Wednesday holds its own among Farhadi’s impressive catalog, it’s not his best. The director quotes—or pre-quotes—a scene from About Elly here in which domestic violence and the typical male/female dynamic of such abuse is at play. (Think “she made me do it.”) Considering that he created this film first, that detail can’t really be held against it. The final scenes, however, meander off with little consequence of the actions that came before them; Farhadi apparently needed a few years to perfect the open endings that his subsequent films offer with panache. We’ve already seen his upward progression in all areas of the art form. But just in case this directing thing doesn’t work out, Farhadi can always pursue a career as a marriage counselor.
The marital strife in Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is written and portrayed a little less elegantly. Initially, Ernest and his fourth wife, Mary, appear to be blissfully wed: “We do have a generally good alliance, don’t we?” Mary remarks in front of a visitor, a young reporter whom Hemingway invited to his Cuban home in the 1950s after the journalist wrote a fan letter. But when parties get the loose juice flowing, so too flow the couple’s resentments, with an occasional “bitch” or “bastard.” These people, however, more often argue in full sentences, even while sloshed. Cue Mary: “You insult me and my dignity as a human being, goddammit!”
Whoa, Mary, no hitting below the belt!
Papa, directed by experienced producer but green helmer Bob Yari, was penned by Denne Bart Petitclerc, the reporter mentioned above who for some reason is named Ed here. It’s clear early on that journalistic skills don’t necessarily carry over to screenwriting. Ed (Giovanni Ribisi, the only cast member who can hold his head high) goes fishing with Hemingway (Adrian Sparks, often open-shirted and with moobs) the first time they meet. When Ed is hesitant to take control of the speeding boat, Hemingway’s response just rolls off the tongue over the rush of sea: “Now kid, the only value we have as human beings are the risks we’re willing to take.”
In a quiet setting, however, Papa’s repartee can be downright childlike: “Goddamn war,” he says. “I hate it!”
Besides the laughable dialogue, Papa falls short in its storytelling about the two writers, who aren’t quite mentor/mentee but odd friends. It’s the typewriter days, so you know there are going to be scenes (yes, more than one) of paper being crumpled and thrown into a wastebasket. (Did people actually do this?) Ed leaves behind a seemingly live-in girlfriend (Minka Kelly) every weekend to fly to Cuba; both their apartment and living arrangement are hardly reflective of the ’50s.
And if you’re hoping to get some insight into Hemingway’s day-to-day, look elsewhere: This Ernest pads around his palatial house, goes swimming naked, shows Ed how to fish, drinks too much, and gets suicidally depressed. There’s nothing more revealing here than Sparks’ representative ass—though we do get to see him writing his famous six-word short story, brainstormed in about five seconds while at a bar.
Mary (Joely Richardson) warms to Ed but eventually cools to Ernest, at one point illogically putting great effort into organizing a birthday party for him and then ruining his good time with bitter remarks that seem to come out of nowhere.
A handful of years pass like this, though if you go by Ed’s shirt choices, it appears to be days. Did Ed really neglect his girlfriend for that long? Perhaps if Petitclerc beefed up the kid’s spare, random narration, we’d have a better idea about the development of often sudden-seeming plot points. (The head of the Cuban mafia requests a meeting with Ed? What?) We do find out how the reporter feels when his hero shuns him: “Physical pain is nothing compared to the pain of a lost bond,” he says in voiceover. If you’re wondering, he’s in the pouring rain while thinking this.
Sparks and Richardson alternate between scene-chewery and stiffness, with each, for the most part, more thoroughly embracing these aspects respectively. Granted, it would have been difficult for anyone to deliver Petitclerc’s words naturally, but there had to be a more graceful way of, for example, Hemingway whispering to a sick friend, “I’ve been such a prick.”
The most impressive part of Papa is that it’s the first American movie to be shot in Cuba since 1959. As far as the film itself, however, it might as well have been titled The Old Drunk and the Sea.
Fireworks Wednesday opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.