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David Duchovny has weird ideas of what audiences might find moving. In his directorial debut, House of D, the former nerd-nation sex symbol treats us to several shots of a son peeing over his mother’s toilet-discarded cigarette butts. And later, of the kid wistfully plucking one out of the bowl for posterity. (Mom, apparently, is so melancholy she forgets to flush.) But Duchovny’s biggest misjudgment? Casting Robin Williams as a “retard.” Touched yet?
From the opening scene in which Duchovny, rockin’ a Fu Manchu and speaking en français, begins telling the story of “a Frenchman who was not French” to an estranged wife who’s poetically hanging out a window, House of D threatens to be a sentimental disaster. The X Files vet (who also wrote the pun-laden script) plays Tom Warshaw, a New York native who, for some unimaginable reason, has kept the story of his emigration to Europe a secret from his French wife, Coralie (Magali Amadei), and son, Odell (Harold Cartier).
Is it because his background is filled with scandal or disgrace? You wish. Actually, Tom’s is a typical coming-of-age tale, tinged with sadness, confusion, and many, many jokes about balls and boners. As the adult Tom sugarcoats—er, narrates—House of D jumps back to ’70s Greenwich Village, where the “almost 13”-year-old Tommy (Anton Yelchin) attends parochial school; delivers meat with his 41-year-old best friend, developmentally disabled school janitor Pappass (Williams); and tries to entertain his mom (Téa Leoni), a nurse who’s been fighting depression ever since Tommy’s father died. Because Mom’s a basket case and Pappass, well, makes conversation by saying things like “I have a huge penis” and “I shaved my ass once,” Tommy gets his best advice from Lady Bernadette (Erykah Badu), an inmate at the Women’s House of Detention who likes to yell out to people on the sidewalk.
Each of these relationships is meant to be complex and troubling. But they’re about as resonant and believable as that whole thing with Mulder and his sister and the clones and those bees. Tommy’s mother goes to the bathroom while he showers (behind a clear curtain) and offers to wash his hair; he attempts to make her laugh by imitating Nixon with a giant erection. Lady Bernadette, House of D’s version of the magical Negro, responds to Tommy’s lament that some girls think he has small balls by shouting, “Even if you do have small balls, good for you!” And Williams wears false teeth and says things like “How many sleeps will you be away?”—which may make you long for his deathly dull but full-brained dramatic turns. Or, better, for him to go away for a whole bunch of sleeps.
The cherub-faced and shaggy-haired Yelchin grates rather than elicits sympathy with his babyish delivery (“It’s shokay. I’ll protectsh you”), and Duchovny apparently couldn’t decide whether the kid should be a confident class clown or the kind of guy who’s afraid of speaking up to prevent a simple misunderstanding. And besides the Freudian implications of choosing Leoni, Duchovny’s wife, to play his alter ego’s mother, her character is a mess of contradictions as well—one minute laughing hysterically at her son’s fake boner, the next freaking out when she finds a mildly racy flip book in his pants pocket.
Perhaps the only part of House of D that rings true is that this bizarre adolescence—combined with a predictable, tear-jerking tragedy—makes Tommy run, run, run! to France and never look back until adulthood. Of course, by the time grown-up Tom decides he must revisit his old ’hood and old friends, he’s profoundly changed. Too bad the film hasn’t: The journey results in his crying in the rain, blubbering, “I don’t have to run anymore!”
Emotionalism certainly isn’t a factor in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room—at least not on the part of the players involved. For the audience, however, Alex Gibney’s documentary will likely stir up disgust, outrage, and, perhaps for the very naive, downright shock at the blatant extortion and fraud regularly practiced by the once-exalted energy corporation before its epic downfall.
With interview subjects groping for metaphors (“Enron was a house of cards—built over a pool of gasoline!”) and sometimes-flowery narration by Peter Coyote (“Was Enron the dark shadow of an American dream?”), The Smartest Guys in the Room initially comes across as a special all-corporate episode of Behind the Music. What seems to be hyperbole starts to feel apt, however, once the 110-minute documentary starts unleashing its flood of information.
Several of the former employees, lawyers, analysts, and journalists commenting here compare Enron to the Titanic, and indeed, The Smartest Guys in the Room soon takes on the feel of a disaster flick, with a feeling of dread building during even early celebrations. The information presented is based on a book by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind. It was McLean’s mildly critical 2001 article “Is Enron Overpriced?” that first called attention to the company’s not-quite-right financial reports; until then, no one had questioned Enron’s heavy reliance on mark-to-market accounting, which allows projected income to be counted as current earnings and kept the company’s profits high and stocks higher. Essentially, that meant everyone involved was getting rich, with no clue of the collapse that lay ahead.
The Smartest Guys in the Room focuses on the brainy duo of the movie’s title, former Enron Chair Ken Lay and onetime Enron CEO Jeff Skilling. The story of their ingenious money-magicking is divided into chapters with facetious titles such as “Kenny Boy” (President Bush’s nickname for Lay), “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (referring to Skilling’s assistant, Andrew Fastow), and “Ask Why, Asshole” (a rather funny combination of the firm’s motto—“Ask Why”—and Skilling’s caught-on-tape cursing of a questioning analyst). The film presents footage of Lay and Skilling at meetings, strutting and boasting while their company was still the darling of Wall Street, as well as maintaining their ignorance and innocence of illegal practices at congressional trials when their paper palace began to tumble.
The most stomach-churning of the company’s activities is its alleged involvement in the California energy crisis. The documentary includes phone conversations of Enron traders celebrating the state’s rampant fires (“Burn, baby, burn! That’s a beautiful thing”) and joking about the rolling blackouts that, far from being unavoidable, were ordered to drive the price of power up (“Let ’em use fucking candles,” one trader gloats).
While Lay and Skilling keep up their cheery, back-patting attitude throughout, Gibney relates the mutable health of the company with a ticker that occasionally scrolls Enron’s stock price across the bottom of the screen. The filmmaker also tries to keep things light with the use of pop songs and even a Simpsons clip that shows the family considering the Enron Ride of Broken Dreams at an amusement park. Both are successful strategies. Unlike last year’s sprawling anti-big-biz screed The Corporation, the tightly focused The Smartest Guy in the Room is edifying to the eye as well as the conscience.
Of course, when the numbers of Enron’s bankruptcy are listed at the end of the movie—20,000 jobs lost, along with an equal number of pensions; average severance: $4,500—the “corporate crime of the century” elicits anything but amusement. The scandal even took the life of Enron Vice Chairman J. Clifford Baxter, whose suicide note says that he wished he’d taken the company’s slogan more seriously: “I didn’t ask why enough.” CP