Feel-good movies depress me. The public’s appetite for these little-guys-battle-the-system-and-win fairy talesEverybody’s Famous! is a particularly noxious recent exampleexposes something touchingly pathetic about human nature: People will grasp at the most absurd straws of hopefulness rather than face the truth about their circumstances. Ignoring everything that they know about the heartlessness of economics, politics, and fate, moviegoers continue to embrace these optimistic fantasies, applauding as happy endings stack up like planes over what I shall always insist on calling National Airport.
Despite my determination to resist happy-face movies, occasionally one slips past my defensive radar. The Full Monty contains enough undeceived undercurrents and was so artfully acted and directed that I cheered its rousing denouement along with the rest of the audience. Writer-director Joel Hershman’s Greenfingers charmed me for more subjective reasons: my fondness for its subjectgardeningand for its stars, Clive Owen and Helen Mirren.
Gardening is a surefire pursuit for those seeking affirmation of life. Before sitting down to write this column, I tended my terrace, ablaze with boxes and pots of flowershibiscus, zinnia, verbena, nicotiana, and dianthus. Helping nature spiritualize the drabness of man-made environments by nurturing seedlings into clumps of riotous color makes one feel like a sorcerer’s apprentice.
As its title suggests, Greenfingers celebrates the redemptive power of gardening. Hershman based his screenplay on a 1998 New York Times article about a group of British prisoners encouraged, as part of their rehabilitation, to grow plants. Owen stars as Colin Briggs, an adult convict incarcerated since his mid-teens. Nearing the end of his sentence, he’s transferred to Edgefield, an experimental minimum-security prison in the Cotswolds. There he’s befriended by Fergus Wilks (David Kelly), a wizened lifer who gives Colin a packet of double-violet seeds as a Christmas gift. Despite the prison’s barren soil, the flowers flourish, inspiring the warden to assign the two men and three fellow convicts to create Edgefield’s first garden. Their success impresses media gardening guru Georgina Woodhouse (Mirren), who sponsors their participation in the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the world’s largest outdoor horticultural event. Rising to the challenge, and inspired by a budding relationship with Georgina’s daughter, Primrose (Natasha Little), Colin, aided by his cohorts, prepares to take on England’s most accomplished gardeners.
In summary, Greenfingers sounds like the cinematic equivalent of a bag of fertilizer, and, admittedly, Hershman’s thumbs are more brown than green in his execution of this predictable and often cloying scenario. The notion of a group of murderers and thieves converted into a nurturing gaggle of benign botanists by cultivating posies defies credibility. But the cast’s appealing efforts make this manipulative yarn flavorful, if hard to swallow.
Unlike Matt Damon, Josh Hartnett, and other high-school-student-council types palmed off by Hollywood as matinee idols, darkly handsome Owen is the real thingmasculine, authoritative, and resourceful. In Greenfingers’ opening reels, he’s as brooding and enigmatically withdrawn as he was throughout his acclaimed performance in Croupier, but, as Colin warms to the possibilities of a life beyond prison, Owen’s stolidness dissolves, revealing unguarded tenderness and trust. Only an actor of uncommon skill could transform such a formulaic role into something so affecting. As Georgina, Mirren enjoys a welcome respite from her usual fraught performances, notably as Jane Tennison in PBS’s Prime Suspect series. Sporting outlandish floral dresses and hats, she swans through her scenes with regal condescension. (Adjudicating a flower show, she mutters, “That coxcomb evokes my late husband.”) Kelly is endearing if a bit too twinkly to be plausible as Colin’s multiple-murderer mentor. Little’s tea-rose beauty believably draws Colin out of his shella liberation that melts Primrose’s own timid defenses.
Thus far, Greenfingers has been roughly received by the press. Wanting to appear tough-minded, many reviewers have been disinclined to go on record as endorsing such a contrived, conventional confection. But if you don’t gag on the movie’s sugar coating, you’ll be surprised by how enjoyably it goes down.
Unlike Greenfingers, Hedwig and the Angry Inch assaults viewers with a flamboyant veneer of transgressive bitterness and stylistic panache that conceals a marzipan center. John Cameron Mitchell wrote, directed, and stars in this adaptation of his long-running off-Broadway theater piece about a transsexual (almost) rock singer’s quest for fame and self-acceptance.
Incorporating elements of song cycles and rock operas, Mitchell’s film opens with Hedwig and her band on tour, appearing in a Red Lobster-like chain of seafood restaurants. Her schedule is coordinated to coincide with stadium concert appearances by tabloid-heartthrob singer Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), her erstwhile songwriting partner and alleged ex-lover.
Between shows, Hedwig recalls her tortured history. As a boy called Hansel in East Germany, she dreamed of a pop-music career and of finding a soulmate. In order to marry a black American G.I., Hansel submitted to a botched sex-change operation, resulting in the titular angry inch, and ended up in a Kansas trailer park. Abandoned by her husband, Hedwig formed a rock band, the Angry Inch, and began a platonic relationship with 17-year-old Jesus freak Tommy, who stole her songs and became a pop star. Now she seeks recognition and revenge for Tommy’s betrayal.
Mitchell has transferred his stage vehicle to the screen with unexpected cinematic finesse. He employs vibrant color schemes, mobile camerawork, and hyperkinetic editing to energize the musical numbers, and engaged animator Emily Hubley to enhance the dramatic sequences. Showcasing Mitchell’s tour de force performance, Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s 91 minutes zoom by at a breathless clip, reinforced by Miriam Shor’s gender-bending turn as Hedwig’s bandmate and second husband, Yitzhak, who yearns to be a drag queen, and Andrea Martin, who is lively but underused as Hedwig’s harried manager.
But underneath the glitz, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is less audacious and more sentimental than Mitchell supposes. I’m far from knowledgeable about contemporary pop music, but to my untutored ears, composer-lyricist Stephen Trask’s songs sound more like the ersatz Broadway lite rock of Hair and Rent than authentic glam. Mitchell’s bitchy dialogue and campy sexual japes function as camouflage for a disconcertingly square and painfully earnest allegory. In an early flashback, Hedwig’s mother tells her 6-year-old son a bedtime story, derived from Plato’s Symposium, about how a vindictive Zeus split human beings in two, thereby forcing them to wander the earth in search of their other halves. This, we learn, is the ultimate object of Hedwig’s odyssey, which ends on a note of self-integration as Hansel/Hedwig, naked, triumphantly walks down a dark Manhattan street. Mitchell’s movie has received rave notices, but beneath its vibrant, amusingly hip surface, it’s as banal as anything in Greenfingers. CP