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Withholding information is the essence of spinning a mystery yarn. But what used to be the prerogative of the omniscient, invisible narrator has increasingly shifted to the unreliable, visible one. In films from Rashomon to Last Year at Marienbad to The Usual Suspects, the failings of memory conspire with the vagaries of human motivation to make hard facts turn squishy. If someone tells you a tree fell in the forest, should you believe it?
Such epistemological quandaries have a special meaningor lack of meaningfor the protagonist of Memento, Anglo-American writer-director Christopher Nolan’s second feature. Leonard (Guy Pearce) is a man on a mission: to find and kill the man who raped and killed his wife. Leonard is at a disadvantage, however, because the killer also attacked him, leaving him brain damaged. Specifically, Leonard can form no new memories. (“It’s like you just woke up,” he explains.) Every clue he encounters must immediately be written down or recorded with a Polaroid camera. Leonard has even had the essential facts of his quest tattooed on his body. “John G. raped and murdered my wife” is the legend on his chest.
This is diabolically complicated for Leonard but not so baffling for the audience. So Nolan, who wrote the script from a story by his brother Jonathan Nolan, has inverted time’s flow. Like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, Memento begins with its climax and then jerks backward in scenes that reveal motivation and nuance as they travel further and further from the tale’s denouement. When Leonard kills Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) in the openingthat is, closingscene, neither the protagonist nor the viewer knows if the man is in fact the “John G.” who Leonard believes killed his wife. Teddy could have manipulated Leonard for his own ends, but then so could have Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the bartender who seems alternately helpful and abusive. Perhaps both these denizens of L.A.’s sun-dappled underworld have exploited him. Because he can’t hold new information in his head, Leonard will never know if he’s done the right thing. In its backward way, however, the film does eventually explain the significance of what we’ve already seen happen.
Contrasting the protagonist’s befuddlement in the action sequences is another strand of the story, shown in black and white. In these inserts, Leonard tells a story he thinks he can recall, because it happened before he was injured: Formerly an insurance claims investigator, Leonard once examined the case of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man who also lost his ability to retain new memories. That episode ended unfortunately, so Leonard has tattooed “Remember Sammy Jankis” on his hand as a warning to himself. But does Leonard really remember what happened to Sammy Jankis?
And why should anyone else care? Memento unites stars from L.A. Confidential and The Matrix, and like those two underwhelming hits, Nolan’s movie designs elaborate mystifications to conceal nothing much. To say more, of course, would to be undermine Memento’s effect. But potential viewers should note that Nolanunlike, say, Afterlife director Hirokazu Kor-eda, whose Without Memory is a documentary about a man who suffers a real-life version of Leonard’s conditionis not much interested in the more profound aspects of his premise. Memento can be seen as a meditation on knowledge, memory, and cinema itself, but ultimately it turns not on metaphysics but on a much more easily apprehended noir staple: the con.
Previously this month in Oprahland, The Mexican conducted a dialectic between the chick flick and the guy movie, The Brothers counseled that real men let their lovers have the last bite of quiche, When Brendan Met Trudy explained that uptight guys need nothing more than the love of a bad woman, and The Price of Milk went all magic realist on the relationship-tips genre. Now comes Someone Like You to reveal that all men are, uh, bulls.
Adapted from D.C. novelist Laura Zigman’s Animal Husbandry, Someone Like You is essentially a showcase for Ashley Judd, who hasn’t been so adorable since she was killed by a stray fly ball in Simon Birch. Here Judd is the too cutely named Jane Goodale, who works on a Manhattan talk show where no one seems to work much. (The movie couldn’t be less like Nancy Savoca’s The 24 Hour Woman, whose depiction of a harried New York talk-show staffer was so harsh that the film was quickly banished to video.) Because Jane’s office is mostly a place to meet potential mates, it becomes much more interesting when a new producer arrives from Washington. This is Ray, who’s sweet, shy, and slippery, just the sort of guy who’s played so wellor at least so oftenby Greg Kinnear.
Although Ray admits that he has a girlfriend, he immediately begins to court Jane, and soon the couple is making plans to live together in a fabulous apartment. (Just because they don’t work doesn’t mean they’re not extremely well-paid.) Then Ray withdraws just as Jane abandons her own place, leaving her homeless. This should be a capital offense in Manhattan, but it’s no big problem for Jane, who just moves into a spare bedroom in the loft occupied by another co-worker, Eddie (Hugh Jackman, X-Men’s Wolverine). Eddie is a notorious philanderer, and fledgling guy-ologist Jane observes his exploits to support her new theory. Inspired by a New York Times story about the mating habits of bulls, she decides that all men desire a “new cow” and thus will invariably abandon their “old cow”even if she’s as pretty, warm, smart, and vulnerable as Ashley, uh, Jane.
Although Someone Like You requires Judd to play many scenes with soggy tissues, Jane doesn’t actually seem all that vulnerable. She soon turns her new-cow theory into a pseudonymous column for the men’s magazine that employs her best friend, Liz (Marisa Tomei), and when the column is a smash, Jane has to handle myriad requests to interview her alter egoincluding one from her boss, Diane (Ellen Barkin). After she’s published, however, Jane has a series of revelations: Some men (like her brother-in-law) are loyal, and even Eddie has a sensitive side. It’s time for Jane to be a new cow again.
Zigman’s novel reportedly has more of an edge than Tony (A Walk on the Moon) Goldwyn’s adaptation, but then that wouldn’t be hard. Titled after one of the many AOR love songs on the soundtrack, Someone Like You is a self-help fairy tale set on a fantasy island. The movie’s most trenchant piece of relationship analysis is the Magnetic Fields’ “Absolutely Cuckoo,” and the day that Fields master Stephin Merritt can afford an apartment comparable to any of those on display in this movie is the day that the romantic travails of its pampered, paper-thin characters will be worth a second thought. CP