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Harvey Keitel plays the man who commits the Imaginary Crimes of Anthony (Zebrahead) Drazan’s new film, but this time he’s not packing a gun, just a lot of pre-Tarantino bluster. He’s a con man who lies to everyone, including himself, but his most notable victim is older daughter Sonya (Fairuza Balk, who played the younger daughter in Gas Food Lodging). She’s the focus of this tale, which was adapted from Sheila Ballantyne’s autobiographical novel by Kristine Johnson and Davia Nelson.
Keitel’s Ray Weiler sometimes seems the typical repressed ’50s dad, outraged when he finds the lit-minded Sonya reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover and suspicious of her interest in going to college: “Intellectuals will distort your values,” he tells her. When hustling, however, he’s more expansive, and one red-white-and-blue value he never quite developed is the work ethic. Always looking for the latest foolproof mining invention or the next hot claim in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, Ray is a hapless gold-rusher updated for the uranium age.
Ray is also a widower—in flashbacks, his high-spirited but emotionally stunted wife Valery is played by Kelly Lynch—and that misfortune becomes just part of his repertoire. In an age where raising children is unquestionably a woman’s job, he’s able to play on the pity of sympathetic parents and concerned school administrators. He talks Sonya’s way into the tony private school her mother attended with a virtuoso performance that ends, inevitably, with “I seem to have forgotten my checkbook.”
Sonya serves as surrogate mother to her little sister Greta (Elisabeth Moss), so school is her sanctuary—especially since she develops a patron in English teacher Mr. Webster (Vincent D’Onofrio), who encourages her writing and becomes the target of her schoolgirl crush. After Ray and partner Uncle Eddie (Seymour Cassel) try to dupe the hotheaded Jarvis (Chris Penn) and the father of one Sonya’s schoolmates, a well-to-do banker, Webster’s assistance goes well beyond correcting Sonya’s grammar; he helps get Ray out of jail.
The principal action of this slender, astringent film is Sonya’s growing distaste for her father and her troubling choice between escaping to college and staying home to take care of Greta. If that sounds small, Drazan and company don’t do much to make it bigger. Crimes plays more like autobiography than drama, reducing all the events to mere anecdotes: Valery’s death is less memorable than the scene in which Sonya has to beg her dad for money to buy tampons, to both’s eventual embarrassment. The performances are fine, but the film would have benefited from more of Ray’s outsize sense of invention. He tells better stories than it does.
Iranian writer/director Amir Naderi’s first American film is called Manhattan by Numbers, but it actually goes beyond numbers. Starting at 215th Street, the film descends all the way to Wall Street, charting the increasing desperation of unemployed newspaperman George Murphy (John Wojda). Murphy starts by attempting to track down some old friends in the hope of borrowing enough money to forestall eviction from the Washington Heights apartment that his wife and young daughter have already fled; someone suggests he look up an old friend, Tom Ryan, and so the search for cash turns into a quest to find Ryan, who’s slid even further into New York’s underworld than has George.
The film basically has two on-screen characters: George and Manhattan. Naderi, who made the exquisite The Runner, here introduces himself to his adopted city in all (well, some of) its chaos and serenity, affluence and poverty. His motif is the clattering subway train, carrying George and a few thousand others as it travels from Manhattan’s northern to southern tips, making stops in Harlem, Times Square, and the Lower East Side before George’s pursuit of money ends all too symbolically at Wall Street’s oversize bull sculpture.
The Manhattan portrayed by Naderi (and cinematographer James Callanan) is colorful and kinetic, and it would be nice to say that his fresh eye provides boldly distinctive vistas. It really doesn’t, though. Numbers goes to some neighborhoods seldom portrayed by the glossier Hollywood features, but New York is not exactly an unphotographed place, and even those who’ve never seen Tompkins Square Park are unlikely to find a glimpse of it revelatory. After all, in New York-set films a clanking elevated train is almost as common an establishing shot as the aerial view of the harbor.
Naderi treats Manhattan as both found art and found story: George’s search is punctuated by authentic characters from its meaner streets. Perhaps he was hoping that something more interesting would happen while his crew was on the street, for George’s tale is underwritten; Numbers plays like a short fictional film attached, sometimes tenuously, to a lyrical travelogue. The movie looks good, but it doesn’t indicate that the director has yet seen anything in New York that hasn’t been captured on celluloid before.
Alan Parker has often demonstrated a gift, albeit unintentional, for the hilariously flamboyant. Who can suppress a smile when watching the agonized Albert Finney, clutching a portable typewriter for his estranged daughter, lurch through Shoot the Moon, or Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet, splattered with chicken blood, having Mephistophelean sex in Angel Heart? Lately, though, the writer/director’s films have lost their instinct for the ludicrous, which poses a problem for his new The Road to Wellville, a strenuously farcical treatment of a chapter in the history of American self-improvement.
Condensed with reasonable fidelity from the 1993 novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, Wellville fictionalizes the turn-of-the-century Battle Creek sanatorium run by cornflake magnate John Harvey Kellogg. Though cold cereal has survived as a characteristic staple of the American diet, Kellogg wasn’t principally concerned about selling grain flakes; his obsession was the health of the bowels, which allows Parker a wealth of gags about enemas, chronic flatulence, and the like. (Sample Kellogg-to-patient dialogue: “Your stool is pathetic!”) Even Anthony Hopkins’ bizarre performance as Kellogg could be described as anal expulsive, a purgative for too many repressed Merchant-Ivory roles; appropriately, the cartoonish false front teeth he sports were inspired by Bugs Bunny.
Generally, though, the film’s casting suggests an almost panicky concern for mainstream appeal. Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda, neither actors who should play period roles, are the central couple, Will and Eleanor Lightbody, seeking treatment at the spa; John Cusack plays Charles Ossining, a hustler hoping to cash in on the cereal craze; and Dana Carvey is Kellogg’s estranged, demented son George. Since the vegetarian Kellogg also disapproves of sex, Will and Eleanor are not allowed to room together—instead, unconvincingly, Will’s put in a room across the hall from a sexy consumptive played by Lara Flynn Boyle—but their distance is symptomatic. Declaiming to an invisible audience, Hopkins is just the most obviously disconnected of the performers; most of them seem to have wandered in from a variety of different movies, and only rarely overlap.
Wellville demonstrates a variety of useless and often dangerous contraptions, and just can’t get enough of garishly ironic cuts: from the insertion of an enema nozzle to a draft of beer, from the “in-out” chant of exercisers to the illicit intercourse of two spa patients. This cavalcade of quackery never finds its comic rhythm, though. Such moments as Charles and his cronies’ spitting out bowl after bowl of test cornflakes, Kellogg’s railing that his assistant is “unprofessional” for keeling over from a heart attack, and a patient’s electrocution in an electric bath are predictable slapstick making predictable points. Even when Parker seems to borrow a page from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School in burning the whole place down, he fails to set the film ablaze.
People still do odd things in the cause of health, of course, and a subtler film could have made that connection. Wellville, however, is too broad to have any contemporary resonance. Rather than present Kellogg and his sanatorium as precursors to ’90s food fads, it renders them safely, if bombastically, quaint.