Sunday, April 13, 2008

Family Business

Some movies you regret not seeing in theaters. We Own the Night is not one of those movies, though I'd hoped it would be after reading high praise from certain quarters. The film isn't bad, just more promising than fulfilling. Billed as a noirish showdown between two brothers from opposite sides of the law, cop Joe is played by Mark Wahlberg, one of my favorite actors, and nightclub owner Bobby is in the form of Joaquin Phoenix, one of my least favorite actors; but the story is overwhelmingly Phoenix's, with Wahlberg confined to the sidelines for much of the running time.

Writer-director James Gray has written for Phoenix's character a potentially compelling trajectory: after his brother is shot by the Russian gangsters Bobby works for, he gradually turns against his employers and embraces the family business. It's sort of a reverse-Godfather, with Robert Duvall cast as Bobby and Joe's father/chief of police -- as Fernando Croce pointed out, in case we miss the point. I haven't seen Gray's previous movies (Little Odessa and The Yards), but he's obviously a talented fellow with wide-screen compositions. He also gets a good performance out of Eva Mendes, as Bobby's girlfriend, a principled party-girl, and stages a car chase that owes a debt to Children of Men, but is exciting nonetheless.

Still, Gray's movie has, for me at least, a big Joaquin Phoenix problem. I liked him in Walk the Line, perhaps because he was playing an iconic persona inside which he could disappear, but left to his own devices I never detect much of an inner life in his performances. He doesn't provide any placeholders for his trajectory the way Pacino did as Michael Corleone. And Gray's minimizing of Wahlberg -- who can be either deeply likable (as in I Heart Huckabees or rudely funny (as in The Departed) -- is a wasted opportunity. We Own the Night wants so much to be a 70s movie that it takes what was fresh about that era of cinema and makes it derivative. I know that contemporary filmmakers are fond of depicting the sordid underbelly of society, but scenes of anonymous drones cutting cocaine with playing cards while somebody removes his mask, takes a snort, nods, smirks and says, "That's goooooood!" don't exactly hit me where I live.

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