Saturday, April 11, 2009

Grrl Power

Often great actors are at their most interesting when they're right on the cusp of stardom, before fame and prestige and Oscar Fever go to their heads. Think Sean Penn in Fast Times, Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, Tom Hanks in Joe vs. the Volcano, Philip Seymour Hoffman's early work for Paul Thomas Anderson. Now think Emily Mortimer, the fine British actress starring as an American do-gooder unwittingly embroiled in a criminal plot abroad in the crackerjack thriller Transsiberian. Mortimer's Jessie no sooner completes a humanitarian mission in China with her husband Roy (Woody Harrelson) when they bump into a pair of likable yet shady drifters, Carlos and Abby (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara), while taking the long way home on the Transsiberian Railroad through Russia. Roy's earnestness is offset by Jessie's repressed compulsions, which spill over in a remarkable scene where Mortimer makes a decision that has consequences, and then another one right after that, all the while conveying six or seven emotions at once.

To reveal more would spoil the fun. I will only suggest that it's the kind of sequence that was Hitchcock's specialty -- when festering psychosexual tensions propel the grander machinations of the plot -- and the director of this film, Brad Anderson, pulls it off so well he now joins P.T. and Wes as the third Anderson working today with the potential to make terrific movies. I'm still not won over by digital filmmaking, but Anderson (with the cinematographer Xavi Gimenez) smartly uses it in the same way as film would likely be employed: to take advantage of his locales, build suspense and develop character, rather than uglifying the atmosphere (the wintry landscapes, especially one with a deserted church, are evocative) or jiggling the camera to make us constantly aware of its presence.

At the expense of his own ego, Anderson is a director out to serve his actors, and even when the plot teeters on preposterous they come through in a pinch. Harrelson, who can be either very good or very bad, is shrewdly cast against type as the naive, well-meaning Roy, while Ben Kingsley, as a morally ambiguous Russian police officer who hops on the train, finally remembers that menace can be more effective in a lower key. But this is Mortimer's show. Gradually building a solid resume for the last several years, in work as varied as Match Point to the new Pink Panther movies to Lars and the Real Girl to a few episodes of 30 Rock(she'll also be in Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island later this year), her potential for stardom snaps into focus here. Best enjoy her now, while she's better than anyone named Winslet, Jolie or Streep.

At the moment I'll take Anna Faris over any of them too. Her comic star turn in The House Bunny, playing a bubble-headed blonde booted out of the Playboy mansion, only to wind up as the house-mother of a group of hopeless wallflowers in the worst sorority on a college campus, makes a limp comedy worth watching, if only to see what Faris will say or do next. With few variations, The House Bunny follows the Legally Blonde template (and it should, being written by the same screenwriters) as the dumb-bunny lead gives her girls a makeover while simultaneously attempts to transform herself into an intellectual in order to impress a brainiac frat boy (son-of-Tom Colin Hanks). Faris put gloriously loopy spins on lines like the one where she informs her proteges that "the eyes are the nipples of the face," but my favorite bit was when she unwisely mimics Marilyn Monroe's seductive pose over a manhole cover in The Seven Year Itch, gets her legs singed, and breathlessly exclaims,"Who knew steam could be so hot?"

1 comment:

David P said...

I agree with your assessment that the interaction of Emily Mortimer with the rest of the cast created the environment for a strong, suspenseful movie. Her acting footprint started on the transsiberian train and it became larger with each scene.