Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Curious Case of Ben Kingsley

Is Ben Kingsley the most Method-y of British actors? I don't really mean that as a compliment. Nor am I an expert on the craft; it just seems to me, whenever watching him perform, that Kingsley isn't exactly exuding the say-your-lines, hit-your-mark, my-boy-just-try-acting school of thespianism. He came out of nowhere (to American audiences) in the early-80s to snag an Oscar for Gandhi, Richard Attenborough's overly earnest biopic revered less for its overall quality than for a lead performance so impressively immersive it beat out one of the strongest Best Actor fields ever: Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie); Jack Lemmon (Missing); Peter O'Toole (My Favorite Year); and Paul Newman (The Verdict). Then for a long time he alternated between portraying constipated Englishmen (Betrayal, Turtle Diaries) and taking supporting parts in American films that were both high-toned (Bugsy, Schindler's List) and barrel-scraping (Species) before enjoying a career redefining moment as the psychotic Don Logan in Jonathan Glazer's neo-noir Sexy Beast. Personally, I thought a pre-Deadwood Ian McShane offered stronger and more subtle support in that same picture; but Kingsley got all the attention, the accolades, and the Oscar nom.

Following the bummer double-feature of The Wackness and Elegy, both starring Sir Ben, I have come to the conclusion that I don't like him. Although this pair of movies (a coming-of-age comedy and an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel) as well as his roles in them (a pot-smoking psychiatrist, a sex-and-death obsessed college professor) couldn't be more unalike in subject matter, they share the same problems that Kingsley brings to any film (not to mention a NYC milieu that includes, coincidentally, a rather grim beach-side locale). The first demerit is his relentless camera-hogging. In Elegy, Kingsley's perpetually horny sixtyish prof, David, seduces a younger and impressionable Cuban student named Consuela (Penelope Cruz), leading to several admiring images of Cruz's naked body during which her co-lead seems anxious to remind us that he's in the frame too. He drums his fingers, massages his syllables, does that freaky no eye-blinking thing, thrusts out his chest. (Kingsley's own buffness, first revealed in Sexy Beast, is still on display here.) Ed Gonzalez's dismayingly positive review admires the nuance with which Kingsley "plops his keys into a key dish before checking his answering machine" without pondering whether it's good for an actor to have us noticing such things. Shouldn't he be focusing our attention to the message on the machine? 

While Kingsley is technically not the lead in The Wackness, he finds a considerably easier target to upstage in Josh Peck's mouth-breathing teen protagonist than Penelope Cruz's breasts. Peck's character, Luke Shapiro, spends his long summer days listening to hip-hop (the year is 1994) and peddling an ice-cream cart that's actually a cover for marijuana distribution. As Dr. Squires, one of his regular customers and stepfather to the naughty girl with whom Luke is falling for (Olivia Thirlby), Kingsley offers his customary energy and sports a refreshing mane of hair instead of his usual shiny chrome-dome. But he's not interested in interacting with a younger performer or helping him raise his game the way other veteran actors have done (Paul Newman in The Color of Money, Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys). Therapy sessions can be excitingly cinematic, with great potential for give-and-take; but Kingsley, with a bong to play with, is all take and no give.

Both pictures have other problems. Jonathan Levine directs The Wackness as if Wes Anderson had become a vampire and drained the color out of his images. (Even for a low-budget project, this is a remarkably ugly film.) He embodies Anderson's worst tendencies -- coy tonal shifts, unlikely 11th-hour reversals, one-dimensional depictions of minorities -- without any of the latter's merits, and the way he casually wastes the marvelous Famke Janssen as Squires's unhappy wife suggests that Levine's movie should be less inordinately pleased with itself than the way it comes across. In contrast, Isabel Coixet (who directed the "Bastille" segment of Paris Je'taime) is more attuned to her Elegy actresses, Cruz (who, between this deeply empathetic portryal and her hellzapoppin turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, had a very good year) and Patricia Clarkson as David's fuck-buddy Carolyn, a woman sadly aware of the fading bloom of middle age. Unfortunately, Coixet is less successful with the men in her cast, whether unable to rein in Kingsley, help Dennis Hopper (against type as a poet laureate if not also a fellow aging skirt-chaser pal) develop some shape and rhythm to his awkwardly staged and choppily edited scenes, or prevent a crew-cut, frothing-at-the-mouth Peter Sarsgaard (popping up as David's estranged physician son) from looking like Keifer Sutherland about to torture a suspect for information on 24. And while Roth's source material is not above criticism, I doubt that the film's plaintive tone and Terms of Endearment-ish pat ironies, set to images of Kingsley gazing forlornly out a window at the rain while leaves fall symbolically from a nearby plant and a piano plinks solemnly on the soundtrack, are what the author of Portnoy's Complaint had in mind.

The best of Philip Kaufman's arty sex films (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June) have depicted the act as being, unlike in Elegy, fun. And Greg Mottola's buoyant and generous worldview in this year's Adventureland puts the dour navel-gazing that informs The Wackness to shame. Both Elegy and The Wackness are, in their own way, equally unconvincing; and it's a shame how each suggests Kingsley is an actor who, for all his gifts, is interested in neither inclusiveness nor authenticity. The dedication to his craft would be more admirable if it carried any conviction. And the obvious pleasure he derives from his work would be more welcome if he showed any interest in sharing it.


Jason Bellamy said...

Good way of looking at these two films. I can relate a bit to the discomfort with Kingsley, who can be hit-and-miss with me. I didn't see The Wackness, for example, because his performance seemed fraudulent in the trailers alone. (Not that trailers are always a good indication ...)

I did see Elegy, however, which -- off the top of my head -- might have been my favorite movie last year that I didn't review. It snuck up on me. I think it's the most alluring performance I've ever seen from Cruz (and not just because she takes her clothes off), and I never had a problem with Kingsley, who to me seemed tailor-made to play the guy who thinks he's tougher shit than he really is. I can't say I was wowed by his performance, but I remember thinking it solid. On the other hand, perhaps he benefits from acting opposite Hopper and Sarsgaard, who give performances that are awkward and godawful, respectively.

All that said, I do sense in Kingsley a kind of "look at me acting" spirit that reminds of Dustin Hoffman, among others. It might even be telling that he seems to prefer starring in smaller films rather than playing supporting roles in larger ones. (Of course, as Hoffman proves, you can call considerable attention to yourself in supporting turns, too.)

Thoughtful piece.

Craig said...

Sorry for the delayed response to your comment. The comparison between Kingsley and Hoffman is something I hadn't considered before. Dustin certainly isn't short of ego, but on the other hand, at least in his lead-performer days, he had a way of making the actors around him look better as well. Even his showy turn in "Rain Man" doesn't overshadow (for me anyway) Tom Cruise's really fine work, one of his best, I think, after seeing it again recently. I recall reading stories about Hoffman rehearsing endlessly with Cruise between scenes, taking him under his wing. I don't know what Kingsley did (if anything) with Josh Peck while filming "The Wackness," but in front of the camera he only seems interested in blowing him off the screen.

"Elegy" was interesting to me in spirit, as a female take on male machismo. I wish it worked better for me. We are in agreement on P. Cruz. Considering how bad she seemed in her "Vanilla Sky"/Tom's beard days, she's come a long way.