Sunday, October 4, 2009

To Tell the Truth (The Invention of Lying and The Girl in the Cafe)

While a movie about a messiah complex can be funny, few things are deadlier than a writer of comedy with one. Such is what has become of Richard Curtis, whose script for the HBO original The Girl in the Cafe (2005) begins as a beguiling comic romance before degenerating into didacticism. Bill Nighy is Lawrence, a meek civil servant apparently afflicted by some kind of unmentioned social phobia. One day during lunch hour he shares a table with Kelly Macdonald's Gina, an unemployed young woman with hints of a troubled past. The two strike up an awkward conversation and develop a tentative friendship. So far, so Lost in Translation. Then Lawrence invites Gina to the G-8 Summit in Reykjavik, where the latter spends the second half of the movie haranging the former's boss, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and every other international bigwig about their willingness to compromise over the war on poverty. It's a one-person-can-change-the-world fable, where our leaders' annoyance at this gadfly gives way to anger before finally shame. And we all grew a little more. Roll credits.
Look, I'm all for a movie with the courage to take a stand, as long as it develops plausibly, compellingly and/or entertainingly through the narrative. Curtis, whose scripts for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually, and other well-liked comedies show a gift for knockabout farcical situations and gentle satire of British manners, also frequently betrays a weakness for high-handed moral instruction. The Girl in the Cafe is his most egregious bait-and-switch yet, one that saddles Macdonald -- among the most gifted actresses of her generation -- with interminable finger-wagging monologues. Macdonald isn't a shrill overplayer, like Rachel Weisz at the start of The Constant Gardener; she communicates her feelings in a lower key, but her scenes are a hopeless task. (Naturally, she won a Best Actress Emmy.) Nighy, who seems to have replaced Hugh Grant as Curtis's muse, uses his gangly physique to great effect. Despite an underwritten, not entirely plausible part, he gives an amusing, touching performance. Yet the biggest talent that emerges is that of the director, David Yates, who followed this with his stellar work behind the camera in the last two Harry Potter pictures. His lovely imagery and sense of pacing almost help The Girl in the Cafe overcome its own flaws. Curtis's script is tone-deaf tripe. But Yates is the real deal, a filmmaker with poetry in him.

My plans to see The Invention of Lying were thwarted by a broken projection reel before the movie even started. I've heard this sort of thing happen to others, but first time for me. Ricky Gervais can't buy respect. If and when I catch up to it I'll add my thoughts here. Watch this space.


Adam Zanzie said...

Ah, yes- I remember when The Girl in the Cafe came on HBO. I didn't watch it, though. I probably would have given it some thought if I had known at the time that Richard Curtis was the writer... since, you know, just having Bill Nighy isn't enough. Your review indicates that I didn't miss anything special, of course.

I wish HBO's movies would be more innovative as Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner's 2003 adaptation of Angels in America was. That was wicked stuff, Pacino as Roy Cohn and everything. But I suppose it was after the disappointing returns for Empire Falls (with Ed Harris and Paul Newman) that the movies became less exciting.

Craig said...

HBO's original movies often do seem less impressive than their series'. "Girl in the Cafe" is noteworthy only to see an example of a good director working with a bad script. Usually it's the reverse.