Yearly Archives: 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook

There suddenly seem to be a number of recent films that boast a revised view of white male masculinity, from Your Sister’s Sister to Jeff, Who Lives at Home, to Liberal Arts.  I’m not referring to the awkward, insistently not queer stylings of the modern bromance, a category that seems formed to skirt the issues of homosociality and non-normative heterosexuality that their characters evoke but from which they shy resolutely away.  I’ve noticed instead more serious though often whimsical films in which the straight white male lead suffers an emotional crisis that lets him back away from more conventional social understandings of how men are supposed to act.  In an earlier era, these kinds of crises might have feminized their characters but now, they seem to authenticate a more thoughtful, even sensitive version of their straight masculinity.

Silver Linings Playbook proves another entry in this gender revision drama.  With Bradley Cooper proving his acting range, and Jennifer Lawrence continuing to impress with her terrifically nuanced, strong and quirky performance, the film sets their characters on a winding, carefully picked path toward one another through the minefields of their own damaged lives.

Pat (Cooper), his mother (Weaver), and his friend, Danny (Chris Tucker) returning from the hospital

Cooper plays Pat Solitano, an emotionally complicated, officially bipolar middle-class white guy who’s sprung from a psychiatric facility by his mother (Jacki Weaver) as the film begins.  He might not yet have completely come to terms with the violence he inflicted on the man he caught having an affair with his wife.  But he’s remorseful about the crime and earnest enough about his own rehabilitation to eagerly leave his Baltimore hospital and return home to the modest Philadelphia neighborhood where he moves in with his parents to reboot his life.

Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro as Pat's worried parents

Weaver is wonderful as the stereotypical, golden-hearted mother who adores her youngest son.  She serves mostly to keep the peace between Pat and his equally, if differently, psychologically afflicted father, Pat, Sr. (Robert DeNiro, in a lovely, understated performance as the OCD patriarch).  Weaver plays the mostly reactive wife/mother, who beams back and forth between her men proudly, just hoping that they’ll continue to get along.

Bradley and DeNiro as Pat Jr. and Sr., cut from the same cloth

When Pat barges into his parents’ bedroom in the middle of most nights with some cockamamie idea he needs to unload, Weaver’s sleep-blurred love and acceptance of her son’s odd quirks is moving and somehow true.  Weaver grounds Silver Linings as the missus determined to make the most of the new normal Pat’s diagnosis brings to their lives.

Chris Tucker co-stars as Danny, one of Pat’s fellow patients, who keeps giving his minders the slip.  He reappears often and unexpectedly in Pat’s post-hospitalization life to insist that he, too, is cured, even though his own idiosyncrasies indicate that psychiatric health is relative indeed.  Tucker’s unremarked race—though he plays Danny with an “urban” dialect and brio that underscore his difference from Pat and his Italian family—offers a strange backdrop against which to play out Pat’s chance to remake his life.

Chris Tucker as Danny, the zany friend who's also a patient at the hospital

Tucker often provides the film’s broader comedy in ways that come perilously close to stepping and fetching.  But the actor’s own bravado and his complex performance thankfully keep the role more real than director/screenwriter David O. Russell (who adapted the story from Matthew Quick’s novel) might have intended.

Likewise, Anumpar Kher plays Dr. Cliff Patel, the psychiatrist assigned to keep Pat on his meds and to help him ponder his mental health outside the safety of the hospital.  The compassionate, empathic doctor understands Pat’s illness and offers practical help.  But for this character of color, too, Russell devises a strange plot twist in which Patel and his friends bump into Pat and his family at an Eagles football tailgating party, where the South Asian men are harassed by a group of white Philly thugs.

Anumpar Kher as Dr. Patel giving Pat advice . . .
. . . then wearing green face paint after the debacle at the game

Pat and his father and brother battle the bullies, and Dr. Patel winds up tagging around with the family through the rest of the film, wearing the weird green face-paint that Eagles fans sport around game time.  That Pat accumulates this rather odd extended family through his disease seems part of Russell’s point. But the film’s racial overtones are oblique rather than illuminating.  Perhaps to represent a new white masculinity, Pat needs these men of color nearby to shore up his continued centrality.  I’m not sure . . .

Likewise, John Ortiz plays Pat’s best friend, Ronnie, in another racially inflected casting choice.  Ronnie and his wife, Veronica (an underused Julia Stiles), are Pat’s connection to his wife, Nikki (Brea Bee).  Pat mistakenly believes he can reconnect with Nikki, despite the physical and emotional damage his outburst over her infidelity caused.

In fact, that he nearly killed Nikki’s lover isn’t examined very closely here.  Cooper plays Pat with a manic energy, but without implying the threat that the beating he bestowed might imply.  We have to take on faith that Pat is truly recovered and that while he still seems emotionally wild, he’s got his physical brutality under control.  It’s a bit shifty that we’re asked to identify with and cheer on a cuckold whose violent outburst the film suggests is justified, if induced and intensified by his bipolar disease.

Lawrence as Tiffany

Ronnie and Veronica introduce Pat to Tiffany (Lawrence), Veronica’s widowed sister, hoping to distract him from the lost cause of his marriage.  Tiffany’s husband has been killed in a senseless car accident about which she feels guilty—he was off buying her lingerie to help reinvigorate their sex life when he died.  In response, she has sex with everyone in her office and develops a reputation as a mournful “slut” that she wears proudly.

Tiffany and Pat, first meeting

Lawrence plays single-minded, sad Tiffany as bothered not at all by what anyone might say about her behavior.  She wears black; she says what she wants; and when she decides she’s interested in Pat, she tracks him mercilessly, popping up unexpectedly beside him in her running clothes while he’s out for his daily jogs through their neighborhood.  She’s the aggressor in the relationship, courting him with the promise of nothing more than clear-sighted companionship and her shared understanding of his grief.

Pat wears a garbage bag over his clothes when he runs so that he’ll sweat more, since Nikki once insisted he lose weight.  Other characters comment regularly on the reformed Pat’s new body, and Cooper wears his own hunky physique lightly, with the pride of someone unaccustomed to having his appearance remarked.  Although he’s the romantic lead, Cooper performs like his is the character part, and for most of the film, it really is.

In its last moments, when the film shifts into romantic comedy mode, Cooper steps into a performance recycled from a more conventional genre so that he can “get the girl.”  But until then, the quirky comedy lets him shirk his beautiful person persona and play someone much more broken and layered.

All the right moves

Silver Linings Playbook comes together around a dance competition for which Tiffany insists Pat partner her.  She does their choreography and he gamely tries to follow along.  In a silly subplot, one of Pat, Sr.’s friends persuades him to bet all the money he’s been saving to start a restaurant on the outcome of an Eagles’ game.  He also throws in stakes for Pat and Tiffany; if they can score at least a five in their competition, he’ll forgive the bet.  The only thing the bet accomplishes is to bring Pat’s whole family (and his ex, Nikki) together to cheer on Pat and Tiffany when they compete.  The ensemble’s investment in the outcome of the dance contest is deep and their spirits are high.

I’m not giving away the story here, since the last third or so of Silver Linings is predictable.  But Cooper and Lawrence play Pat and Tiffany’s developing trust and understanding with sensitive clarity.  Their commitment to the make-shift moves of their competition choreography and their willingness to make fools of themselves as actors if not as their characters, makes the scene endearing and funny.  Naturally, after they score a five, and after she misunderstands a conversation he has with Nikki at the dance event, Pat confesses that he’s in love with Tiffany.

In a short epilogue, Tiffany joins the Solitanos in their cramped but cozy home, celebrating an Eagles win.  Lawrence crawls onto Cooper’s lap in an overstuffed chair and they cuddle happily.  Silver Linings Playbook might end on a slightly facile note, but the moment coaxes a smile from the typically poker-faced Tiffany that lights up the screen.  Her expression shows in an instant how in control of her performance Lawrence has been until that moment, as it’s the first in which she allows the character to crack her gruff, suspicious façade and show her heart.  Pat responds in kind while his mother watches proudly and it’s kind of impossible not to get behind the moment with them.  Pat has insisted throughout that he’ll get his silver lining; with Tiffany on his lap, how can you not believe he’s been successful?

Tailgating, with his shrink to the left

Russell also depicts the football fanaticism of middle-class Philly inner-city neighborhoods without condescension.  Pat wears an Eagles jersey to the dinner party where he meets Tiffany, embarrassed that Ronnie sports a tie and Veronica a dress.  His dad, Pat, Sr., is superstitious enough to believe that Pat’s presence in front of the television watching the game brings the team luck.  And when even his shrink turns out to be a gleeful fan, you realize that these men find their commitment not only to sports but to one another through their love of the game.  Pat’s playbook is just as important as his silver lining.  And in the end, he achieves them both.

The Feminist Spectator


Any Day Now

Paul (Dillahunt), Marco (Leyva), and Rudy (Cumming), would-be family

I came out as a lesbian in Boston in 1977, into a subculture of women’s bars, women’s music, women’s theatre, and feminist newspapers and political activism.  To my relief, I became part of a thoughtful, creative community that formed itself against the era’s dominant culture, which mostly sneered with dismissive antipathy at lesbians and gay men.

The most visible LGBT movement has at present turned its attention to assimilationist issues like marriage and the military. But a few decades ago,  when I came out and when Any Day Now is set, gay and lesbian politics had a utopian impulse and a radical commitment to change social relations.  In the 70s, the movement boasted more intersectional activism, in which gender, race, class, and sexuality were considered equally important in the struggle toward equality for all.  Activists theorized the rights of a diverse LGBT people to live in sexually, culturally, and domestically reimagined ways.

Travis Fine’s film Any Day Now parses the dismal political climate against which the movement dreamed its dreams, when to be out was impossible if you also wanted to hold on to your job and move through dominant culture unscathed.  The film evokes the stakes of what it meant to be white gay men from 1979 into the early 80s in West Hollywood by telling the story of a couple trying to adopt a child with Downs Syndrome who’s been abandoned by his drug-addicted, negligent mother.  The film is a sober, necessary reminder that not that long ago, the courts could discriminate against lesbians and gay men with utter (as opposed to relative) impunity.

Cumming as Rudy

Alan Cumming gives a bravura performance as Rudy, an arch but compassionate out gay man who lives down the hall from the drug addict, Marianna (Jamie Anne Allman, who played the morally corrupt sister, Terry, on The Killing).  Rudy notices her son, Marco (Isaac Leyva), wandering their building’s hallways with a long-haired blonde doll clutched in his arms when Marianna kicks the boy out of their apartment so that she can have sex with one of her drug-peddling johns.  After Marianna is arrested for possession, Rudy takes Marco in, determined he won’t get lost in the cold bureaucracy of Los Angeles’s social services.

Although he aspires to be a “real” cabaret singer, Rudy works as a female impersonator, lip-syncing to disco tunes at a gay bar.  Rudy’s act is lively and fun, but he’s really a torch singer.  Marco helps him mail demo tapes to LA cabarets, and one eventually bites, employing him to sing two nights a week.  By the film’s end, Rudy’s cabaret performance—with songs Cumming delivers beautifully—expresses all his longing, loss, and heartbreak.

At the start of his personal crusade to adopt Marco, Rudy meets Paul (Garret Dillahunt of television’s Raising Hope), a divorced man just coming out, on Paul’s first visit to the club.  Director Fine shows Paul sitting in his car, working up the courage to join the group of men wandering in and out of the bar.  When he finally manages to go in, Rudy spots him instantly and the two form a quick, loving bond.

Paul and Rudy get ready for court

Paul is a straight-acting assistant district attorney who Rudy enlists to advocate for his guardianship of Marco.  Their crusade becomes personal, as Paul’s affections for Rudy and Marco deepen quickly.  The two men move in together with the boy in tow and proceed to face a series of humiliating court and social battles in their effort to keep Marco and to protect their very fragile family.

The sad story moves predictably, with homophobic judges, lawyers, and district attorneys becoming ever more mercenary as they conspire to keep the two men from adopting Marco.  The poor boy is shuttled from foster homes to institutions, where he clutches his doll and cries himself to sleep.  Rudy’s promises that he and Paul will come for Marco turn out to be false, despite their best intentions, as the courts in the early 1980s—pre-HIV/AIDS but far before the civil rights victories of the 90s and 2000s—have no intention of letting the couple become Marco’s parents.

When the DA conspires to reduce Marianna’s jail time if she’ll reassert her parental rights, Paul and Rudy’s case is dismissed and Marco goes back to live in the apartment he insists isn’t his home.  Marianna returns to her drugs and her tricks and Marco is once again banished to the hallway.  In the film’s heart-breaking climax, he wanders out of the building, into the street, down to a bridge, and the camera watches him disappear, clutching his ubiquitous doll, never to be seen again.

Fine adapted the Any Day Now screenplay from a story inspired by true events, but the film advances in somewhat contrived ways.  Spectators might be as incredulous as the prosecuting attorney (played by Gregg Henry as resolutely unsympathetic) that Rudy and Paul decide to live together two days after they meet, or that Paul, after so recently coming out, would devote his life and sacrifice his career for his relationship with a drag performer and a stranger’s child.  But these believability issues pale in front of the cast’s empathetic performances.

Playing a 70s-style couple

Cumming can be a flamboyant actor, who sometimes mugs for the camera in ways that make him seem imperious.  (Though his performance as the aggressively ambitious but always disadvantaged Eli Gold on The Good Wife is smart and funny.)   In Any Day Now, Cumming jettisons such shtick for a restrained and effective performance as a gay man living an underground life who’s suddenly thrust into a public court system that judges him harshly.  Watching Rudy try not to be quite so gay in front of judges and lawyers who openly despise him is wrenching, and demonstrates Rudy’s determination to parent a child who no one else wants.

Marco (Leyva), happy with Rudy and Paul

Leyva is lovely as Marco, a placid, affectionate kid who loves dancing to disco and eating donuts and does his homework without complaint.  Cumming and Dillahunt are warm and kind with him, careful to treat the boy with respect and dignity.  The film, though, pities Marco just a bit, using him as the abject disabled kid through whom Rudy and Paul can prove their humanity.  Any Day Now, that is, might be an incisive portrait of gay life in the 70s, but it won’t win awards for how it portrays a disabled boy.

But at the same time, Fine doesn’t create a triumphal narrative at Marco’s expense.  Rudy and Paul aren’t exceptional parents; they’re quite ordinary, although more unobtrusive and discreet, given that they have to pretend to be cousins when they’re out in public with Marco.  The film simply suggests that their love is as good for Marco as that of any straight parents to whom he might be assigned.  The prosecuting attorney, however, insinuates that Rudy and Paul have already compromised Marco because he carries a doll.   The prosecutor relies on strict gender assumptions and overlooks Marco’s much longer term attachment to his companion-doll to press his case against the gay couple.

Rudy and Paul’s relationship is an open secret.  Even Paul’s boss, the district attorney (played as smug and cocky by Chris Mulkey) can read the signs of intimacy they try—to no avail—to hide, and he punishes them for it accordingly.  The tragedy of Marco’s loss is the cruelty of a system that wouldn’t let gay men parent him.  It’s the tragedy of history, when out gay men and lesbians were regularly torn from birth children they’d had in straight marriages, and when queer couples couldn’t dream of adopting kids.  Although laws have since become less stringent, gay adoption and custody continue as vexed, litigious issues.  Any Day Now reminds us that we can’t take our gains for granted.

Any Day Now is filmed in grainy stock meant to lend the story a documentary feel as it captures the grit of gay life in the 1970s.  The colors are muted and the apartment settings where Marianna and then Rudy live with Marco look washed out and tired.  Paul’s place is a step up, decorated in the brown earth tones popular in the 70s.

The white men wear long sideburns and the African American lawyer, Lonnie (Don Franklin), who’s the last to take Rudy and Paul’s case sports an Afro that looks unfortunately silly.  The one sympathetic woman in the film—Marco’s special ed teacher, Miss Flemming—is played as a liberal, peasant-dress-wearing Hippie by Kelli Williams.

The effort to recall that moment, with all its sartorial excess and earnest, urgent politics is commendable. Any Day Now reminds audiences that being counter-cultural in the 70s, after the heyday of the 60s, really wasn’t cool.  And being gay even less.

The Feminist Spectator

Hello I Must Be Going

Amy sullen at dinner

In this sweet, small indie, Melanie Lynskey plays Amy, a heart-sick, recently divorced woman who moves from New York back into her parents’ house in Westport, Connecticut, because she can’t fathom where else to go.  She spends three months without leaving the (lavish, waterfront) property, wearing the same frayed shorts and faded red t-shirt, her lassitude emanating from her in funky waves.  But when her father’s potential business deal forces her to shower, wash her hair, and dress for a dinner with his prospective client, she stumbles into an affair with a younger man that renews her interest in her own life and that teaches her a few things about who she really is.

In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott points out that in similar films about men who move back home to reorient their lives, the guys are usually given the benefit of the doubt (see, for instance, Jeff, Who Lives at Home).  Women, no such luck.  In Hello I Must be Going, Amy’s parents and her brother are downright cruel.  They’re derisive about her pain; her mother bluntly and condescendingly suggests that she go on anti-depressants, and they criticize her appearance at every turn.  Though her life has been completely upended by her unexpected and very recent divorce, the general consensus is that it’s her fault she can’t seem to get on with her life.

Rubinstein and Danner as Stan and Ruth

Directed (by Todd Louiso) and written (by Sarah Koskoff) with offbeat humor and confident knowingness, the film sees the blighted world of suburban Connecticut white privilege from Amy’s perspective.  Her parents live in a large, light-filled house made noisy by constant construction work, as they complete their renovations room by room, years after they first moved in.  At the same time, Amy’s father’s precarious financial future means that her parents, Ruth (Blythe Danner) and Stan (John Rubinstein), wander the house perseverating about losing what they have and—god forbid—moving into an apartment together.  The plot turns on Stan’s ability to secure a new client; without the necessary income, they’ll have to sell the house, he won’t be able to retire, and he and Ruth won’t be able to take a much anticipated trip, aptly called Gallivanting the Globe.

Because they’re fairly stereotypical Jewish parents (even though their ethnicity is never expressed, their last name is Minsky), Ruth and Stan manage to make Amy feel guilty, implying that her personal trauma will somehow prohibit this crucial business venture.  When they insist she come to dinner with the client and his family, Amy wears a borrowed a dress and sits sullenly, diffident and vague when asked questions about her life.  The client, Larry (Damian Young), and his wife, Gwen (the always hilarious Julie White), resemble Amy’s parents; they’re wealthy, preoccupied, and superficial, as they skid the surface of their lives with little interest in anyone else’s.

But they bring to dinner Gwen’s young son, Jeremy (Christopher Abbott, recently of Girls), who immediately sees in Amy a kindred spirit.  As she loses her enthusiasm for pretense and excuses herself from the table, he follows her out of the room and after a brief exchange, is bold enough to kiss her.  To her surprise, Amy kisses him back.

Jeremy and Amy relearning to drive

Although she’s in her thirties and he’s still a teenager, Amy and Jeremy begin to see one another, alternating sexual escapades with conversations about their lives.  Abbott plays Jeremy as a sensitive boy coming into adulthood and chafing at the oppressive supervision of a hovering mother who believes his life mirrors her own.  Jeremy captures Amy’s affections and she reawakens under his sexual and emotional ministrations.  They’re warm and funny together, kindred spirits who share an artistic bent—he’s an actor and she’s really a photographer—but feel stifled by the presumptions of their families.

Much of the film’s humor comes from situations in which Amy and Jeremy contrive to keep their relationship secret.  Amy doesn’t want to jeopardize her father’s business deal.  Because his first starring role was playing Robert Mapplethorpe, Jeremy’s mother thinks her son is gay, an assumption she makes with the pride of a knee-jerk liberal.  Amy cuts the power to her parent’s security gate so that its alarm won’t sound when she slips out at night, and Jeremy makes up elaborate stories to cover his time with her.

The baseball beanbag chair

In a happy role reversal, she throws stones up at his bedroom window when she wants to see him, playing the Romeo to his Juliet.  They drive around in her mother’s car, parking by the beach; they have sex in his childhood bedroom, embarrassingly decorated with a beanbag chair shaped like a baseball and a mass of toy soldiers that belonged to a much younger version of Jeremy’s still young self; and they swim naked in his parents’ pool, provoking one of the movie’s funniest scenes when Gwen and Larry return home earlier than expected (because an understudy went on for Patti LuPone in the play they went to see on Broadway).

Caught in the act by the parents

The movie traces Amy’s return to life through Jeremy’s affections.  With no hope for a future together, even though he fantasizes about escaping with her, Amy is free to live in the moment, which brings her clarity about her past.  She stopped working on her graduate degree in photography when she married her husband, David (Dan Futterman), sacrificing her own interests by presuming that a partnership with a successful entertainment lawyer mattered more than her own artistic pursuits.  Her mother chides her for her failure to finish things, even though Amy believes she’s chosen to give up her career to follow the conventionally prescribed path.

When she meets David for lunch in the city, after some time with Jeremy, the older man’s deficits are clear.  He can’t keep his eyes from his smart phone long enough for her to finish a sentence.  And when she pushes him to talk about what went wrong in their marriage, he feeds her a standard line about not wanting to have already arrived at the end of his life so close to its beginning.  Staying with her, he intimates, would have been a kind of settling.  And Amy suddenly realizes that she would have settled, too.

Watching her old slides, Jeremy helps Amy rekindle her love of photography

Nothing in Hello I Must Be Going is surprising (so these really aren’t spoilers).  Stan gets his client and his cash.  But he decides not to retire, forcing Amy to reconcile her difficult relationship with her hyper-critical mother and gallivant around the globe in Stan’s place.  She decides to finish her photography degree by shooting her mother beside rivers around the world (Amy loves to take pictures of water).  She says goodbye to Jeremy, telling him he’ll enjoy Oberlin, where he’s about to go off to college.  And she happily, wistfully takes her life in her own hands as she rides off in a taxi.

The film’s story, rehearsed plainly, is the simple backbone on which Amy’s trajectory is hung.  We still don’t hear enough about women like her, relatively ordinary heterosexual women (despite her privilege and her parents’ wealth) who think they’re doing the right thing when they start relationships that will please their families without really considering if they please themselves.  Even her old high school friends seem more clear-eyed about what love means than Amy.  And they’re all ensconced in traditional suburban marriages, looking forward to women’s nights out once a week when they can get roaring drunk.  Amy’s been buffeted about by other people’s wishes; once she understands what happened to her, she can sort through her own.

Coming back to life, age difference be damned

Louiso skirts the potential ethical queasiness of an older woman’s sexual relationship with a younger man by casting actors who don’t actually look that different in age.  Melanie Lynskey is a young-looking 30 something Amy (she’s actually 36), and Christopher Abbott, as Jeremy, looks well into his 20s, rather than the 18-going-on-19 he’s supposed to play (he’s actually 26).  But a generous suspension of disbelief allows you to enjoy the way the two misfits find and proceed to empower one another.  That Jeremy is supposed to be younger means that Amy isn’t rebounding after her marriage so much as she’s starting over, correcting her course by seeing through the eyes of someone just beginning his own adult life.

Played by the radiant Lynskey, Amy is a lost soul with just enough sense of irony to keep her from being maudlin.  Lynskey’s reactions indicate Amy recognizes that the people who surround her are ludicrous, including her social-climbing, prattling mother (in one of Danner’s less intelligent, less flattering performances), her more sympathetic but still clueless and somehow impotent father, and her selfish, narcissistic brother.

Lynskey’s Amy knows that her life is a muddle and that where she’s landed is not where she wants to be.  She’s forced to come to terms with what she wants, against all the models lined up for her to emulate.  Moved by Jeremy’s just passed adolescent soul-searching, Amy can restart her own life.  And Lynskey’s empathetic, emotionally intelligent, sweetly funny performance of a not-so-young woman rebooting her system resonates with insight.

The Feminist Spectator


The heroic, sexy, smart Connie Britton

During a fall semester so busy that I haven’t been able to blog for almost eight weeks, one of my guilty television pleasures has been watching Nashville (ABC), which is now on hiatus until January 9.  How could I resist a series starring Connie Britton, much beloved from five seasons on Friday Night Lights and just off of one season in American Horror Story?  In Nashville, the country music soap opera written and produced by Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), Britton stars as Rayna Jaymes (oh for those twangy “ay’s”!), a middle-aged country star who feels her heels nipped by a young, all-about-Eve-inspired upstart named Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere).

Juliette making her music video

To Rayna’s chagrin, her two young daughters love Juliette and her music.  Rayna thinks that Juliette represents a new generation of country, gaudy and arrogant, inspired by pop and rock and boasting the kind of celebrity in which talent is boosted into the limelight by notoriety.  But as FS2 says, though the show might critique Juliette’s looser morals, it doesn’t dispute her talent.  She’s young; she became a star quickly; and she knows how to manipulate her fan base with music videos and social media, while Rayna clearly prefers a more old-fashioned cult of personality and charisma.  But when Rayna’s latest album fails to move up the charts, her bottom-line-oriented record company suggests she tour with Juliette, performing as the younger woman’s opening act.  Rayna refuses, sparking a personal and professional competition between the two women that plays out on the storied stages of Nashville, in small local bars, in the singers’ rehearsal halls, and even in their bedrooms.

I love seeing Britton return to a version of her Friday Night Lights character, Tami Taylor, the stalwart, smart, feisty but empathetic wife/mother/guidance counselor/school principal she played for five years (2006-11) on the acclaimed and way too short-lived NBC series.  While Rayna has all of Tami’s grit, she’s gilded by country music stardom, which requires Britton to refashion the earthy Tami archetype into a sexier, more public version of herself.

Eric Close plays Teddy, who's running for mayor of Nashville

No one does exasperation quite like Britton, and Nashville gives her a lot to roll her eyes over.  Eric Close, as Rayna’s husband, Teddy Conrad, plays a morally flawed, emotionally ambivalent character that lets Close shake off years of playing close-mouthed detectives in crime dramas like Without a Trace. The lock-jawed, impassive, and not too impressive Powers Boothe plays Rayna’s father, Lamar Wyatt, the local kingmaker who’s intent on using Teddy to fulfill his own political desires and his capitalist greed.

Teddy has been jostled into political position by the scheming Lamar, who sets him up to run for mayor of Nashville so that Wyatt can protect his own real estate interests.  Rayna had promised her support to Coleman Carlisle (Robert Wisdom), the local African American politician who now must run against Teddy and Wyatt’s heavy-handed interests.

Nashville seems vaguely interested in the city’s racial politics, although they no doubt won’t figure as heavily as they did in Friday Night Lights, in which Britton’s character often sorted out the taut tensions of race and class in the two high schools the show depicted.  But Rayna, in Britton’s hands, is acutely sensitive to political undercurrents and empathetic to the marginalized.  Britton excels playing a particular brand of heroine:  the casually sexy, liberally inclined, irony-aware but earnest, strong but emotionally resonant middle-aged woman.

Britton captures the charisma and thrill of performing as a beloved country music star

Britton isn’t exactly a singer, but as an actor, she plays a very convincing version of a country music star.  With her low-slung jeans and studded shirts, her relatively bigger hair, her closed eyes and clutched microphone, she delivers on the soulful, thwarted romance themes of the genre.  Britton fashions Rayna into a country music icon who won’t be shoved aside.

Until he leaves the band, Deacon haunts Rayna onstage and off

One of Nashville’s plotlines follows Rayna’s still-simmering attraction to her band member and former writing collaborator, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten).  Esten’s handsome, smoky-sexy Deacon provides the polar opposite to Close’s buttoned down, diffident Teddy.  Britton and Esten have terrific chemistry.  In the show’s second episode, Rayna joins Deacon in a duet at the Bluebird Café, a (real life) proving ground for up-and-coming singer-songwriters and an intimate setting in which old-timers try out new material and play for the love of music.  A powerful producer has suggested that Rayna and Deacon go out on the road alone to perform their old songbook, so they play a number in front of sympathetic fans at the small café.

Acoustic crooning at the Bluebird Cafe shows the couple's true feelings

The beautiful guitar-backed song adds more heat to the couple’s old flame and the actors handle the moment with a lovely sense of rue and longing.  Seeing a man and woman with lines on their faces regret their lost romantic opportunities just isn’t that common on television.  I found myself moved by the moment, partly because Rayna’s wistfulness and her on-going desire for Deacon is so persuasive and clear.

The plot uses Deacon as another pivot around which Rayna’s and Juliette’s competition turns.  Juliette wants to steal him from Rayna’s band, and seduces him into her bed as a prelude to the professional coup she schemes.  It’s a tad unbelievable that the otherwise upright Deacon would fall for her wiles; he’s a recovering addict with a sober sense of morality. He’s also a middle-aged man no doubt flattered by young Juliette’s sexual attentions.  But he and Rayna seem to have a long-lasting, deep bond, which makes his betrayal seem too easy.

Deacon and Juliette hash it out front porch-style

That said, Deacon’s tryst with Juliette is casual and fleeting.  He ushers the girl’s wild-card mother, Jolene (Sylvia Jefferies), into rehab and tries to help Juliette forgive the woman’s bad parenting.  But Juliette resents the depravations of her white-trash past and only sees her mother as a threat to the fairy-tale image Juliette and her handlers try to create.  When Juliette acts out with some gratuitous shoplifting and then refuses to atone for the theft properly to her adoring fans, her manager insists she date Sean (Tilky Jones), a squeaky-clean athlete, to burnish her public image.

Sean and Juliette making music

Although she bristles at the arrangement, Juliette and the square-jawed Sean hit it off.  Turns out he’s from a conservative religious family and, in one of the show’s least believable plot twists, refuses to have sex outside of marriage.  That a guy with six-pack abs and palpable sex appeal would be a chastity-promoting bible-thumper strains credulity.  But the always wily Juliette plays along—in the last episode aired, she asks Sean to marry her.

None of Nashville‘s characters are quite as good as Britton’s Rayna James.  With Britton’s trademark determination to do right by her character, and her insistence that Rayna should have a life of respect and dignity, Rayna is the series’ fulcrum and focus.  And as FS2 says, what a pleasure to see a female lead character who’s not a gun-toting detective, like most other central women on television.  Rayna’s struggle to maintain her dominance (and her heart and her ethics) in the country music world gives Nashville some feminist heft.

Scarlett and Gunnar transport audiences at the Bluebird Cafe

Some of Nashville’s secondary characters are drawn too quickly, but maybe they’ll gather depth as the show plays along.  Rayna’s sister, Tandy (Judith Hoag), is their father’s toady, with nefarious financial motives of her own for cow-towing to the old man.  Scarlett (Clare Bowen), a poet/waitress at the Bluebird, starts the season living with Avery (Jonathan Jackson), a would-be rocker eager to make his mark in the music business.  But she’s drawn into a song-writing/singing partnership with Gunnar (Sam Palladio), who’s already fallen in love with her.  Their romantic duets are heartfelt and tuneful and nicely mirror the primary relationship between Rayna and Deacon.

The Avery subplot carries the weight of conventional how-to-make-it-in-show-biz stereotypes.  When he starts sleeping with his older female agent to make his way to the top, Scarlett leaves Avery.  But the remarkably naïve (though wonderfully talented) young woman can’t yet admit that she already reciprocates Gunnar’s desire.

Khouri’s husband, T Bone Burnett, provides original music for Nashville, and has contracted a host of famous musicians (Elvis Costello and Diane Krall, among others) to write for the show.  Although Nashville follows in the music-theatre-television footsteps of Glee and Smash, the music here is integral to the narrative, and so far, the show has a clear sense of the soapy story it means to tell.

With singing a natural part of the character’s lives, Nashville doesn’t have to force rhyme and reason onto its musical numbers.  The first season of Smash did so without much success, unable to fuse its Broadway musical setting with the strangely unmotivated performances that happened in the characters’ off-stage lives (like that notorious Bollywood number).  Even Glee often forces performances into its story inorganically, though it’s maintained a healthy sense of its own absurdity, where Smash saw itself as fatally serious.  (With a new show-runner onboard Smash for the upcoming season, all bets might now be off.)

Bridging generations at the Ryman Auditorium

Unlike Glee or Smash, the music on Nashville has a logical function in the narrative.  Watching Britton and Panetierre put over songs curated by Burnett is a lot of fun and the country style hides the weaknesses of the actresses’ vocal talents.  They both act the hell out of their songs, keeping most of the singing firmly ensconced in the narrative trajectory that the music helps deliver.  (See Jon Caramanica’s smart piece in the New York Times, “The Soundtrack as Co-Star,” about how the show takes advantage of real Nashville musicians to produce some very good cuts, now released as an original soundtrack recording.)  For example, when Rayna and Juliette are forced to sing a duet at the Ryman Auditorium, a marquee Nashville venue, they reluctantly but successfully write and then perform a number that lifts the roof off the hall while it keeps their characters’ mutual mistrust and distaste intact.  It’s a beautiful performance (and a terrific song).

Deacon (Esten), the love object whose back-story isn't at all as important as the two female leads'

Britton and Esten, as Deacon, cook up some nice heat, playing their never resolved, still simmering romance.  Will Rayna and Deacon be together at the end as they’re meant to be?  Will he maintain his hard fought sobriety and stave off the addictions that kept him from being with Rayna in the first place?  Will Teddy’s relationship with an old high school sweetheart sabotage his campaign for mayor?  Will Juliette’s addicted white trash mother ruin the career of a daughter trying very hard to cover up her less than pretty past?

Ultimately, none of this matters very much.  The actors lift the material from melodrama’s nether regions, but it’s mostly the music that carries the series.   When Khouri keeps her eye on the songs and everyone’s relationship to them, Nashville tightens up and means a little something more than contrived competitions and comeuppances.  You can see why young and fading stars would want to keep wrapping their vocal chords around those lush tones and twangs.  When the music is the message, Nashville sings.

Of course, it’s also just nice to see Britton headlining a series.  And it’s great fun to see her paired with such a worthy nemesis as Panetierre’s Juliette.  I just wish the stories were a little more complex and sophisticated and that the show regarded its audience as adults with attention spans and reading skills.  Kind of like Friday Night Lights used to do.

The Feminist Spectator


Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor wrote, directed, and stars in Liberal Arts, a lovely film about an emotionally “stunted” 35-year-old man who visits his alma mater and realizes he’s never really grown up.  But it’s also a film about coming to terms with aging in the best possible way, by imagining a life lived simply, with love and respect and affection for who we’ve been and who we might become.

It’s also a film about reading books and talking about them, about loving poetry and music and the way artists can transform how we understand our lives.  Liberal Arts is a paean to the delights of literature and music as much as it is a tribute to the life of a mind nestled in a happily loved body.  And for all that, it’s light, funny, and sweet.

Jesse (Radnor) is an admissions officer at a college in New York, where an opening montage shows him repeating a similar sales pitch to potential students, all from the same position in the same seat in his same old office.  He’s clearly stuck and uninspired, even if his position keeps him close to the college days he remembers as among the best of his life.

When a beloved former professor invites Jesse to his retirement dinner back on his old campus, Jesse jumps at the opportunity to return.  He’s just broken up with a girlfriend and some thug stole his clothes from his Brooklyn Laundromat.  Mostly, he haunts his local bookstore, where he reads the last few pages of every book he buys, which he stacks with many others on his bedside table.  He lives his solitary life more in books than in the world.

Radnor, the joy of reading on the quad

Jesse comes alive when he returns to his old college in Ohio.  (Though it goes unmentioned until the final credits, the film was shot at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where Radnor went to school.) The camera loves the idyllic, green, pristine campus as much as Jesse does.  He can’t stop himself from jumping on the benches that line the quad’s walkways, or from rolling on the grass, or from grinning at students throwing Frisbees and reading on the lawn.

His visit back, though, underlines Jesse’s long-brewing mid-life crisis.  His retiring professor, Peter (Richard Jenkins in an empathetic, wrenching performance), insists he’s thrilled to be done with faculty meetings, but sobers the mood at his own farewell dinner when his mixed emotions barely allow him to speak.  His colleagues leave the party embarrassed by his anguish, but Peter can’t read their cues, and spends an excruciating scene trying to persuade the department chair (a man he hired twenty years earlier) to let him teach for several more semesters.

But Peter has already been replaced by a hire fresh out of graduate school, leaving the older man to confront a life that feels unmoored and unfamiliar after decades on the faculty.  He tells Jesse that the world’s dirty secret is that no one ever really grows up.  Peter and Jesse both feel like they’re still nineteen, despite physical evidence otherwise.

Happy back at college with Zibby (Olsen) and Jesse (Radnor)

If Peter represents the end of a certain life line, the undergraduate Zibby (the magnificent Elizabeth Olsen) seduces Jesse with his own nostalgia for beginnings.  She actually is nineteen, though she says she feels more “advanced,” and is partly attracted to Jesse for the jump-start he promises on her own life’s journey.

Their kindred spirits seem to dissolve their age difference.  Zibby shares her new love of classical music with Jesse, who finds Beethoven and Rossini transforming his quotidian New York City habits when he returns from Ohio.  They hand-write letters to one another; Radnor films them separately delighting in their prose, as they court one another with old-fashioned pen, paper, and art-fueled feelings.

Although he’s drawn to Zibby, Jesse can’t help doing the math when their relationship heats up.  With a sixteen year span between then, Jesse is embarrassed by his attraction to a young woman who wasn’t even born when he was a teenager.  But he follows his heart, returning to Ohio at Zibby’s request, until she asks him to spend the night with her.  When she admits that she’s a virgin, her sexual inexperience forces Jesse to articulate moral and ethical boundaries that help him embrace his own adulthood.

Olsen and Radnor, splendor in the grass

Jesse also meets Dean (John Magaro) on campus, a student known as brilliant but troubled, who was recently hospitalized because of a “manic” episode.  When Jesse notices Dean reading a hefty paperback in the local coffee shop, they share their admiration for the author (who’s left unnamed but is mostly likely David Foster Wallace, and the book most likely Infinite Jest).  Jesse is as drawn to Dean as he is to Libby, for similar but different reasons, and offers the boy brotherly attention that winds up saving Dean’s life.

As Jesse helps guide Zibby and Dean’s choices, he remains influenced by his own mentors.  Peter is undone by his choice to retire from a school that’s been his privilege and his prison for nearly 40 years.  Another of Jesse’s former professors, Judith Fairfield (a terrifically tart Alison Janney), who transformed him by teaching him Romantic poetry and 18th century British literature, turns out to be embittered by her own career in the isolated small town.  She seduces Jesse at the local bar, brings him home for quick sex, and then immediately boots him out of her bed while she lingers over a scotch and a cigarette.  With Peter and Judith, Radnor deftly draws the pros and cons of small-town college life.

Radnor, Janney, Jenkins, and Olsen

In some ways, Jesse returns to campus as a teacher himself.  When he sees that Libby is reading Twilight for what she insists is just fun, he reads the book himself so that he can persuade her why it’s a terrible waste of her time.  But when Dean tries to kill himself, he prescribes the Twilight series to the re-hospitalized boy, recommending that Dean abandon the post-modern author who committed suicide himself.

Part of the film’s pleasure is the joy Jesse takes in talking about books, music, and poetry.  The skillful script demonstrates how ideas matter for these characters, not in a My Dinner with Andre sort of way, but as a palpable, formative, moving part of their lives.  Jesse, Zibby, and Dean are all looking for models, ways of moving through the world with dignity, love, and respect, and they find inspiration in literature and music.

Radnor draws with affection the contrast between New York, where Jesse moves through crowded, over-stimulating streets with a book opened in his hand, and Ohio, where lush cornfields roll by his rental car and the campus seems to resonate with deep thought.  Radnor creates a full sense of place in Liberal Arts, capturing the quiet beauty of a small college town alongside the bustle of New York.  Scenes between Jesse and Zibby at the college coffee shop and bookstore, in the college chapel, and on the stage in the college theatre all pregnant with the possibilities of young people just starting out their lives.

By the film’s end, Jesse finds a bit of Ohio in New York by dating a clerk at his local bookstore (sweetly, simply played by Elizabeth Reaser) who loves books as much as he does, and who worries that she, too, leads her life through the page more than through her own agency.

Cautious chemistry, Olsen and Radnor

Radnor and Olsen perform Jesse and Zibby’s chemistry with warm intimacy and a precise if often unarticulated current of what’s at stake in a relationship neither one of them can really afford to launch, despite how suited they seem for one another.  Olsen is a young actor to watch; her terrific performance in Liberal Arts follows her breakout role in Martha Macy May Marlene (2011), in which she played a young woman brainwashed by a religious cult who manages to break free but can’t quite come to terms with resuming her life.  Her quirky honesty and luminously present performance in MMMM was as filled with palpable, inchoate pain as her work in Liberal Arts is with a determined, intelligent, if still-young power.

I don’t watch How I Met Your Mother, the television show on which Radnor came to fame, and I haven’t seen his first movie, happythankyoumoreplease (2010).  But I found myself enchanted by his hapless, sweet, sincere man-boy performance as Jesse.  I smiled through much of the film, recognizing with my own affection his portrait of campus life in a small liberal arts college.

I also appreciate how the script crafts Jesse’s relationships with other men, from his mentor, Peter, to the melancholic Dean.  Nat (Zac Efron), an enigmatic free spirit given to speaking in aphorisms who Jesse meets wandering across the campus at night, seems a bit off tone.  But Efron and Radnor perform their scenes, too, with casual warmth that models different ways for men to be with one another on screen.

Jason Segel in Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Liberal Arts joins the growing genre of films about sensitive men approaching middle-age who struggle to find their way in a culture that dictates certain versions of white masculine success they can’t (or won’t) emulate.  Jesse reminds me of Jason Segel (who also performs on How I Met Your Mother) in the wonderful indie film Jeff, Who Lives at Home (written and directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass) in which Segel plays a mournful, stuck, not-so-young man who lives in his mother’s basement, looking for signs about how he should lead his life.

Jesse and Jeff also remind me of Jack (Mark Duplass) in writer/director Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister.  They’re all white straight men approaching the end of their youth who struggle to reject the patriarchal privilege of their race, gender, and class, and who try very hard to figure out what it means to be ethical and good.

Mark Duplass, in Your Sister's Sister

Theirs are stories of existential crisis over how men like them might escape the confines of conventional American masculinity.  Radnor’s, Segel’s, and Duplass’s characters try to craft soft, warm-hearted gender performances because they’re so anxious not to be the bad guys.  These films seem born of feminism, and the sensitivity and sweetness of the characters and the screenplays that draw them give me hope for how white straight masculinity can be re-envisioned at the movies.

In the last scene of Liberal Arts, Jesse and Ana (Reaser), his new girlfriend, imagine being old—not necessarily together, although clearly, they’ve found love and affection for one another.  But they imagine themselves and each other, he with a paunch and baggy pants, she with long grey hair worn in a ponytail and lots of wrinkles on her face.  They snuggle together, each within their own imaginings, as the film fades out on a lovely note of comfort in a vision that living until you’re old might in itself be an art.

The Feminist Spectator