New Country for Old Men: On Last Vegas, The Counselor, All Is Lost, and Bad Grandpa
Last Vegas, directed by Jon Turteltaub
It’s easy to forget that nerds and teenagers aren’t the only moviegoers who want their fantasies indulged. I thought about that watching Morgan Freeman in Last Vegas. As Archie, a twice-married Air Force retiree who recently suffered a stroke, all Freeman does for his first two or three scenes is sit in an armchair watching television. He’s surrounded by bottles of pills. He looks comfortable. But when a life-long friend, Billy (Michael Douglas), puts him on a three-way call with Sam (Kevin Kline) and tells them that he’s getting married, Archie springs into action. He gets to go to Wonderland.
The plan is that they’ll fetch their pal Paddy (Robert De Niro) and join Billy in Las Vegas for a bachelor weekend. Archie tells his worrywart son (Michael Ealy) he’s going to a church retreat, which is a nice irony. Morgan Freeman doesn’t go to church. He is church. You go to him. And that’s the real pleasure of watching Freeman in this amusing, smart-enough comedy: He finally has something fun to do. He has played so many totems of virtue, cool, wisdom, and assistance that it’s almost shocking to hear him bust Douglas’s balls with such exasperation and goodwill.
Veteran director Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping, both National Treasure movies) turns in another commercial contraption here, and this one hums along just as efficiently as his others. He’s a specialist in the sort of movies that are more easy than they are good — easy to watch, easy to skip. I saw Last Vegas while sitting next to a guy who seemed to grow more physically ill as the minutes passed. It’s far from that bad. For one thing, Dan Fogelman’s script avoids a lot of what you dread with a movie like this — that it’ll pull a fast one and turn Grumpy Old Men into Amour. But no one in Last Vegas dies. No one even grabs his chest in pain. It’s a celebration of something the movies never celebrate anymore: being old.
Some of it is silly. Sam, for instance, is given a little blue pill and a condom by his wife (Joanna Gleason) and is instructed to rediscover the man she married. Some of the movie is weirdly complicated. Billy and Paddy wind up fighting over the same lounge singer, played by an impossibly well-preserved Mary Steenburgen with a knowing ditzy slur. Paddy is mad at Billy for missing his wife’s funeral and would seem to have the moral imperative with the singer over his soon-to-be-married friend. But Douglas has been given a golden tan, alabaster teeth, and hair Moses could part. He has the cosmetic imperative. If Freeman is church, Douglas is chintz.
Every once in a while the comedy ebbs and a mortal rue shows up. Douglas, for instance, gets a line or two about what it means to be on the far side of middle age and why old men chase younger people. (He doesn’t mention surgical glamour enhancements, but he doesn’t have to.) It sounds like it hurts Douglas to say these words. But the cheer of this movie will make it a hit. It’s silly, not dumb. You want to see Morgan Freeman in a perfectly tailored scarlet suit dancing with women and drag queens. It’s a spry, alive side of him we rarely see, and we should savor it. Who knows when he’ll get to Wonderland again?
The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
These are boom times for geezers at the movies. The no. 1 film in the country stars Johnny Knoxville pretending to be a dirty old man, and people appear to be interested in experiencing Robert Redford imperiled at sea. Meanwhile, the no. 4 movie was written by an 80-year-old and directed by a man who’s 75. But The Counselor has the heartless verve of filmmakers half their ages. It’s filthy, nasty, sexy, absurd, appalling, and exhilarating, and it succeeds as a musky union of novelist Cormac McCarthy’s bleakness and Ridley Scott’s sense of chic.
It opens with sex between Michael Fassbender and Penélope Cruz. He’s a lawyer. She’s his girlfriend. Actually, The Counselor opens with them talking about the sex she’d like to have. He wants her to tell him what she wants. “I want you to touch me,” she says, bashfully, “down there.” You hear her say that, and you say to yourself, “That’s all the old man has? Down there?” Then she grows specific. Fassbender makes her wish his command. And as he went to town, I tried to fasten a seat belt that wasn’t there.
Loosely, what follows is the story of the lawyer’s punishment for being foolish enough to enter the drug business. Everyone calls him “Counselor,” but he spends a lot of the film being counseled — by an elegant Bruno Ganz, an exhausted Javier Bardem, a smooth Brad Pitt, a raw-looking Rosie Perez, and a calculating Rubén Blades. They all speak in that insinuating roughhouse poetry of McCarthy’s. It’s a threat and a seduction at the same time.
Most of these people are at one end of the drug trade or another. Perez is in prison. Bardem hides himself in nightlife development. His character, Reiner, provides the Counselor with a semblance of friendship. He fears the intensity of his attraction to his girlfriend (Cameron Diaz) and frets about the vast unknowableness of certain women. But no one here seems trustworthy, and it doesn’t take long for the Southwestern dirt beneath the Counselor’s loafers to turn to quicksand. You knew that would happen, but the movie ripples out far enough to show a brewing storm that involves strange, ruthless secondary characters whose strings are pulled by unseen puppeteers.
The prevailing sense of preordained hopelessness, death, and doom are standard McCarthy. He and Scott are not afraid of the ridiculous, the symbolic, the telegraphed, or the literal. The movie is shockingly, hilariously all of these things. I can imagine McCarthy has seen the tastefulness of The Road and the geometrical precision of No Country for Old Men and wanted something lewder and messier for his writing. This is how, for example, a car windshield gets a hot wax from Diaz while Bardem watches, amazed, in the passenger seat. That scene makes Tawny Kitaen look like Jessica Tandy. Bardem’s amazement was mine.
The menagerie on display is remarkable. Bardem wears loud prints and big, tinted bug glasses and looks as if he survived a nuclear meltdown at the Versace plant. Pitt looks like he sells used Cadillacs in 1986. And then there’s Diaz. She finally gets to bring her athletic bimbo powers to bear on a part good enough to show us a welcome hardness and wisdom. The plastic surgeons haven’t gotten to Diaz yet. Unlike some of the older women in Last Vegas, that face of hers can still tell a story.
So do her clothes. All the jungle prints and snake skins she wears, all the jewels and accoutrements make her exactly what certain men fear in certain women: a predator. (Never mind that she’s also the loving owner of two fearsome cheetahs, a blatancy that would be appalling in a different film.) But you don’t watch her flirt and splay herself and fear you’re in the hands of misogynists. It’s the opposite. The characters here might fear this woman. McCarthy and Scott kneel before her.
All Is Lost, directed by J.C. Chandor
At 77, Robert Redford is still blonde, but it’s an ashen sort of yellow, like straw that’s been drying for decades in the sun. But the creases and lines in his face haven’t diminished his handsomeness. He’s still something to see, which is a good thing since he’s all there is to watch in All Is Lost. He plays a yachtsman who awakens with a start to the sound of a small crash and the sight of water streaming through a gash in his boat. It has hit a wayward shipping container. He spends the movie trying to survive using only his nautical instincts. There are no pirates or aliens. A shark steals his lunch, but the foes here are simply weather and time.
This is an uncommonly absorbing movie. The director is J.C. Chandor, whose previous film, the stock market drama Margin Call, was notable for a handful of well-wrought speeches. Aside from an apologetic letter Redford’s character writes, there are about two words in the film: “help” and “fuuuuuuuck.” Like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, there’s a kind of movie magic in play here. Chandor works with equal parts manual rigor, existential wonder, and circumstantial dread (the score by Alex Ebert gently sounds notes of all three).
Of course, it doesn’t work without Redford. You need a star who doesn’t seem ridiculous still slipping into cable knits and other yachtwear in a moment of crisis. You need a star who in doing and saying little gets a lot done. You need a star whose presence compensates for a screenplay’s narrative economy. Redford goes about the business of keeping himself alive with serious stoicism. You realize you’re watching a dying breed of American masculinity. There are no tears. There’s no sentimentality. There’s no Vegas, no self-pity. In rooting for this man to endure, you aren’t hoping for the survival of a single star. You’re praying for something greater to last, for an entire mode of being in the movies to persist. When Redford and Douglas and Clint Eastwood go, all won’t be lost. But something great and crucial to the pleasures of the movies will be.
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, directed by Jeff Tremaine
There’s a quiet, depressing strain that runs through each of these films. Just because no one keels over in Last Vegas, for instance, doesn’t mean you can’t sense the defensiveness. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, on the other hand, is a joke on the concept of death. OK, it’s a Jackass production, so it’s a joke on everything. But even by those standards, it’s tenuous as a movie. Johnny Knoxville builds an hour and a half around public pranks involving his old-man character, Irving Zisman. The makeup used to transform him is state-of-the-art — as a moviegoer, you’re always aware you’re watching a young person pretend to be old, but you also believe that people on the street have no idea what’s going on. All they see is a rude, vaguely handsome seventyish man.
Freshly widowed, Irving is saddled with an estranged grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll), a spiky butterball who can curse on command. They drive from Ohio to St. Louis to Tennessee and finally Raleigh, where the boy is to be left with a father he doesn’t know. Along the way, they seemingly spontaneously concoct scenarios to ensure the shock and embarrassment of strangers. Knoxville gets a prosthetic penis stuck in a vending machine and begs for help removing it. The little boy calls random men daddy and a busty woman a tramp. Caskets are knocked over, walls stained with exploded excrement, and wedding cakes flown into. The problem with the film, which was shot, in part, with hidden cameras, is that Irv and Billy flee the scene before any consequences can be suffered. The movie is operating in the spirit of Sacha Baron Cohen’s road farces, but those movies were prepared to stick around for the post-prank awkwardness because that was often where the good comedy was.
Knoxville? He just wants to do Jackass stunts. And director Jeff Tremaine doesn’t have any visual amazements to show us like he did in the great Jackass 3D. Bad Grandpa looks proudly cruddy. But you can feel Tremaine, Knoxville, and their frequent Jackass co-conspirators trying to subvert narrative comedies. Their subversion is funny only when there’s tension between the old man, the kid, and the people who don’t know they’re being fooled. The most hilarious sequence involves dressing Billy as a girl and entering him in a child beauty pageant. The wrongs pile up, and there’s a clear object of satire. That feels new for the Jackass experience: a target that isn’t a crotch. I’d like to see Irv try to strike again with braver gags. I’d like to see him in Vegas. I’d like to see him try to write The Counselor.