Small(er) Movie Review Roundup: ‘The Immigrant,’ ‘Night Moves,’ and ‘Obvious Child’

The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

No American movie with this level of artistry and that has opened to such besotted reviews should be as teetering-on-the-verge-of-exit as this film is. But after a month: Is that the case? It would seem absurd that we wouldn’t be at least curious about a drama with Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant named Ewa Cybulska who’s lured, by an earnest scoundrel (Joaquin Phoenix), into a life of sex work in 1921 New York in order to make enough money to rescue her tubercular sister from Ellis Island’s infirmary. Do people know The Immigrant exists? Our benign neglect feels like a misdemeanor.

The movie premiered at Cannes last year and was picked up by the Weinstein Company. There were rumors that its chances at major Academy Award nominations were deemed low so it was dumped at Godzilla’s feet. There were rumors that Gray and Harvey Weinstein disagreed about its length and focus. An executive at Weinstein told me that this isn’t true. They’re standing proudly behind the movie (otherwise, why release it?), and Gray is pleased with its rollout. So there. Still, a studio with misgivings in France wouldn’t be a studio out of its mind. The Immigrant felt torpid at Cannes. But you’re watching a movie at an absurdly high altitude of expectation. Back at sea level, the film is an achievement. Its complex reckoning of moral decency deserves a bigger audience.

Ewa is full of rue. Minutes into the film, her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) is declared too ill for entry into Manhattan and — according to rumors about her conduct during the journey west — Ewa too loose. A sleepy-looking (but absurdly handsome) businessman named Bruno Weiss comes sniffing in her direction, and she begs him to take her with him. He’s looking for women, first to dance in his burlesque show, then to lay down with paying customers.

Compared to what other directors — from Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell to Mike Figgis and Lars von Trier — might have done with (and to) Ewa, the misery that Gray (and his cowriter Ric Menello, who died last year) conjure for her feels modest, intimate, and true. She’s reliably betrayed — by Bruno, by Brooklyn relatives she tracks down, and by her own eyes. But every desperate minute she spends in New York is lived for Magda. Cotillard has the right conflation of softness and steel. Her eyes are two watery planets. But they can dry up quickly. She and Phoenix are two of the most soulfully, ornately forlorn actors in the movies. Their smiles seem to have invented new kinds of sadness. Ewa captivates Bruno, but she despises him, and herself, for accepting the strings attached to his kindness.

If there’s something wrong with The Immigrant, it’s a lack of bigness — a big idea, a big performance, a big vision. Every time it looks as if Gray is building up, he’s actually burrowing down. The arrival of Jeremy Renner offers Eva a reprieve from disconsolation. He plays a magician who opens on Ellis Island for the opera star Enrico Caruso and who happens to be Bruno’s cousin. The moony romance Renner brings is both more than OK and tonally wrong. He’s like a gondolier who doesn’t know he’s rowing on the Styx. What he offers Ewa is tempting for her and for the possibility of the movie turning into a great American epic. But Gray doesn’t have that kind of ambition. And part of you wishes he did. Instead, he seems unable to stop himself from restating the violent outbursts of his crime yarns — Little Odessa and The Yards and We Own the Night (this is Phoenix’s fourth movie with Gray).

The production design and visual effects get Gray close to the sort of old-world epics of directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci. Darius Khondji’s breathtaking cinematography, with its gauzy, hazy, gilded tarnish, simultaneously imposes immediacy and remembrance. The past is alive and yellowing before your eyes. But The Immigrant is closer to the frustrated attractions of Gray’s Two Lovers than to any kind of generational saga. This is actually the sort of expensive-looking attempt to authentically inhabit a bygone era that regularly came along during Gray’s go-to cinematic era — the 1970s — in films as different as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Paper Moon, Chinatown, Hester Street, and Wise Blood. Gray’s movie is close to Emanuele Crialese’s 2006 Ellis Island masterpiece Nuovomondo (Golden Door) in that sense. But Crialese’s a dreamer. Gray, by comparison, doesn’t sleep.

The Immigrant is the most fevered of his films. It might also be the least sentimental. The movie’s final image is also the shot of the year. You don’t know how much fakery was involved in pulling it off. But it manages to tell a dispiriting truth about divergent approaches to old-world perseverance while dropping jaws, many more of which, incidentally, ought to be hitting the floor.

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Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Yes, yes: Scarlett Johansson is nearing the height of her talent, but she’s not alone. So’s Jesse Eisenberg. Not that anyone’s noticing. He’s playing three different characters in two good movies — the other is Reichardt’s and Richard Ayoade’s doppelgänger comedy The Double — playing on a total of 44 North American screens (Maleficent is on almost 4,000), and it’s some of the year’s best movie acting. He has managed to expand from the clenched dork he normally plays. He has tended to fuse petulance, snobbishness, and loneliness in adolescent portraits. But Eisenberg is 30 and has started throwing some wonder and maturity into the mix.

Night Moves concerns a trio of young environmentalists (Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) in the Pacific Northwest who plot to blow up a dam. One of Reichardt’s strengths as a director is patience. Her films — including Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff — tend toward rumination on circumstance. The directness of this new film — its muted swiftness and action — feels like a kind of breakthrough. A lot of the film is set on a farming co-op, so her diehards needn’t worry: She’s still organic. But the human-size menace Eisenberg supplies is a real surprise. Anytime an actor can out-creep Peter Sarsgaard, he warrants your attention.

The fallout from the bombing scrambles the movie’s idealism, and the question of moral absolutism moves to the center. This film also feels like something from the 1970s, and not because it shares a title with Arthur Penn’s 1975 great, dismantled detective thriller with Gene Hackman. The movie is willing to see its ideas all the way through, while not entirely giving up on plot, and Eisenberg is unafraid to take himself where Reichardt needs him to go, which is right under our skin.

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Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robespierre

The lack of skill and ingenuity used to make this movie — a comedy about a crude New York stand-up named Donna (Jenny Slate) and the gentleman prepster, Max (Jake Lacy), she sleeps with — is the opposite of ambitious. The close-ups are raggedy. The coincidences in the script would get you a D in Intro to Screenwriting, and the idea that a paying audience would look this pleased to see a woman stand onstage and not be funny defies imagination. But Donna winds up pregnant, decides to terminate the pregnancy, and the movie’s anti-sitcom sitcommishness takes a novel turn: Donna and her roommate (Gaby Hoffmann) have a conversation about abortion that sounds like what two young women would say to each other. That shouldn’t feel like a breakthrough in 2014, and it’s scarcely a reason to recommend a movie.

But whatever talent or care Robespierre has goes into guiding the actors toward real gentleness, including Slate, who spends the movie with big, untamed hair. Her affect is brazenly ungroomed. You don’t know what Max would see in Donna. Or how her upper-middle-class academic mother (Polly Draper) produced such a cavewoman with a Comedy Central–Borscht Belt soul. (OK, OK: Richard Kind’s her dad!) But Slate seems to be making up for the past decade of uptight, right-thinking girlfriends and wives, and Donna’s funnier in her bedroom than she is onstage. Other women are (and recently have been) on the case, but you look at Donna, a character who seems blown sideways, and believe this slob could really be a star.

Filed Under: Movies, the immigrant, James Gray, Harvey Weinstein, Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, Night Moves, Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgaard, Obvious Child, Jenny Slate

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris