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Deck the halls with scheming Nazis—and withered, arthritic babies and seething suburban housewives. Those are the grim bundles waiting under the Hollywood tree this recessional holiday season. It's somehow appropriate to the economic moment that the three big Christmas-week releases— Valkyrie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and Revolutionary Road—are about grand failures of one kind or another. There's the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in Valkyrie, the failure of the human body (even a backward-aging one) to conquer time in Button, and the Titanic-sized failure of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's marriage in Revolutionary Road.
It might be argued that all three movies not only depict failure but enact it. Valkyrie, the first film out of United Artists Studios since Tom Cruise became the studio's sole head last summer, has been something of a cursed production, dogged by rumors of reshoots and perpetually changing release dates. Its director, Bryan Singer, talks big, but he has to be anxious about the film's reception after the universally shrugged-at Superman Returns (2006). And, as Slate's Stephen Metcalf suggests in his glorious reading of Tom Cruise-as-market-bubble, the notion of the stolidly perky Cruise playing a one-eyed, one-handed would-be Hitler assassin is just inherently funny.
Given all these obstacles, Valkyrie comes off surprisingly well. The first half-hour or so does proffer some unintended chuckles as the script strains unnecessarily to provide its hero, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise), with background, character, and motivation. Motivation?? We don't need to learn about the source of Stauffenberg's war wounds (he loses an eye and a hand in a North African bombing raid) or his love for his wife (Carice van Houten) to understand that he wants to kill Hitler. We get it. On with the Hitler-killing!
Once Singer dispenses with the introductory pathos and gets to the nuts and bolts of Stauffenberg's plan, Valkyrie becomes an admirably modest and compact suspense thriller. Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators in the German army (played by the plummily British likes of Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Terence Stamp) arrange to smuggle an explosive-laden briefcase into a meeting with the chancellor. They also secretly make changes to a succession plan Hitler has had drawn up in the event of his death (occasioning one of the film's few intentionally funny lines: "Now all you have to do is get Hitler to sign it"). For a thriller with a thoroughly foreordained outcome, Valkyrie does a pretty good job at making the viewer's palms sweat. Especially so soon after the tedious pieties of The Reader, I'm not sure I want more from my Nazi holiday viewing than that.
Revolutionary Road(Dreamworks), Sam Mendes' adaptation of the 1961 novel by Richard Yates, hasn't a hair out of place. It's a textbook example of a well-crafted movie, beautifully shot, impeccably acted, and structured like an elegant three-act play. (You can almost imagine the red velvet curtain descending at the end of each act.) So why does the movie feel as pleasantly deadening as the midcentury Connecticut suburb where it takes place? It certainly isn't Kate's or Leo's fault. Winslet is, as ever, divine as the repressed April Wheeler, who gave up her dreams of becoming an actress to marry Frank (DiCaprio). And while DiCaprio lacks Winslet's emotional reach as an actor, he's perfectly cast as the cocky, self-deluded Frank, who commutes to an office job he hates in order to support their two children. Bored stiff by their emotionally sterile life, April suggests they shake things up by moving the whole family to Paris. This prospect briefly rekindles the Wheelers' marriage, until … well, let's just say the last scene isn't a happy family picnic atop the Eiffel Tower.