The Movie Club

In Praise of Clint Eastwood's Face
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2009 3:37 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear Dana, Lisa, Jessica, and Jeannette,

Let me add to Jessica's heartfelt defense of Step Brothers. I also think that picture works as a response to, more than a clueless example of, the Apatow-style man-boy comedy. (Though that's not a blanket condemnation of Apatow—I love Knocked Up and like a few of the other movies he's been connected with, though not Forgetting Sarah Marshall,I'm afraid.) Step Brothers depends a lot on physical humor of the Three Stooges variety. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that none of you ever found TheThree Stooges funny, because I sure didn't. Yet the more Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly whacked each other on the head with baseball bats, shovels, and the like, the more I laughed, maybe because they both perpetually look like they've just been whacked on the head anyway—they may as well walk around wearing that cartoon halo of little birds and stars all the time.

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Step Brothers sends up the immaturity of these grown men who can never bring themselves to leave home, and it revels in that immaturity, too. Comedy has to work that way: You can't be above the thing you're satirizing. That's not comedy—it's superiority. The movie has a great deal of sympathy for these poor losers: I love the scene in which Reilly hunkers down on his bed, bitching and moaning to Ferrell about some hangnail-caliber injustice, all while wearing a Chewbacca mask. (Genius! Did these guys read all my Dark Knight hate mail or what?)

So all of you except Jessica must go watch Step Brothers again, or I'm going to come over and hit you with my tricycle.

On to Happy-Go-Lucky: Dana and Jessica, I never read Poppy's optimism as saintliness. She's fully engaged in the world in a way that saintly characters never are. One of the dreadful things about real-life optimistic people is that they tend to say things like "Cheer up!" and "Look on the bright side!" as if they were giving orders. And instead of helping, it just makes you want to kill them. Poppy never inflicts her optimism on people in that way. She's a citizen of the world, not a dictator in it.

Also, I don't think Poppy's "magic"—and I wouldn't even call it that—does work on Marsan's character. He's not healed, other than that he's had some contact with a person who might cause him to think a little differently about the world. (But he's still—how shall I say it?—cracked. Although of course we feel deeply for him, not least because Eddie Marsan gives such a sterling performance.) I think what makes Poppy's character work—and what makes the movie work—is that Poppy is incredibly attuned to the suffering around her. When she sees that kid beating up the other kid in the schoolyard, she instinctively reaches out to him. She spends time walking and talking with the muttering homeless guy, even as she asks herself aloud, "Why am I here?" She knows there's some danger in that choice. Talking to people about Happy-Go-Lucky, I've heard a lot of them claim that Poppy doesn't want to face up to the dark side of life, but I think she actually lives in the dark side. She's inside it, looking out—that she's not always bitching and moaning herself isn't a mark of her cluelessness, but of her resilience and of her emotional intelligence.

I fear that poor Dana is going to have a false-advertising lawsuit on her hands if we promise to talk about movie stars and plastic surgery and then fail to do it. So I'll throw this out there in reference to something Lisa said in her first post: I'm not really sure whether women see or think of women's faces all that differently from the way men do (if Nicole Kidman's face isn't moving, it ain't moving for anybody) or whether we're necessarily harder on other women. And even if we are tougher—well, when you're talking about critics, specifically, it's our job (and our great pleasure) to look at faces. We spend hours each week staring at these faces, waiting to see how actors use them, or fail to use them, to convey what we so blithely like to call emotional truth.

What's really bothering me about the whole issue is that as more and more actors (note the non-gender-specific term) "do things" to themselves as they age, we're being cheated of the faces they might have grown into. We'll never know those faces because their owners are chipping away at them bit by bit in a desperate effort to make them "better." And what is "better"? In 2005, Manohla Dargis wrote, wonderfully, about the creeping prevalence of plastic surgery among movie stars. But even that was four years ago; as critics, we don't write about the problem a lot, and it is a problem for anyone who cares about movies, and about actors.

So how do we write about it without naming names or without, as Dana alluded to in her introductory post, descending into tabloid-style "has he or hasn't he" speculation? Are we just supposed to stand by as potentially great faces vanish before our eyes?

One thing I'll say for Clint: He owns that face.

Stephanie

Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.

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