The Movie Club

Memo to Modern Men: Be Less Like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, More Like Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 13 2014 11:45 PM

The Movie Club

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Entry 3: Memo to modern men: Be less like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, more like Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her (2013).
Joaquin Phoenix in Her.

Photo by Warner Bros.

Hello, and Happy New Year to you all. As both Dana and Wesley have mentioned, this was a terrific year for movies but also a contentious one. More than usual, we saw movies that stirred up vicious arguments—not just critic-on-critic action or conflicts between filmmakers and actors, but also rousing dinner-party repartee. I know what Wesley’s saying when he laments how partisan these arguments can get, but I’m also just stunned, and relieved, that people still care so much. When movies are worth arguing about, we know they’re still a viable force in the culture, even though lots of people claim television has, Napoleon-style, stepped forward and grabbed the crown.

I’ve already been drawn into a few dinner-table jousts regarding Her, and it’s a subject I approach gingerly, because no matter how little I care for the picture, I never like to trample on movies that have stirred people so deeply. But I guess I have to trample a little here. A friend and I were talking recently about Her, and about Spike Jonze in general, and I blurted out, “He’s just not man enough for me!” I know how horrible that sounds. Please don’t think I want every filmmaker to be John Ford. But as a love story, as a story about a man learning important things about himself, Her is just so cautious, so bloodless. Dana, I hadn’t heard Richard Brody’s “feature-length kitten video” line, but for me that nails it.

I hate to break Her down into a treatise on the differences between the way men and women approach love, but it’s kind of germane to the movie. The subject is a man who must come to terms with the fact that Women Are People Too—especially in cases where they actually are people. For this, I applaud him. But then I wonder why I’m championing a fictional character who finally gets stuff that’s, like, pretty essential. As my mother-in-law used to say, “The light dawns on Marblehead.”

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I can see how Joaquin Phoenix’s character is supposed to resonate with modern men, who, I admit, have it pretty tough these days. On the one hand, they’re largely freed from traditional dictates of masculinity (yay!). On the other hand, opening up the boundaries of all the things it’s OK for a man—or, for that matter, a woman—to be means more choices, more ways to get it wrong (drat). And so maybe, for men especially, there’s some relief in watching a character like Phoenix’s Theodore: “He’s sensitive, yet sort of an asshole, just like me!”

But to me, the tone of Her—right down to its futuristically indecisive, could-be-any-city look—is “Please accept my humble offering, oh exotic goddess of womankind, that I may learn to love again.” I just can’t bear it. Please, don’t kneel before me with all that sensitive stuff. Can’t we just go watch some Three Stooges or something? Seriously, I would rather watch Jordan Belfort blow cocaine into 100 hookers’ butt cracks. I’m all for tenderness, but to be honest about love, you’ve got to address, on some level, the blood and guts of it. I look at something like Before Midnight. Now those poor kids are really in the cooker. Ethan Hawke’s character is as much a “modern man” as it gets—sensitive, fair-minded, passionate—and Julie Delpy’s anger, which for her is very real, is as confounding and horrible as anything he’s ever had to deal with, not least because he truly doesn’t want her to suffer. His gallantry in the face of her fury tears me apart. Or Blue Is the Warmest Color, where this young woman, played so beautifully by Adèle Exarchopoulos, falls deeply in love for the first time, only to realize, at love’s end, that the clock can never be turned back to “before.” For me, all that pales in comparison with “Jeez, you mean I can’t marry my cellphone?”

I do want to talk more about Wolf of Wall Street at some point because, Wesley, you’re onto something with your idea of Scorsese’s channeling the tradition of Italian art cinema. It doesn’t make me like Wolf of Wall Street any better, but I can see some link between Jordan Belfort’s bespoke suits and Jep’s enviably gorgeous pocket squares in The Great Beauty. (Was any man more beautifully dressed this year than Toni Servillo?) As a Wolf of Wall Street antidote, I offer Harmony Korine’s girls-gone-really-wild artsploitation flick Spring Breakers, which I greatly disliked when I first saw it. I didn’t even like James Franco’s performance as Alien—I thought it was too gimmicky. Yet something about that performance and the movie’s vision of excess—as defined by a drug dealer and four girls who originally just wanted to have some fun—has stuck with me, and I’m feeling drawn to watch it again. I recently bought this big shoe rack for my apartment, almost 5 feet tall. It holds a lot of shoes. After I put it together and filled it up, I beheld its towering magnificence and said, “Looka my shit!” There’s a little Alien in all of us. And yes, a little Jordan Belfort, too. Though I hope I don’t have more shoes than he does.

Love,

Stephanie

Stephanie Zacharek is chief film critic at the Village Voice.

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