TIFF 2019: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ Weaves a Tale of Empty Whimsy
At the heart of his latest film, Iannucci brings together an incredibly diverse and hilarious cast to take a fairly mundane story and smother it with whimsy.
While films like In the Loop and The Death of Stalin, along with shows like The Thick of It and Veep, have put Armando Iannucci at the forefront of political satire, he also seems to have pigeonholed himself. The Personal History of David Copperfield feels at times like it’s Iannucci trying to figure out how to write about life itself — without poking fun at it, but just telling it from memory. At the heart of his latest film, he brings together an incredibly diverse and hilarious cast to tell a fairly mundane story, smother it with whimsy, and make a plea for living life even when it gets too hard.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that last component is exactly where Iannucci’s screenplay works. In between all the moments of David Copperfield’s (Dev Patel) life there are highs and lows. Those lows aggravate Copperfield, and yet he persists. Surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, Copperfield spends his life deciding who is and isn’t a parasite, sometimes trusting too much while others trust too little. It’s in these interactions that we get some of the best characters brought to life from the Charles Dickens novel this film is based on. Whether it’s the thoughts of King Charles I trapped in the mind of the easily distracted Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), or his cousin, Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who wards off donkeys from her front lawn with no exceptions, there are a thousand characters to love in this adaptation.
Many of the characters in The Personal History of David Copperfield are honestly just good people who either make the best of what they’ve got, or strive to have better than they’ve got. It’s only in Uriah Heep (played deliciously by Ben Whishaw) that a cartoonishly evil character is found to impede Copperfield’s joy from life. However, no one is coming to a Iannucci movie not expecting a plethora of funny characters, and it is no real shock to find that he has assembled a cast more than capable of bringing his wit to life. Where it all starts falling apart is in how the story is told. Cartoonish or not, these people all feel torn out of a storybook — which just so happens to be the way the film is presented as well, with Copperfield telling a story of his life to an audience with transitions between scenes that feel like pages of a book being flipped. It’s all very reminiscent of how Joe Wright handles his storytelling, especially in films like Anna Karenina.
That method of storytelling is fine as an ambitious framing device, especially in the pantheon of Iannucci’s work. However, it forces the story to move at a more rapid pace, and if there’s one thing that none of his prior works have had, it’s an emphasis on the narrative. The story here feels propelled forward because it’s time to move onto the next vignette, whereas his previous works relied on incremental movement and small plot details snowballing into a bigger catastrophe. Brief skips in time happen frequently enough that it never feels like the proper amount of time is ever spent with any character other than David Copperfield, but this does make some sense, since most of Copperfield’s memories of people are through silly things they say or vivid, fantastical interactions, as opposed to the more mundane elements.
Unfortunately, The Personal History of David Copperfield just doesn’t land as hard as it should by the time it concludes. It’s breezy and whimsical in all the right ways, but dampens almost all of the other elements of the screenplay. Instead, the film opts for a more standard period piece that just so happens to have a few really good jokes woven in there for good measure. Come for the lively cast and characters, as well as Patel’s fantastic performance; everything else just falls flat by the end, leaving the story to wrap up without any real emotional resonance for the audience.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15
‘Ford v Ferrari’ Drives Fast with Little Under the Hood
A classic Hollywood drama with fast cars and a stellar Christian Bale performance that feels great despite a lack of emotional substance.
Many directors always struggle with producers and other businessmen to retain their vision. What might work most for that vision may not be what focus tests and audiences have proven to enjoy, so the film gets reworked and reworked until it becomes a box office hit, and potentially retains a director’s intent. Ford v Ferrari doesn’t necessarily feel like that — this is a James Mangold film in many regards — but by the end of its story of vision and skill versus marketing and business agendas, Mangold’s latest wrestles with placing trust in an individual against an entire body of suits.
When Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is approached by Ford Motors to create a car fast enough to beat Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans (an annual racing event where drivers go all day and night around the same track), he is forced to fight tooth-and-nail to get the best driver for the job: Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby’s fight is singular; he wants to win the Le Mans, and knows that Miles is the only one who can do it. Yet, Ford Motors is still a company with many eyes on them, and employing the hot-headed Miles as a driver could be disastrous. So begins a struggle for Shelby and Miles to have their desires met by a company looking at the bottom line. That struggle — one that underscores every decision made by the characters in the film — is what sits at the core of Ford v Ferrari, and keeps things interesting. Set that aside, however, and the film loses a lot of momentum.
Still, the racing will grip audiences throughout. The final Le Mans challenge runs for a decent portion of Ford v Ferrari and is engaging throughout, but there are several other races and practices where Mangold’s craftsmanship as a filmmaker shines bright. Miles sits in the driver’s seat of all of these moments, and Bale’s performance is never stronger than when his character has that need for speed. Miles is a passionate driver with pure intentions, and Bale gives him a lot of wit and heart in between huge swings of emotion. It’s a performance that stands tall but doesn’t distract, instead meshing extremely well with the action.
Meanwhile, the other performances are also solid. Matt Damon is very good in the role of Shelby, though his character is quite often reserved because he has to be. When you put him against Bale, however, it’s clear that Shelby pales to the race car driver’s fleshed-out character, as we follow the latter’s family, his rejections and successes, and his pure heart. In the backdrop is a wide array of supporting actors, including Caitriona Balfe as Mollie Miles, Josh Lucas as the thorn in Shelby’s side, Jon Bernthal playing a standard Jon Bernthal role, and Tracy Letts chewing up scenery whenever he can as Henry Ford II. Letts and Lucas in particular give great caricatured performances, planting Ford v Ferrari into a more standard Hollywood drama.
Largely that’s the problem: Ford v Ferrari is a technical achievement with some incredible craftsmanship and performances that just never feels as great at slow times as it does when it’s moving past 7000 RPMs. It has a need for speed, and the pacing shows that, but it also doesn’t really rise very high above what’s needed to please an audience. Mangold is great at deriving emotional substance out of a subject, but a lot of that in Ford v Ferrari is left on the shoulders of Bale’s performance. Instead, the film focuses heavily on the bureaucratic side of things, and how that hinders talented people from being who they are destined to be. While fun to watch, there isn’t much more that will have Ford v Ferrari lingering with audiences. Instead, this will be a movie that resonates with racing fans and those that struggle against restrictions, keeping general audience satisfied in their big Hollywood dramas for the time being.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14 as part of our coverage of The Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Is a Twisting Homage to Classic Detective Films
Edward Norton writes, directs, and stars in this meditative and absorbing adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s neo-noir novel.
In 1999, Jonathan Lethem published his fifth novel, Motherless Brooklyn, and went from being an under-read but respected postmodernist with a science-fiction bent to a writer with a growing mainstream audience. The book was an odd choice to suddenly get people’s attention — a tribute to the classic detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but featuring a detective with Tourette’s syndrome, and taking place in the 1990s. But Lethem’s flair for language, along with the novel’s equal portions of humor and sincere longing, made it a striking success. Back in the early 2000s, Edward Norton began developing the film, shortly after making his directorial debut. It took almost 19 years, but miraculously, Norton has made a version of Motherless Brooklyn that’s fun, engaging, and a tribute to classic detective films of the past.
Norton takes the lead as Lionel Essrog, a member of a shady detective agency that mainly takes on cases for organized crime rather than regular citizens. He has worked there for years after being rescued from a brutal Catholic school for orphans by Frank Minna (an asleep-at-the-wheel Bruce Willis), the head of the detective agency and a major contact to underworld figures. Lionel suffers from Tourette’s, as well as a smidgen of obsessive-compulsive disorder. His speech is interrupted at varying times with shards of curse words, nonsense phrases, and plays on words (he says the condition is like having “glass in my brain”). The Maryland-raised Norton isn’t an obvious choice for someone who grew up in the outer boroughs, but he brings dueling amounts of chagrin and decency. These qualities are necessary following his ticks and outbursts, which would seem obnoxious from nearly anyone else.
Motherless Brooklyn opens on Lionel surveilling his own boss. Frank is meeting with an unnamed group of men, and he’s having Lionel keep tabs on the meeting so that he can burst in should anything go wrong. Of course, something does go wrong, and Frank is left with a bullet in his belly and no answers to give. In the wake of the shooting, Lionel makes it his personal quest to find out who shot his boss. The twisting plot, which grows exponentially more labyrinthine over time, pulls the burgeoning detective into a tangled web involving New York City’s development. Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a power-hungry figure modeled after Robert Moses, seems to have some connection to Frank, as does Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young assistant to a Jane Jacobs-like figure who opposes everything Randolph stands for.
The convoluted plot will surely turn off some viewers, as did the more gonzo plot of last year’s Under the Silver Lake, but it’s a key component of all noir-inflected mysteries. The core books in the genre were written around WWII through the Cold War, and they illustrated a world gone mad — where the protagonist could never trust the word of another, and there was always more crucial information being hidden than he could ever real. The sense of disorientation that accompanies prime noir novels and films is a feature, not a bug.
Norton loses some of the wonderful strangeness of the novels ‘90s settings by setting it in the ‘50s, but it fits the story well, and some of the New York development details make more sense in mid-century. There are perhaps some tangents that could have been pruned involving various jazz clubs, and Bruce Willis’ phoned-in turn as Lionel’s mentor is an utter shame, robbing the film of some much-needed emotional moments, but Norton’s own performance makes up for many of the shortcomings, and he strikes up a charming rapport with Raw. Motherless Brooklyn can’t come close to topping its source material, but it’s still a lively mystery that might make you wish they still made this kind of detective story.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Is a Return to Form for Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy is back and in fine form as the creator of a hit Blaxploitation film, though the film doesn’t always live up to his talents.
It’s hard to remember the last time that Eddie Murphy was good in a movie, so it’s with great pleasure that I can report that he’s back and actually trying in Dolemite Is My Name, a new film for Netflix about the creator of the wildly successful blaxploitation hit, Dolemite (1975). It’s a fairly conventional piece of work, and much of the humor surrounding Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite act doesn’t hold up any more, but there are still enough laughs and palpable passion from Murphy to make it a worthy story.
It’s the early 1970s when we first see Moore trying to pressure a DJ (Snoop Dogg) into playing some singles. Moore thinks of himself as a renaissance man — someone who has worked every facet of the entertainment industry — and wants to do it all, like his idol, Sammy Davis Jr. But his music dreams never went anywhere, and the closest he ever came to success was working in a record store. At nights, he gets five minutes of stand-up time before introducing acts at a local club, though he often stretches his time limit.
After a run-in with a homeless man who tells braggadocious stories about the hardest man he ever met (the improbably named Dolemite), Moore adopts the same rhyming style and crafts a stand-up act in which he puffs himself up and trash talks others mercilessly, all while dressed like a dandy pimp. The character is an instant success at the club, and soon Moore is taking his new act on the Chitlin Circuit, where he’s joined by Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a singer with her own stage persona.
Raunchy comedy records that reach the Billboard 25 follow, though Moore is interested in something even bigger: the movies. He hires playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), who is interested in respectability and social issues, and has him write the story for a blaxploitation crime film starring his Dolemite character. Along the way, Moore enlists actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, having a lot of fun) as the film’s director and villain, while assembling a crew mostly made up of his friends — talented people who know nothing about making a movie.
Dolemite isn’t as well-known now as some of its more famous Blaxploitation peers, but the film was a major success among black audiences, who came out to see it in droves in major cities. Though Murphy is often in comedic mode throughout, the awe Moore displays from people finally wanting to see something he has made is touching. Murphy also gives a performance that manages to channel Moore’s speech patterns as Dolemite, without ever slipping into parody.
Meanwhile, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski excel at dramatizing the uncertainties and inevitable failures that come with the ultra–low–budget film production, but they’re oddly incurious when it comes to Moore’s personal life. We never understand where his desire to be a jack of all trades comes from, and his responses to a life full of failures are only briefly covered. The two excelled at writing complicated real-life characters in earlier successes like Ed Wood (1994), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and Man on the Moon (1999), yet they don’t give Moore the same in-depth treatment. The director, Hustle & Flow’s Craig Brewer, doesn’t help matters either. He can’t make the visuals and period details of those earlier bio films, and never really displays any directorial flair, while some of the supporting performances are perfunctory at best.
But it’s Eddie Murphy that people will want to see, and he’s at least in fine form. Perhaps this film, as well as his upcoming Coming 2 America (also directed by Brewer), will help to usher in a new era of Eddie Murphy movies that aren’t terrible. One can hope.
This article was originally published on September 13, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
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