(Each week, sanity dictates that I must indulge in a few positive pop-culture experiences to make up for the Transformers and National Bingo Nights of the world. Every Friday, I offer a few of them.)
1. Joshua (2007): It’s not often that we have big disagreements among the A.V. Club film staff, because we share a similar sensibility and usually have no trouble coming to a consensus, which is why we were able to put together a joint Top 10 list last year. But I’m going to have to break rank with my esteemed colleague Nathan Rabin—and a reasonable chunk of the critical community—and say that Joshua, the feature debut of Hell House director George Ratliff, is a misunderstood near-masterpiece and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. I was able to catch it on the last night of its brief run in Chicago, so interested parties will have to act fast if they want to see it in a theater. (As a general rule, independent genre films tend to have trouble gaining traction at the arthouse, because they don’t have that air of arty respectability and they’re not always given a fair shake. Joshua is a prime example.)
Joshua joins the ranks of “evil kid” movies like The Omen, Village Of The Damned, and The Exorcist, but it didn’t occur to me until after seeing it how those other films play it comparatively safe by couching their stories in the supernatural. Because kids are supposed to be innocent, showing them doing awful things is a risky proposition unless Satan or some other corrupting power possesses them. What Joshua accomplishes, among other things, is it removes that supernatural element and directly confronts the real anxiety at the core of these movies: Namely, that adults can’t entirely control how their kids develop and sometimes the little buggers don’t turn out the way they planned. Much like the great Lionel Shriver novel We Need To Talk About Kevin—about a women assessing on her feelings about motherhood after her son pulls off a Columbine-like massacre—Joshua bravely explores the ambivalence that some parents have (but are not supposed to have) about raising children. These feelings are socially taboo, but I imagine pretty common, and the film exploits them to nerve-jangling effect.
Here’s the basic set-up: Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga, both terrific, star as Upper West Side parents who are welcoming their second child, a girl, a full nine years after the son Joshua (Jacob Kogan)—which is just the first indication that they weren’t exactly anxious for a repeat. Though she’s obstinate in insisting on caring for the child herself rather than accepting help from a nanny, Farmiga isn’t a particularly adept mother, a problem that’s exacerbated by severe post-partum depression. That puts an extra burden on Rockwell, who takes to parenting with more enthusiasm, but is too wrapped up in his job as a financial analyst to take care of business at home. Meanwhile, their scarily precocious son is free to pursue his own interests, which lately have focused on the most morbid elements of Egyptian mythology.
The birth a second child is commonly a problem for the first, who used to be the center of attention, but has suddenly been nudged to the background. Naturally, he’s going to feel some resentment toward his younger sibling, though that only partially accounts for Joshua’s behavior here. Here’s another ugly truth about children that Ratliff captures: Compassion doesn’t come naturally to them; it’s a learned trait and it’s part of the long process of developing into mature human beings. Needless to say, compassion doesn’t come easy to Joshua, who’s not only self-centered, but diabolical in the way he engineers the world to his liking.
Yet Joshua isn’t really about him so much as his father, who works strenuously to sustain the illusion of a well-functioning family unit, even as it’s falling apart at the seams. He’s right there with the video camera to record every precious (and not-so-precious) moment, he tries to say all the right stuff to his increasingly hostile wife, and he does fatherly things like call his son “buddy” and muss his hair (though the prissy, well-coiffed boy hates it). He wants to be the perfect dad, someone who can come home from work, get a kiss from his wife, sit down to a family dinner, and do all the hair-mussing he wants until bedtime. It’s a heroic effort—heartbreaking, really—but oblivious, too, and his inability to comprehend a son who’s “different” contributes to the boy’s screwy development. The role is a tour de force for Rockwell, whose initial enthusiasm eventually curdles into cold hostility once he’s on to what his son is doing. At a certain point, he becomes hilariously smug in dealing with the little monster, because he finally has the upper hand (or so he thinks, anyway).
Now, I loved Joshua for any number of reasons—its Kubrickian style, its psychological complexity, its utterly chilling setpieces (my favorites: an off-key rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” at a piano recital and one seriously frightening game of hide and seek)—but I’ll admit that it’s a bit of ordeal, too. It never lets up in intensity, but not the sort of intensity that you usually associate with horror films, which are all about tension and release. Here it’s all tension, especially when the boy isn’t on screen and we’re left to wonder what he could be doing and what that static on the baby monitor might signify. The film’s wonderfully bone-dry sense of humor isn’t much of a relief, either. The audience I saw it with last night laughed often, but it sounded at times like an almost defensive reaction, like laughing in an effort to keep the film at arm’s length. I’m enough of a sicko to want to see it again, but others are hereby warned: This movie gets under your skin and you may not want it there.
2. Damages (FX, Tuesday 10 pm ET): Okay, four weeks into this Miscellany project and I’m already cheating on the concept. The idea was to wrangle together a random assortment of positive pop-cultural experiences as a sort of salvation from the mediocrities (and worse) that haunt me on a week-to-week basis. Based on the pedigreed cast and strong early reviews, I fully expected the FX show Damages to be as much of a sure thing as AMC’s superb Mad Men was last week. But alas, this show has serious problems. Fortunately, it also has enough good things going for it for me to shoehorn it into this week’s list anyway, but consider this a recommendation with strong reservations.
The pilot opens with an irresistible hook: In early morning, an attractive brunette (Rose Byrne) flees a New York City apartment building in a trench coat and heels, covered in blood. When she’s picked up by police and taken in for questioning, she sits blankly in the interrogation room, muted by trauma. Cut to six months earlier, and she’s a poised, put-together young lawyer interviewing for her first big job. It’s a jarringly effective transition and nearly enough on its own to rope me in for the remainder of the series. What could have possibly happened to this poor woman in six months?
It’s not long before we find out, at least in the general sense, how she might have gotten into trouble. Byrne has the honor—and we’ll soon discover, the curse—of being pursued by the most feared and respected litigator in the city, played deliciously by Glenn Close. Close currently has her teeth in an Enron/Tyco/WorldCom-like civil action lawsuit in which she’s representing workers who have lost their portfolios and pensions to a corporate boss (Ted Danson) who encouraged them to invest to drive up the stock, and then bailed out of his sinking ship of a company to a massive windfall. On its face, Close’s advocacy seems pretty righteous, since she’s representing the working-class victims of corporate malfeasance. During her first days on the job, Byrne gets assigned to find the critical link between Danson and his broker so Close can nail him for the stock-dump, though her plan for Byrne isn’t entirely spelled out.
I won’t spoil anything by giving away Close’s endgame, but it’s pretty obvious from the start that she’s more than just an especially demanding boss. The thing that’s fun about Damage is that both sides are evil, and willing to do just about anything to get what they want. Danson tries to force a settlement by bribing the workers’ chief advocate into pushing the group into accepting a relatively modest payoff; Close responds by… well… I’m not going to give anything away, other than to say her character won’t be doing much to court the audience’s sympathies. This is the sort of dark intrigue that Profit—the short-lived but influential series about a ruthlessly manipulative corporate climber—hath wrought, and the show’s willingness to go to sinister places (an FX signature) makes it compelling.
Too bad about Byrne, then, who at this point is a little like Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate: A fretful, morally compromised young attorney who’s completely dominated by her boss’ flamboyant malevolence. For the show to really take off, we need to be more invested in the one character who’s not a sub-human manipulator, but Byrne so far is like a leaf in a hurricane, passive and week. But since this “Miscellany” column is supposed to be positive, I move on…
3. Mary-Louise Parker in Weeds (Showtime): Yesterday afternoon, I just started picking through the second season of Weeds, a show I reviewed kindly (if reservedly) last year when it came out on DVD. Oddly enough, I found myself really looking forward to the second season, despite my feeling that it’s basically a half-decent rehashing of the attitudes of “edgy” shows like Six Feet Under and countless suburbia-is-not-what-it-seems movies. Partly, my anticipation came from a terrific cliffhanger at the end of Season One, but mostly, I was just excited about seeing Mary-Louise Parker again.
To get the obvious out of the way first: Yes, I’ll join the chorus of those who find Parker the sort of “cougar” at 42 that might make a has-been tennis star kick his twentysomething “kittens” to the curb. (That’s an Age Of Love reference, for those of you who have better things to do with your time.) Parker’s sex appeal figures into the show on several occasions, but it’s really just one weapon in the arsenal she brings to this character. Though the show scores some easy laughs off the weird incongruity of a suburban mom turned big-time drug dealer, Parker isn’t made to look silly and ridiculous like the widowed hash-slinger played by Brenda Blethyn in Saving Grace. Throughout the series, she proves to be tremendously cagey when backed into a corner: Because she’s a waifish, SUV-driving suburbanite, everyone assumes she’s too naïve and weak-willed to live as an outlaw, but she’s tougher and savvier than she looks. Though dealing marijuana in cul-de-sac country might have seemed at first like a woman grasping desperately onto the last rung of her upper-middle-class life, it begins to look more and more like a true calling.
Parker is one of those keenly intelligent actors whose thought processes are right there for you to see, especially when she has to negotiate her way through sticky situations. Her default expression is a look of jaundiced, world-weary skepticism, which is undoubtedly owed to age and experience. Though the show’s wacky irreverence can get to be too much at times—I’m still not sold on the smug brother-in-law character played by Justin Kirk, who’s too destructive for someone as smart as Parker to tolerate—Parker’s wide-ranging performance keeps it grounded and just real enough to work.