Monday, October 16, 2006

Little Children

A very smart, literary movie based on the novel by Tom Perotta, Little Children surprised me by how dark and disturbing it is, how eager to make the audience feel uncomfortable; a welcome change from the usual lightheaded American fare. Its almost sadistic dissection of suburban hypocrisy seems to me a parable of a current greater national malaise, of the state of things under Bush. From the very beginning, the film sets up a toxic environment of frustrated housewives with fascistic inclinations, a wealthy suburban milieu rife with prejudice and barely repressed discontent. Nobody is capable of intimacy or connection, families are all surface, a sham. Gone are the days of decent neighbors and wholesome apple pies a la Lassie or My Three Sons. Now, the movie seems to say, America is a place of unfettered nastiness and sexual hysteria, and a place where people hide behind holier-than-thou attitudes that have nothing to do with being actually moral or humane. I was delighted to see such a savage skewering of closemindedness and hypocrisy. There are many uncanny parallels between the behaviors of some of the characters and the unholy mess of the Bush Administration.
A former disgraced cop, excellently portrayed by Noah Emmerich, is the town bully, going beyond the call of duty and common sense, to harass and persecute a pedophile freshly released from jail. His over the top zeal is immediately suspect, an outlet for almost criminal behavior and misdirected wrath (ring any bells yet?) Of course one should loathe a pedophile, but it is so convenient to find a bogeyman, isn't it, and use him (Saddam Hussein, the War on Terror) to excuse all kinds of crap.
The pedophile, creepily and wonderfully portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley (blast form the past: Moocher from Breaking Away -- I kept trying to place his very intense strangeness), is truly sick in the head and his behavior is disgusting and pathetic at the same time. You have to give credit to a movie that showers its greatest reserves of sympathy on such a terrible character. He seems (at times) more vulnerable and human than the monsters of self-involvement that people this community. The plot centers on the love affair between two frustrated married people, Kate Winslet, tightly wound up, and the very solid and very handsome Patrick Wilson. Although one can understand and even cheer on the reasons for their romance (she has a dull husband who prowls for internet porn, his wife coldly brings home the bacon and makes him feel like a failure), they are people with some unseemly traits. Again, this is evidence of a refreshing complexity and good writing rarely seen in American movies today. So all is coming up roses as I follow this movie's seemingly inexorable collision course with the destruction of lives. At last, I think, somebody is calling it like it is: America has become a monster. A bully. A liar. A place of deception and hypocrisy (not for the first time, but now it's worse than ever), where the most salient trait is hysterical smugness. So it came as an utter shock to me, almost as bitter as betrayal, that the writers, Perrotta adapting his own novel (which I haven't read) and the director Todd Field, decide to regale this tale with a huge dose of redemption at the end. Yes, hope is supposed to be a wonderful thing, yadda yadda, but I think it lets the audience and America off way easy.
The ending killed me; one, because all the loose ends are tied way too neatly, thereby dispensing with the illusion that for once we are witnessing something that does not smell of movie cliches; and two, because this redemption strikes me as a false note. How can we believe in redemption when given the overwhelming evidence of malfeasance against them our leaders are not only unrepentant but doggedly staying the wrong course? Yet life goes on, the stock market soars, blood is spilled in Iraq every day and nobody seems to care enough. In reality, right now there is no redemption in America, no enlightenment, so why should there be easy absolution? While the movie nails the tone of the society in which we live today, the speedy turnaround of the characters and their unearned redemption are a copout.

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