Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Beyond the Bruges Horizon: SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS

I meant to see Seven Psychopaths (2012) and then saw it, some of it, hated what I saw- returned it - then I forgot I saw some of it, re-Netflixed it, and only remembered I'd seen it halfway halfway through, so it was already pointless to stop a second time. I know what that says about me (nothing good) but what does that say about its writer-director, the "Irish Tarantino," Martin McDonagh? His play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore was bloody funny. I saw it on Broadway totally by chance via a relative of my last AA sponsee who was in the cast. It was a great thing to see free. McDonagh's first big film In Bruges was also refreshingly dark and hilarious, and didn't even need a point, aside from that McDonagh loves that Stephen Frears movie, The Hit (who doesn't?). But Psychopaths, McDonagh's tale of a drunk Irish writer (Colin Farrell, modeling himself no doubt after McDonagh) who has come to Hollywood as Barton Fink once did, high on Hollywood's reverence for playwrights, is worse than some Vancouver-shot made-for-Cinemax After Dark crime sex thriller which at least would have the integrity of sucking. This has too many established cult stars for that. They make it worth not turning off within 20 minutes, which is the best option. But who can turn off a film with Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson? At least you got to slog halfway through, or keep it on while you get back to your book.

As an alcoholic writer though, I might be prejudiced to hate any film that presumes we'll root for the sort of well-to-do dissolute drunk ex-pat who thinks coming up with the name Seven Psychopaths makes him a genius, and who then expects his friends to write the rest for him via their crazy stories while he lives the semi-high life with hot girlfriend, and is daily ushered on adventures by a crazy motherfucker Boondock Saint of a broheim, played by the ever-jiving Sam Rockwell (the role played by John Goodman in Fink). Dude, even for self-reflexive blocked writer movies--an insufferably pretentious lot--doing the whole 'blocked screenwriter's low life muse gets him into jams that slowly become the movie he's writing' thing is really played out, and was even in Charlie Kaufman's script for Adaptation (2002), which at least had the good sense to blow up the bridge behind itself as far as writing about how hard it is to write scripts, and had the decency to actually have a source text not about itself (The Orchid Thief by Susan Lean, instead). I don't mean that as a compliment, because instead of dry heaving the day away kneeling on his bathroom floor like a real writer would (ala William Faulkner in Barton Fink), Colin's character thinks it's enough to writhe in self-conscious writer's block torment under a California sun, never getting the severe solipsistic narcissism at the core of such emotions (he should be inside drinking! Like a boss!) and Farrell's character thinks its enough to feign both narcissism and torment while smoking and drinking, but only as much as the producers will allow. Struggling screenwriters around the world, some of whom might even be talented, would blah blah...

Hey, I'm guilty too. I've always thought about one day writing a feature length script, and am sure it would be a smash hit, and I plan to write it one day, maybe, don't rush me, goddamn it... Meanwhile, I know a screenwriter who wrote lots of them, makes a decent amount of money, and lost some of it to me at poker, and none of his films made it past 'turnaround' then, starting around 1997, a script was picked up, Boom! Soon he was scouting locations and letting us know he had Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon on board, and then he was on set and working hard etc., only having the whole thing dump right to video at the last minute. After sinking years and years of his life into it, his film didn't even make a tiny 'plop' of a splash. The irony? It was about Elvis impersonators who rob a casino and the same year there was this "other" Elvis impersonator crime spree movie 2000 Miles to Graceland. He came away from it relatively well-paid anyway, but good lord, my sensitive soul would have shattered if--after all that--it was just dumped to video. All those years of effort right into the $2.99 remainder bin at Blockbuster.

But hey, hey got paid. And he finished the damned thing. And it wasn't about his adventures in the screen trade. Because that's shiite, and nothing gets me more pissed than hearing a screenwriter on easy street trying to pass his writer's block off as entertainment via sly post-modern mirror effect, and writing his characters into saying how it's a kick-ass idea, and getting away with it.

So.. Colin Farrell... he's got the title "seven psychopaths".. so great. Why wouldn't it be great? He was so good in In Bruges he would seem a no-brainer as McDonagh's drunk Irish screenwriter stand-in. He's got it all: a bitchy American girlfriend (the perennially indignant Abbie Cornish from Limitless), his two-bit charismatic hustler buddy (Rockwell) leading him into scrapes, and... what else... oh yeah, a pen. Y'know... ferwritin'.  Everything's set for brilliance, and I refuse to believe that the man who gave us one of the most climactic final act cat entrances in the history of the legitimate theater could crank out something so pleased with its half-baked 'stale-even-when-Guy-Ritchie-was-first-ripping-off-Tarantino' po-mo laddishness-ness.  It may have helped if we'd seen in the film some of Farrell's character's earlier work (as in Adaptation when we see Charlie on the set of Malkovich). How great it would have been had we seen him in Bruges giving script notes? Then Farrell could have the crazy projection of his own unconscious ego and it wouldn't seem so unearned. I mean it would serve a point, an escape valve because he's got to kiss so much executive ass to keep every expletive.

All writers have them, counterbalancing their schtick, for Woody Allen it's Bogey (as in Play it Again Sam), it's John Goodman in Barton Fink; the brother in Adaptation; the bunny rabbit in Donnie Darko. Instead Rockwell's more like the rabbit in Harvey, or John Goodman in Red State. Sure there's Christopher Walken as a dognapper but man he's gotten old, and he has a dying black wife who may or may not be a younger black wife of Tom Waits in flashback, both of whom have been unfairly perhaps left off all the Seven Psychopath posters and publicity tours. If that didn't sting, to be in a movie about vengeance and being maligned by society and be in turn spurned by even that very movie, left off all the advertising for the crime of being.... what? A black woman?

But what's most unforgivable is that Farrell is not convincing as either a drunk or a writer and he's certainly not one of the Seven of the title. He's too kinetic and cocky, terminally sane. He has no shakes, no quivers, he is just barely hungover and even at the height of his abusive cups he never slurs a syllable. Imagine if he did, or if his Irish accent got more pronounced, blacker, more violent as he drank, something to go with his sudden outbursts? Imagine if he had brought some real intensity to the role, given us a reason for him to be Irish, been acting a Wellesian uber-serious Macbeth in a room full of vapid scenesters! Instead, his drunknenness seems a facile pose, the kind of drunk character no true drunk would ever write. Waits and Walken and a little bit of Harrelson offer the only mountaintop gravitas to be found.

You know what was funny In Bruges!? Everything was funny in In Bruges! 

Amanda Warren, vengeance shall be thine!
I'm no social activist, usually, but it's also quite galling in this day and age that a black woman plays a key psychopath role here and deserves to be one of the seven alleged psychos (above), yet is not mentioned or seen: Psychopath #1 Olga Kurylenko has little more than a cameo and is just a gold digging Russian model. Psycho #5 'the passive-aggressive girlfriend" is a bit of a bitch but as she's dating an abusive Irish hack it's quite understandable --not a psychopath either, just dumb with her choices, and terribly written,  a compendium of ball-busting career girl naggishness. But the biggest psychopath is the self-defeating racist PR people who thought that a black character shouldn't be visible on the posters, but rather 'hidden' deep in the basements of the film's memory. Has Pam Grier's massive 'fro been for naught? Coffey could kick the asses of everyone in this film, but why bother if she has to sit at the back of the table read?

Meanwhile the script tries so hard to play like Elmore Leonard that it sounds desperate. The writers McDonagh apes here are always smart enough to keep a few genuine rough edges on a film about rough edges; they know that you always put the cool black lady up front. Quentin did that and Jackie Brown is a classic. Does McDonagh really not know how sick we are of the whole quipping hitman lad thing? Trends die much more slowly outside the US, I realize. I personally lost interest in Brit "Lad" movies before and after Snatch, which was great don't get me wrong, and that old guy in the thick glasses made for the most terrifying gangster villain since Peter Brandt in The Song Remains the Same. And I love Get Carter and The Hit. But did McDonagh even see them?

Martin McDonagh is a good looking lad with a Sting-esque jaw and crystal blue eyes. I haven't given up on him. He should have played the Farrell character and left the directing to someone else who might have hipped him to the fact that unironic post-modern self-reflexivity has become banal. It's not McDonagh's fault, coming up as he has in the very very different world of theater, such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which rocked a similar tack, only with the psychopath having a cat instead of a little dog. But that had a genuinely dangerous girl psychopath with some actual dialogue, and a lot more blood and guts. If we bear this past triumph in mind, the desperation of Farrell's character is understandable. When operating far away from the Irish minutiae he knows, McDonagh falls back like a panicked bronco, flaring up in all directions in the off chance Hollywood will just at some point rise to its feet, cry bravo, and grant him a green card.

Theater has always been self-reflexive, much more so than most other idioms. Half the early Hollywood pre-code sound films were loosely based on the back stage experiences of Broadway playwrights and wits, lured west by big money. Movies based on plays based on movies (ChicagoPhantom) are ingrained in the celluloid conscience as suitable for framing and all are about razzle dazzle and the great White Way in one way or the other, to name only a few (older ones, of course, more so: A Chorus Line, Twentieth Century, All About Eve). Gotta dance Gotta dance God... ta...   dannnse.. But what works in the theater doesn't play in action movies all a-stud with stars playing halfway ass up into Entourage-ville.

All that said, I really loved In Bruges (above) but even that would have been impossible outside of its setting (a film shoot); what worked there was a horror and fascination with the beery surrealism of Belgium and the way what we consider enchanting and old school is just icky in the eyes of Brits; and all they can agree on is that Yank tourists need a good thrashing and that if you have any cocaine they will go home with you and stay until it's gone and then help you find more. And the filmmakers-within-the-film shooting a scene with baller little person extras and fog machines make for plenty of coke ops. It was original, clever, but not at all full of itself. But now, alas, every self-effacing moment in our drunk screenwriter's odyssey carries a coded message of self-aggrandizement that sticks in the craw almost to Shyamalanian toxicity.

I usually don't bother with negative reviews. Life is too short and I'm too marginal to afford alienating anyone, but if I don't say something this time, I'll probably forget I saw SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS and watch it again in a few years. And that I cannot allow. So forgive me, Woody Harrelson, as I forgive those directors who trespass on your unique comedic brilliance like drunken burglars.

Next time, a speaking role!


  1. Tom Waits is usually pretty good in his sporadic film appearances, although I think his effectiveness in them has decreased in recent years as he's expanded beyond cameos.

    Years ago, I decided I didn't want to read anymore novels about college professors trying to write books and/or having affairs with young students. This is probably the equivalent of blocked screenwriters: Writers writing what they know and failing.

  2. Every self published comic book eventually has the artist draw himself sitting on a toilet.

  3. Too true, Johnny. Even, as I found it to my unending woe, Kim Deitch.


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