For the “Against the Crowd Blogathon”: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007) and TOWN & COUNTRY (2001)

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The following is my entry in the Against the Crowd Blogathon, hosted by the blog Dell on Movies, with entries being accepted through Aug. 21, 2015. You can click on the above banner to read more about it, but here are the blogathon rules:

1. Pick one movie that “everyone” loves (the more iconic, the better). That movie must have a score of at least 75% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you hate it.

2. Pick one movie that “everyone” hates (the more notorious, the better). That movie must have a score of less than 35% on rottentomatoes.com. Tell us why you love it.

3. Include the Tomatometer scores of both movies.

Here are my entries.

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

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If Sidney Lumet — the veteran director responsible for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — thought his movie was unique and spellbinding, he must not have seen Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Like DogsDevil concerns a seemingly simple robbery that goes terribly wrong, resulting in copious amounts of bloodshed. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play Andy and Hank, two brothers who come off like a low-rent Laurel & Hardy.

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Andy is the siblings’ Ollie, full of himself but not knowing nearly as much as he thinks. Andy convinces himself that the solution to their money woes is to plan a heist against their own parents’ jewelry store. Andy reasons that no gunplay is necessary, and their parents’ insurance will cover any losses. Of course, the plan isn’t so simple that Andy intends to carry it out himself. Instead, he sweet-talks his brother Hank — the pair’s simpleton Stanley — into doing the heavy lifting. With this pair at the helm, do you think the robbery will go off as smoothly as it seems?

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The plot has potential; what kills it is the ham-handed way it’s presented. The movie’s very first image is that of a naked, pudgy Andy graphically having his way with his curvy wife (Marisa Tomei). I try hard not to judge such things, but any movie that presents a Marisa Tomei finding immense satisfaction from a P.S. Hoffman is already behind on the realism.

This sets the movie’s tone, in which we’re told about characterization rather than actually seeing it. Andy has a really bad drug habit. We’re shown this in a long tracking shot in which Andy wanders around his dealer’s tony apartment before getting elaborately shot up with heroin. How did this low-life get such an upper-bracket junkie habit?

images (2)We’re also told that Andy fiercely resents the lifelong bullying he’s gotten from his father Charles (Albert Finney). Yet as Finney portrays him, Charles seems merely a stubborn old coot — not terribly nasty, given the movie’s graphic circumstances. So it’s just one more character trait sloppily hung upon Andy.

As events rapidly go from bad to worse, screenwriter Kelly Masterson seems to throw up her hands and come up with nothing better than having everyone shoot each other along the way. Either Masterson (whose first script this is) decided to ape The Departed, or he got a vicarious thrill out of watching his characters blow each other away.

This dishonor-among-thieves stuff really did work better in Reservoir Dogs, where it was drenched in irony. Lumet’s biggest mistake is taking this guff so ultra-seriously, particularly when the movie’s climax hinges on one on those movie hospitals where no orderly is ever around when he’s supposed to be. Cue another killing!

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Town & Country (2001)

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I know all of the nasty history behind this movie. It spent years in reshoots, chalked up a final budget of $90 million, made less than a tenth of that amount back, and was disowned by its stars before it was even released. In spite of all that, I still think it’s the best comedy that Woody Allen never made.

That’s a backhanded compliment, but a compliment nevertheless. From the movie’s opening narration from a stammering Warren Beatty, to its use of New York skylines and soundtrack jazz, through its airy plotlessness, it’s obvious which acclaimed filmmaker inspired the movie’s style.

But eventually the movie manages a screwball style of its own. Sometimes the jokes are a little forced and the drama a little mawkish. But the movie finally makes its own very interesting observations about middle age and adultery, and while the movie isn’t as deep as it thinks it is, it still garners a fair share of laugh-out-loud moments.

Town and CountryBeatty plays Porter Stoddard, a New York architect who comes to terms with his own adulterous ways as well as those of his best friend Griffin (Garry Shandling). The movie mostly examines how this philandering affects their wives (Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn). Ironically, though Beatty didn’t write or direct the movie, his character is riddled with autobiography. When Porter comes to terms with the consequences of his actions, and especially when he gives a big undying-love speech to his wife near movie’s end, Beatty seems to be wholeheartedly expressing some of his own insights.

The movie’s plotless meandering also provides an excuse for some extended comedy that plays far better than it deserves, most surprisingly in Beatty’s traipsing around in a bear costume with a waddling rear end. About the only subplot that should have been completely excised involves Charlton Heston as the vengeful father of one of Porter’s conquests. Like Leslie Nielsen, Heston has recently made a second career out of parodying his first career, but here he gets a bit carried away.

But the movie’s contrivances are made tolerable by its insights into human nature. The movie’s best moments are its subtlest, in scenes where guilty males misinterpret innocent conversations with their spouses. For a comedy to waver between farce and drama is no small act of courage these days; that Town & Country pulls off most of its balancing act makes it very worthwhile viewing.

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5 responses to “For the “Against the Crowd Blogathon”: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2007) and TOWN & COUNTRY (2001)

    • I’m sure you’re right, but that’s what this blogathon is all about! Sorry, I’m afraid I just didn’t get it. (Not to knock P.S. Hoffman in general, he was a terrific actor — see my review of CAPOTE posted here.)

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      • I get that. But we need to discuss in further detail. I did a commentary on BEFORE THE DEVIL some time back myself. And Capote, but that one I barely remember what I thought. Interesting how our views can differ so greatly on this one tho.

        Aurora

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve never seen Town and Country so I can’t comment on that, but I love Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. So do most people. But that’s why I created this blogathon, to get those opposing views out there. That’s my long-winded way of saying I love this post. Thanks for playing along, Steve!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was SO disappointed in Before the Devil because of all the promise it seemed to have held. Lumet wasn’t always perfect but when he was on his game he was a great director, Running on Empty is one of my favorite films, and since this was his final film I had high hopes especially with the cast he assembled but I found it a slog to get through.

    I can’t agree with you on Town & Country though. I thought it was a trainwreck that couldn’t be saved by its very talented cast.

    Liked by 1 person

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