Call it counterprogramming to the influx of big explosion-y movies filling the multiplexes in the summertime. Call it beautiful, painterly, radiant, dingy, gloomy and gloam-y. Call it a melodrama. Call it moving and patient. It will answer to all of these names. But is it any good? Yes and no.
The dichotomy there is embodied in the film by way of the two leads. One, Marion Cotillard, is extraordinary. She’s reminiscent of Frank Borzage’s heroines, both full of life and almost constantly oppressed by outside forces. She’s a truly wonderful character, a woman who, along with her sister, comes to America in 1921 and is immediately snatched up by a less-than-reputable man who seems to have a history of doing this kind of thing. He recruits her as a seamstress for his burlesque shows but she is soon thrust on stage and that’s not the first indignity she must suffer, nor will it be the last. The key to the film, though, is that she never feels pitiable because she doesn’t need the audience’s pity. She can fend for herself and she can stand up to the men who want to control her.
The problem, then, is the other lead. Joaquin Phoenix is one of those actors that just doesn’t often click for me. I think I get really turned off by people who don’t seem to have a sense of humor, who don’t seem to get the cosmic joke of existence. Until very recently, Edward Norton felt like one of those guys, but his roles in Wes Anderson movies (Moonrise Kingdom in particular) showed that he gets it, he can take things less seriously sometimes. I don’t think Phoenix has that. The last thing that even hinted in that direction was Signs, but everything else he’s done in the past decade has been so darn serious. So when he’s doing practically the same thing here as he did in The Master, the same intensity and single-minded pursuit of physical pleasure to the detriment of interpersonal relationships it feels like he didn’t learn the lesson of that film. This is all an oversimplification, of course, but there’s something to it, I think, and it really holds back what might have been an all-time great film.
Because the rest of the movie, including a nice but ultimately forgettable performance from Jeremy Renner and some spectacular direction by James Gray really does work. It feels like one of those old 30’s melodramas and a modern film at the same time. There are numerous shots which show a level of craftsmanship that has few equals in today’s landscape. And that last shot is a doozy and a half. The mood, the atmosphere, the recreation of early 20’s New York City, they’re all really grand and work towards making the story of Cotillard’s Ewa feel real (emotionally, at least). If only it weren’t let down by a clunky and unconvincing Joaquin Phoenix.