Everything I’ve done in my life since college has been completely accidental. All I wanted to do, pretty much from the first time I could get into R-rated movies, was be a film critic. (It’s the main reason I went to the University of Illinois: Roger Ebert went there.) Because the movie criticism career never quite got on track, I’ve decided to write about movies here. Feel free to skip; I’m only being self-indulgent. These will take the format of my Wrestler piece for NY mag: Five things you need to know.
1. Everyone’s all excited about Sean Penn in this movie, and they should be: It’s a kick to watch Penn playing a fundamentally happy person for once, rather than some tortured psychotic with a ghastly secret in his past that Penn dreamed up while eating Method bars. Unfortunately, he doesn’t JUST play that guy: He also has to play the Important Man Harvey Milk, which allows Penn to sneak in a few of his All The King’s Men “ACTING!” mannerisms. It’s a thorough performance, but a bit overpraised. He’s better in Sweet And Lowdown, and more fun too.
2. The real star is Josh Brolin, who has about 20 minutes of total screen time and steals every second. His Dan White seems to have cockroaches under his skin; you can almost see them. I don’t remember seeing someone so good at being oppressively uncomfortable with himself. What a year Brolin’s having.
3. The movie’s getting a lot of praise for being an “unconventional” biopic. I don’t think this is true, but it’s happening, I suspect, because it’s NOT a biopic: It’s a cause movie. It’s a biopic in the way that JFK is a biopic of Jim Garrison: Harvey Milk is the vessel — albeit a far more entertaining vessel than Kevin Costner’s Garrison — through which Gus Van Sant is making a message movie. A large section of the movie is devoted to Proposition 6, the 1978 ordinance that would have allowed employers to fire their gay employees (and anyone who “supported” them, whatever the hell that means). This is fine, and important, but, really, it doesn’t have all that much to do with Harvey Milk. The victory doesn’t seem like Milk’s: It seems like Van Sant’s.
4. I’m realizing that James Franco is going through a career resurgence — as much as anyone in their 20s can go through a “resurgence” — because he’s inherently likable, and he’s finally playing inherently likable guys. This does not mean he is playing anyone with a lot of layers; he hasn’t had to stretch, like, at all. I hope he resists the temptation to take lead roles again. He’s an amiable sidekick. If he ever wins an Oscar, it’ll be playing someone doomed who dies halfthrough the movie and must be avenged.
5. I just don’t think I’m ever gonna be a Gus Van Sant guy. I think he devotes too much energy to himself, and what he Wants To Say, in his movies than to ever truly invest in a film or its characters. He likes to create a vibe, a feeling, and then punch through a Message rather than follow the logic of a story. Remember, in Elephant, the completely stupid and nonsensical scene when the two killers shower together and kiss before they go on their murderous rampage? (He even adds in a groaner of a scene in which they play violent video games.) He does the same thing here, implying that White killed Milk because he was closeted himself (which is not supported by the facts, at all). He even adds an awful sequence where White shows up drunk at Milk’s birthday party because … well, the movie doesn’t really say why. He just pops up because we haven’t seen him in a while, and because we need a Tragic Ending (The scene’s saved by Brolin, again.) I think Van Sant is a talented, noble filmmaker who lacks self-discipline and can’t help but get too cute. See the documentary instead. You’ll learn more about Milk, in a film that earns its tragic ending, and shows us just how much we really lost.
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