And so it is I return to this long-neglected blog as my personal project #1 following a major life change that saw me step away from the bulk of my writing six months ago and move from Portland, OR, to North Hollywood, CA, to join Vertigo Comics as a Senior Editor. And so it is that my return is as much about me as it is about the films. But so it also is that Steven Soderbergh’s transitional double feature makes for an apropos subject with which to reignite my journey here. Not that the TV has be turned off or that I haven’t been watching my Criterions, but you’ll have to wait for second viewings before you get to know the full extent of what I thought of Ride the Pink Horse (great) or The BlackStallion (good) or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (not so good)--though I could get personal about a couple of those two.
But no, this is a reunion with Steven Soderbergh, a model of creative daring, a chameleon of cinema, who here we find looking for his way while doing two films that, visually, seem the least him. Be it the idyllic nostalgia of 1993’s King of the Hill or the cool-like-a-glacier artifice of his 1995 soft-boiled The Underneath, his adaptation of a Depression-era memoir or a remake of the superb Robert Siodmak noir Criss Cross, these are films that found Soderbergh searching. A state of malaise and confusion not unlike what I was feeling myself leading up to my own life change. Who am I and what am I doing here making these things? Hell, just contrast the mood of the titles: from top to bottom, the highest to lowest, monarch to corpse.
Not that either movie here is wholly terrible, no matter the director’s own assessment of The Underneath. Even there I should note how much I hated it on first viewing back during its original release. It suffered from a contrived indie ennui that was oh-so-popular at the time, the same distancing self-regard that has kept me from being a fan of Hartley or Egoyan. The Underneath ages better than expected though. On my third viewing, I am fine with it, though only just.
On the other hand, this is my first time with King of the Hill, a wholly enjoyable but strangely anonymous take on A.E. Hotchner’s account of one childhood furnished in aspirational poverty. A very young Jesse Bradford (Bring it On, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet [review]) stars as Aaron, an imaginative child whose proclivity for lying is home grown. He and his parents and his little brother live in a hotel on the wrong side of the line for the school Aaron attends, but his parents encourage his bending of the truth to keep getting a better education because one day the fib will bend all the way around to being real--or so his father believes. You can’t blame him for wanting to go the whole way with the cover-up.
Naturally, this will take much longer than expected, and things will get worse before they get better--particularly after the younger brother (Cameron Boyd) is shipped off to relatives, mom (Lisa Eichorn) is shipped off to a sanitarium, and dad (Jeroen Krabbé) ships himself off to parts unknown to sell watches, leaving Aaron to fend for himself and watch his carefully constructed ruse of a life fall apart.
There are some stellar sequences in King of the Hill. Anytime Bradford and Boyd share the screen, there’s a beautiful rapport between the two that would have you believe they really did grow up together. Bradford manages to find similar connections with other actors, including some key scenes with Adrien Brody, who plays an older hotel resident who teaches Aaron a few tricks. This ability to be present with his co-stars is Bradford’s greatest strength, even when at times he is the weakest link. His confidence and good looks never fail him, so even as he’s supposed to be sickly and starving, he generally just appears to be having a bad day.
It’s one of many things that break the reality of the picture. Soderbergh transports too many caricatures from old movies into what is otherwise a modern interpretation of the timeframe. The angry cop (John McConnell) and bullying bellboy (Joseph Chrest) are cartoons rather than people. One expects them each to take a brick to the back of the head, Krazy Kat-style. Compare this with the sensitive portrayal by Amber Benson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as a young girl isolated by her epilepsy, and you see how much better King of the Hill would have been had Soderbergh chased the humanity instead of the visual homily. (Or perhaps embraced the antiquity completely, much as he did in The Good German [review 1, 2]).
Which, if stepping too far into caricature is the main problem of King of the Hill, it seems to also be the only aspect of the film Soderbergh carries over into the next. The Underneath is all surface chill, the pretense and plot twists of classic noir, but with none of the fire or the passion. In a way, were we to make this a legit double-bill where The Underneath is the first film’s sequel, we could see this as silver-tongued Aaron having returned to his hometown after his lies got him run out on a rail, now all grown up, looking to make amends, and failing to find new paths.
Peter Gallagher stars as Michael Chambers, a compulsive gambler whom we will learn skipped out on his debts, leaving his girlfriend Rachel (Alison Elliott) to clean up after him. He’s come back to see his widowed mother marry a new fella (Paul Dooley), only to find Rachel has now hooked up with local gangster Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner). Michael’s stepdad gets him a job driving an armored car, but Michael is ready to toss that new opportunity and everyone’s happy lives aside by luring Tommy into a robbery that, he hopes, will lead to a double-cross and a journey into the sunset with Alison.
Despite having solid source material to build from, Soderbergh hits a wiffle ball here. He mines the plot for its basic story, but then mars the whole thing with a baffling multi-timeframe structure that does little to enhance what is occurring. Rather, it seems like smoke-and-mirrors to mask how little is going on underneath (if you’ll pardon the expression). Likewise the overbearing lighting schemes. The blues and the greens and the reds are meant to signify the different plot threads and shifting emotions, but as symbolism, Soderbergh comes up empty. Taken at face value, The Underneath is a kaleidoscopic disco of nausea.
So, too, do the backstories the writer/director invents for the characters ring hollow. Michael has a brother, David (Adam Trese), who is a cop. David has stuck around and been there for his mother (Anjanette Comer), and he resents how Michael manages to consistently screw up and yet be forgiven. It’s not hard to side with David, because Michael sure does seem like an empty shirt. It’s impossible to see how his lack of charisma entices the women in his life to make so many wrong choices. (Elisabeth Shue also appears as a bank teller who should know better.)
Once again, Soderbergh pits his too-pretty lead against a salacious villain. Though Fichtner can be quite good playing the heavy (First Snow [review 1, 2], The Lone Ranger), here he is like a fetal bad guy waiting to come to full term. (When he grows up, he’ll be Gary Oldman in The Professional.) Tommy’s outbursts may rattle the audience out of the stupor the film otherwise encourages, but in a way that is more boorish than intriguing.
Even so, for the plethora of negatives, The Underneath ends up being an all right movie. It slithers rather than plods, and its final act finds some energy and manages to be interesting right down to the final twist.
Soderbergh wouldn’t disagree with any of the above. In fact, his interviews on this set back up most of it. He says during the filming of The Underneath he escaped from the disaster at hand by fantasizing about making Schizopolis [review], the film that would change everything for him. In effect, these--his third and fourth films--were building blocks as much as they were stumbling blocks to become the filmmaker he was meant to be. These would give way to Schizopolis, and that would lead to Out of Sight, and not long after that Traffic [review], and a string of unbroken successes (yes, unbroken) right up to his shift from movies to TV and TheKnick.