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Adrien Brody: Why the Long Face?

March 3, 2012

It was one of the most memorable moments in Oscar history—but it turned out to be a kiss of death: an exuberant Adrien Brody planting one on presenter Halle Berry after his upset victory as Best Actor for 2002’s The Pianist. His bone-deep performance in Roman Polanski’s Holocaust drama beat out strong turns by Oscar winners Jack Nicholson, Nicolas Cage, Daniel Day-Lewis and Michael Caine. It should’ve been the start of a brilliant career, one that had already suffered a false start when his would-be leading role in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was edited down to a glorified walk-on.

Instead, The Pianist looks like it might be Brody’s sole high note; his work since has been seriously off-key, whether in schlock horror films (Splice, Predators), big-budget letdowns (King Kong, The VIllage) or unwatchable indie curios (The Brothers Bloom, The Darjeeling Limited). Oh yeah, he played Dali in Woody Allen’s wildly overrated Midnight in Paris, too, but I forgot he was even in that movie until I imdb‘d him. Lately, he’s been reduced to doing Super Bowl commercials for Stella Artois, Diet Coke and Gillette—that’s him with the equally irrelevant Gael Garcia Bernal and Andre 3000 in the embarrassing new “Masters of Style” campaign.

Brody’s latest film, Detachment, should be his creative comeback. Directed by provocateur Tony Kaye (who coaxed an Oscar-nominated performance from Edward Norton as a skinhead in American History X), it casts the angular actor as an inner-city substitute teacher drifting through life. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of quality cable-drama actors—Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks, Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, Southland‘s Lucy Liu, The Wire‘s Isiah Whitlock, Jr.—as well as such stellar talent as James Caan, Blythe Danner, William Petersen, Marcia Gay Harden and Tim Blake Nelson. Sadly, it’s an insufferably pretentious fiasco.

Maybe that’s why Detachment is making its debut on Video on Demand nearly a year after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. (It’ll also receive a token theatrical release in a few weeks.) Where does the movie go wrong? Where doesn’t it? Brody’s Henry Barthes—semiotic literary reference alert!—spouts bad poetry when he’s not befriending a teenage prostitute, played unconvincingly by Blue Bloods‘ Sami Gayle. Taxi Driver, it ain’t. Throw in faux-documentary confessionals, cheap chalk-drawn animation, grainy flashbacks to Henry’s mother’s suicide, a scene in which Caan tries to scare a nipple-baring chippie straight by showing her a photo of gonorrhea-ravaged vagina and random images of Hitler and you’ve got an unholy (and unrated) mess.

And yet the greatest detriment to Detachment is Brody’s self-indulgent, fingernails-on-a-chalkboard performance. The movie’s meant to make you empathize with the poor, put-upon teachers battling hostile students, abusive parents, apathetic administrators and No Child Left Behind regulations. But after enduring this pedantic claptrap, the only one you’ll end up feeling sorry for is yourself.

Can Adrien Brody’s career be saved? Raise your hand and post a comment!

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