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Sad Men: Churchill, Wakefield, Norman & Dean

June 2, 2017

I’ve seen some great acting lately, but nothing eclipses Brian Cox’s tour de force in Churchill. So why is the biopic sitting at 37% on Rotten Tomatoes? And why is Bryan Cranston’s empty all-but-one-man show Wakefield overrated at 76% Fresh? I wish I knew the answer. I’m thinking rather than “certifying” movies as Fresh, most of the critics who are aggregated on that site should be just plain certified.

Churchill depicts a tiny slice of a great man’s life: It takes place over the final hours before D-Day, as the gruff, cigar-puffing Prime Minister opposes the operation due to his traumatic memories of World War I bloodshed. Cox brilliantly constructs a two-tiered performance: the public Churchill is all stiff upper lip, but the private Winston is tortured by doubt, depression and self-medicating drunkenness. He’s matched by the formidable Miranda Richardson as Churchill’s stalwart wife, Clementine. John Slattery  initially seems miscast as Dwight D. Eisenhower — he’s like Roger Sterling in a general’s uniform — but it turns out there’s a method to director Jonathan Teplitzky’s madness, and I ended up liking Ike.

And loving Churchill. The script, by historian Alex von Tunzelmann, often lapses into Shakespearean soliloquies, but who better to deliver them than that great Scot Cox. His work is even more remarkable when you consider he based the character on Family Guy‘s Stewie, as Cox told me at a recent SAG-AFTRA Foundation Q&A.

Bryan Cranston tackles an equally difficult challenge in Wakefield, based on an E.L. Doctorow short story that should’ve remained one. He plays a suburban husband and father who abandons his family and hides out in the garage spying on them and enacting what he imagines are their conversations about him. Cranston’s hair and beard grow as he begins to look increasingly homeless, but the character and the story don’t progress.  The rest of the cast, including Jennifer Garner as his wife and Beverly D’Angelo as her mother, are rendered almost entirely silent, and the ending is a total cop-out.

Meanwhile, forget the McConaisance — Matthew McConaughey has lost his way lately with lackluster duds like Gold — and say hello to the Richard Gerenaissance. Building on his acting triumphs in Time Out of Mind and The Dinner, Richard Gere gives the best and most unlikely performance of his career in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. Cast way against type as a Jewish-American pisher who turns himself into a macher through sheer force of chutzpah, the onetime American Gigolo disappears into the role. He finds the pathos in a seemingly pathetic character and wrings all the humor out of writer-director Joseph Cedar’s rich, complex screenplay. There was always a character actor hiding beneath Gere’s good looks, and I’m glad he’s finally come out to play.

Last but certainly not least, there’s Dean. Stand-up/cartoonist Demetri Martin writes, directs and stars in this deeply funny and moving tale of two men dealing with the same loss in very different ways. Demetri’s Dean tries to fly away from the pain of his mother’s death, making an impromptu trip to L.A. and leaving behind his grieving father (Kevin Kline, never better), who’s determined to sell the family house and try to move on. With echoes of Annie Hall and The Graduate, Dean is ultimately a full expression of Martin’s psyche, from his primitively hilarious drawings (think Steven Wright crossed with The Far Side) to his mordantly off-kilter wit. Martin could be the next Woody Allen or Mike Nichols, a comic-turned-consummate cinematic storyteller.

So if you’re looking for a movie not based on a comic book this weekend, check out Churchill, Norman or Dean. They’re all, each in their own way, superheroes.

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