By: Henry J. Fromage (Four Beers) –
With James Gandolfini’s recent, incredibly untimely passing, I’ve been trying to catch up on as many of his films as possible. He’s been an integral, if not the best, part of many of the best films of the last couple of decades, but I wanted to search out a film of his I hadn’t seen yet. For that, I had to go to the site of his greatest success- HBO.
This, if I’m not mistaken
Cinema Verite tells the story of visionary (perhaps in unfortunate sense) producer and documentary filmmaker Craig Gilbert (Gandolfini) who creates reality TV by filming a real family for the PBS program An American Family. On the surface, the Louds (yes, that’s their real name) are the perfect family, but like any good reality TV, drama begins to tear them apart.
The story itself is an intriguing one populated by interesting characters, and the game cast plays them to the hilt. Diane Lane gives the central performance as Pat Loud, who, as mothers often are, is the emotional center of the family, and by extension, the film. It’s also from her relationships that the majority of the drama unfolds, particularly her disintegrating marriage with oblivious, philandering Tim Robbins, and conversations with Gandolfini’s producer, which switches between professional, antagonistic, and personal with a hint of something more.
Gandolfini’s excellent as usual in his role as a man torn between serving art and his towering ambition and doing the right thing by the family and particularly the woman that form the raw materials for what he’s trying to accomplish. It’s a performance with a lot more going on than at first glance, and Gandolfini’s subtle, sure hand in delivering it provides just one more mark in a long, long list of reasons why his passing was a great loss to the world of film.
However, the student performance in the film is delivered by Tim Robbins, who’s been in unfortunately scarce supply on the big screen as of late. His performance is the perfect mixture of the hammy and the self-aware, as this guy is self-centered, utterly full of shit, and oblivious to how his actions could possibly affect those around him, yet feels authentic and even sadly empathetic in the end.
He’d probably be the best used car salesman ever, though.
Also of note is Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s direction. Like their most recognizable success, American Splendor, they capture the feel of an era well, and I appreciated little touches like the film’s chapter heading modeled on the miniseries’ episode titles and featuring snippets of original footage. And while not everything rings true in the film, they do perhaps succeed in their central premise- showing how purely strange and off-putting having your life captured, edited, and broadcasted really is… perhaps something we’ve lost sight of these days.
Like I hinted at above, the film doesn’t feel as authentic as it should. It’s too simple a narrative arc, too clean-cut in its plotting, and just feels like what it is- a TV adaptation.
Also falling on the wrong side of imitation vs. authenticity is Thomas Dekker’s performance as Lane, the Loud’s oldest, magnetic and flamboyantly gay son. The film gives plenty of hints at how fascinating a person, and consequently a character, he was, but Dekker gets lost in affectation and fails to deliver a three-dimensional human being.
To the doubling-down…
Mmmm… double down
… on third acts. Cinema Verite has a logical if unambitious structure based around the confluence of An American Family’s and the end of the Loud’s marriage, but then tacks another third act of sorts with the fallout after the airing of the program. This leads up to a coda in which we find out what really happened to these people afterwards, which bizarrely undercuts all of the original third act and the lesson of the whole film. This sounds like ballsy storytelling, but in practice comes off like the screenwriter watched the original An American Family, wrote a screenplay on that, then found out what really happened to these folks, cursed up a blue storm, and hastily added some material to cover that without changing anything else.
There’s enough of a story and a number of good performances to make this worth your time, but don’t feel like you have to go out of your way to see it.
Take a Drink: whenever Robbins has a cheesy line
Take a Drink: every time a yet more 70s piece of clothing or hairstyle shows up
Take a Drink: whenever “drama” is manufactured or demanded
Do a Shot: for every hint at infidelity or homosexuality that Pat doesn’t catch