Kicking the Tweets

The Great Gatsby (2013)

A Pose By Any Other Name

Baz Luhrman is ridiculous. I've long admired him as a visionary director of movies I can't stand, and his latest--a gaudy, parodic 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby--did nothing to change my mind. Employing the same clown-school mania as Moulin Rouge!, while simultaneously not being a musical, the film also manages to drain all subtext from F. Scott Fitzgerald's seminal American novel while beating us over the head with pseudo-social-messages that only a crack-head would derive from the source material. I read half the book in high school; based on these results, I suspect Luhrman listened to half the Cliff's Notes on Audible while perusing Art Deco Magazine.

I'm all for creative license, but when your framing device hinges on Tobey Maguire as a disillusioned old man in a mental institution--narrating his descent from space cadet to sad space cadet--there's not enough helium on the planet to suspend my disbelief. Maguire plays the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway, as such a squeaky-voiced non-presence that I kept having to remind myself he's A) allegedly a full-grown man, and B) not a corporate prototype for human wallpaper, and C) the doorway to an interesting story.

It's 1922, and Carraway has just moved to New York City (adjacent) to make it big in the booming world of finance. He buys a small house just across the river from his cousin, Daisy (Carrey Mulligan), and her crazy-rich husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). His neighbor is a skulking Bruce Wayne prototype named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), an impossibly wealthy recluse whose fortunes are as elusive as his presence at his manor's lavish weekend parties. When Gatsby finally reveals himself--after a really, really, really, really, really* long series of extravagant, get-to-the-point tertiary character introductions, he turns out to be a bit of a kook.

Thankfully, DiCaprio makes him a compelling kook. Suave, funny, and guardedly earnest, the actor goes a long way in selling the charms of a character we'll soon come to loathe (if, of course, "we" have any good sense, unlike Mr. Carraway). It turns out Daisy and Gatsby were once a thing, but Gatsby returned from World War I without a penny to his name and felt unworthy of asking his beautiful, old-money princess to marry him. Five years later, aided by a fortune built on bootlegging and market rigging, Gatsby has set up shop across the way from his beloved (he's also modern literature's prototypical stalker, it turns out), and is intent to use Carraway as his opening salvo against Tom Buchanan's marriage.

Luhrman's The Great Gatsby has two major problems, one of which is, I guess, fundamental to the book, and the other draws unhelpful and unintended scrutiny to that fatal flaw. From a storytelling perspective, there's not a sympathetic or interesting character anywhere in sight. This is blasphemy, I know--especially coming from someone who couldn't be bothered to complete or revisit the novel--but everyone in Fitzgerald's world is a fool (if Luhrman's interpretation of it is to be believed, which I don't know that it should be).

Carraway believes Gatsby to be the embodiment of hope and virtue, even as he's stealing brides, operating an empire of illegal booze and fraudulent investments, and covering up vehicular manslaughter. The object of his affection, Daisy, is a vacuous, blubbering, wad of pale taffy that any objective man with standards would just as soon leave stuck to the floor. In fact, the only reasonably sympathetic character here is Tom, who at least acknowledges his vices. Sure, he  may be a cheating, boozing, out-of-touch son of privilege, but when Gatsby forces Daisy to tell her husband that she never loved him (in a silly, drawn-out moment that's sure to net at Gatsby least two Razzies), the look of heartbreak on Edgerton's face sold me on his being the real star of this movie.

I think I've spoken enough about Carraway, and Maguire's "Psst! I'm over here" performance.

There's no denying the sweeping romance of The Great Gatsby, but it's the same idiot love triangle one might find week after week on COPS--which makes Luhrman's telling of it so puzzling. I imagine it will be very difficult for young audiences (let's face it, this thing was made for children) to connect with the bizarre motives, sloppy pining, and dumb decisions made by every character at every turn. Why not be bold with the material, then, and spruce up Fitzgerald a bit? Give Jay and the gang problems that are relatable in any era?

Too difficult, I guess. Yes, it's much easier to just throw digital cheese and a Remedial English student's ideas about what "The Roaring 20's" looked like up on the big screen. Though not as gaudy as Moulin Rouge!, The Great Gatsby is equally sinister in hiding its lack of substance behind noise, flash, and elaborate sets and costumes. Worse yet, everyone speaks in the hyper-corny, old-Hollywood patois that comedians like Patton Oswalt use to ridicule old movies.

In a bizarre twist, many early scenes play out against a hip-hop soundtrack. Ah, yes, there's nothing like listening to Jay-Z rap about empowerment and luxury while watching somber black men serve white fat-cats lunch.

I highly recommend skipping this movie and checking out one of 2011's overlooked gems, The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson know that he was a huge fan of Fitzgerald's Gatsby (one of his earliest writing exercises was to type out the entire book to get a feel for the author's rhythms). The Rum Diary is Thompson's Gatsby: the early work sat in a drawer for decades and features a similar, troubled trio fighting for love and purpose in 1950s San Juan. It's got substance, heart, beautiful (natural) locations, and a protagonist who won't make you want to chug a Red Bull.

Wrapping up the review at hand, The Great Gatsby is like George Lucas' Star Wars prequels: technologically amazing (I guess), well-acted (enough), and brimming with the illusion of time worthiness. But there's nothing here that warrants spending two-and-a-half hours with these moneyed morons in a theatre. You'd be better off with the book--or so I've read.

*Sorry, I just had a flashback to my Great Gatsby book report.


Something in the Air (2012)

The Air That I Breathe

Yesterday, I worked thirteen-and-a-half hours at my day-job. Artist by trade, film critic by night, mine is a life the eighteen-year-old version of me would have probably loved--unless I were to map out the gruelling realities of making it in the professional (i.e. corporate) world.

Long ago, I traded acrylic-paints for e-mails, and day-long ink-drawing sessions for meetings about projects I won't remember next month--let alone on my death bed. I'd never share this information with him/me, if given the chance, because he/I probably would jump in front of a city bus mid-discussion.

There's nothing romantic or world-changing about what I do every day, unless you want to get all Dr. Phil on me about little differences amounting to big things. I suppose that's true, but it's little comfort when I stumble home, exhausted, five minutes after my son goes to sleep.

What does any of this have to do with Something in the Air? Everything. Olivier Assayas' casually moving, beautiful film about French high school students/revolutionaries in 1971 breathes the fire of creative youth. Gilles (Clement Metayer), a sullen, shaggy-haired artist, falls in with the activist kids in his class. His ideals aren't so much political as they are expressive: by raging against Communism, Fascism, and every other vague "ism" that his more bookish compatriots think will look sufficiently menacing on the front of their mimeographed underground paper, Gilles finds the inspiration to paint wild pictures and bed social-conscience groupies.

The movie opens with a protest that descends quickly into a horrifying episode of police brutality. The police don't just warn the teens to disperse. They run each of them down, doling out gleefully savage beatings with big, black clubs. Gilles and his friends Alain (Felix Armand) and Christine (Lola Creton), escape the mayhem, but conspire to pull off a grand act of vandalism in retaliation. The next evening, they deface the front of their school before being run off. On returning for yet another round of graffiti art, one of their pursuers is accidentally knocked on the head and lapses into a coma.

Another student takes the blame, but the three friends decide to lay low in Italy over the summer. Christine runs off with the head of a documentary film crew; Alain falls for spaced-out American hippie Leslie (India Menuez); and Gilles grapples with a romantic interest in Christine, a lingering love of his druggie ex, Laure (Carole Combes), and conflicted feelings about going to work for his TV-producer father after graduation. These events comprise Something in the Air, but I hesitate to call them "plot elements".

Assayas isn't interested in forward momentum here. In this way, his film is a perfect metaphor for the uncertainty most of us faced when transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Gilles and his friends find no easy answers to their problems; their Earth-shattering ideals are of little use in the real world. That's to say, it's far easier to dedicate hours to feeding starving children when your own needs are taken care of through no effort of your own. Adulthood is the necessary evil these characters must reconcile with, and they are in no hurry to do so.

Please don't mistake this for a heavy European art film. I mean, it kind of is, in theme. But in execution, Assayas captures the easygoing luxury of long afternoons spent painting, screwing, and listening to great music--all the while knowing that lively conversation and beautiful French countryside views are just a window-crack away. He punctuates this with moments of great drama and consequence: the riot, an exploding car, and one of the greatest mind-fuck house fires I've ever seen. These jarring scenes create empathy with the characters, who just want to escape the noise the real world keeps blasting at them.

Had Something in the Air not made me question a number of decisions I've made in my own journey from wide-eyed world-conqueror-in-training to a manager of artists, I'd probably proclaim my love for it. But the movie depressed me a great deal, precisely because it's so spiritually uplifting. Yes, Gilles and his friends wind up tiptoeing into adulthood (and it's unclear how many of their ambitions and creative ideals will survive the long haul) but Assayas leaves us with hope for them and for ourselves.

Our passions, the writer/director argues, may flicker, fade, or even change color. Sometimes, they'll swell beyond our ability to control them. It's a refreshing message. And despite these long, hard, seemingly unrewarding days, I'll never stop tending my fire.

Hey, Chicagoans! If you'd like to experience the mood and magnificence of Assayas' film on the big screen, head on out to The Music Box Theatre on Southport this week, where Something in the Air opens today!


Pain & Gain (2013)

Won't Power

Note: This review is almost two weeks late. Not that anyone's keeping track, but Pain & Gain sprung up as an unexpected personal wall that I must break through and move past.

Melodrama abounds!

I left the theatre fully prepared to get this ugly motion picture out of my head by writing about it. But as hours turned into days, rival fronts of apathy and anger showered my Critic Brain in depression. Everything came to a halt--creaking back to life just long enough to churn out an Iron Man 3 review, which I attribute to two factors:

  1. I loved that movie.
  2. Out of boredom and frustration, I randomly tallied the number of reviews I've written in the last three-plus years and realized that Pain & Gain had come dangerously close to being number six-hundred. I couldn't let that happen, in good conscience.

So, here we stand, together, at the precipice of...something.

Enough stalling.

Let's rip the Band-aid on this motherfucker...

Stop. If you haven't read "Pain & Gain", Pete Collins' gripping three-part story that originally appeared in The Miami New Times, I implore you to do so before reading my take on Michael Bay's big-screen adaptation. It's a long piece, sure, but the key to understanding how severely the director and screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) botched their tale of sadistic Miami juice-heads is to read its stranger-than-fiction origin.

"Pain & Gain" is about Daniel Lugo, a grifter and fitness fanatic who traded the unrewarding, hard work of swindling old people out of their life savings for a get-rich-quick career kidnapping and torturing millionaires. He roped in a few dimwitted buddies and, over the course of several months, lived the high life: dating strippers, taking possession of McMansions and prototype sports cars, and posing as CIA operatives to keep their new neighbors from getting suspicious. It's a great premise for a thriller, or a blacker-than-black comedy--one the Coen Brothers or Michael Mann could easily sink their teeth into.

Unfortunately, we're dealing with Michael Bay who, not content with being the Boss of Box Office Brainlessness, has tried his hand at non-Happy-Meal filmmaking. I'd applaud him for the effort, were the results not so offensively disastrous and disastrously offensive. Even if you have no knowledge of or connection to the events that inspired this story, there's no getting around the fact that Pain & Gain is a sloppy, mean-spirited movie posing as satire--the equivalent of a six-year-old boy who thinks saying "shit" at the dinner table constitutes adult conversation.

Mark Wahlberg plays Lugo, a beefy, charismatic entrepreneur who narrates his dramatic caper, which begins with a dream in late 1994 and culminates with his arrest (and subsequent death sentence) in June of 1995. He manages Florida's Sun Gym, but pines for the respect and extravagant lifestyle of the rich assholes he's forced to train every day. Enter Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), a cranky little man whose fortune was built on a Schlotzky's Deli franchise and mysterious overseas businesses. He's a joke at the gym: wiry, old, and pompous--just the kind of jerk that Lugo decides doesn't deserve everything he has.

Long, dull story (as told by Bay and company) short, Lugo teams up with steroid abuser/best-friend Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and muscle-bound ex-con/newly-born Christian Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to kidnap and torture Kershaw until he eventually signs over all of his assets to them. They also force him to call his wife and confess to a fictitious affair, which compels her to take their son back to Columbia--thereby freeing up the family's home for its new occupants. Things go well for the Sun Gym gang until Doyle relapses into a nasty cocaine habit; drained of cash, the three buff-oons target a mega-rich porn magnate (Michael Rispoli) and get themselves into exponentially more trouble.

From a technical standpoint, Pain & Gain is very well made. Bay is nothing if not a brash stylist who shoots every bikini-wearing woman as a sex goddess, every leading man as an animated bronze monument, and every location as a cross between a beer commercial set and heaven, as produced by MTV's head of reality programming. In less grotesque hands, this aesthetic would have been perfect for the material.

What's missing is an understanding that Lugo's story is neither the stuff of hero worship nor broad comedy. Bay is essentially still playing to his Transformers audience, but thanks to an "R" rating, he's able to infuse his movie with what I can only imagine is a personal brand of homophobia, misogyny, and general naked disgust for anyone not like him (it's a theory based on Bay's filmography and the source material's lack of any of those things).

Though the main characters are unlikable, they're presented as charismatic anti-heroes--whereas every woman who appears on-screen (with the exception of Emily Rutherfurd, who plays the nodding housewife of Ed Harris' private eye character) is a naive dunce whose sole purpose is to be screwed and screwed over by men. Every guy who isn't the model of physical perfection is gross-looking and implicitly gay. And God help you if you're overweight or a midget in Bayworld: you're either going to be exploited for laughs by being squeezed into "sexy" lingerie while riding a skinny black dude (a signal for barking-seal approval from the Maury crowd, no doubt); turned into a screaming caricature of mental illness who can't control their bowels; or reduced to a sight gag ('cuz, y'know, different-looking people are hilarious, bro).

This isn't just armchair psychology, folks. The auditorium in which I watched this thing was livelier than a Spring Break body-shot competition--complete with rubes who repeated lines; laughed at people being tortured and gays getting punched repeatedly in the face; and loudly asserted their ability to read ("Oh my God! His shirt says 'Team Jesus'! Ha ha ha! Oh my God!"). Then there were also the sub-morons who never developed an appropriate decibel level for public laughter, and the totally-not-fucking-queer packs of Dudes who sat with empty seats between them. Half-way through, I wondered if Pain & Gain was some kind of sociology experiment--would I make it to the parking lot without being gassed?

Worse yet, Bay eggs on these cretins by dropping in cute reminders that he's telling a "true story". Very little about Pain & Gain the movie resembles "Pain & Gain" the article (which, admittedly, was filtered through the mind of a journalist and the accounts of those he'd interviewed). So many of the facts have been changed, rearranged, or woven anew that it's criminal to give the audience license to believe what they're seeing.

Bay and company know this. The last damning bit of evidence comes in the closing "Where Are They Now" montage: the real-life identity of the Kershaw character is not revealed, in order to "protect the victim". But shell-shocked former businessman Marc Schiller's name is all over the Miami New Times piece--meaning, in essence, that the filmmakers are banking on their audience relying on them to deliver the truth of the true story ("Duuude! That's crazy! I bet he's in witness protection or something!").

Don't try telling me this movie is a satire, that all the gay-bashing, women-using, cavalier violence is meant to represent the mind-set of the characters. In order for that to be true, there needs to be some indication that the artist condemns his subject matter, or is trying to make a greater point about society's complicity in allowing such horrible things to take root; all signs point to Bay's endorsement of the take-what-you-think-is-yours mentality--which is fine, I suppose. But it ain't satire. In Living Color was satire. Amos & Andy was racist garbage masquerading as comedy.

It's fitting that Pain & Gain was the last flick out of the gate before summer-movie season. Not exciting enough to be a blockbuster, and not smart enough to be an Oscar contender, Paramount quietly sharted it onto the late-Spring slate. Fully aware that the movie would make just enough money to not be a complete embarrassment, I'm sure some executive somewhere was relieved when Iron Man 3 swooped in on a half-billion-dollar current, clearing the attention-span pathway for real movies, like the reboot of Star Trek 2.


Iron Man 3 (2013)

Always Bet on Black

Iron Man 3 is not a great comic-book movie. If you go into this thing expecting a continuation of Joss Whedon's The Avengers, you'll be sorely disappointed. Gone are the super-powered, bickering heroes; world-ending alien threats; and episodic action set pieces. There are no Hulk transformation scenes to justify repeat viewings in IMAX or at home, nor is there a smug, ornately costumed villain for you to take joy in seeing pummelled like a rag doll.

Iron Man 3 is a great film, made for adults, that just happens to be packed with explosions, special effects, and a scrappy kid sidekick. All credit goes to director Shane Black for making star Robert Downey Jr. palatable again in this, his fifth big-screen appearance in as many years as billionaire-playboy-turned-metal-masked superhero Tony Stark. It's no secret that I'd dreaded having to sit through more of Downey's phoned-in wink-acting after The Avengers and the execrable Iron Man 2--but Black and co-writer Drew Pearce push the character into some gnarly, non-popcorn-flick territory, and I loved every second of it.

Months after Stark helped thwart an alien invasion, Thor, Captain America, and the rest of The Avengers are nowhere to be found. The sassy would-be leader finds he's lost a team but gained a serious case of insomnia. He builds bigger and badder prototypes of his patented Iron Man armor to ward off threats greater and weirder than anything he could have imagined a year earlier. Lost in a cloud of restless paranoia, he fails to notice the immediate dangers aligning against him:

A media-savvy terrorist called The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) teases the U.S. President (William Sadler) with promises of unspeakable, random violence. Panicked, the administration calls on Stark's best friend, Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), to amp up his presence as the red-white-and-blue Iron Man knock-off, Iron Patriot. Meanwhile, another billionaire industrialist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) unveils a miraculous, regenerative cure for amputees called "Extremis", whose unfortunate side-effects include enhanced aggression and spontaneous human combustion.

Toss in panic attacks, a complicated business/personal relationship with girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the reemergence of a jilted lover (Rebecca Hall) with a mysterious connection to Extremis and The Mandarin, and Tony Stark has more than enough hoops to jump through without worrying about thunder gods and Thanos.

The key to Iron Man 3's success is Black's signature blend of creative, crowd-pleasing action and macho introspection. If by some fanciful stretch this is the last time we see Stark on the big screen, it would be a poetic, full-circle swan song for a character who is forced to look his demons straight in the eye (and realize they're looking back at him from the mirror). Thematically, this film reaches all the way back to before the events of the first movie (notice who introduces Stark to a potential client in the opening scene), and calls our hero to task for every instance of callousness and un-checked ego--even after allegedly getting his life together by vacating the arms business.

Chances are, Iron Man 3 will remind you of The Dark Knight Rises. Indeed, both involve heroes fighting their way back from near-incapacitation to stop a terrorist who may or may not be as menacing as they appear (more on that later). The difference here is that Tony Stark never stops being Iron Man, even after he takes off the suit. Bruce Wayne was Batman for maybe a few months of the entire Dark Knight trilogy--which spanned just over nine years. He became a hero; got depressed and retired for eight years; came out of retirement; got crippled within two days of being back on the job; then healed himself just long enough for one last butt-kicking before quitting again. Stark, on the other hand, faced adversity like a true hero, never once letting up on the gas--even if he was often motivated by arrogance more than nobility.

In fact, Stark spends the middle hour of the movie outside the Iron Man suit, stranded in rural Tennessee and forced to solve the mystery of The Mandarin with little more than hardware-store supplies and a latch-key kid (Ty Simpkins) who discovers him in his mom's shed. By stripping his protagonist of all networks, money, and shiny gadgetry, Black and Pearce take him back to those dark, desperate days in which he'd used optimism, brains, and an innovative spirit to escape terrorist captivity.

Another major trait this film shares with the Dark Knight Trilogy is the theme of super-heroic or super-villainous figures as ideas that transcend mortal identities. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne realizes that his greatest weapons against the criminal underworld are shadows, costuming, and gossip. Batman would be far more effective as a myth, rather than just a guy.

Warning: Things are about to get spoiler-y, so please avert your eyes now if you don't want to have Iron Man 3 ruined for you. Skip to the last two paragraphs for a tidy wrap-up instead.

Iron Man 3 ups the ante by making The Mandarin a complete media figment. The ornately dressed, trash-talking Bin Laden wannabe is actually a drunk British actor hired by Killian to play a part. TDKR used a similar reveal in its climax, and while Black and Pearce's choice makes much more narrative sense, it has proven infuriating to comics fanboys--which is an unexpected bonus. I only mean that as half a sleight, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to step outside the review for a moment to address the complainers who've been stinking up talk-backs since this twist came out last week:

Ahem. I know that the comic-book version of The Mandarin is a formidable Iron Man foe who flies and shoots energy out of ten cosmic rings or whatever, but Black and Pearce are speaking to the audience of a completely different medium here. That kind of wizardry might fly in Thor's universe, but the Iron Man series is grounded in a more science-based reality (even if it's the science of comic books). I'll admit that seeing Guy Pearce breathe fire looks a bit dodgy, but it's much easier to swallow than Cosplay Gandalf levitating and blowing stuff up with magic jewelry. Tony Stark is a heroic businessman, so it's only fitting that his arch-nemesis be a maniac in a polo shirt who uses the poor to meet his devious ends.

On top of that, the Mandarin reveal actually says something about the way audiences unquestioningly absorb media. It's also cool that moviegoers were duped just as surely as the fictional TV watchers in Iron Man 3 were. I think that's the key to all the outrage: in an era where most movies' finer plot points are ruined in their trailers, Black, Marvel, and the frickin' Disney corporation exercised some honest-to-God restraint in marketing their tent-pole Summer product. So quit whining about The Mandarin not being in the movie. He's all over it, and over your head as well.

If you're looking for an utterly brainless experience, there's more than enough eye candy to justify the trip to the theatre. Iron Man 3 bustles with interesting action on scales big and small, and even pulls off one hell of a thrilling mid-air rescue. The scene in which Air Force One is attacked, and Stark must save fourteen people who've been sucked out the back of it made me forget that I was watching an essentially safe movie. The season's other actioners have quite a high bar to clear, and I welcome the challenge.

If, however, you're hungry for smart, thrilling entertainment, you'll find a movie that film caps off a tightly conceived trilogy even non-comics-readers should feel proud to embrace as legitimate adult entertainment. Black deftly avoids the pitfalls of his PG-13 rating and delivers a film on par with (and in a parallel universe to) the movies that put him on the map--namely Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Tony Stark learns some real lessons in the course of his long, weird journey (okay, maybe he didn't take anything away from Iron Man 2; I know I didn't), and in the face of the bizarre, pulp extravaganza we've just tiptoed into (Marvel's "Phase Two" film series), it's nice to see a creative team take a few steps back in appreciating the man--not just the machine.


Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal (2012)

The Long, Dark Snack-Time of the Soul

Some movies defy categorization. Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal has been called a "dark comedy", but I'm not sure that's right. Despite the cute title and intermittent gore, it's not a "horror comedy", either--at least not in the way you might think of such films. Yes, it's about a frustrated Danish painter who takes a teaching job in middle-of-nowhere Canada, only to discover that his new roommate is a sort of REM-sleep werewolf. But writer/director Boris Rodriquez embraces his characters' weird reality, delivering a film so absurd, terrifying, cute, and heartbreaking that I'd hoped to find out it was a docudrama.

Thure Lindhardt is Lars, our washed-up artist hero. He hasn't produced anything of note in a decade, to the chagrin of his slimy agent, Ronny (Stephen McHattie), but is treated like a celebrity at the Koda Lake Art School. A cross between Summer School and Footloose, Lars' first day on the job involves a bad encounter with a cop; a crush on the teacher one classroom over (Georgina Reilly); and a run-in with an uptight slime-ball of a faculty member (Peter Michael Dillon). As soon as Eddie (Dylan Smith) enters the picture, though, predictability jumps head-first out the window.

Eddie is a large, mute mope whose wealthy aunt's financial support keeps the troubled school's doors open. In exchange, the staff allow Eddie to sit quietly in the back of various classes, where he paints spooky, childish watercolors. The aunt passes away suddenly, and Lars volunteers to let Eddie stay with him in the spirit of making a good first impression on his new co-workers.

During their first night together, Lars awakens to find his roommate naked in the woods with a mouth smeared in blood and a shredded rabbit carcass nearby. As the days wear on, Eddie's unconscious and unholy appetite evolves to bigger and bigger animals until--well, you probably get the idea. Why doesn't Lars call the police on this lunatic? I'll leave that for you to discover; suffice it to say, I wondered the same thing for quite awhile, and the answer is brilliant and honest in a way I didn't expect.

I referred to Eddie as a "werewolf" earlier, and though he doesn't sprout over-grown canines and excess body hair, his place in the bigger story will feel very familiar to horror fans. Fortunately, the movie is about Lars, and about what Eddie awakens in him. The "terrorizing the town" stuff is effectively yucky and pretty funny, but I really responded to Lars' struggle to make a comeback amidst (and thanks to) the chaos in his life. Either Rodriguez spent a lot of time around painters in researching this character, or being a filmmaker is a very similar kind of creative obsession--either way, his portrait of Lars will speak loudly to anyone who's ever found themselves at the mercy of uncontrollable creative urges (pay attention to the tools Lars uses when painting masterpieces we're never privy to, and how they correlate to his particular successes and failures; it's but a thread in Rodriguez's keenly observed, lovingly woven tapestry).

With a different cast, this movie would be pretty good. But Lindhardt, Reilly, and Smith make the production special. With an angelic face that looks like a genetic mash-up of Jonny Lee Miller and Rutger Hauer, Lindhardt reveals Lars to be a deeply troubled egotist masquerading as a decent, humble guy. As Lesley the love interest, Reilly brings vulnerability to a role that, at first glance, is no weightier than...well, a character best described as "Lesley the love interest."

As the film's titular "monster", Smith crushes with a performance that never lets the audience doubt him for a second. It's a tired truth that in every comedy or horror film featuring a character who is called out as being mute, they will inevitably say something cute or important before the end credits. Not here. In a bravura performance similar to Andrew Sensenig's in Upstream Color, Smith creates Eddie solely out of body language and masterful facial manipulations that suggest he'd spent his whole life having to relate to people in frustrated silence.

Given my lousy track record with indie genre films lately, I expected nothing out of this thing called Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal; serves me right for judging a movie by its title. The picture is as hard to pin down as the movies I consider to be its spiritual forebears, Election and World's Greatest Dad. It's a great addition to the pantheon of teachers-in-midlife-crises movies, full of rich characters, tricky situations, and the hard questions that don't seem like much until we stop laughing long enough ask them of ourselves.

Attention Chicagoans! If you'd like to catch Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal on the big screen (and you definitely should), it opens tomorrow night at The Music Box Theatre on Southport. Check out their Web site for more information.