Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Maybe too true

This is how respected Mark Ruffalo is among actors: Ethan Hawke, who is an actual movie star, gracefully plays second banana to Ruffalo in What Doesn't Kill You (2008). (I am reminded of Jude Law content to play straightman to Robert Downey, Jr. in Sherlock Holmes.) What Doesn't Kill You (2008) is as much of a showcase for Ruffalo as it is for its first-time director and co-writer, Brian Goodman. It rises and travels on Ruffalo's performance, but that work cannot overcome the story's basic lack of true drama.

The story is reportedly based on the events of Goodman's life, which is both the film's strength and its fatal flaw. Strength, because of the exciting events and difficult choices of the protagonist's life. Fatal, because Goodman does not have the craft or the distance to shape those events into a truly dramatic shape. It is all bits and pieces, incidents and scraps. It begins with a hold-up scene reminiscent of Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, then turns into a Boston-tough-guy movie like Gone, Baby, Gone; both of which are superior to the present film.

The use of the opening scene followed by flashbacks almost disguises the fact that the film has no real structure. Ruffalo and Hawke are errand boys for some gangsters, Ruffalo has a wife and a family--Hawke does not, they take on some "projects" of their own, they excite the enmity of their bosses, they get arrested, they go to jail, they come out. Hawke wants to rob an armored truck, and--here is the dramatic crux; after Ruffalo talks with his son and realizes he doesn't want to risk jail, he decides not to go.

That's right, the central dramatic event of the movie is a guy who decides not to do a risky thing. Now that's laudable, it's praiseworthy, but it's not story-telling. Quick--name a classical dramatic narrative which turns on the hero's decision not to act. No, Bogart not leaving with Bergman in Casablanca doesn't count, because he then shoots the Nazi captain and goes on the run. And Hamlet doesn't count just because it takes him 4 out of 5 acts to do something. He does, at last, take action against his sea of troubles.

I'm not saying this couldn't be dramatized, but I don't think novice writer-director Brian Goodman has the skill or experience to do it. Having the work based on his own experience, which I'm sure made him reluctant to over-dramatize the events didn't help either. The dramatist must be ruthless with facts to create narrative pull.

One minor note--the film doesn't make criminal life look any better than being a working stiff (good) but doesn't make prison look worse than a time-out for adults (bad). Yeah, your room is a little small, but you get to walk around and talk with your friends, and you don't have to decide what to wear in the morning. Prison looks like no big deal, which I am sure was not the intention.

One thing's sure, though: Mark Ruffalo is one of our master actors, in a class with Kevin Spacey, Robert Downey, Jr. , Liev Schreiber and Johnny Depp, and let's hope he gets a chance to demonstrate his powers in a mainstream film which gains him the recognition among the general public that he already has with his peers.

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