Once upon a time movie men were expected to be all action confidence, whether in the form of a swagger or saunter, being the mark of the leading man. Such virility was served up uncooked by method actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean, but it wasn't until the baby boom generation ushered in unlikely stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson that the archetype really turned over. Realism was the new fantasy, and these actors went to great lengths to convey hurt. This tendency reached a peak during the indie cinema boom of the '90s, with male leads wearing their wounds with newfound openness, flailing or as writer-director Noah Baumbach would have it, kicking and screaming at posteverything angst and political correctness. Several of this year's most indelible male characters were racked with similar inaction but were also fleshed out with an altogether tougher skin than were their '90s predecessors. They still struggled to come to terms with the present tense but in a more reserved, reflective kind of way.
Even with the Zach Braff vehicle The Last Kiss failing to stir Garden State fans, 2006 was a good year for boy-men. The fact that Keanu Reeves (A Scanner Darkly) continues to win parts is surely proof enough, but there were three American indies Ryan Fleck's Half Nelson, Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation, and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy that most poignantly located ambiguity (and cultural malaise) in the troubled expressions of their male leads. Is it telling that women had a major hand in making two of these films, with director Reichardt adapting Jon Raymond's story for Old Joy and Anna Boden teaming with director Fleck to pen the script for Half Nelson? Probably so, especially when you consider that it's the male-helmed Mutual Appreciation (written, directed, and costarring Bujalski) that most resembles the talky Generation X pictures made 10 years ago, albeit realized with a formal tact and thematic subtlety largely missing in those now-dated chronicles of ennui.
The fact that each of these films frames its character studies in a different way Half Nelson is a social drama, Mutual Appreciation a relationship movie, and Old Joy the closest thing to lyric poetry we're likely to get from American narrative cinema makes their overlaps all the more striking. All the central characters are, to be sure, of the same milieu (Half Nelson and Mutual Appreciation even share a Brooklyn setting), and one imagines they would get along fine at the right party a conclusion we can draw from their record collections. It's clear enough from Half Nelson's Broken Social Scene soundtrack and Old Joy's Yo La Tengo score but even more embedded in the casting of Will Oldham in Old Joy and as-yet-unknown rocker Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation: a nod to '70s cinema, when art directors like Monte Hellman found muses in musician-actors like Kris Kristofferson, Warren Oates, and yup, James Taylor.
These singer-songwriters are known for suggesting emotion without resorting to histrionic literalism, so it's natural that filmmakers aiming for opaque characterizations took an interest in them. If casting provides clay to mold (even Half Nelson's Ryan Gosling an established actor is enough of a blank slate for these purposes), it's the filmmakers who supply the films' crucial senses of diffusion and displacement. All these films are, at base, about characters fundamentally unsure of their place in the world, so it makes sense that they share a common focus on environment and mise-en-scène. Old Joy 's overcast Oregon woods function in much the same way as Mutual Appreciation's crummy, minimalist flats and protagonist Dan Dunne's shut-in apartment in Half Nelson. The two estranged friends in Old Joy take a camping trip to get away from their lives but end up considerably more cloistered, with the trash-strewn, damp woods hanging over their heads as much as their past-tense relationship does. One especially lyrical shot shows the woods' reflection rotating in their car's window as they U-turn, lost in more than one sense. Meanwhile, in several of Mutual Appreciation's key scenes, the figures involved in the central ménage à trois listlessly rock back and forth, the thrift furniture and frameless mattresses an extension of their essential fear of commitment. And then there's Half Nelson's Dan, an anguished hero split between a passion for teaching and a drug addiction, his shuttered, bookish flat betraying self-entrapment and lapsed idealism.
Lapses are another common denominator here many of these films' most affecting images are the silent beats in which we see the actors registering a sense of loss, be it nostalgia (the pause in Old Joy following Mark and Kurt's conversation about a favorite record store going out of business) or regret (Dan's hollowed expression when caught smoking crack by a knowing student). Mutual Appreciation's characters have hardly started their adult lives, but when rocker Alan looks at himself in the mirror, in drag after a drunken odyssey, the seed is already there; 10 years down the line, his problems will be Mark's and Kurt's. Politics hang in the air like weather (Mark listens to Air America with a blank expression; Dan is distant while his parents discuss their bygone activism) as if preemptively remembering the present. Kicking and screaming, no: instead, as Kurt's Old Joy tag goes, "Sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy." It's hardly a sentiment to stake a straightforward portrait of a generation on, but while these films probably lose something in box office terms for not having the cachet of Reality Bites or, for that matter, The Graduate, they more than make up for it with their uncloying characterizations. Even Brando might find the roles opaque, but for these films it would be a mistake to confuse ambiguity with aimlessness. *
MAX GOLDBERG'S 10 FAVORITE THEATRICAL RELEASES (WITH A TWIST)
• Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, US)
• L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)
• Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, US)
• The Intruder (Claire Denis, France)
• Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, US/Iraq)
• Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, US)
• Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, US)
• The Proposition (John Hillcoat, Australia/UK)
• Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, France/Taiwan)
• A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, US)