With yards of ambition unmatched by commensurate talent, writer/director James Gray has achieved a charmed critical rep that rewards him on effort rather than execution. (A small output with yawning gaps between each tortured project helps amplify the ‘serious artist’ tag.) Hardly anyone actually goes to the films, but his strenuous push to connect with the Francis Coppola & Sidney Lumet lineage on his second & third pics (THE YARD/’00; WE OWN THE NIGHT/’07) gets offered as self-evident bona fides. WAIT! That’s our Write-Up on the last Gray opus, TWO LOVERS/’08, but it still hits the mark. This guy must talk up one helluva film to keep getting these D.O.A. projects off the ground. (He’s already filming something called THE LOST CITY OF Z for 2016 release.) This one’s a sort of Italian verismo opera thing (think CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA which actually shows up in LOVERS), but moved to early 20th century Lower East Side & Ellis Island. Marion Cotillard is an easy decade too old to play the innocent soul who lets Joaquin Phoenix's shady manager pimp her. She's hoping to bribe her sister out of the TB ward. And Jeremy Renner is scrunched & unmagnetic, anything but theatrical, as a striving magician who’d like to run off with her. (He might be playing the Richard Basehart role in LA STRADA/’54.*) Gray shoots most of the pic behind yellow filters (candles, gaslight, ya know) for that Tenement Museum diorama effect, while keeping the acting as hushed & subdued as a Tour Guide docent, winding up with a near complete misrepresentation of the period spirit. How does he think people survived, even thrived in these dreadful conditions? But at last, a real guilty-pleasure moment after Phoenix gets his jaw broken & falls into Brandoesque mumbling & mannerisms for a final aria, a male variation on STELLA DALLAS’s 5-hankie tear-stained sacrifice. Alas, nary a sniffle in the house.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *There’s quite a lot of LA STRADA in here though it’s not quite the unofficial remake that Woody Allen’s SWEET AND LOWDOWN/’99 was.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Charlie Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT/’17, one of his greatest early achievements. (Charlie takes the Marion Cotillard role.) At a tidy two reels, you'll save 100 minutes.