The problem with Hollywood’s thrillers these days is that they aren’t really thrillers. Hitchcock made thrillers — tightly wound little puzzles of fear and logic, maybe with an evil henchman or three thrown in to keep everything interesting. These days when you go to a movie that’s been billed as a thriller, nine times out of 10 it turns out to be the mishmash leavings of 20th century film: equal parts kung-fu epic, slasher flick, James Bond movie, bodice buster and every bad cop show you ever saw in the ’70s. All that, and about as thrilling as watching Jell-O firm up in the refrigerator.
A current “thriller” that turns out to actually be thrilling, however, is “The Constant Gardener.” As with many things that are worth a damn in this increasingly disposable world, it returns to first principles — a man, a woman, a crime that leads to another more dastardly crime — and succeeds. With a mix of great performances, dreamy, washed-out cinematography, transfixing story and the incredible backdrop of Africa, it’s a film the old masters of the thriller would be proud of.
In the latest of a series of progressively more demanding roles she has taken on so far during her short career, British actress Rachel Weisz plays Tessa Quayle, the outspoken wife of low-level British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). Living in Narobi, Kenya, where Justin works for the British High Commission, Tessa often embarrasses her staid husband by confronting corporate robber barons at embassy parties, nailing them to the wall with her questions about their machinations on the African continent. Working closely with local villagers, Tessa and her friend Dr. Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde) soon stumble across a dirty secret: one involving an international pharmaceutical company, poor Africans seeking medical help, and mysterious TB vaccine trials that Big Pharma is conducting in the ghettos. Soon after Bluhm and Tessa author a paper on the matter and forward it to a contact at the UN, they are found brutally murdered at a remote lake — a crime almost immediately ruled a murder-suicide by police. With that, Justin sets out to discover two secrets: who killed his wife, and the truth behind the conspiracy.
As always, Fiennes is spectacular in his role, full of bottled up, oh-so-British emotion and pain. He plays well here with Weisz, though her Tessa could have been toned down a bit for my taste; which is to say it’s hard for me to believe that a woman who incessantly corners diplomats at parties and needles them with the latest wacky conspiracy du jour would be long for the guest list.
The big star, here, however, is the story. The plot of “The Constant Gardener” feels old and sturdy; well worn and well thought out — something you might envision as a vehicle for a mid-career Gregory Peck (if, that is, people cared a flip about the machinations of Big Pharma in the 1950s and ’60s). Full of twists and turns, all shot largely on-location in Africa, it’s a fine piece of work, a throwback to the days when actors, writers and filmmakers seemed to give it their all.
That said, this is probably not going to be a movie anyone remembers come Oscar time. I fear it’s too subtle, too much of an ensemble piece — often sacrificing the patented goose-bump-raising monologue for another spin on the plot — to go for the gold. Still, given the choice between yet another season of sticky-sweet summer blockbusters and this film, I’d say: Plant two rows of “Gardener,” and call me come pickin’ time.
— By David Koon
Not Murray’s time
Ever since 1998’s “Rushmore” proved Bill Murray to be quite a bit more than just a burned-out comedian with a career on the downhill slide, I’ve been rooting for him. One of these days, I’m convinced, he’ll finally get that one “Forrest Gump”-style role that will push him over the top — not just to Oscar gold, but into that rarified air where the best American actors seem to dwell.
However, “Broken Flowers” is not the movie that will do it. While it’s an interesting little film, one full of great performances, “Broken Flowers” is just too slow, too melancholy, too art-school-tinkery. Pair that with a lead character who seems more exhausted than anything else, and you’ve got a movie that nearly had me falling asleep a time or two at a 10 a.m. screening.
Murray plays Don Johnston, a former playboy-turned-computer-guru who cashed out during the dot-com bubble and retired, now spending his days cat-napping in front of a television that always seems to be showing cartoons. Soon after his girlfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, he receives an anonymous letter — red ink on pink paper — that informs Johnston that he has a teen-aged son who might soon show up on his doorstep. With the help of his amateur sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Johnston proceeds to find the address of every one of his old girlfriends who might be the mystery kid’s mother and book flights to go see them.
The resulting trip is as horribly awkward as it would be for any of us who decided to drop in on a string of old flames — especially if you were trying to ferret out a secret as big as which one of them might be the mother of your child.
One old girlfriend is the widow of a NASCAR racer who hit the wall and went up in flames. Another is a pet psychic. Another is the wife of a biker, who is none to happy to see Johnston and lets him know it. Most all of them, Johnston soon finds, are leading lives of boredom and desperation, just like him.
Though “Broken Flowers” is a touching and sweetly sad film, it ultimately becomes a bit repetitive and slow. Its message about looking at your past as a kind of unsolvable mystery is interesting, but “Broken Flowers” eventually collapses under its own weight.
— By David Koon