Tiresome idealism

The Debt

John Madden, 2010

Miramax/Marv Films/Pioneer Pictures

USA/UK/Hungary/Israel

113 mins

Shark Night 3D

David R. Ellis, 2011

Incentive Filmed Entertainment/Next Films/Sierra-Affinity/Silverwood Films

USA

90 mins

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011

Carousel Productions

USA

118 mins

*****

The Debt

Liberalism is naiveté convinced of its own sophistication and The Debt, director John Madden’s remake of the 2007 Israeli film HaChov, groans with a brand of idealism better suited to a worthy social movie about capital punishment or abortion. The leads, aged Mossad operatives who years before covered up a botched assignment, pronounce breathlessly about ‘The Truth’ (you can hear the capitals in the delivery) and the moral burden of ‘living with a lie’. Nothing is allowed to happen; it must have meaning – and if that meaning is not prepared to come quietly, it will be dragged out kicking and screaming. Madden is not a guy you’d invite to a party: he’d find significance in the cocktail napkins.

Helen Mirren, the game old bird of British cinema, leads a cast of relative unknowns. Rachel (Jessica Chastain), David (Sam Worthington), and Stephan (Marton Csokas) are Mossad assets dispatched to mid-Sixties East Berlin in pursuit of ‘the Surgeon of Birkenau’, a Mengele cipher named Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) who experimented on Jews in the concentration camps. Vogel is captured in an elaborate plot and held in a safe house until he can be transported to Israel to stand trial for his part in the Holocaust. However, he escapes and the spies, concerned for their careers and their country’s reputation, concoct a story in which Rachel managed to shoot Vogel as he fled. This suffices for their bosses but the charade is threatened decades later when Rachel’s daughter Sarah (Romi Aboulafia) writes a book about the mission. As new evidence emerges that Vogel is still alive and living in a Ukranian nursing home, and in talks with a journalist to tell his story, an older Rachel (Mirren) sets off on one final mission: to eliminate the target she let slip from her grasp 30 years before.

The movie works as a conventional spy thriller complete with heart-pulsing scenes of derring-do and the obligatory love triangle. Chastain, Worthington, and Csokas handily pass for Israelis, with their striking beauty and convincing accents, although none of them is actually from Israel. Their performances stand out especially in modest but pregnant scenes, including the rehearsal of their cover stories during krav maga training and a chilling musical interlude in which Stephan sings ‘Deutschlandlied’ at a bound and gagged Vogel. The scenes of Vogel’s capture are expertly handled and convey a sense of the high-skill, low-cunning, and sheer luck upon which intelligence operatives must rely. Vogel is a suitably loathsome villain, though never a caricature Nazi, and the audience periodically lapses into the belief that he is in fact Mengele. The star, of course, is Helen Mirren and her retired katsa exudes a guilt suppressed by reticence and duty that is credible and compelling.

Beyond the stylish fulfilment of genre specifications, there is the politics. Madden hasn’t made an ideological film – maybe that’s the problem – but he’s made an idealistic one. Years after their cover-up, David and Rachel argue the merits of confessing the lie. While David’s pleas for The Truth (those capitals again) to be told at first go unheard by Rachel, by the end of the movie she has conceded the morality of his point. Her staunch talk of protecting Israeli pride is left behind on a blood-spattered floor in the Ukrainian hospital and she reveals all in a note to the investigative journalist. The outcome, the movie implies, is absolution from guilt and the liberation brought by honesty.

If The Debt were a true story, the Ukrainian journalist who discovered Vogel would be a campaigning (read: leftist) reporter with an animus against Israel. His aim wouldn’t be a human interest piece on a once-fearsome Nazi war criminal spending his final days in a scuzzy east European care home; he’d be out to expose Israeli intelligence as both ruthless kidnappers and laughable klutzes. (The trio of katsas are young and inexperienced, perhaps a knowing play on the old Mossad motto, borrowed from Proverbs 24:6, ‘For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war’.) In the real world Rachel’s confession would be seized as a stick, to condemn and to embarrass Israel.

The Debt excels on the level of a spy thriller but its tikkun olam romanticism is wearying. Madden makes a philosophy out of innocence and a movie that’s bursting over with emptiness.

*****

Shark Night

Shark Night is the latest and most entertaining in the recent tide of movies about obnoxiously attractive boat-trippers being chomped on by improbably-sized CGI water creatures.

A boatload of central casting college friends heads to an idyllic lake – in genre movies, college students spend most of their time shtuping, getting stoned, and blowing off finals to spend the weekend at the lake (no wonder universities have a surfeit of applications) – unaware that the shimmering waters are home to sharks intent on snacking. One by one the friends, none of whom appears to own a shirt, are gobbled up by the finned fiends in a series of set-piece kills (stunt coordinator Jeff Dashnaw earned his money), culminating in a smartly-paced finale.

Sharks leap ten feet out of the water with no warning and our heroes perform the kind of water-skiing feats one suspects are more the preserve of professional sportspeople than weekending psychology majors goofing around with a speedboat. All of this is interspersed with sped-up montages of the female leads changing into their bikinis and lounging poolside. Everyone is ridiculously pretty and the camera gets its money’s worth of hulking pecs and fulsome breasts before their owners become shark chump. At times, it plays like America’s Next Top Model with a more exciting elimination process.

The twist is more transparent than the water being splashed around but no one will watch Shark Night for the plotting. Genre fans will recognise Joel David Moore from Hatchet. The pleasure, as in all these movies, is in the gruesome and inventive death scenes: They make a fun movie out of a derivative script.

*****

Crazy, Stupid Love

Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, and Ryan Gosling star in this complicated comedy of errors about the criss-crossing love lives of suburban professionals and angsty teenagers.

Taken by a dashing accountant (Kevin Bacon), Emily (Moore) wants a divorce from her dull husband Cal (Carell) whose starchy personality inexplicably attracts the advances of their teenage babysitter (Analeigh Tipton) much to the dismay of their pubescent son (Jonah Bobo), whose hormones, and bodily fluids, are directed at the geeky-cute girl. Cal turns to Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a slick womaniser whose Dirty Dancing-inspired foreplay never fails to charm the ladies, to help him man-up and find a woman – their jumpily-cut makeover montages interrupted when Jacob falls in love with Hannah (Emma Stone), who turns out to have more in common with Jacob than he realises.

For the record: That is the most simplified rendering of the plot I could manage. If you can get your head around the intersecting sexcapades – there are Kama Sutra positions less complicated – it’s a witty, faux-cynical romcom with a winning balance of physical comedy and snappy one-liners.

Gosling has the sexy-suave confidence of a pre-Lehman hedge fund manager and continues to cement his reputation as the most compelling young actor working in American cinema today.