BOOKS AND ARTS FEBRUARY 13, 2009
Addiction is, by its nature, a repetitive disorder--the same poor decisions inescapably made over and over again. As such, it is generally a better subject for pathos than comedy, lest the joke quickly wear thin. You may find it amusing, for instance, the first time Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher from Wedding Crashers), the heroine of Confessions of a Shopaholic, is cajoled by CGI-enhanced mannequins into buying luxury accessories she can’t afford. But you are a more forgiving soul than I if you are still laughing at it the third or fourth time around.
The movie in a nutshell: Rebecca, a half-hearted financial journalist (the irony!), is on her way to do something important, when she notices a sale. She tells herself she won’t buy anything she doesn’t absolutely need. But she does buy things she doesn’t remotely need, using credit cards she can’t pay off, in such a way as to endanger her career, friendships, and/or romantic opportunities. She then lies about her actions to bosses, creditors, etc., typically deploying a fib that involves illness, dying relatives, or Finland. But all forgive her, because she’s so darn spunky and adorable. (This is one of those films in which perk and an enthusiasm for speaking one’s mind even when it’s empty are seen as excellent substitutes for diligence, competence, and fundamental decency.) And then she does it again. And again.
Adapted from Sophie Kinsella’s chick-lit bestseller, Confessions has been Americanized in both the literal (goodbye London, hello Manhattan) and figurative sense. The humor is broader--the totalitarian support-group leader, the exploding closet of vacuum-packed clothes, the airborne hors d’oeuvres at a formal banquet--and the tone rather less genteel. (Rebecca’s longstanding conflict with a collections agent does not end nearly so amiably as in the book.) Indeed, the adaptation of the novel--credited to Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth, and Kayla Alpert--is so loose that producer Jerry Bruckheimer might have saved a good deal of money by declining to acquire the rights, changing a few names, and keeping a good law firm on retainer. But, of course, this adaptation is really just about buying the “brand,” and--like the retailers in the film--selling America something it already had.
Which is a pity. Fisher, who resembles a marked-down Amy Adams, is a sprightly, magnetic presence, and Hugh Dancy is generically likable as the generic love interest. (Joan Cusack and John Goodman’s competitive lumpen-ness as Rebecca’s parents, by contrast, seems rather cruel.) But though director P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding, My Best Friend’s Wedding) keeps things bouncing along for most of the overlong running time, this is material that’s beyond saving.
In the end, the most interesting thing about Confessions of a Shopaholic will be how it’s received in this economic climate. Escapist fantasies in tough times are all well and good, but Confessions teeters between escapism and insult. Will Rebecca prove to be a comic stand-in for Americans anxious about paying their own bills--or a slap in the face to all those whose bills aren’t for high-end couture?
The Clive Owen thriller The International seems better suited to the temper of the time. “This is the essence of the banking industry,” one character explains to another early on, “to make us all slaves to debt.” Now that’s more like it! The villainous bank in question, the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC) is essentially a rearrangement of the initials of the infamous BCCI and, like its acronymic sibling, it specializes in money laundering, arms trafficking, and terrorist financing. It also kills a lot of people directly, by means both discreet (a poison-induced heart attack, a “car accident”) and not-so-discreet (the public assassination of an Italian politician, an automatic-weapons firefight in the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda).
It’s this last tendency that really gets under the skin of Louis Salinger (Owen), an Interpol agent who’s been trying to bring the bank to justice for years, but has met with political resistance every time he gets close. (In his world, as in our own, wealthy bankers tend to have a lot of friends.) This time though he has the assistance, rather oddly, of the New York D.A.’s office, in the person of one Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts). (It was important, I suppose, to get an American in on the action, even if she’s played by an Australian.)
All the typical elements fall into place: Narrow-eyed men with sinister accents and sharp business suits elliptically discuss assassination. Every time Salinger and Whitman are on the verge of talking to someone who could break the case open, that someone suffers a mortal mishap. There’s even a strong whiff of The Fugitive in the tracing of a hired gun by means of his prosthesis. (It was the one-legged man!)
It’s nice to see Owen back up on screen after a year, 2008, when he was absent and another, 2007, when it might have been better if he had been (instead he offered up Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Shoot ’Em Up). But his craggy charisma isn’t enough to make us much care about a character whose only meaningful trait is angry perseverance. Watts, meanwhile, is relegated to the female bystander status common in such international thrillers (as Nicole Kidman was in the superior The Peacemaker and Watts herself was in the far superior Eastern Promises)--at least up until the final act, when she’s disinvited from the film altogether. Armin Mueller-Stahl also shows up, as he did in the two just-mentioned films, to present his patented brand of ambivalent evil.
But the essential problem with The International is its awkward combination of preposterousness and self-seriousness. It’s betwixt and between, neither smart and understated enough to be le Carre-like nor stylish and energetic enough to be Bond-Bournian. The script has its moments, but between them it often wanders vaguely, and the direction by Run Lola Run’s Tom Tykwer is surprisingly wan. Scenes that should have crackled--e.g., a three-man tail job on the streets of New York--instead fizz. Even the ridiculously high-body-count shootout in the Guggenheim lacks any real kinetic punch. It’s as if the film itself has taken the advice the top evil banker (Ulrich Thomsen) offers his son over a game of go: “You must think like a man of action, and act like a man of thought.” I’m sure that works on some occasions. But this wasn’t one of them.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.