You don’t need me to tell you to go see The Return of the King— you probably already have—so I’ll devote my space to more consequential matters. I’m writing this month’s column on a laptop precariously balanced on a rickety card table set up in the guest bedroom of the small-town house where I spent my childhood and where my mother still lives. What’s more, movies are on my mind, because I just decided which one to take her to see. Like many septuagenarians, she doesn’t care to go to the movies by herself, so we usually see one together whenever I’m home on a visit. It isn’t easy. The nearest gigaplex, located 30 miles north of my Missouri hometown, shows nothing but first-run Hollywood features, few of which are suited to the tastes of a woman who saw her first film in 1941 and who believes, not without reason, that things have been going downhill ever since.
It’s not that she’s fussy. In fact, she’s surprisingly willing to put up with moderate amounts of swearing, violence, even nudity, so long as they’re woven into a story featuring reasonably adult characters engaged in recognizably adult behavior. That’s the catch. Nowadays, most major-studio movies are made for teens, ‘tweens, college kids, and arrested adolescents. I wouldn’t think of foisting such witless fare on her—but what else is there?
In the past, I’ve usually been able to find something good, or at least good enough, and more often than not, I’ve written in this space about what we ended up seeing. The Apostle, The Whole Nine Yards, Where the Money Is, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Hollywood Homicide—these are some of the films we’ve seen in recent years, all of which met with her approval. This time, though, we ran out of luck. The only film that looked at all plausible was Something’s Gotta Give, and I couldn’t bear to subject her (much less myself) to the revolting spectacle of Jack Nicholson’s withered backside. Instead, we stayed home and watched Meet Me in St. Louis on Turner Classic Movies.
I almost forgot to mention You Can Count on Me, the best movie my mother and I have ever seen together, but that one was a fluke. The theaters in southeast Missouri almost never show starless small-budget films, and I’ve no idea how that one slipped past the watchful eyes of the local bean counters. My mother, not at all surprisingly, loved it: You Can Count on Me is a movie by and for grown-ups, and I can think of any number of similarly grown-up movies that she’d have liked every bit as much had they ever been shown in or near my hometown. Alas, such pictures usually don’t even make their way to the video stores down here, much less the gigaplex. The film I really wanted my mother to see, for example, was The Station Agent, but it didn’t come any closer than St. Louis.
The Station Agent is a quintessential example of the kind of film no longer being made in Hollywood: a low-key, slightly quirky character study of three people whose lives haven’t quite worked out. Finbar (Peter Dinklage) is a shy, isolated dwarf who is obsessed with trains; Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) is a desperately unhappy painter whose only child is dead and whose marriage is on the rocks; Joe (Bobby Cannavale) is the aggressively gregarious operator of a ramshackle coffee wagon. These three misfits all end up in a backwater town in rural New Jersey, where they stumble by accident upon one another and in due course discover the transforming power of friendship.
Like Lost in Translation, The Station Agent is noteworthy for the fact that its principal characters don’t sleep together—a credibility-wrecking hole into which a lesser writer director than Thomas McCarthy would surely have stumbled. Instead, he takes it for granted that friendship can be as interesting as romantic love and allows us to watch as his lonely characters are brought back to life by the not-so-simple act of getting to know another person. And while we are also shown some of the difficulties of Finbar’s life as a dwarf, McCarthy never makes the fatal mistake of soliciting our sympathy, much less allowing The Station Agent to degenerate into a head-banging sermon on tolerance. Dinklage plays Finbar in a straightforward, unmanipulative way, and his plight is all the more compelling for the lack of sentimentality with which it is presented.
Dinklage is a superior actor who rarely gets a crack at roles this complex, and he makes the most of the opportunity. Clarkson, whose weather-beaten face is an icon of sorrow, finds every nuance of feeling in her wonderfully written part, and the rest of the ensemble cast is just as good. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing wrong with The Station Agent, except that it hasn’t been seen outside a handful of big cities. Perhaps a well-timed Oscar nomination or two might bring it to the attention of a wider audience, though I’m not counting on it: Hollywood has always been loath to acknowledge the superior virtues of independently made American films. Presumably The Station Agent will soon make its way to video, though, at which time you should go out of your way to see it, with or without your mother.
It never occurred to me for a split-second to take my mother to see Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler, an indie flick that came by its R rating honestly. According to the official warning label, The Cooler contains “strong sexuality, violence, language and some drug use,” and that’s putting it mildly. Too bad, because The Cooler is a terrific piece of work, a blunt, smart fable of casino life in which William H. Macy, everybody’s favorite character actor, gets to be the star for once. He’s great as Bernie Lootz, a sad sack in hock to the mob, and Alec Baldwin—Alec Baldwin!—is equally fine as the murderous thug who holds his markers.
I can’t recall a recent film whose sex scenes are similarly explicit, for which reason I’m reluctant to recommend The Cooler, outstanding though it is. On the other hand, I can’t think of any film, recent or otherwise, that does a better job of deromanticizing casino gambling. I recently caught an episode of a glossy TV series called Las Vegas that might just as well have been an infomercial, so lasciviously does it portray the carnal pleasures of the unreal city wherein it purports to be set. By contrast, the shabby, sordid company town in which Macy and Baldwin do their loathsome business looks suspiciously like one of the nastier circles of hell. Somehow I doubt the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce will be showing The Cooler for promotional purposes anytime soon.