Old School: David Fincher’s ‘The Social Network’

October 9, 2010 § Leave a comment



By Lars Trodson

The first thing we see the Internet used for in David Fincher’s “The Social Network” is an act of petty vengeance. The Internet is shown as a tool of remarkable efficiency, anonymity, and rapid-fire nastiness. These are notions that the rest of the film does not try to dispel. In fact, all we see about the Internet in “The Social Network” is a mechanism that destroys friendships, releases jealousy, initiates lawsuits and causes general unhappiness.

In this movie, trouble tends to erupt when people communicate by email, or through lawyers, or when they don’t attempt to communicate at all. In “The Social Network”, Facebook turns out to be the biggest troublemaker of them all.

Human contact, as elliptical as it sometimes can be, especially as it revolves around the lead character, Mark Zuckerberg, is always much more satisfying. It may not end well for one or more of the people involved in the conversation, but motives are at their clearest when people actually speak to each other. The fact that the dialogue is so clever has almost disguised the fact that the words said in this film are used to try to convey a feeling. There is a desperate attempt to communicate in this film. It doesn’t always work, but it’s there.

That may be why, by and large, computers, in relative terms, have a minor presence in this film. We see them ubiquitously in the early section of the film as Zuckerberg’s Face Smash program goes viral (this is the little thing where students were able to rate the appeal of various female students). But then laptops, as a tool, by and large disappear from the movie.

If this is a movie about human communication, Fincher and screenwriter may be picked the wrong time in history to explore such a theme. Language as a tool for clarity and meaning is at an all-time low. We may live in an age where language is used more to obfuscate that to illuminate. So if you make a movie where language, both body and verbal, is used to try to convey something, the audience may not be with you. So far this is borne out. “The Social Network” is one of the most subtlety communicative movies you’re ever going to see and so far it hasn’t done as well as people had hoped at the box office. This is depressing.

So, what, really is “The Social Network” all about? I don’t think “the social network” referred to in the title is Facebook at all. I think the social network is people and it’s about all the messy ways we can try to communicate.
So go see the movie. And then talk about it, over coffee or a drink, face to face.

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The Most Beautiful Movie Trailer In Years

August 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

The most exciting moment during an otherwise expendable trip to the movies the other day came when the trailer for David Fincher’s “The Social Network” was played. This was an inspired bit of moviemaking, especially the touch of having a choir sing a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” The audience was rapt — an emotional connection that was not continued, by the way, when “Inception” began.

Fincher is like the Kubrick for his generation. There are very few directors around that make you actually look forward to their next film, and his vocabulary is indelible. “Zodiac”, for me, is one of the finest movies in the past decade, easily, and a very beautiful movie, too, in its own way. It’s still galling that Robert Downey Jr. didn’t win an Oscar for his performance (he wasn’t even nominated)

But anyway, if “The Social Network”, which is about the founding of Facebook, is as good as the trailer, it will be quite an experience. It’s quite beautiful. Check the trailer out.

A word or two about “Inception.” I once had a book about dream interpretation that boiled the meaning of every dream down to just one thing: sex. Apparently all we ever dream about is sex. Except, of course, in “Inception”, even with the presence of the gorgeous Marion Cotillard, where nothing is about sex. It is definitely not about sex. It’s the most sexless movie ever made, I bet.

It also sets some sort of record, in terms of the script. Every word spoken in this movie (with the exception, by my count, of two very lame jokes) is about plot. In the theater, this is called “speaking plot”, where you move the story along through dialogue.

Each word in this movie is about what is supposedly happening. “We’re going down three layers!” “Wait for the kick!” “Whose dream are we going in to anyway?”

Things like that. The guy a few seats over fell asleep, even during the Alistair McLean “Ice Station Zebra” finale among all that snow and skiing and shooting.

“Inception” was like listening to a 2 1/2 hour treatise on a subject that doesn’t exist.

See the trailer for “The Social Network” below:

http://www.youtube.com/v/lB95KLmpLR4&hl=en_US&fs=1

Swimming Upstream: The Obstacles of Adapting a Short Story Into A Feature Film

February 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

“’I’m swimming across the county,’ Ned said.
‘Why, I didn’t know one could,’ exclaimed Mrs. Halloran.”

— From John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”

By Lars Trodson

It is tempting to begin this column by saying — no, by declaring — that adapting a short story into a feature length film has proved to be a far less successful enterprise than adapting a novel to the same form.

But then, one must admit, that the ratio of failure to success for each medium is not the same. There are more successful novel adaptations only because more famous novels get adapted into movies. How many famous short stories are there anyway?

The question emerged because of the successful screen adaptation of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” which was written in 1921 by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is not exactly the poster boy for successful film adaptations.

But this film, directed by the great David Fincher, has garnered 13 Oscar nominations and favorable press. Just three years ago, “Brokeback Mountain” was also deemed a very successful film adaptation of a short story.

But I thought I would take the occasion to consider one of the most ambitious, if less known, short story adaptations that I can think of: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, which was made into a feature of the same name in 1968. “The Swimmer” was never the success of these later films, but it had neither a groundbreaking, controversial subject, or breathtaking special effects, to capture the imagination of audiences. All it had was its own little self.

It is justly famous because Cheever was never better at navigating the emotional and physical terrain of the confused, sullen, angry and successful young men of post-World War II suburbia — the guys who knew how to make money, but never knew how to manage their lives after they got out of the military.

The premise may be uncomplicated but it is hardly simple. The prose is as lovely as anything anyone ever wrote. The plot is this: Neddy Merrill, a card-carrying member of the Greenwich/New Canaan/Westport, Connecticut upper-middle class, is attending a pool party on a Sunday afternoon when he suddenly realizes he could, pool by backyard pool, swim home. That’s it.

By reading the story we’re treated to art. The loveliest thing about literature is that it is available to us anywhere, at any time. If you wanted to look at Picasso’s “Guernica”, you’d have to travel to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid to see it. But if you want to be in the company of the great art of a writer, all you need is the book. It can be a photocopy of the story, in a paperback, in hardcover, or a bootleg copy on the internet and it does not matter. If the words are Cheever’s, or any writer’s, for that matter — then you get the actual art, not a facsimile. That is the beauty of literature. The version you have in your hand is the real thing.

The story begins very much like other Cheever stories, with characters lingering over the effects of too much gin:

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. ‘I drank too much,’ said Donald Westerhazy. ‘We all drank too much,’ said Lucinda Merrill. ‘It must have been the wine,’ said Helen Westerhazy. ‘I drank too much of that claret.’

The original New Yorker story was only 13 pages long. But someone thought it would make a movie. Director Frank Perry, and his screenwriter wife, Eleanor Perry, had to thread this dreamlike narrative into more than 90 minutes of cohesive cinema — and then have it distributed by Paramount Pictures to a mass audience.

I don’t think the filmmakers compromised — “The Swimmer” is an odd short story and an even stranger film. Not surprisingly, the results have been argued over. The film is actively disliked, but is championed by some. I think it’s partially great — but part of my affection for it is rooted in the fact that it is very much a film of its time: the girls look as though they all come from southern California and there is too much soft-focus photography. So you can enjoy the film as much as an artifact as you can for its emotions and perceptions. Ultimately, though, I do not think it works. If most of its charms today emanate from its dated cinematic vocabulary, it’s not hard to see why audiences rejected it when these techniques were getting a bit commonplace.

In the film, Ned Merrill is played by Burt Lancaster. In the beginning, Merrill shows up in the only costume he will have the for the next 90 minutes — his bathing suit. Lancaster is amazingly fit — he was 55 when he made the film and had been a star for 20 years — but he just glides right along. Ned stops by the Westerhazys pool. They are all (except Ned) nursing hangovers.

Each of the party guests is given an opportunity to use Cheever’s line about having too much to drink. It is as though Eleanor Perry had to disgorge herself of this ringing thought and move on. It is here at the Westerhazy’s that Ned Merrill looks out over the green Connecticut canopy and decides he should swim home.

Where is Ned’s wife Lucinda in these opening scenes of the film? In the story, she’s the one who claims to have drunk too much claret.

Her appearance at the beginning of the story is a reminder of the kind of cruel conviviality that can exist among small circles of friends. Neddy and Lucinda are estranged or divorced, but by attending a pool party in the story means she could be taunting him, flirting with him, or be indifferent to him. Whatever the interpretation, she’s got enough confidence in her stature among her neighbors to show up at a party that may also be attended by her ex-husband.

In the film, however, she never appears at all. She is more dreamlike, more of a memory. That was a smart choice by the Perrys — film is more literal so you need to take every opportunity to be enigmatic. There are snide remarks and looks askance when Neddy Merrill mentions Lucinda in the movie — reactions we never read about in the story. That’s an example when the filmmakers expertly dramatized some of the internal feelings of Cheever’s characters.

What they can never do is dramatize Cheever’s prose. This is not a criticism. Very, very few filmmakers have successfully translated the fluidity of a writer’s thoughts onto the screen, no matter the audacity, the budget, or the imagination of the director or cinematographer. Even Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was willing to go as far as any “mainstream” filmmaker in terms of graphic depictions — pornographers have nothing on him — could never quite capture the irredeemable cruelty of the Marquis De Sade when Pasolini made “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma.

Pasolini may have come close, but Frank Perry was no Pasolini. Perry was too careful as a director, too precise — a little too squarely…intellectual; no successful director should ever be too much of any of those. Perry was the director of “Mommie Dearest” (1981) and that was all veneer. There was too much shampoo and floor wax in that picture to make it the horror movie it should have been. Pasolini could have made a great version of that story.

In “The Swimmer”, as in his other other pictures, Perry took more care in casting the women than the men — the women in the film actually look and speak like bored, rich, New York wives. The men all look too old, too out of place, too boorish, too flaccid to be captains of industry. The only who is not any of these is Lancaster, but he’s still a mistake.

Vincent Canby, in the New York Times, gave good credit where credit is due when he reviewed the movie (an added in his appreciation for Cheever’s story) in the May 16, 1968 edition of the paper:

“The result is an uneven, patchy kind of movie, occasionally gross and mawkish, and one that I happened to like very much. I like the Perrys for having liked [the story], and I like Burt Lancaster, who is essentially miscast in the title role, for having wanted to do it. Without his interest, the film probably would never have been made.”

Even here, Canby is implicitly acknowledging the obstacles of adapting a short story into film. Part of the joy of reading a short story is the idea that you have received just enough information: that the writer knew not to stretch the story or the characters any further. Ring Lardner’s “Haircut” would be excruciating if it were any longer. So to expand it may be self-defeating.

Here is how Cheever described Ned Merrill, who is no longer young:

He might have been compared to a summer’s day, particularly the last hours of one…

Here is how Vincent Canby of The New York Times describes Lancaster as Merrill:

“He does have the physique of the aging athlete who has kept his form, if not the youthful texture of his skin.”

Lancaster — the human being, the actor — is in excellent physical shape in the movie (he moves like the trapeze artist he once was). But Lancaster was not a subtle actor, to say the least. Canby has one of the best descriptions of Lancaster I’ve ever read. This is from the review:

“However, try as he might, [Lancaster] simply can’t project Neddy Merrill’s vulnerability as a foolish, ridiculous WASP. When Lancaster, who has the dignity of a peasant, attempts manic intensity, it comes across as vigor.”

Even though the filmmakers understood Lancaster’s appeal, it was obvious even they did not quite believe audiences would believe him as a kid who summered in the Hamptons. A long sequence in the movie has Neddy Merill meet up (at poolside) with Julie (Janet Landgard), a young woman who used to be his children’s babysitter. Merrill invites her on his improbable journey, during which they share secrets. Julie asks Ned where he met his wife. Neddy tells her that he met Lucinda on a boat, while he was in “steerage.” It’s a stupid detail because it denies the origins of Cheever’s story. The people he’s writing about in “The Swimmer” didn’t travel in steerage. But the filmmakers had to overcompensate for the fact that everyone knew Lancaster wasn’t born on Fifth Avenue (in fact he was born in Harlem).

So the Perrys have an actor who is incapable of projecting inner turmoil or mystery. But this is what the role required most – in a medium unable to capture the minutiae of thought that can be caught by the written word. Put these two together and the obstacles of adapting the short story begin to mount.

Here’s how Cheever describes Ned diving into a pool:

He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb — he never used the ladder — and started across the lawn. When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home.

In the movie, all Ned does is dive into the pool and swim. It’s a nice, shallow dive, but it tells us nothing about his character, whereas Cheever offers us his entire life in a paragraph.

What is less detailed are Ned’s troubles. This is exactly what should be less explicit in short story such as this. They’re only whispered, hinted at. Sometimes, when the mood is right, the lack of detail in a story makes it easier for us readers to project our own anxieties onto the character. Is what is bothering Ned the same thing that is bothering me? Some indiscretion at the office? Some financial impropriety? Has a friend not called back? What is it that is bothering him? By not knowing, sometimes the anxiety can grow. Here is how Cheever shades Ned’s life when he goes swimming at the home of a couple that likes to swim nude:

He left his trunks at the deep end, walked to the shallow end, and swam this stretch. As he was pulling himself out of the water he heard Mrs. Halloran say, “We’ve been terribly sorry to bear about all your misfortunes, Neddy.”

“My misfortunes?” Ned asked. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Why, we heard that you’d sold the house and that your poor children . . . “

“I don’t recall having sold the house,” Ned said, “and the girls are at home.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Halloran sighed. “Yes . . . “

Ned’s troubles are much more explicit in the film. That is the burden of filling out 90 minutes – a timeframe the writer never intended to fulfill. From the beginning of the movie there is the hint that Ned’s a fantasist, a narcissist. But as he begins his journey home, portaging from pool to pool, the surrealism of the story takes on the timbre of a dark, more explicit adult fairy tale. He has that disturbing encounter with a young woman who used to babysit his children. A dry pool that requires no more than a few lines in the story now becomes a mythological, allegorical encounter with a little boy who is all alone. Neither of these characters are in the story – and what this means is that the Perrys begin to physicalize Ned’s turmoil. They also have him speak too much plot and faux poetry.

It is in these moments when the seams of the movie begin to stretch and burst.

But in one interesting way the film successfully dramatizes what Cheever only sketches. In both the film and the story the weather seems to indicate that more time than simply an afternoon has passed. It is a symptom of Ned’s madness in both pieces. From the story:

The rain had cooled the air and he shivered. The force of the wind had stripped a maple of its red and yellow leaves and scattered them over the grass and the water. Since it was midsummer the tree must be blighted, and yet he felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.

And:

Leaves were falling down around him and he smelled wood smoke on the wind. Who would be burning wood at this time of year?

In the film, the characters remark on the changing weather. At one point, Ned looks at a denuded tree and wonders what happened. He hugs himself to keep the cold at bay. The leaves begin to blow. The skins of rain that fall are cold and shivery. The change of weather feels as mysterious and unexplainable as the zodiac itself.

One other thing that the film does extremely well is chart the difference in Ned’s relationships. As the weather changes, so do his relationships. People are warn and sunny at first “Neddy!” they cry — “How nice to see you!” But the terrain shifts; the people Ned meets over time become indifferent, and then hostile. The people mirror the weather, and it is one thing I like very much about the film.

And of course it all must end. The crucial difference between a short story and a feature film is that 85 minutes worth of cinematic drama must end in a climax — particularly in 1968 when studios were not yet so inclined toward the ambiguous ending. A story can end much more sublimely.

Therefore everything that was even hinted at in the story must become more explicit in the movie to wrench some sort of emotional response.

In the story, Ned walks into the pool owned by Shirley Abbott, who may have been his lover at one point. Cheever cuts right through it:

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I’m swimming across the county.”

“Good Christ. Will you ever grow up?”

The same exchange occurs in the movie, but yet there is so much more. There is grappling and disrobing in the pool. There is Ned beseeching the heavens. There is Shirley (played by Janice Rule) shrieking that any passion she expressed during their affair was a lie! Lie! There is talk, yelling and more talk. It is during these scenes that Canby’s observations about Lancaster are especially true: the actor doesn’t seem so much anguished as he does putting on his game face for a marathon.

And we realize that it is futile to try to yank this surreal fable into the realm of the real.

The reason we feel anything after reading the story is because of our delicate empathy: we understood why Ned felt like doing something irrational. We understood why he wanted to deny anything terrible that had ever happened. We understood the impulse to run away, to hide. We know what it is like to get old, to be beat up, to have the summer end, and to return to a place where no one wants you. At the end of the story, Ned is home. It would be foolish to quote too much:

The place was dark. Was it so late that they had all gone to bed? Had Lucinda stayed at the Westerhazys’ for supper? Had the girls joined her there or gone someplace else? Hadn’t they agreed, as they usually did on Sunday, to regret all their invitations and stay at home?

All that has come before yields fluidly to the end. Thank you, John Cheever.

At this point in the film, however, the location photography suddenly yields to flat, painfully obvious studio shots. As Ned walks up to his house, the foliage looks fake. The lighting unreal. Just as everything before was too consciously literary for us to enjoy as a movie, the conclusion was too cinematic for us to us to suspend disbelief. In the end, “The Swimmer” failed to spark the audience’s imagination in the way Cheever managed to do in 13 pages.

Film has never been very good at expressing inner emotions — and that is probably because perceptive actors and perceptive scripts rarely converge. I think of Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night”; of Charlie Chaplin at the end of “City Lights”; of Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby” — sometimes, in the movies, you can really see the whole person.

And its even harder to see the real person in a film when the writer of the story the movie is based on never intended you to do so in the first place.

Maybe the filmmakers of the first movie we mentioned, “Benjamin Button”, weren’t really interested in showing the deepest thoughts of the title character. Maybe someone realized that the miracle of today’s special effects would make the movie possible – even exciting, in a digital way. They could put Brad Pitt’s head, swarthed in makeup, on top of another person’s body and no one would notice. I bet, deep in the bowels of Hollywood, that was what motivated the financing of “Benjamin Button.” Not the need to explore the journey of this curious man.

I do know the water in “The Swimmer” was real, and so was the desire of the filmmakers to produce something that audiences would think was real. The Perrys, in all of their films, tried to convey something true. That they often didn’t achieve their goals had more to do with the limitations of their talent and the medium they chose for their art rather than their source material.

Their choice of material was often impeccable, as it was in “The Swimmer.”

Cheever’s story, after all, glides through the imagination like a silverfish. But the Perrys movie is like a bad uncle. He’s the guy who, having had too much too drink last night, decides to do a cannonball in the kid’s end of the pool. You’ll be sure to notice it — you may even appreciate how audacious the move is — but you’ll also realize immediately that it probably wasn’t a good idea.

Vote for Robert Downey Jr.

August 13, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

Last year I wrote a review of “Bobby” for The Wire in Portsmouth that singled out Shia LeBeouf, saying essentially that it was exactly the kind of performance that members of the Academy should honor for a Best Supporting actor nod. He didn’t get it, and I think maybe it was for a couple of reasons. One, the movie was not a success, either at the box office or, two, in the fundamentals of storytelling. It was too bad, but no tragedy, because clearly the young actor is headed toward good, if not great things.

Now we come to this year, and we do have a bona fida contender for a Best Supporting Actor in Robert Downey Jr., who plays the newspaper reporter Paul Avery in David Fincher’s “Zodiac”, which came out earlier this year. It did not set the box office on fire.

I rented “Zodiac” and watched it twice, back to back, on a day that was much too beautiful to be inside, but there it is. It’s about two hours and 40 minutes long. I have a couple of quibbles about the film (what was the deal with the Animal Crackers?), and I have very real issues about the way the Jake Gyllenhall character was handled (more on these later), but to me the film was Fincher’s most assured and unsettling work to date — despite “Se7en” — and the depiction in such a non-cliché way of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s felt truer than if we had seen a bunch of hippies hanging around Haight-Ashbury.

It was also the best newspaper movie since “All the President’s Men.” It must have been hard for any actor or director not to succumb making media people out to be a bunch of buffoons, but they resisted and we have a better movie for it.

Especially Downey, who of course has in the past been a bit of a player in the tabloid scene, who plays a San Francisco Chronicle police reporter. Downey’s presence in the tabloids doesn’t make him any different than a lot of other serious actors, whether it’s Robert Mitchum or Nick Nolte or anybody else. Because these actors, once they overcome their demons, will win out because have real talent to fall back on. It is exactly the reason why I think a Lindsay Lohan will make it and a Britney Spears probably will not.

Back to Downey. I remember Geraldine Chaplin saying, in an interview published when the Richard Attenborough biopic “Chaplin” was coming out, that Downey had more talent than she had previously seen — something like that — and that he had captured the spirit of her father.

I didn’t believe it. If there was any actor, ever, that seemed doomed to an interpretation by another actor, it would be someone like Chaplin. He was — oh no — a genius, and a very troubled person.

I am just old enough to remember a time when there was a lot of dead space on the TV grid. Saturday nights and Sunday mornings on your low wattage UHF stations were once filled with all kinds of odd programming — films that had lapsed into the public domain, Bowery Boys movies, the Sherlock Holmes serials, and Chaplin films. It seems incredible to me that black and white silent films would have a place on broadcast television, but back then it wasn’t so strange. I watched the Chaplin shorts. So I knew a little bit about Chaplin — and I read about him as much as I could, including his mammoth, unreliable autobiography. He was also alive when I was a kid, so he had not quite lapsed into the past.

My first viewings of “The Gold Rush” and “City Lights” also remain indelible moments in my movie-going history, and I still think that “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Limelight” are great films, as is “The Great Dictator.” These are films that to me were unfairly maligned because there were critics, such as James Agee, who didn’t think Chaplin could write dialogue. I disagree, but anyway that’s just me.

So, when I read Geraldine Chaplin’s comments, and having seen such movies as Dick Van Dyke in “The Comic”, I was certainly prepared for the worst — up to and including knowing that Richard Attenborough was not a director of any kind of delicate sensibility.

But, Jesus, when I saw Downey move in that picture, and his spot on English accent, and the recreation of some of the Chaplin bits, I was mesmerized and forgave almost everything about the movie except the truly idiot explanation of the origins of Chaplin’s disturbing sexual habits.

So, after that, Downey was the man to watch, and watch I did, even through the non-descript entertainments, and his unhappy choices of playing articulate and attractive junkies. He seemed incapable of landing a role that matched his talents.

In that way his role in “Zodiac” is not much of a departure. The reporter Paul Avery, who was a real life guy who reported on the Zodiac killings in the Bay Area for the San Francisco Chronicle during the very late 1960s and into the 70s.

I would bet — and this is important — that the character of Avery wasn’t all that enticing as written on the page. It’s a largely reactive role. Reporters in real life don’t often crack the big case, or hunt down killers in back alleys brandishing a gun. Avery does none of that here, of course, and as the case of the Zodiac killer recedes further into history, Avery becomes more and more dissolute, and we last see him sucking on a filterless Camel and breathing bottled oxygen.

But the elegant line readings that Downey brings to this role are really something to savor. He imbues his character with a rich humor, slightly condescending (Avery is a talented writer and reporter and he knows it), and the brief scene in which Avery, in his crime reporter mode, interviews a cop is one of the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a movie (I did a fair bit of that in my day, so I kind of know about it).

Downey is charming. In an utterly toss-away moment, he is called into an editorial meeting, and his jaunty “Very well” response had me laughing out loud. It is impossible to describe, because it is the actor carrying this off; no interpretation of mine could do it justice.

That he shines in a role that is surrounded by actors given far more meatier parts is testimony to Downey’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Mark Ruffalo as Det. Dave Toschi of the San Francisco PD (apparently the real-life inspiration for Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”, as well as Harry Callahan in “Dirty Harry” — the latter of which I don’t see, but …), is quiet; he murmurs and his sly jokes back up on you. After a screening for San Francisco dignitaries of “Dirty Harry”, which Toschi attends, some smart ass yells out, “Hey, Toschi, Dirty Harry did a better job on your case than you did,” Toschi responds, not looking at his heckler, “Yeah, without worrying about due process.” And you have the feeling the real-life Toschi said it just like that. Ruffalo is wonderful throughout, but the screenwriter James Vanderbilt on occasion does dumb things, like giving Toschi a small crutch in his craving for Animal Crackers. It may be based on real life, but it’s such a stupid gag the filmmakers simply drop it before you get too tired of it.

Jake Gyllenhall has a ridiculous role, made murky by some script choices and, I think, directorial choices. He plays a goofy, single-father cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith, who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac case. Graysmith seems to have some weird understanding of the killer, and it is unclear whether Fincher or the script is throwing out some red herrings here as to who the actual killer is. It’s an unfortunate distraction (as are some of the other non-descript departures in logic in the script), because it doesn’t, in the end, add to the tension or the mystery; it’s just an unnecessary diversion. The Graysmith character is also depicted as a nuisance in the newsroom — not unlike Jimmy Olson at the Daily Planet — and an extremely inattentive husband (to Chloe Sevigny) and distracted father.

Graysmith went on to write two books about the Zodiac killer, one of which formed the basis of this film. Toschi is retired, and Avery died in 2000. The prime suspect in the killings, Arthur Leigh Allen, chillingly played by actor John Carroll Lynch, who also deserves an Oscar nod for his bizarre and detailed performance, also died. The case is still open in two counties, but not in San Francisco.

This is a film rich in the kind of funky, detailed performances, both small and large, that you associate with the Godfather films. Downey here is our Robert Duvall, our Tom Hagen, bringing depth and nuance to a character not richly drawn on the page.

“Zodiac” was not a box office success, so it will be easy, in the end-of-year onslaught of Oscar contenders, to forget about Downey and Lynch. Academy members, if they haven’t seen “Zodiac”, should check it out, and check off Downey’s name for a supporting actor Oscar, because a more finely observed portrait, etched in so little time, will be hard to come by this year.

***


Watch the trailer for “Zodiac” here:

http://www.youtube.com/v/xJTC8iMQBGw

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