Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Let the Grown-Ups Work

Two new films deal - in very different ways - with grown men who are at odds with the world around them. In Black Mass, small-time gangster James "Whitey" Bulger sees opportunity and ruthlessly moves to expand his sphere of influence while in The Intern, retired phone book manufacturer Ben Whittaker seeks to fill his days by working at an internet start-up.

 Black Mass purports to be the story of how far loyalty can stretch when one boy grows up to become an FBI agent and another grows up to become a gangster with his fingers in the criminal pies of extortion, loan sharking, drugs, and everything else an FBI agent is supposed to stop. (I say "purports" because there's some question about how much is true - a common problem with biopics.) Wanting to bring down the Italian mob more than wanting to bust an old friend from Southie, Agent John Connolly convinces his onetime friend, James Bulger, to become an informant. He won't be a rat, you understand - rats are bad - but he'll be able to clean out the old neighborhood.

Bulger understands very well. Nature, and crime, abhor a vacuum, so as the Italians go away, Bulger takes over. Played by Johnny Depp is one of his most compelling performances ever, Bulger is the picture of the neighborhood gangster. He's kind to little old ladies and probably tells kids to stay in school, but he's absolutely ruthless when crossed and he doesn't bother to ask anyone else to do his dirty work - Bulger's fine killing with his bare hands. It's an astonishing performance and the supporting cast (which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, and Jesse Plemons) is very strong. In fact, the performances are probably a shade better than the story, which can seem choppy in places. However, Black Mass is well worth seeing, even if it just to remind you that behind Depp's campy romps is an actor who has honed his craft to a fine edge.

In another generation, The Intern would have been a Cary Grant movie.* Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) answers an ad seeking senior citizens to be interns at "About the Fit," an internet clothing company that was established by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). The company isn't even two years old and Jules has over 200 employees, as well as a husband and daughter. She's trying to juggle her responsibilities in all these areas of her life and, while she means well, she's making a hash of it all. Ben might not be familiar with the technological whosits, but he's the voice of calm reason and picture of style. (Side note - yes, men should carry handkerchiefs - I married a man who does and it certainly does get noticed!) This film doesn't really have any sharp edges; it's a throwback to a quieter sort of comedy and while not all of it quite holds together (I think writer/director Nancy Meyers lets Jules' husband off too easily and the film praises overwork more than I think it ought to), The Intern will become a late-night movie staple. See it in the theaters first.

*One of the later ones - maybe Walk Don't Run.

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