Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sort Of Related: The Amateurs, by Marcus Sakey (2009)/Julia (U.S. 2009)

The latest novel by Marcus Sakey nails that stage in life when potential begins to curdle into disappointment. Four Chicago friends meet regularly for drinks every week. All of them unattached, in their 30s, and wondering what happened to the fabulous lives they were going to lead. When one of them is pulled by his boss against his will into a drug deal, they decide to steal the money for themselves. But the job doesn’t go as planned. The foursome may not be as close as they thought. And what they’ve stumbled into is no ordinary drug deal.

The lead characters are drawn with plenty of shading and rough edges. There are sharp observations about friendship and aging. A passage early on sets the tone, when the sole female member of the group talks about how going out on Saturday night once meant feelings of lightness and possibility. Now she fills days and waits to turn into her mother. The Amateurs also captures the mood of those months in 2008 when Americans felt impotent collective rage at the collapse of the financial system and the associated lack of accountability. A strong piece of work.

Speaking of people who should not undertake lives of crime ...

(You see? There are themes to these entries.)

Julia played the festival circuit, received an abbreviated theatrical release, and is out this week on a bare bones DVD. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour character study-cum-crime drama. And it demands your immediate attention.

Tilda Swinton plays the title role, a self-destructive L.A. alcoholic blazing her own path to hell. At an AA meeting she meets a fellow sufferer who presents her with a deranged plan: kidnap my son from his wealthy grandfather. Julia, at the end of her long, unraveling rope, goes along with it.

The crime in this movie is not that of big-budget thrillers or gritty noir novels that tout their realism. This madness is right out of a police blotter, caprice and coincidence colliding with bad planning and poor impulse control. Harrowing.

Julia is also one of the great depictions of a hardcore drunk. The character is always ready with blame and an excuse. Her highs are believably high, her lows degrading. Swinton is simply astonishing, serving up the addict’s quicksilver shifts from confidence to rage to petulance. It’s a titanic performance.

The movie is a messy ramble, at times maddening but always fascinating. That’s only fitting for a film inspired by John Cassavetes and specifically Gloria. How odd is it that for all Cassavetes’ influence it’s a movie he tossed off as a lark that has spawned remakes official and unofficial?