Film Reviews

Gangster Squad & You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Published January 19, 2013

Rarely has a film ‘based on a true story’ seemed more like a fairy tale than Gangster Squad. If you go looking for the book behind the movie, as I did last week, then head for the True Crime section. Veteran journalist Paul Lieberman has penned a racy account of the real Gangster Squad – a clandestine group formed by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1946, with an ‘anything goes’ attitude to the fight against organised crime.
Faced with the growing power and influence of mobster, Mickey Cohen, police chief, Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), decides the LAPD has to step outside the law in order to defend the law. In a department riddled with corruption he finds one honest cop in Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), and asks him to put together a squad of off-the-books vigilantes to wage war on Cohen.
Faced with the growing power and influence of mobster, Mickey Cohen, police chief, Bill Parker (Nick Nolte), decides the LAPD has to step outside the law in order to defend the law. In a department riddled with corruption he finds one honest cop in Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), and asks him to put together a squad of off-the-books vigilantes to wage war on Cohen.
In the movie this group consists of the smooth-talking Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), and a band of patriotic, crime-hating misfits, including sharp-shooter, Max Kennard (Robert Patrick); techie, Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi); black officer Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), and Latino, Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena). Here we are already in the realms of fantasy because there are no blacks or Mexicans in the team photo of the squad that appears in Lieberman’s book.
If the ethnically inclusive good guys are too good to be true, the villain – in Sean Penn’s portrayal of Mickey Cohen – is not just an intrusive East coast Jew but a raving, satanic megalomaniac. Faced with such a monster every violent act committed by the Gangster Squad seems perfectly justified. The story rapidly devolves into a series of shoot-outs and stick-ups, with Tommy guns blazing on both sides.
The only diversion from this bloodbath is an improbable sub-plot in which Wooters conducts a love affair with Cohen’s girlfriend, Grace (Emma Stone). Needless to say, this bit is not in the book.
One can’t be too censorious about these deviations from the record because Hollywood has always been happy to iron out any moral ambiguities. Even renegades such as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, are ultimately on the side of the angels.
But if Ruben Fleischer’s film is not history, neither is it an effective piece of drama. Gangster Squad might best be described as a pastiche – an ultra-stylish package with barely an original idea. It borrows its look and manner from L.A. Confidential (1997) and numerous other flics. As sheer spectacle it is fabulous, thanks to Australia’s Oscar-winning cinematographer, Dion Beebe. However, the script by Will Beall it is so heavy-handed it seems like a bad joke. The dialogue veers between utter banality and painful, over-elaborate attempts to mimic the style of an old film noir, or perhaps a Raymond Chandler novel.
This clumsiness can almost be funny. One feels like laughing out loud when Keeler has a sudden attack of conscience, saying: “I’ve forgotten the difference between us and them.” That moment is supposed to show the crusaders are really nice people at heart.
Whenever Mickey Cohen opens his mouth we know we are in for a treat. “That wasn’t murder,” he says. “That was progress. I AM progress.” This is modest compared one of his earlier claims: “I AM God.”
Sean Penn seems to have taken one look at his lines and decided the only way to play this was by extreme over-acting. His Mickey Cohen is a cartoon, a deliberately hammy performance that upstages everyone else.
Only Ryan Gosling shows any degree of subtlety in portraying Wooters as a passionate character who plays the cynic. He has more flexibility than Josh Brolin, cast as the inarticulate enforcer who would sooner throw a punch than ask a question. With his chiselled features Brolin is reminscent of Robert Ryan in the B-films of the 40s and 50s.
Gangster Squad is a movie that makes one painfully aware of the quality of those low-budget productions in the era of film noir. They had great writing, psychological twists, clever symbolism, and convincingly explored the dark side of human nature. By contrast, Fleischer’s film gives the impression that every bit of its US$75 million budget was spent on sets and costumes, while the script was knocked together on a wet weekend.
There seems to be a Californian tradition of cops acting like criminals. Think of the Dirty Harry movies set in San Francisco; or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, perpetually at odds with the LAPD. There are the crooked cops in James Ellroy’s novels, and the ones who beat up Rodney King in 1991. Where Gangster Squad fails is that it manages to convey nothing of that sinister underbelly. It is a confection, a fizzy entertainment, in which the characters have all the moral complexity of glove puppets. This shallowness reflects poorly on a director who seems to believe that anything more challenging would be beyond the capacity of his audience.
I felt slightly better about Gangster Squad after seeing You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Where the former is vacuous but entertaining, the latter aims at a profundity undone by too many clichés and a cynicism that seems quite remarkable for a Woody Allen film.
The movie was completed in 2010, but has had to wait for an Australian release until Midnight in Paris (2011) and To Rome with Love (2012), had re-established Allen’s brand in the local market. One can see why the distributors hesitated, as this tale of love and infidelity has none of the supposed charm of the Paris or Rome films. Perhaps because it is set in London the story begins with a reference to the immortal bard: “Shakespeare said life was full of sound and fury and in the end signified nothing.”
When a film is launched with such an overused line,  virtually advertising its own meaninglessness, the alarm bells start ringing. They keep on ringing as we are introduced to the aging Alfie (Anthony Hopkins), who has left his wife of 40 years, Helena (Gemma Jones), and embarked on a mid-life crisis. Next we meet their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts), married to Roy (Josh Brolin), a writer who worries he has no talent.
We will watch Helena seeking solace in her regular visits to a fortune teller, while Alfie falls for a young escort, Charmaine (Lucy Punch). Sally becomes infatuated with her boss, art gallery owner, Greg Clemente (Antonio Banderas); and Roy keeps staring at a beautiful new neighbour, Dia (Freida Pinto), whose apartment faces the window of his study. Each of these threads will lay a trail of duplicity and disappointment.
The disconcerting aspect of the story is that Allen treats it as a comedy, with an all-knowing narrator and cheerful bursts of jazz. It takes time to realise the unsympathetic nature of the protagonists. Helena’s dependence on her fortune teller becomes progressively more abject and implausible. Alfie’s futile attempts to regain his youth with Charmaine make him look foolish. Sally reveals an angry, envious, domineering streak. Worst of all is Roy, who is not only a sponger, but a desperate egotist who will do anything to prop up his self-esteem.
The pathetic nature of these figures eats away at the comic veneer. Sally assaults her mother verbally when she declines to lend her money. Roy begins to degenerate, walking around with his shirt undone, looking more porky than he does in Gangster Squad. When introducing Dia to his friends he tells them: “I’ve been exploring the erogenous zones of this exotic creature..”
Is this supposed to be funny, or a sign of irredeemable vulgarity? It’s just as difficult to tell if the clichés that litter Sally’s conversation are signs of insensitivity or simply the result of poor, perfunctory scripting. One feels for Naomi Watts when she has to deliver lines such as: “My long standing faith in her has finally been vindicated.” That’s the kind of thing that may be written but never said in conversation. Ditto when she tells Roy: “Your problem was you never believed in yourself as much as everyone believed in you.”
The reflections on thwarted ambition, mediocre talent, and the ravages of old age are bitter rather than poignant. Even allowing for the silliness that grows on men as they begin to feel the years, Alfie is a caricature. Charmaine, his new love, is a classic blonde bimbo. Dia is similarly undeveloped as a character, merely used as a foil for Roy’s self-absorption. Last time we saw Freida Pinto she was playing the Indian version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in Trishna (2011).
As with every Woody Allen film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has autobiographical elements, but as a self-portrait it is extremely unflattering. None of the relationships between the lead characters display much intimacy or affection. Every one is wrapped up in their own obsessions, treating other people as mere satellites. Their discussions about literature, art and music sound bogus, as if they were only concerned to be seen as cognoscenti. The art scenes are especially cringeworthy. Even the name of Greg’s gallery is a joke at the expense of fashionable Italian artist, Francesco Clemente.
The antidote for this anatomy of human selfishness would be a film such as Monsieur Lazhar, in which the distance between people is slowly dissolved, not set in concrete. In that story there is no suggestion that the best we can hope for in life is to cling to congenial illusions.
There is a despairing feeling about You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, a feeling exacerbated by Allen’s reflexive attempts at humour. It seems Freud was right when he suggested that where a joke is made a problem lies concealed.
Gangster Squad, USA, rated MA, 113 mins
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, USA/Spain, rated M, 98 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, January 19, 2013