Miss Sloane

Nothing but a wall of granite

miss_sloaneMiss Sloane comes at both the perfect time and too late.  It’s realistic, sharply written, and full of speeches we need right now – in fact, I suspect if everyone took to heart the words of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) during a live-TV debate with arch-nemesis Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the center of the film, I mean really took them to heart, maybe the conversation about gun legislation (and whom it’s for) would be different.  But it’s also worth mentioning that the character herself might not mean all of it, that it’s all part of a carefully engineered campaign to pass a bill, the very passing of which is ultimately for the satisfaction of the lobbyists pushing for it.  And while the film peels back some curtains about political games and machinations, it’s more of a character study than a movie about guns.

The film is a frame story that begins in the present with Liz Sloane on trial for something we’re not yet privy to, judged by overzealous senator Ron Sperling (a very impressive John Lithgow). Liz’s beleaguered attorney advises her to plead the fifth on every question, but once Sperling starts nitpicking Liz’s personal business (specifically prescription drug habits) and deliberately mixing up facts about a certain deal with Indonesia, Liz explodes, and is now obligated to answer the remainder of the tribunal’s questions lest she perjure herself.  Cut to a few months earlier.  Liz, a highly successful and sought-after lobbyist in D.C., is given a rather insulting directive by the Gun Lobby: use sophomoric fear tactics to get more women to buy firearms.  Smug, superior Liz shrieks with laughter.  Not only does she fully understand how irresponsible this approach would be, given the progressed crime rate, but she adores a good challenge.  She quits working for Connors, taking a skeleton crew of her best subordinates along with her, but leaving her protege, Jane (Allison Pill), who refuses to jeopardize her own career for Liz’s idealism.  Liz is soon hired by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) in support of a bill that would require universal background checks, and the battle begins.

As has been said about Jessica Chastain more than once, she carries this film.  Much of the script’s indulgent, snappy, Gilmore-Girls-esque dialogue is given to her, and she never wastes a word of it.  Gone, though, is the charm that many of Chastain’s characters are required to exude; Liz is ruthless, manipulative, and unapologetic.  She’s self-possessed, but not infallible, which is what makes studying her so fascinating.  Small fissures are visible when she’s alone.  Bits of her background come out in conversations with male escort Forde (Jake Lacy).  When one of her two long cons in the film – an ingeniously devious exploitation of gun-violence survivor Esme Manucharian (the amazing Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – becomes more personal than expected, we get a very real look at what happens when trust is violated.  This is a world where the protagonist can be one step ahead of everyone, hit rock bottom and still win, but not where people magically become friends again.

The grandest manipulation of all involves the film’s ace-in-the-hole, Jane, who is far more than an ambitious would-be grad student who looks up to Liz.  Allison Pill plays her with an inscrutability that we aren’t even aware matters until the final minutes of the film.  Stuhlbarg once again plays an antagonistic bureaucrat, and accomplishes that amazing feat of performance that allows you to steadfastly root against a character whose actor you love (maybe that’s my own compartmentalization issues talking, but it is what it is).  Mbatha-Raw’s Esme is probably the only character in the film fighting for what she actually believes in for a pure and good reason, and she becomes the most important character when she causes Liz to realize that people actually do things for reasons other than their own ego, and that self-sacrifices are sometimes necessary (and let’s face it: Liz is far overdue for one).  Lacy’s character, the escort, helps catalyze the “defrosting” process, as it were, and Liz gets some surprisingly meaningful moments out of him.  Besides Lacy’s superb performance, it’s pretty cool to see a man finally play the Hooker with a Heart of Gold role.

Liz is asked, “Were you ever normal?”  It’s difficult not to wonder how she ended up the way she is.  But the film is less about that (and not at all about guns), and more about whether this kind of character can be anything else, whether one can untangle themselves from the moral web of the political system and the toxicity that comes with power.  And Jessica Chastain is the only actress who could answer these questions in such meaningful ways.

Literally the only thing that doesn’t make sense about this film is a certain photo of George W. Bush.

220px-miss_sloaneMiss Sloane (2016); written by Jonathan Perera; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain.

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Obvious Child

No snips

obviousOn a day that sees women being once again failed by our supreme court, there may be some solace in Obvious Child, a film written, directed, produced by, and starring women, and it’s a film that involves one woman’s choice to obtain an abortion, a simple procedure that women are still fighting to have recognized as a part of basic health care.  But screenwriter/director Gillian Robespierre does not present this as a big-issue film; she instead gives us a romantic comedy starring a character who refuses to be in one.

Donna Stern (the hilarious Jenny Slate) is a Brooklyn comedian who, immediately following a great set, is dumped and laid off within twenty-four hours.  Following a casual hookup with nice-guy Max (Jake Lacy), Donna becomes pregnant, though she doesn’t realize it for a few weeks.  She decides to get an abortion, but she has to wait for it, so she has plenty of time to let everyone know (other than the guy she had sex with, who disappears for awhile, then reemerges determined to take her on a “proper date”).  Donna’s roommate, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman) supports the decision, having had an abortion herself.  Donna is confident about having the procedure, but worries about telling her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper), who looks down upon Donna’s relative destitution, and often accuses her of wasting her life.  But it turns out that Nancy had an abortion when she was in college, and can vouch that this is most certainly not a bad or irresponsible decision.

The film portrays Donna as the typical grubby and lovable lead in any gender of rom-com, but Obvious Child isn’t precious about it.  In a film like A Life Less Ordinary, which starts similarly – Ewan McGregor is dumped and fired from his job in the same day, leading to a much different decision than Slate’s character makes here – the lead character is severely misunderstood at every corner, a handsome and well-intentioned guy who is recognizably perfect to everyone watching the movie, who cannot believe that he could be treated this way by the woman he loves.  Robespierre takes more of a risk.  She allows Donna to be herself, which means that some audiences might not like Donna very much.  The result is a more layered character.  Donna is unapologetically herself, and she makes no secret about what you’re in for if you choose to spend time with her – the film’s opening dialogue is one of many extended vagina jokes, and while it’s great gross-out stuff, it’s refreshing to hear female comedians let loose and be funny about their own bodies in a genre so dominated by shopworn dick jokes.

Perhaps best of all, despite the film’s identity in the media as the first mainstream “abortion movie,” it’s actually not so much a movie about abortion as it is a story that involves an interesting character deciding to get one.  None of the characters who have had abortions in the past regret it or let it consume them in any way, and Donna does not spend the film worrying about whether she’ll regret it, or whether it’s the “right” decision in the eyes of anyone but herself and her mother, and her concern about the latter has nothing to do with religion or unfounded fear that the clump of cells inside her is a person.  In fact, the film is careful to avoid bringing politics or religious hokum into any conversations, aside from Nellie’s brief diatribe about the patriarchal right attempting to assert control over women’s bodies, which is not only on point, but is something the character would say, and this is, again, where the film succeeds: its unabashed decision to let the characters be themselves.  Donna gets an abortion because an abortion is a good decision for Donna, not because it agrees with the politics of a studio or a distributor (I might argue that allowing women basic control over their bodies shouldn’t be an issue of “politics” at all, but alas, this is where we live now).

Not only does the film actually use the word “abortion” (something not even Ernest Hemingway, who freely threw around the N-word, would do),  it dramatizes some of the specifics of the procedure itself – Nellie lets Donna know that it’s painless, takes only a few minutes, and involves no cutting or snipping, despite the fear-mongering of those who demonize abortion as a violent act.  This information is for Donna, but also, by extension, for the audience, who at this point are not hung up on whether the abortion is “correct” (there’s never a doubt about whether it is), but more on whether Donna is going to accept Max’s rather sweet advances, have a successful comedy career, and ditch Spiteful Sleaze Sam (David Cross).  Because Obvious Child is about Donna, not about abortion, even while advocating a woman’s choice to obtain one, whereas films like Juno and Knocked Up, however lovable and hip their protagonists may be, allow the fetus to become the main character, and force the woman to carry the unwanted pregnancy to term because that must somehow be construed as the “happy ending.”  Not here.  Not in stories about characters who want real things.

Obvious Child (2014); written and directed by Gillian Robespierre; starring Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman, and Jake Lacy.