“Secrets are like margarine.” A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick

simple favor
[Image Source: Wikipedia]

 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

“Secrets are like margarine. Easy to spread but bad for the heart.” – Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), A Simple Favor

“What can I say? I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.” – Rick Wershe, Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), White Boy Rick

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Ah, American hustle and the dark truth of the Horatio Alger myth: you can be anything you want to be in America and have as much success as you can stand as long as you deny your true nature and, arguably, your humanity. If there is a through line in A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick, this weekend’s two big “fall films” (movies that lean into Oscar season and don’t star an alien Predator), it is that very truism and the resultant deception and self-loathing that accompanies it.

 

A Simple Favor is stylishly directed by Paul Feig, whose previous efforts Bridesmaids, The Heat, Ghostbusters, and Spy demonstrated a sure-handed understanding that women are, you know, people too. Based on a novel by Darcey Bell (think Postman Always Rings Twice author James M. Cain writing for The CW), Feig gleefully pulls a Brian DePalma (minus the gory misogyny) in an unrelenting homage to some of suspense cinema’s greatest hits: Vertigo, Charade, Diabolique (actually name-checked by one of the characters), Gaslight, and, yes, Cain’s Double Indemnity, and probably a dozen more I’m forgetting. Blessedly, Feig embraces the black comedy of it all, and the film is less Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and more Mel Brooks-spoofs-Gone Girl.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

For her work in this film, Anna Kendrick now and forever will be my hero as her performance drives a stake into the heart of the insufferable DIY, cupcake-baking, Pinterest-stalking mommy vlogger (that’s vlogger with a “v” … as in “video blogger”). Her Stephanie Smothers is a hoot, one bad PTA meeting away from a nervous breakdown – a young widow whose  fixation on “home and hearth” may belie a darker (trashier) past.

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Into Stephanie’s life breezes fellow elementary school mom Emily Nelson, an icy Hitchcock blonde in divine Lauren Bacall-pantsuits. Blake Lively reminds viewers she’s more than “Ryan Reynolds’ wife” in a crackpot performance that is one part Carole Lombard, one part Veronica Lake, and one part Barbara Stanwyck … that is if those women were showboating, day-drinking, pansexual PR executives addicted to painkillers and stainless steel appliances. Oh, and she’s got secrets too … some doozies.

 

Emily and Stephanie meet cute in the rain, picking their sons up from school, and strike up the unlikeliest of friendships. The best parts of the movie are watching these two circle each other, realizing their respective “hustles” are as artificial as the day is long. Pretty soon, Emily disappears Gone Girl-style, and hunky husband Sean Townsend (Crazy Rich Asians‘ Henry Golding who is suddenly everywhere) is the chief culprit, which is compounded when he and Stephanie strike up a romance.

simple couch

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I won’t spoil the twists and turns as they come fast and furious, but Feig and his stars have a ball indulging in and skewering the excesses of the genre. A fabulous supporting cast of pros like Jean Smart, Linda Cardellini, Rupert Friend, and Andrew Rannells all deliver zippy character turns. By the final twenty minutes, I will admit, I began to sour on the improbability of it all as the film veers into farcical War of the Roses territory. Nonetheless, for Lively’s gonzo performance alone, the film is essential viewing.

 

Across the aisle from A Simple Favor‘s flawless Dwell Magazine production design is the rough and tumble scruffiness of White Boy Rick, set in the nadir of Mayor Coleman Young’s mid-80s Detroit when the entire city looked like the back lot of a Mad Max movie and stopping to grab a Slurpee at 7-Eleven was a death-defying act.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Based on the true story of Rick Wershe, Jr., the longest serving juvenile drug offender in the history of Michigan, White Boy Rick details Wershe’s descent into crime, his ascent as both FBI-informant and drug kingpin, and his eventual arrest and conviction. Along the way, Wershe (a haunting Richie Merritt) and his gun-smuggling papa (McConaughey in one of his best and most understated performances) meet a host of dodgy characters from the mean streets of the Motor City and in the mayoral Manoogian Mansion. (Legends Piper Laurie and Bruce Dern pop up as McConaughey’s parents – they are dynamite, and the biggest crime is that they don’t get more screen time.)

 

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Jennifer Jason Leigh is pretty much Jennifer Jason Leigh (which is fine) as an FBI agent using the boy to infiltrate the Detroit drug scene, and Brian Tyree Henry spins gold from his underwritten part as a Detroit cop in on the deal.

 

Director Yann Demange does an exceptional job capturing the sheer ugliness of this hardscrabble place and time without ever condescending to the moment nor its denizens. These characters are people who view the “land of opportunity” through a fun-house mirror where the only choices for financial stability are felonious. I will admit that I found the film’s point-of-view regarding its central figure problematically slippery. Are we to sympathize with him and his failings? Is he some kind of martyr figure? What does the film mean to imply about race in these circumstances? I’m at sea about the answers to these questions, and that leaves me just shy of fully supporting the film. White Boy Rick is well-done with a crackerjack cast, but I walk away with a bit of unease about what it is ultimately trying to say about race and class distinctions in America.

Matthew McConaughey (Finalized);Richie Merritt (Finalized)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Regardless, both A Simple Favor and White Boy Rick (especially taken together) do an exceptional job holding a cinematic lens to the artifice of “success” in America: its false promise of fulfillment, its ephemeral nature, and its intrinsic heartache.

 

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

 

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

       We wear the mask!

– “We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

 

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” Moonlight

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I use antlers in all of my decorating.” NOT a line from Oscar Best Picture Moonlight. I know this. Obviously, it’s one of the more pointed (no pun intended) lyrics from one of Beauty and the Beast‘s signature tunes “Gaston,” performed most recently by Josh Gad and Luke Evans in Disney’s runaway blockbuster remake.

Last weekend I saw two movies – Beauty and the Beast (reviewed here) and Moonlight (on what was likely one of its last remaining weekends in movie theaters). I dashed off a fawning review (pun intended) of Beauty and the Beast, but I needed more time for Moonlight to marinate in my noggin.

(My parents just saw saw Beauty and the Beast last night, and judging from their less than glowing reaction to the film, some of you out there may think I should have have spent a bit more time mulling that movie’s virtues and flaws as well.)

One of the elements I found so refreshing in Disney’s remake is its upending of the primacy of traditional masculinity (despite the hyperbolic gay panic surrounding the film in some less-enlightened quarters). Much more clearly than its animated precursor, this 2017 version positions the athletic, muscular, debonair, trophy-hunting male (Gaston) as the true “beast” of the title.

Moonlight has a similar questioning of masculinity running throughout its narrative, albeit more nuanced, though no less allegorical. I know I’m twisting my analysis into a pretzel comparing these two films, and it is really just the happenstance of seeing them the same weekend, but I do find this intriguing.

There is a danger viewing a critically lauded film after it has won Best Picture. Your expectations far exceed what any film could withstand. That was true for me of Moonlight as well, but with a week’s worth of reflection, I see the power in this deceptively simple story of a young African-American man – told in three chapters (boyhood, adolescence, adulthood) – navigating a world that is economically, culturally, racially, socially structured to prevent the natural and healthy evolution of one’s truest self.

James Baldwin wrote, “Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Moonlight, as written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, traces the building of such a mask, and ends (hopefully) with its ultimate removal.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We meet the silent, sullen, and fearful Chiron (Alex Hibbert in one of the purest, most compelling child performances ever captured onscreen) as he runs from a pack of bullies, ultimately hiding out in an abandoned drug house.  His rescuer Juan (in a detailed but subtle Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali) is by all external appearances the prototypical “alpha male” – a successful businessman (in this case, the business so happens to be selling crack cocaine) who cuts a sinewy, shark-like path through the mean streets of Liberty City, Miami. Yet, his hard, intimidating exterior hides a soulful sadness and an empathy for young Chiron.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

He brings the boy home to his girlfriend Teresa (a luminous Janelle Monae) whose sweet exterior conceals a steely but well-intentioned determination. They care for the boy, give him a boost of confidence, and take him home to his loving but misguided mother Paula (the always exceptional Naomie Harris).

The script saddles Paula with a cliched crack addiction (the drugs fueling which, of course, we come to find are actually supplied by Juan), but it is a testament to the exceptional acting that this narrative device is haunting and believable and sidesteps Lifetime TV-melodrama. At one point Juan counsels Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Ain’t no one can make that decision for you.” Juan’s intent with this advice is for Chiron to be true to himself, but as the film’s narrative continues to stack the deck against Chiron, we see how impossible such a simple notion actually can be.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the film’s second section, we see Chiron enter high school, a troubled young man marginalized and brutalized for his unseen, undefined “difference.”

Ashton Sanders is exceptional as Chiron during this chapter, with a raw-boned anxiety that evokes Anthony Perkins or James Dean at their most heartbreaking. For a brief moment, Chiron finds love, but it turns sour really fast with a violence-begets-violence sequence that is as heartrending as it is inevitable.

The film then again flashes forward for its third and final chapter. Chiron is an adult now, having survived some unspeakable off-screen horrors in America’s juvenile reform system.  The doleful muteness of his youth has now curdled into an intractable, intimidating silence. Chiron at this age – as played with brilliant physicality and wounded nuance by Trevante Rhodes – is an imposing figure, a doppelganger for his childhood mentor Juan. He is earning a healthy living selling drugs on the streets of Atlanta, his sensitive soul lost amidst layers of literal and figurative armor. (One spot of humor comes from the ostentatious “grills” he insists on wearing over his teeth, another example of his desire to harden himself before a world that has repeatedly rejected him.) The film seems to suggest we become what we know, sometimes in spite of our best selves, simply to survive. Life as ouroboros.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film concludes as Chiron reunites over dinner with his childhood friend Kevin (a warm, funny, and wary Andre Holland). We see the layers of galvanized steel forged from terror upon terror start to melt away, and we are left with the broken soul underneath. The final shot of the film is Chiron resting his head on his friend’s shoulder, perhaps relieved he can finally be himself, devoid of the culture’s artificial expectations of what it means to be a man.

And that is the reason we need this movie right now.

There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re ev’ryone’s favorite guy
Ev’ryone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why …

 – Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, “Gaston”
 
 We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

– Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear The Mask”

_________________

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. 

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.