Foreign-language art films like Jerichow, by German writer-director Christian Petzold, Three Monkeys by Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre come pre-sold with film festival approval. That only means they appeal to the personal preferences of our cultural gatekeepers who predictably dismiss a pop-culture surprise like Next Day Air. Opening without fanfare or official validation, Next Day Air displays more creativity and relevance to our ways of thinking (about money and relationships) than movies that pose as art.
Marketed as an urban crime comedy, Next Day Air masks its seriousness within antics of working-class routine. Leo (Donald Faison) smokes weed while on his delivery service job in Philadelphia. Feckless behavior is part of the miscommunication that occurs in the contemporary American pressure cooker. A cocaine shipment intended for Jesus and Chita (Cisco Reyes and Yasmin Deliz) gets dropped off at the neighboring apartment of three petty crooks, Brody (Mike Epps), Guch (Wood Harris) and Rhino (Lobo Sebastian). When Brody tries fencing the stash to his cousin Shavoo (Omari Hardwick), cutthroat comedy and drama become inseparable.
Nearly similar to Jerichow and Three Monkeys—where crime and deception are elaborately plotted, cynical views of life—there’s a superior (lively, unforced) realism to how Next Day Air demonstrates that people’s values and routines, their self-interests, can be at cross-purposes. It’s the insight Americans have been afraid to face since the political upheaval of the 1960s and ’70s (from urban blight to Watergate to the Iraq War), yet it surfaces in this unassuming action flick whose candor and ribaldry once distinguished the best hip-hop
records. As each set of triflers and hustlers compete for the drugs—or just to get through a day—they express themselves with amusing, sometimes corrosive, fluency. This differs from the portentous characters in Jerichow and Three Monkeys, whose taciturn misery only draws out their inevitable plots—already familiar from either The Postman Always Rings Twice or Ingmar Bergman soaps.
When Next Day Air’s characters speak—usually in egotistical, peremptory outbursts—they’re frequently, literally, smacked back. The motif for this punchy verbal slapstick is a series of bloody mouths, busted chops and a cut tongue. Startling this late in the hip-hop era, it still conveys the frustration of pent-up desires and the anxieties of having so much to say. Such low-down articulacy is vivid compared to Jerichow’s scheming triangle of Turkish businessman Ali (Hilmi Sozer) throwing his wife Laura (Nina Hoss) into the arms of a fellow German, Thomas (Benno Furmann); and Three Monkeys’ secretive husband (Yavuz Bingol), wife (Hatice Aslan) and son (Rifat Sungar) who suffer their own baneful, lethargic natures. Some people mistake this posturing masochism for profundity but Next Day Air provides the spirited directness we get only from pop culture.
I’ve heard several young moviegoers appreciate the contrived urban/ethnic conflict in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, but Next Day Air fulfills their instinctive needs. Its title suggests the influence of Ice Cube’s Friday franchise (as did last year’s affecting First Sunday). Blair Cobbs’ screenplay develops ideas about black entrepreneurship Ice Cube bungled in his Barbershop movies: Guch, Brody, Rhino, Shavoo and Jesus ignore New Jack City homilies or Cheech and Chong’s innocuous rebellion. Instead of moralizing about drugs or violence, Cobbs’ domesticated money-rivalry cuts to the heart of free enterprise and reveals its hellishness. (“Come on, man. You’re in America. Steal something!” advises fellow deliveryman Mos Def).
Playwright August Wilson also comes to mind. Guch’s assertion to Brody, “Ten bricks is ten bricks, a hustler would kill you for that. I would!” not only suggests Wilson’s masterful Seven Guitars but changes the emotional and moral register of all relationships. (“I can show you better than I can tell you,” one thug boasts to another.) Through more authentic language and attitude, the sense of underclass exasperation corrects Sin Nombre’s condescending nobility (and its racist neglect of African
Diaspora). Cobbs’ vulgar eloquence does not congratulate liberal self-righteousness; it equalizes—balancing thievery, trust, violence and the intimate confessions of various hustlers. If these characters offend the good taste of art-movie habitués unaccustomed to street sophistication, they must wonder: Is this The Wire or something unimaginably better?
From the first shock-image of Leo’s blasted innocence to a scene of thuggish Shavoo crawling through chaos with a Salamander glint in his eye, Next Day Air evinces unexpected artistry. It’s in the loving weariness of Leo’s mother (Debbie Allen), the sexy protectiveness Chita shows for Jesus (and his own comic egotism about his name). Music video pro Benny Boom (Clarence Ben Douglass III) makes the most surprising hip-hop directorial debut since Master P’s I’m Bout It and Philip G. Atwell’s War. With expressive shorthand, Boom dissolves from a cockfight icon to a narrative montage (tinted blue in homage to Hype Williams’ Belly) where crisscrossing action—sex, prayer, a jet flight—leads to startling graphic punctuation. It’s also an ideational reveille.
Art-movie clichés like Jerichow cater to cynicism. It resembles the self-loathing anti-Americanism in A History of Violence, yet its post-Iraq characters are never as convincing or inspiriting as Guch’s mix of venality and hope or Shavoo’s compelling testimony: “If it ain’t worth dying for, you don’t want to be there.” Against art-house fashion, Shavoo asserts Life in a personal, blues/hip-hop way. Actually, he critiques greed through a distracted man’s longing for community. Next Day Air takes place in the urban ghetto, but its action reveals soulful spaces—a more pertinent setting than Jerichow and Three Monkeys’ decaying Europe or the depersonalizing “democracy” of Sin Nombre. Filmgoers who think outside the art-movie box will discover that the artful and
enjoyable Next Day Air offers an episode of 21st-century black American life that August Wilson never got to.
For André Téchiné and Patrice Chéreau, who have specialized in probing/expansive family melodramas, Summer Hours would be a trifle. For Olivier Assayas, it’s almost a masterpiece. Away from the awful chic nihilism of Demonlover, Clean and Boarding Gate, this post-New Wave auteur embraces his true Tradition of Quality heritage. Summer Hours could be a sequel to Assayas’ best film, Les Destinées Sentimentale (2000), where a wealthy family of porcelain makers struggles to maintain their heritage.
In Summer Hours, heritage is lost to mortality, time, temperament and generational indifference—yet it is ever present. Matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob, in a freaky homage to Franju’s Eyes Without a Face) bequeaths the family mansion (“Memories, secrets,
stories that mean nothing to anyone”),
including paintings, sculpture, Art Nouveau furniture—all valued by the Musée d’Orsay—to her three adult children:
Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jeremie Renier).
“You prefer objects not weighed down by the past,” icy mother says to icy daughter. Assayas glides by the fabulous appointments (from Odilon Redon panels to a burnished, gold-inlay Majorelle writing desk), and they become a presence—an art fact representing everything he and his characters stand for.
As Summer Hours depicts styles of distance and alienation, the sense of loss holds sequences together. This is not a sentimental catalogue like Arnaud Desplechin’s over-praised (and ultimately unpopular) A Christmas Tale. Assayas reconciles change and regret—notably in Binoche’s complex silent mourning and a tour of the Musée d’Orsay’s commemorative exhibition. This gives a spectral sense to material value—an idea from Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” and a phenomenon E.M. Forster defined in Howard’s End that Merchant-Ivory completely botched.
Cinematographer Eric Gautier glorifies landed-gentry abundance in a final sequence where a teenage grandchild mistreats the manse as a disco and indoor volleyball court (the same adolescent anarchy as Assayas’ 1995 Cold Water). The teen’s fleeting memory of her grandmother directly transmits the opulence of family privilege. This bourgie Tradition of Quality fulfills Assayas’ talent.
Next Day Air
Directed By Benny Boom
Runtime: 90 min.
Directed by Christian Petzold
At Film Forum
Runtime: 89 min.
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
At Cinema Village & Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Runtime: 109 min.
Directed by Olivier Assayas
At IFC Center & Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
Runtime: 102 min.
Tags: Armond White
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