Walken, in Jonze's New Video; Bridget Jones's Diary


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Success hasn't mellowed Christopher Walken. He seems to have grown more blissfully sinister. Except for John Malkovich, no American movie actor has been as interestingly creepy. That's the most immediate idea in Weapon of Choice, Spike Jonze's new music video for Fatboy Slim, and Jonze's first significant work since Being John Malkovich. The title of the music video (it was shot on film) could also be an exact reference to Jonze's choosing Walken to focus another surreal?and refreshed?look at American culture. Kinetically and intellectually agile, Weapon of Choice puts E. Elias Merhige's lame Shadow of the Vampire (and Willem Dafoe's hambone performance) in damning perspective. With Walken's iconography, Jonze, a genuine eccentric artist, doesn't have to disgrace movie history or strain credulity. He uses music, dance and music video's inherent caprice to twist and heighten popular perception.


Twenty years ago Walken's dangerous persona took on an unexpected flourish when he played the song-and-dance pimp in Herbert Ross' experimental musical Pennies from Heaven. Jonze brings back that surprise in Weapon of Choice. Viewers who have never heard of Pennies from Heaven (by now they must be legion) will, therefore, respond to a startling side of Walken, the hoofer letting loose the wit inside such performances as his spiritually suffering Mafia don in Abel Ferrara's astonishing The Funeral. Walken, like Malkovich, commands the right kind of bizarro actorish intensity to make celebrity appear both weird and fascinating. He seems no longer able to play "normal" men. But this music video?an isolated showstopper in the era of unarousing pop shows?stands a chance of endearing Walken to the pop audience. It should also smoothly connect with the mass audience that was put off by Being John Malkovich's brilliance. Fatboy Slim's rhythms (aided by Bootsy Collins) are viscerally seductive?just enough to make dance interesting as something beyond music video's usual robotics, aerobics and coochie-grind.


Dance is Walken and Jonze's weapon of choice as an expressive art form. The video's entire 3:45 running time recalls the "Dance of Despair and Disillusionment" that Craig (John Cusack) performed in Malkovich's body. Spiritual anguish came through the way Malkovich?or a double?affected Martha Graham-like leaps and extensions. But in Weapon of Choice Walken dances out of his psychological fetters. Initially seen in a gray suit, sitting in a hotel lobby, Walken hears the Fatboy Slim tune beckoning him from a boombox atop a maintenance worker's supply cart. Nodding his head to the rhythm (to an acknowledgment of nightly labor and drudgery), Walken rises and begins his gavotte. As DJ-composer Fatboy Slim, Norman Cook (formerly of the Housemartins and Beats International) creates meters suited to the idea of pop transcendence. Walken, by revealing other steps in his repertoire, moves beyond what have become his own malevolent cliches. In life, one may choose to suffer or dance.


The sad undertow that Walken brings to a musical number (even when he played Elvis six years ago at the Public Theater) is extraordinary. Jonze, always a measure of contemporary edge, knows just what to do with that chagrin by letting Walken burst its sullen bubble, implicitly criticizing the American humdrum. Weapon of Choice's first jolt comes from Walken not having a typical dancer's body. That's why his agility is so startling; it comes unexpectedly, miraculously. (Of our most powerful contemporary actors, only Morgan Freeman actually has a dancer's lean grace, yet the air Freeman creates about himself is always grave, no matter what role he plays?even his pledge of love in the sour Nurse Betty was made to seem pathetic rather than joyful.) In dancing against type, Walken dances against our expectations. He's built up an even more daunting persona since his appearance as the suicidal sibling in Annie Hall, on through the striking, intimidating performances he gave in King of New York, True Romance and The Funeral. Walken's become so reliably monstrous that what he does in Weapon of Choice affects one as a career jest with a cerebral kick?the American bad guy with a Walter Mitty heart and boogie shoes.


I'd call this Walken's best performance in years. Slumped in a chair, he distributes his weight sculpturally: eyes frozen, hands heavy in lap, depression apparent in his thick torso. By shifting his weight when he moves, Walken shifts centers of gravity?a dancer's show of freedom. He first looks grim, hardly cracking a smile, so that when his grin does appear?mid-strut?it's so surprising he's scarier than ever (with every move he looks like he's thinking of a way to shove a knife in your back). Walken projects a different kind of dancer's pleasure. Animation, emotion?everything he shares with an audience?becomes something to take seriously. Like Jonze's own goofball amateur dance in Fatboy Slim's Praise You video, the body gestures are pointedly simple. The best choreography (this is by Michael Rooney, Walken and Jonze) translates as sincere expression.


Inspired by the beat, Walken not only dances, he takes flight. Around the ghostly hotel (doing a softshoe down its escalator and then traveling up its elevator) Walken skips through the empty space of transience and commerce. Viewers with pop memories may connect how he hangs in air to the otherworldly possessed Robin in The Fury, but the way Walken flies?emerging from the depths of a cerulean mural?will probably strike the jejune as a twist on Chow Yun-Fat's high-wire stunts in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Only here, the stunt means something?summing up pop culture as new as yesterday's.


Like Herbert Ross, Jonze's style deconstructs the movie musical while examining the modern boundaries of surrealism. One section of Walken's dance recreates a dazzling moment from William Wyler's 1935 The Good Fairy when Margaret Sullavan as a Depression-era moviehouse usher sees her own image in an infinite row of mirror reflections. For Jonze, Walken?the modern sluggard?becomes a chorus line of the self, suggesting the infinity of proletarian drones but also hinting at the camaraderie/pride of a lonely man suddenly recognizing himself and his self-worth. Jonze's humor is also apparent in the use of stunt doubles to accomplish this (just like Bjork's doubles in his It's Oh So Quiet video, an homage to Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).


Walken's ironic star turn makes Weapon of Choice more than an effort of homage; Jonze helps him extend his vocation into a reflection of common experience?the thing movie musicals used to do so valuably, but that has faded from the culture along with the genre itself. Few music videos maintain this quality of personal expression?the physicalized internal monologue like Fred Astaire's "By Myself" number in The Band Wagon, or Michael Jackson's coda in Black or White. Jonze and Walken resurrect it unexpectedly. Weapon of Choice's freedom from idleness should help everyone recognize the desperate, solitary pleasure of whistling a tune while waiting for a train, of biding time for a rendezvous or just plain daydreaming.


If Weapon of Choice recalls anything from Jonze's earlier career, it's the joie-de-vivre aggression of his lo-fi videos of California skateboard culture. Walken's high-profile presence testifies to Jonze's own success. He's now able to maintain his old skateboard daring?to bring anarchy even to music videos' routine genres. That's the basis of Jonze's humor, and it makes Weapon of Choice the week's single most interesting piece of film.


Generations ago, college film societies used to preface Bergman screenings with the satirical American short The Dove (a parody of Wild Strawberries). If future exhibitions of Being John Malkovich start with Weapon of Choice's surreal treatment of celebrity and its discontents, contemporary American cinema could not be better served.




Bridget Jones's Diary
Directed by Sharon Maguire

You can't find a clearer example of Western decadence than Bridget Jones's Diary. This middle-class sitcom follows a young, single 32-year-old white British woman looking for love in the media world (publishing, then tv). Comfy in her own environment, Bridget's not alienated like the women in Jafar Panahi's feminist noir The Circle. She's obsessed with class trivialities?and her audience is expected to be similarly vapid.


Not since Agnieszka Holland disgraced Jennifer Jason Leigh (and Henry James) in Washington Square has there been a movie and heroine so brazenly witless. Whose terrible idea was it to cast Texan Renee Zellweger as a Tory layabout? She has Shirley Booth's dowdy charm, yet she works to disguise it with the same con-artist/vocal coach responsible for Gwyneth Paltrow's lousy British accent in Shakespeare in Love. As Bridget, Zellweger goes through one supposedly endearing humiliation after another. She always looks flushed whether bumping uglies with Colin Firth as the prig-next-door or Hugh Grant as her loutish book-publishing boss. The sign of how ridiculously coddling this comedy of middle-class manners gets is its blase treatment of Bridget shagging her boss, as if such behavior were sensible. Directed by Sharon Maguire (Jerry's film-school alter ego?), Bridget Jones's Diary pretends to depict a young woman's sex crisis when it actually celebrates the smugness of an incredibly daft girl through daft plot developments.


A few jokes work, but between the stupid insults of Germaine Greer and Bosnia, there's no mistaking the insensitivity at hand. (At least the 70s version of this story?Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York?had humane values. This is just snotty.) Bridget's a dolt who can't tell a good man from bad. "I'm still looking for something more extraordinary than that," she says to one supplicating beau. So should moviegoers.


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