It’s difficult to appropriate a stance when a genuine master of cinema decides to do the equivalent of potter around in his garden. Is it better to admire him for doing whatever he feels like? Is it worth sympathising with him for having to take on projects like this due to his unbankability? Or is it fair to be a bit sniffy and wonder why, as he nears the end of a truly magnificent career, he doesn’t just stick to low-budget stuff or churn out the odd ace documentary?
You’re caught in amongst all of those micro-debates and yet, when it comes down to it, it’s good just to have him around to polish the grime on what turns out to be a largely compulsive, relatively tense thriller.
The story itself: Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, who still looks like he glues stubble on) is heading to the titular island with his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the highly improbable and mysterious escape of Rachel Solando (a wired, quivering and ghostly Emily Mortimer). They go through the de rigeur rigmarole of being waylaid or rebuffed by everyone they speak to, from obstinate orderlies to a gamely abrupt Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley, who acts everyone into the shadows with urbane, exquisite ease) who playfully tolerates the visitors with languid mirth dancing behind his eyes. Daniels isn’t there merely to round-up an AWOL oddball; he has other things on his mind, such as the man who started the fire that killed his wife and kids being on the island somewhere and covert brain experiments being carried out.
The first twenty-five minutes feels like Scorsese having fun a la Cape Fear – camera-trickery aplenty as he stretches his legs, cracks his knuckles and toys around, warming up nicely and ratcheting things up whilst presumably wearing a big daft grin on his face. Scorsese is still one of the few directors that can muck about whilst adding to the film – it’s a bit like making hyperbole work in literature. You’ve got to be a bit special to get away with the same old leitmotifs: not only does he get away with them, they never disrupt the pacing or tone, as though they’re an insubmersible part of his natural visual language as opposed to honed affectations or bored meddling.
And then he tempers his flamboyance to the detriment of the film (perhaps, as he gets tired of a film, he puts the camera jazz to one side and just shoots the thing?), and seems to decide that this is a serious piece of work after all. It isn’t, it’s a gritty romp and he should’ve stuck to his trademark inventory of camera flourishes. The result is uneven. As the film loses momentum you’ll be hankering for a cheeky zoom here and there which never really arrives. An inconsistency of tone being far worse than a flat-out shameless jugular chaser that this could have been a magnificent example of.
Still, it picks up again in the last half-hour as the rug is rather clumsily pulled from under you, and you have a result of sorts – and even a fairly poignant final scene. A slack, relatively dull middle-third aside, it’s compulsive and entertaining, and feels a little like another of Scorsese’s lesser films, the exhilarating, neon-lit midnight runaround After Hours.
The performances are good: the aforementioned Kingsley has the film in his pocket every time he turns up, and Ruffalo and Williams are both excellent. Max Von Sydow is all grinning austerity and looks like he may decide to ignore everyone and pick lint off his jacket at any moment. DiCaprio, as with Johnny Depp, is hampered by an eternal boyishness but does a good job in a difficult role and seems increasingly happy and apt in truly miserable roles.
All of this doesn’t mean that, five minutes after you’ve left the cinema, you won’t wonder when he’s going to make another great film and stop marking time. Punching under his weight doesn’t get anywhere near it. As long as he’s bankrolling something with this, it’s all ok.
Precious is a bad, bad film. I find it extraordinary that critics have peppered this exalted, scab-peeling TV movie with such abundant plauditry. The direction fluctuates between kids TV-standard dream montages that make your toes curl, docu-reconstruction-level pieces and grime-filtered hovel-hovering. The whole thing feels like a strand of extended sequences from a forgotten episode of a mid-ranking cop show with a conscience. And it could, should, have been a compulsive chart of an admirable, besieged, resilient and ultimately triumphant heroine.
The story itself is a good one, and you’re always onside, which makes the dim direction that much more difficult to understand. This kind of material doesn’t need tricks, directorial grandstanding or distractions from the heart-rending subject matter. It’s harrowing stuff in many ways, and it often feels like the director has pulled away from it a little, and hasn’t got the conviction to spend too long on the depressing stuff. So he tries to put a resoundingly cheap visual stamp on it when he should really get out of the way and stay there. Even in the midst of Precious tearing out of her mother’s craphole with her baby clasped to her, you can be excused for thinking, ‘Who came up with THAT idea? Slow-mo, at this point? Really?’ There’s a scene near the start of the film where the use of quick-zoom (with requisite delirium tremens unsteady-cam) beggars belief. You get it: the aim is fraught immediacy and frayed authenticity. The result is you thinking about the shoddy introduction of shaky-cam for gravitas when you should be following the story. A trashy, daft intervention that’s hardly a rare occurence.
Mo’Nique is very good indeed (despite getting a bit hammy in her final scene) and most of the performances are fine. Mariah Carey is surprisingly adept and even Lenny Kravitz turns up us a male nurse, thoughtfully without his guitar. Gabourey Sidibe deserves a lot of credit for pulling her performance off, and gets most of her scenes right without ever looking like an Oscar recipient.
In the end, the film just doesn’t work, and I wanted it to. There’s little better than getting behind an independent film such as this and getting as many people as possible to file through the cinema, glad to have sidestepped the latest clunky conveyor rubbish. Unfortunately, there’s little worse than a film in the hands of a bereft, guileless director that leans far too heavily on goodwill and basically fritters away an opportunity to make a serious dent in the prevailing momentum of expensive crap. The film has had a lot of its rough-edges worn away by over-zealous amateurisms and often feels like a nothing wearing a badge, but it has, somehow, made a bit of a splash at the awards round-up. Once the feelgood Oprah machine has wound down a little, Precious will be parked up in the late-night television graveyard, and that’s a shame.
Jeff Bridges should’ve won an Oscar before now, at least once, for John Carpenter’s Starman, in which he brilliantly stripped everything down and rendered human behaviour peculiar and comedic through fledgling alien eyes.
Here he’s stripped down but unabashedly human, flawed, world-weary and beer-addled, a burned-out country star slumming it in dead towns where he has to play up to his dwindling reputation to even get a bottle of Bourbon on the go. He’s not one for rehearsals or playing up to his image as a wizened pro by bestowing a bit of hard-earned wisdom on an upstart. He’s a wreck chasing the next paltry paycheck, at the behest of an agent barking tour info poolside, from a house that Bridges’ drunk wastrel should own but who has either pissed it all away or bought into some bad advice; paint your own profligate back-story.
At one point, he shambles off stage to puke in the parking lot mid-song, and merely getting through a full set on a makeshift stage in a bowling alley is never a given. He goes through the motions, and the inevitable stray groupie, and you can see him ticking along in a cantankerous haze until he conks out on some baking highway on the way to another forgotten, ill-populated shack.
But wait: he finds love in the shape of Maggie Gyllenhaal, a local reporter who gets a scoop via her uncle, who’s just joined the band. That’s not all she gets: she gently jolts Bridges out of doomed autopilot and, with her over-accommodating kid, revitalises him and offers up a pretty unlikely route to salvation.
There are few surprises but the film is great fun in an unassuming way. Gyllenhaal plays another bored girl from a small town and is very good, Robert Duvall is superb in a brief role but the film is basically a Bridges vehicle, giving him the room to flesh out his ailing, grizzly front-man with real depth and grouchily act up a furrow-browed storm. You’d happily trail in the wake of his slouched shamble and mop up the sick-puddles. You smell the cheap aftershave and beer on him, believe every gnarled thing that comes out of his mouth and should thoroughly advocate a long overdue Oscar.