Film: Best of Enemies

Is it the constant motion that hypnotizes us? The sheer power of a revved-up engine that elicits our undivided attention? Or is it the competitive nature of the sport that draws sports junkies – and plenty of non-fans – to professional racing like a moth to a flame?

When you’re watching those cars vie to be the first ones across the finish line, you don’t ask yourself why those bright colors whizzing by at lightning speed elicits a childlike sense of wonder. You just want to see those shiny metal danger magnets go go go! And you never want that endless parade of sound and diesel-fueled pageantry to stop.

Until it slams on the brakes at the eleventh hour, Ron Howard’s Rush, one of two new fall releases I’m reviewing this week in this overcrowded weekend at the movies, lives up to its title, and then some. The riveting tale of the long-standing rivalry between Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda is crackerjack entertainment, but unlike pulpier, genre-driven muscle car movies that have struck gold at the box office in recent years, this one has brains to match the brawn, exhaustively researched insight to temper its depiction of testosterone-propelled swagger.

The reason Rush surges ahead of its less refined competition can be summed in two words: Peter Morgan. The scribe behind The Queen and Hereafter teamed up with Howard back in 2008 to bring his play Frost/Nixon to the screen, and the result was one of the Apollo 13 director’s sharpest efforts. When these two join forces on a project, what comes out of that collaboration purrs like a well-oiled machine, and Rush is no exception.

Howard and Morgan waste no time in establishing Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, sex-on-a-stick on wheels) as a reckless, undisciplined horndog. Is he his own worst enemy? You bet, but he’s too busy banging a succession of buxom beauties to dial it down. When you see Hunt stumble out of bed in his birthday suit, Howard leaves little to the imagination as to what made the driver such a chick magnet. (Remind me to write a column about Howard’s butt fetish. Really, the subject is rife for serious critical analysis. But I digress.)

Hunt and Lauda (a sensational Daniel Brühl) first cross paths at a Formula Three race in 1970. Hunt’s racing in his native England, so he’s confident he’s got this one in the bag … until Lauda sneaks up on him and weasels out a victory. “He looks like a rat, doesn’t he?” remarks Hunt about his toothy newfound foe. OK, so Lauda doesn’t quite match the straw-haired Brit in the looks department, but what he lacks in sex appeal, the Viennese perfectionist more than compensates in anal-retentive dedication and sheer drive. Lauda’s deep-pocketed daddy frowns upon his son’s chosen profession, so the ill-humored sourpuss takes it upon himself – read: take out a bank loan – to mold himself into a champion. Morgan’s jargon-heavy dialogue – peppered with voiceover narration from both leads – pays as much attention to the behind-the-scenes struggle to come up with an unbeatable vehicle on the racetrack as it does with the logistics of each particular showdown, particularly when Hunt and Lauda reach the big leagues. Formula One enthusiasts will swear they’ve died and gone to gearhead heaven.

Howard’s most inspired stroke was to hire Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) to photograph Rush. The visceral racing sequences bristle with anything-goes tension, even for viewers familiar with the events of the 1976 Formula One season, which take up the lion’s share of screen time. Howard and Morgan take pains to peek into Hunt and Lauda’s personal lives, faring much better with Lauda’s endearing courtship of socialite Marlene Knaus (Alexandra Maria Lara, nailing it) than with Hunt’s crash-and-burn marriage with professional model Suzy Miller (the estimable, underused Olivia Wilde).

Rush‘s muscular narrative makes those two hours whiz by … until the very end, when the aesthetic high the movie has sustained all but topples with a well-intentioned – and largely superfluous – chance meeting between the racing rivals that goes around in circles recycling the men’s differing worldviews. Howard’s respect for his screenwriter is palpable, but this is one instance when the former child actor, who comes full circle here after his 1977 feature directing debut Grand Theft Auto, should have forced Morgan to take out the scissors. I’m reminded of an anecdote about Aussie filmmaker Peter Weir, who explained in an interview why he cut two pages of dialogue between Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis at the end of Witness:The producer was horrified: ‘You’re going to do this just with LOOKS between them?’ I said, ‘Well, the whole film supports this moment. We should understand by now.’” Words to live by, Mr. Howard.

For a model of storytelling economy that champions – to both its benefit and detriment – the less-is-more approach, look no further than Our Children, the fact-based potboiler about an interracial marriage that begins in romantic, love-conquers-all bliss and ends in unspeakable tragedy. Belgian schoolteacher Murielle (Émilie Dequenne) and Moroccan immigrant Mounir (A Prophet‘s Tahar Rahim) have genuinely fallen for each other. So what if the future groom still lives with the elderly Dr. Pinget (War Horse‘s Niels Arestrup), the man who married Mounir’s sister so they could have a future in Europe? So what if Murielle’s plainspoken sister Françoise (Stéphane Bissot) smells a rat with this iffy arrangement Mounir’s family has with Dr. Pinget (hold the jokes, Spanish speakers). So what if Pinget himself thinks the cultural differences will prove too insurmountable for the lovebirds?

Marry they do, and after wedlock comes not one, but four bundles of joy. The couple’s happiness should know no bounds, but living in close quarters with nosy Pinget takes its toll. Mounir leaves for weeks at a time on extended trips back home to check on his aging mum, who hasn’t bothered to learn his daughter-in-law’s native tongue. Murielle eventually quits her teaching gig to devote her time to raising the kids, since, you know, her dear husband allows her to bear the brunt of child-rearing while he sits back and blames her for every single misfortune that befalls the titular tykes. Tempers flare, tensions rise, and Dequenne handles her deteriorating mental state with remarkable aplomb. She deservedly won Best Actress honors at the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

So why does Our Children come across as such an endurance test, when it’s such a layered, well crafted, sensitively performed character study? Director-cowriter Joachim Lafosse turns the screws – on his character and the audience –with such relentless focus that he obliterates any trace of levity and goodwill we might initially feel toward Murielle. Her journey, while never less than absorbing, stops being enlightening and becomes unbearably oppressive. The film culminates with a monstrous act that – mercifully – takes place offscreen. We understand Murielle’s behavior, but all we feel is numbness at the outcome of her downward spiral. Upon final fade-out, we’re not reflecting on this family unit’s disintegration, but on how depressing the horrific turn of events is. Lafosse wears his unremitting brand of nihilism like a badge of honor, but the slow-simmering tragedy he’s made borders on domestic malaise porn.

Our Children gives birth Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com). That same day, Ron Howard’s dazzling, imperfect Rush zips by multiplexes in wide release.

About Ruben Rosario

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