Knight at the Movies Archives
John Cusack burns a hole through the screen in the heartbreaking Grace Is Gone, Will Smith shores up his Everyman-superhero
The flood of war centered pictures this year hasn’t elicited much success with audiences – either at the box office or emotionally.
And critically, these pictures, Lions for the Lambs, Rendition, etc., have not been hailed. But two – In the Valley of Elah and now Grace
is Gone – are the hopeful exceptions to those rules. In the former Tommy Lee Jones methodically, with the aid of police detective
Charlize Theron, determines to find out who murdered his son, just returned from Iraq but still serving in the Army. The disturbing
resolve to the story, though heavy handed at times, offers insight into the psychological costs of this particular war for both fervent
war mongers and anti-war factions alike. Grace is Gone also comments on the war but in a roundabout way that should also resonate
with audiences for here is a rare picture in this year of the war movie that doesn’t attempt to manage your responses, take sides, or
pour on the emotional syrup. It doesn’t need to. It’s one of those small, tender films that tells its unadorned but unbearably sad
story so simply that I found myself needing to talk about it, think about it; work it through days after I saw it.
Grace is Gone is the astonishingly good feature debut of writer-director James C. Strouse. In it John Cusack plays an Everyman –
Stanley Phillips – whose wife is in Iraq in the service while he is at home raising their two daughters – 12 year-old Heidi (Shélan
O'Keefe) and 8 year-old Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) – as best he can. The film opens with Stanley – who has been rejected for
military service due to poor eyesight – attending a support group meeting for spouses of Iraqi service personnel. Stanley is the only
male in the group and resists the efforts of the women (led by local actor and friend, funny and feisty Susan Messing) to reveal
something about his relationship with Grace. It’s apparent before he tells the women that he values his privacy that Stanley is
closed off emotionally to the world and is dealing with many unresolved issues. When he shortly thereafter receives the news that
Grace has been killed in Iraq he’s frozen with grief and instead of telling the girls when they come home from school, packs them in
the car for an impromptu trip to a DisneyWorld type vacation resort. This is done as an attempt to stave off the terrible moment
when he must reveal the truth.
As Stanley and the girls head toward their destination we see the suddenly alien world through his grief-stricken eyes. The familiar
trappings of American life – the malls, the fast food joints, the gas stations with their mini marts, the claustrophobic, bland hotels –
don’t provide the comfort that they usually do and are seen as foreign and intrusive; their “friendly” décor and service as phony.
Strouse’s cinematographer shoots these conventional locations in a flat, naturalistic style with no attempt to add a layer of typical
Hollywood gloss. With the look of the film stripped of the visual glossiness, the no-nonsense, unfussy acting style of Cusack (who
deserves an Oscar nomination for his nuanced performance) and the two young actors playing his daughters takes center stage and
resonates even more. The elder daughter, especially, who has the cautious, watchful outlook of the son in Little Miss Sunshine, who
suspects what is coming, is especially fine. At times, it feels like you’re watching a home movie that has captured tragic events.
Clint Eastwood’s piano based score is similarly simple yet effective.
With its tender, humanistic approach, Grace is Gone cuts very deep, questions the human cost of the war in Iraq (and war in general)
and its impact, and the reason for the continued existence of the war – all without politicizing the issue. That on its own is a great
With I Am Legend Will Smith joins the ranks of movie stars that have played Everyman Superheroes with effortlessness. Past
holders of this unique ability; the unspoken contract with the audience to deliver on the promise of the likeable but confident and
hyper masculine regular guy next door, have included Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, Harrison Ford, and to a lesser degree, Tom
Hanks. Smith has co-starred with robots, aliens, his son, and done his share of buddy pictures. But now, with just a German
Shepherd for company, we at last get the pure unadulterated Will Smith Superhero character, one Dr. Robert Neville (not Robbie
Neville, Robert Neville).
And is this Dr. Neville a prize! Not only is he friendly, cute, and built like a Torso magazine fantasy (those are some big guns Mr.
Smith!), but he is compassionate, sensible, and smart. His taste in art runs to masterpieces by Gauguin and Modigliani, his nose for
good wine is laudable, his selection of DVDs to watch from the local video store exquisite, and his concern for his beloved pet dog
unassailable. That’s just for openers. For going on three years he’s also figured out how to stay one step ahead of the zillions of
aggressive zombies hanging around Manhattan that are just one city’s worth of what’s left of the rest of humanity. While doing so
he might also just be smart enough to find a cure for what ails the zombie mutants.
Did I mention that he’s good at golf?
Learning all these things and the details of the plague that preceded Neville’s current situation takes up the better part of the first
hour of the picture and to see a decimated Manhattan done with this kind of big budget is absolutely tantalizing. The only thing
missing are the shots of the blown up Statue of Liberty (though the exploded Brooklyn Bridge is a close second). Seeing all this on
the giant I-Max screen was even more galvanizing. Then, of course, the plot kicks in and Neville must go up against those zombies
who seem to be evolving into something else out of the range of Neville’s carefully laid boundaries. The picture has good tension
but though satisfying in the thrills and action department, isn’t quite as compelling once in gets into the action because it’s based on
such an awfully familiar template (The Last Man on Earth, which this is a remake of, The Omega Man, The World, the Flesh and the Devil,
But I Am Legend still has plenty of oomph and, again, the first half in which it’s just Smith and that dog wandering around a world
made to house seven million folks – and the budget to make that and the disaster that precipitated it look convincing – well, that
balances the quibbling about the familiarity of the material. This is the kind of large scale entertainment needed in a holiday awash
in heavy duty dramas. Go get ‘em Will.
No Man Is An Island:
Grace Is Gone-I Am Legend
Expanded Edition of 12-12-07 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.
*I Am Legend screened past my print deadline so I'm including my review here.