Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Detachment: Adrien Brody Looks Sad

Do not blame teachers for their students’ behavioral problems. The fault lies with irresponsible parents argues the latest Blackboard Jungly social issue drama. Yet perhaps some kids are just soulless punks, who need a sub like Tom Berenger in the unabashedly politically incorrect The Substitute. What they get instead is Adrien Brody in Tony Kaye’s Detachment (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Henry Barthes is the long reliever of substitute teachers. He can come in for an extended stretch and then leave with no emotional attachments holding him back. He is not a terrible guy. In fact, he seems to care about his addled grandfather’s well being. At least he is interested enough to bully the nursing staff whenever he feels necessary. However, his students are another matter entirely, particularly at his new school.

All his fellow faculty members feel downtrodden and the cynical board is scapegoating the principal. Yet, somehow Barthes makes an impression on students by keeping his cool, except of course, when he talks about “No Child Left Behind.”

Detachment is an overstuffed traffic jam of a movie, but some of the conflicting parts are quite good. Every member of the all-star ensemble gets their solo spotlight and most of them nail it. It sounds highly unlikely, but James Caan and Lucy Liu have a particularly moving moment of consolation together.

Frankly, Detachment might have worked better as a theater piece, stitching together dramatic monologues. Structurally, it is better suited to such an approach, using sociological interviews with Barthes as the narrative framing device. There are also twee hipster graphical transitions that rather clash with the gritty vibe Kaye is otherwise going for.

Barthes’ story is sort of all over the place too. He gradually reveals some dark family history fairly deftly, but a major subplot is bit much to swallow. For murkily defined reasons, Barthes invites a teenaged junkie prostitute to crash in his apartment, but not his bed, giving her free access to the place, with no adverse consequences. Right, maybe he should leave his bank card and PIN number with her, just for emergencies.

We understand Kaye likes teachers. That is all well and good. However, his diatribes against NCLB are a bit off point. The purpose of the tests Barthes inveighs against is simply to gauge teacher performance with respect to their students’ proficiencies. The terrible pressure to perform on said tests comes solely from the teachers trying to save their bacon.

Without question, Barthes is the sort of sad sack character Brody was born to play. Indeed, his morose screen persona works well in this context. Nearly everyone has memorable moments in the film, but they are often not given adequate space to breath. Strangely too cute around the margins, Detachment earns a fair measure of respect, but never really pulls it all together. It opens this Friday (3/16) in New York at the Village East.