Reiner: The Story of Us (1999)

No director of the 80s and 90s typified feelgood quite as effortlessly as Rob Reiner. Even his forays into horror, courtroom drama and political drama left you feeling cosy, comforted and warm inside, while his few departures from that model – especially North – were greeted with all the intensity of frustrated feelgood expectations. The Story of Us is where that structure of feeling started to come apart, ushering in the second phase of Reiner’s career. Released in 1999, it coincides with the historical period in which the greatest number of baby boomers would have been renegotiating their marriages, and focuses on a couple, played by Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfieffer, who are anxious to turn the space between separation and divorce into a comedy of remarriage, desperate to get back to the right balance of highs and lows. For the most part, the film is set over a single summer when their kids are away at camp, and they can just be alone in their sprawling Los Angeles house with their memories, which crowd in upon them in the form of flashbacks, vignettes and direct addresses to camera. With the addition of Eric Clapton’s washed-out score, the tone is quite elegiac, a bit like hearing the key chords of the 90s unloosening and slackening, as a soft and steady rain seems to gradually settle over everything, even though it’s sunny out most of the film. From time to time, more hyperactive moments intrude, generally centred on Reiner and Rita Wilson, who play the couple’s best friends, and embody the cynical, embittered edge of the 00s romcom that was starting to creep closer to the horizon. But the film is generally more resonant when it focuses exclusively on Willis and Pfieffer, as well as when it steers clear of their shouting matches, which get a bit monotonous after a while. In the most intimate vignettes, their rapport is really organic and soulful, not least because of Reiner’s immaculate sense of mise-en-scene, which yearns for an ineffable romcom touch and texture that seems to be continually eluding his grasp. And that makes for quite a sweet, wistful tone, a romcom whose life is just starting to flash before its eyes, a feltgood film that fulfills all the lingering fears of When Harry Met Sally.


Keaton: Hanging Up (2000)

Somewhere around the end of the 90s, feelgood started to collapse as a genre and outlook. One of the most unusual casualties of that moment is Hanging Up, an unsettling fusion of feelgood comedy and harrowing melodrama that revolves around three sisters, played by Diane Keaton, Lisa Kudrow and Meg Ryan, all dealing in different ways with the terminal illness of their father, played by Walter Matthau. Although that’s a veritable canon of feelgood actors, the film is quite dissonantly structured in that, with the exception of several flashbacks, the three sisters and their father don’t come together in person until the very last scene. Up until that point, virtually all their interactions take place over the phone, and don’t even consist of full-blown conversations so much as missed calls, wrong numbers and garbled voicemails. Add to that the fact that the film tends to anchor us in Meg Ryan’s end of the conversation – she’s usually the pivot in whatever four-way miscommunication is taking place – and Diane Keaton and Lisa Kudrow end up dissolving into into the supporting cast, even or especially when we get a rare glimpse of them in person. Of course, Keaton is also there in every scene as director, but the film is effectively a solo vehicle for Ryan, who puts in one of her most frenzied, brittle performances, absorbing the telecommunicative burden of every relationship until it feels as if she’s at the very brink of a psychotic break. Indeed, for great stretches, there’s really nobody in the film but Ryan, as Keaton couches her in a cavernous emptiness that would eventually be erased or at least ameliorated by a more extensive, efficient communication network than she has at her disposal here, but which for now seems to overwhelm her with all the spaces that haven’t been colonised by phone signals, all the interferences that haven’t been smoothed out yet. And it’s quite fascinating to watch Delia and Nora Ephron’s smooth professionalism compete with that, as their screenplay continually searches for a way to reimagine all their standard set-pieces and chord progressions as a one-woman show. For Ryan, that means nothing less than absorbing Keaton and Kudrow’s charisma, while for Matthau it means absorbing himself into his own star image, transforming himself into an object for Ryan to riff around. By the end, he’s just part of the cinematic furniture, collapsed into his famous resemblance to Richard Nixon, who lurks around the fringes of the film like a weird injunction to wilful blindness, a forefather of feelgood who didn’t quite realise it, doppelganger and backdrop to Matthau’s darkest performances. Yet that’s just what allows Matthau to elude the film – Keaton may direct the rest of the cast, but Matthau steadfastly refuses to let anyone else deliver his wacky, pre-emptive elegy, delivering every one-liner like it's an incipient epitaph, and puncturing every possible epitaph with a withering one-liner. Sinking into his role like it’s his last great source of sustenance, he's less interested in living vicariously than just living, less focused on feeling good than just continuing to feel, and that makes for one of his rawest performances, the tragicomic kernel of this tragicomic oddity.


MacKinnon: A Simple Twist of Fate (1994)

After showing that he could handle a straight dramatic role with Grand Canyon, Steve Martin went out on a limb with A Simple Twist of Fate, a loose adaptation of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. In addition to playing the main role, Martin wrote, produced and all but directed what must be the most sombre, restrained moment in his career, a character study of a reclusive woodworker who finds his life turned upside down when a small girl is abandoned at his doorstep. As might be imagined, it’s a film that sets out to luxuriate in Martin at his most melancholy, which means luxuriating in Martin’s voice at its most melancholy. Yet Martin’s peculiar brand of melancholy was always directly proportionate to his wackiness – the funnier he was, the more a certain longing crept through, poignant precisely because it was perpetually surprising. So to see him play a straight tragic role is quite unusual, let alone a role that denudes his voice as much it does here. For the first half, Martin’s character hardly speaks or even interacts with anyone at all – we just see him alone, working in his cabin – while in the second half he largely restricts himself to his adopted daughter, who’s only old enough to speak back in the last few scenes, leaving the conversational burden to an ensemble cast that includes Stephen Baldwin, Catherine O’Hara, Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney and Anne Heche. Writing his part more or less in monologue, Martin admittedly gives himself a few opportunities to renew some of his most familiar stand-up routines. But they’re pretty half-hearted and always absorbed back into a silence that moulds itself to his voice with such mysterious tactility that it’s as if he’s been to Twin Peaks, passed through the Black Lodge, tapped into the other side of his comic psyche. Bereft of his voice, his body language is transfigured, his poses and postures almost imperceptibly awry, as a very different kind of Steve Martin emerges, more identified with his hands than his words, collapsing himself into a character who seems to spend all his time sawing, planing, polishing and smoothing down planks of wood, for the sake of fondling, caressing and feeling his collection of coins. This is Steve Martin the banjo-player, the writer, the painter - and possibly the director, since you can’t help but feel his hand in the momentum and rhythm of these sweeping pans and tracking-shots, as they recarve George Eliot’s fairy tale out of some of the lushest, most mysterious textures of the 1990s.


Hill: The Sting (1973)

The Sting was George Roy Hill’s second collaboration with Robert Redford and Paul Newman and it’s every bit as jaunty and light-hearted as the first. This time around it’s a heist film, set against Prohibition-era Chicago rather than the Western landscapes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but once again it plays as a comedy, or even a musical, closer in spirit to Thoroughly Modern Millie than the more austere and atmospheric crime films of the 70s. That’s not to say that it’s not atmospheric in its own right, but that it’s anxious to recreate a very different kind of atmosphere, namely the can-do, makeshift opportunism of the Great Depression, and the universe of hustlers, grifters, gamblers, con artists and racketeers who learned to live with it. At one level, that also means paying homage to the peculiar exuberance of the late silent era, as evinced in Hill’s taste for classical chase sequences, as well as the way in which he harks back to a time when transitioning between shots still felt like something of a confidence trick in itself, since it's hard to imagine another film shot in the 70s being this keen to show off every possible brand of wipe, cut and iris, nor a 70s director so keen to demonstrate how dexterously and professionally he can slide one image over another, or replace one image with another. At the same time, the film itself feels somewhat opportunistic in the manner of the era it depicts, suffused with a brown-and-beige palette that gives the impression that every scene has been shot on recycled or reused sets, somewhere deep in the deepest recesses of the backlot. Perhaps that’s why the very crux of Redford and Newman’s heist involves building and orchestrating an elaborate set, which in turn expands to a kind of film-within-the-film that often makes the film proper feel like something of an allegory of silent film production itself, tribute to an era when directors simply made do with what they had. In that sense, it offers a quite cinephilic access to the Hollywood backlot, a time capsule of the 70s as much as the 30s, especially since the twist revolves around sets that we don’t quite recognise as sets, or whose set design we waver between attributing to Hill and his characters. And yet, as a set-up film with an emphasis on the sets, it’s only nostalgic in the most picaresque way - like the trips down memory lane once afforded by old fairs or amusement parks, it’s no more picturesque or exotic than it would have seemed at the time it commemorates, and there’s an authenticity in that, a modesty that’s as courteous as it is charming.


Mamet: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

One of David Mamet’s most insinuating thrillers, The Spanish Prisoner is about an engineer, played by Campbell Scott, who develops a “process” that stands to make his company a great deal of money. Before he will disclose it, however, he wants to renegotiate the terms of his contract. As might be expected, his company prevaricates, and their prevarication gradually spirals out into a conspiracy designed to divest him of his rights as an employee as much as the process itself. The result is one of those rare films in which a select group of actors feels more and more like an ensemble cast as the story progresses, as Scott comes to realise that everyone in his vicinity has been touched, in some way, by the demands of the company. More than that, everyone has been touched by the language of the company, as Mamet slides his distinctive brand of diction into the screenplay so slyly and sinuously that you sense it more than hear it. Where films like House of Games and Homicide announced Mametspeak as a fully-fledged American dialect, here we’re presented with something more like off-naturalism or near-naturalism, a Mamet hybrid that works especially well for Rebecca Pidgeon and Steve Martin, who put in two of the most alluring performances. At the same time, Mamet reins in his establishing shots as never before – just the opposite of what a playwright might be expected to do when translating his voice to the big screen – imbuing everything with a slight flatness and staginess, even though it’s a great deal of it is clearly shot on location. Insofar as there are any extras who are untouched by this widening ensemble, it’s the Japanese tourists who wield disposable cameras at every conceivable moment, to the point where Mamet’s camera also starts to feel disposable, just as his words and images seem to denude and dispose of the spaces they inhabit, taking a little something away from them each time they testify to their existence. As the con proceeds, realism erodes reality, information erodes information, just as every effort to verify Scott’s process erodes the process itself, or becomes the process. And in the end that’s just business as usual for this new information economy, which means that we never really get any one moment of conspiratorial catharsis, nor anything resembling a climax - just Mamet dismantling his ensemble as invisibly and efficiently as he establishes it.