April 29, 2005 - by Chimerical

I guess this is both a review and a rant, so bear with me……*g*

I've always thought of myself as an objective DD fan. Meaning that, as much as I admire the man and his work, I'm not afraid to say it aloud when I think a role he's taken was (a) a generally good effort, but could have been better (Evolution); (b) something that I can see the appeal of but was overall not the best choice for him at the time (Connie & Carla) or (c) just a bad decision (Full Frontal).

So that all being said, I truly don't understand the animosity thrown at the House of D. Having seen the film three times now, and at the risk of being labeled a "DD apologist" *g* I'm not afraid to offer the opinion that much of the reaction appears to be simple media anger that David -- the TV guy -- tried to do "too much."

In view of what can only be described as gleeful personal attack or digs directed at David in some of the reviews, I'm inclined to think that had David not worn three hats -- actor/writer/director -- this film might have been better received critically. It was probably also a mistake to cast Tea. Not because she wasn't good, because indeed she was excellent, and if we were in another other business besides the weird-ass business of film making it wouldn't be an issue. But doing so appears to have inadvertently set up a situation wherein the critics could call it a vanity project. (a term which, BTW, I HATE. And let's face it, aren't ALL movies vanity projects in some manner? *g*)

But then again, as an artist, do you make the film you want to make, or do you make the film that will please critics? The artistic answer is that you make your film, your way, of course. But is the answer also that sometimes when you're starting out and you're not yet critic-proof, you just have to suck it up? In some cases, yeah. Does that suck? Hell, yes. But that's the way it is. But I admire David for making his film and for not compromising. I guess this is a round about way of saying this film does NOT deserve the beating it has been taking.

But that all being said, here's my own review of House of D, completed with incredible detailed spoilers.

Anton Yelchin is downright preternatural in his talent. Tea Leoni draws (yet another!) perfect portrait in her portrayal of woman whose spirit has been slowly crushed by grief. Erykah Badu walks the right line with Lady. Robin is Robin and his daughter make a very sweet first impression. The only let-down in the casting is Magali Amadei the former model cast as Clare. She's somewhat lacking in onscreen charisma but her biggest problem is her inability to do ADR very well. (actually, the ADR in the whole film could have been better. I'm not sure who did the mixing, but it was just a little off and noticeable throughout the film) And while not usually a big deal, in one particular case it does create a problem. There is a crucial line at the beginning of the film wherein Tom tells her he was afraid to tell her about his past because he was afraid she would leave him. She replies something to the effect of well he didn't tell her and she left him anyway. Tom replies that this is what they call irony in America. The problem is that you can't understand her line. Which is too bad because it's virtually the only thing indicating that Tom and his wife are actually separated. (more on that later) And the line which follows doesn't get the laugh it should because everyone is leaning over to their neighbor going "what did she say?" (This happened in all three screenings I attended in three different theatres so I don't think it's just me.) But that's a small issue. The rest of the casting is great.

Random Praise for the film:
I so enjoyed this film. It is sweet (or sentimental if you prefer). But every time it teeters on the brink of "too much" David saves it with that remarkable humor of his.

I especially liked his portrayal of Tommy's relationship with his mother. We never see Tommy's mother interact with another adult. We know she goes to work, but as far as we can see, her only social or emotional contact is through Tommy. This isolation works well for the character. Tea has a VERY difficult role in that she's playing a mother who is on the edge, so devastated by the loss of the love of her life that she can't find her way back. Mrs. Warshaw loves her son, but she's just not very nice to him on occasion and she takes way too many pills to deaden the pain. She is both overly protective of her son (bordering on the almost inappropriately so) and at the same time distant. She tells him that they never talk anymore, but at the same time she doesn't want to talk about the things that *he* needs to talk about.

There's a great moment when during one of her "up" moments she and Tommy are playing basketball in the living room with a little toy hoop. She's actually having a good time. You can see a little bit of how she was before her husband died. Then Tommy has to leave for work and she's like a kid asking him for a bit more playing time. Tommy leaves and the camera pans slowly back on a long shot on Tea as she stands staring at the closed door. And suddenly the apartment seems very big and quiet and she's very, very alone. There's a sense of crushing loneliness. It's a very short scene, not overly dramatic, just quiet. And yet you can feel her sense of "what am I going to do now?" It's a great performance. Beautifully written directed and acted.

Another stand-out is the dance scene. Few among us don't remember that first big Jr. High dance and we can relate to Tommy immediately. The scene at the school dance where Tommy (wearing one of the most gawd-awful 70's disco outfits I've ever seen) works up the courage to ask Melissa to dance is right on the money and completely took me back to the time of my first dance in 8th grade with the boys on one side and the girls on the other and the much dreaded slow dance began and who was going to break the ice first. When Tommy succeeds in this moment, the audience laughs because it strikes that same memory marker in a lot of people. That's connecting with an audience. It's drawing them into a memory of their own, not forcing a point they can't relate to.

The scenes establishing Tommy and Papass' delivery routine in the beginning are charming and funny. Anton and Zelda are just cuter than hell together, but more so, Anton bears both the humor and the emotional weight of the film well. His youth betrays him only on occasion, but his timing is perfect. There's a scene where one of his teardrops falls and hits the camera. Probably accidental. But very effective.

Erika Badu who plays "lady" really hits the right notes with sass and then she lashes out when she finds what tragic consequences her advice has wrought. In some ways, she both ruins Tommy and saves his life.

Frank Langella is surprisingly funny with a deadpan humor; David if he were 20 years older.

And I'm sorry, I know it ain't sophisticated humor, but I laughed my ass off during the French Class.

David, the director, does a great job with recreating the period. He coaxes some beautiful performances. David, the actor, does some fine work here, most notably in his final scene with Lady. There's another scene where he stands in the alleyway as the relief washes over him. David just slightly holds his hands out from his body, almost allowing the pain to drain out. He's a fantastic body language actor, he always has been, and scenes like this remind me of that. The scene where he tries to reconnect with the older Papass is another. The defeat in his posture as he turns away is palpable.

A last favorite scene is where Papass tell Tom he has the Dad face now. Perfect.

Problems with the film:
Ok, in the interest of full disclosure here are the issues I had with the film. The first is a nitpick, but it leads to a bigger problem. We see Papass steal the green bike. Next we see a friend of Tommy's excitedly tracking Tommy down at school and telling him "did you hear?" that Papass got caught stealing the bike and that because of this Papass' dad was going to send him away. Clearly the school is abuzz with this news. Later on, Tommy finds Papass on the street. But Papass is still riding the green bike. Sorry, but if Papass had been caught stealing the bike it's unlikely that he would still be riding it the next day. Next Tommy is shown turning the bike into Reverend Duncan and taking the blame. But of course Papass had already been caught stealing the bike and everyone in the school apparently knew about it. This is a big continuity problem that only serves to validate critics complaints that the film is contrived. A simple rewrite or editing choice could have resolved this.

But a real issue I had is that in David's hurry to get to Tommy's story, he give short shrift to Tom's story in several ways.

In order for us to care about Tommy, we have to care about Tom first. The script, as it ended up in the film, doesn't allow for this. In the original script, there was much more dialog between Tom and Claire and Tom and his son in the opening scene. This was all deleted. And this was a mistake. Here's my reasoning:

The film is about living with consequences of certain actions that occurred 30 years before. Their cumulative effect on Tom. But we see little of the living with part. For Tom's healing & self-acceptance in the end to have the full emotional impact that it should, I think the audience needs to see a little more about how Tom's life had been affected by his actions as a child. But we see little of that at the beginning of the film which is where it needed to be established. We only know that there may be a problem in the marriage from the toss-away line about Clare leaving him (which actually suffers because of the aforementioned actress problems.) We know that Tom was late for his son's birthday. Was letting his son down a habit or was this a one-time thing. We don't know. We see virtually none of Tom's restlessness and unease or disquiet before launching into Tommy's story. In the original script, it's more apparent that Tom and his wife have been separated for some time, but in the film, it seems more like they were simply having a spat. I felt the former was better because it more clearly showed that Tom was distancing himself from his family and he wanted/needed to stop that. There's a little more interaction between Tom and Odell. I would have kept those.

I believe that David could have skipped the bike ride and esoteric ramblings about tumblers and instead given the audience a better connection with Tom. (actually, I think this voice over would have worked better at the end of the film as the lesson learned). Also, Tommy is an 8th grader when he hits the streets of Paris with little money. But again, this entire miserable period is tossed away with a single line of explanation. No, we didn't need an after-school special about teen runaways, *g* but seriously, another 90 seconds worth of dialog could have elaborated Tommy's story and again, made us care for the adult Tom all the more. David, the screenwriter, needed to pay as much attention to the adult Tom as he did the young Tommy. I think it was necessary and I think the film would have been the better for it.

Wrap up:
That all being said, this is a very good film and I would recommend it to anyone. Even with the minor nitpicks above, it still touches you emotionally and connects. It's filled with great performances.

There is much humor in the Tommy's life in Greenwich, but there is also sadness too in that nothing he can do can make his mother happy or draw her out of her loneliness. This all leads to tragedy. Yes, it's one of those tragedies that might have been avoided had people communicated better with each other. But then again, isn't that true of just about all tragedies? (and life, and relationships, and politics....)

David calls the this a fable and I personally think they came up with that only because they didn't know how else to categorize it. *g* So the tale may be larger than life, but then again, this is not a documentary, this is not an autobiography. I believe that critics may be over-thinking it in that manner and getting caught up in practical matters. Whether Tommy had a passport doesn't matter. Whether Tommy went to Paris or New Jersey doesn't matter as Tommy's mother isn't going to be less dead and he less alone if he goes to Atlantic City. Tommy's life has totally changes and he's running from an act and a memory and a situation, not a place. The actual mileage will never matter because he can't escape it, he carries it in his head and in his heart wherever he is. As a child he doesn't know this yet, maybe he thinks he can escape it and start anew. But as a man, he learns this isn't so.

But while it is true that it's a improbable tale that comments on effects of choice we make and those choices that are thrust upon us by circumstance -- and then having to live with the results of those choices. In real life parents die, children run away, misunderstandings keep people apart. But ultimately forgiveness, both for yourself and for others, is everything. It's the key. And that's what I brought away from the film. So IMO, if you're looking for a message, that was it for me.