Lucy’s in the Sky … But the Rest of Us Are Just in Chicago
Review by Ken Burke Lucy
Combo sci-fi, action-thriller, and conceptual speculation about a woman whose brain capacity keeps increasing even as killers attempt to recover the drugs responsible.
A young woman at loose ends decides to move to Chicago to live with her brother and his wife; her aimless irresponsibility doesn’t mesh well with their babysitting needs.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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One last warning for you, this posting is another one of those failed attempts on my part to be concise but what came tumbling out based on the contents of these 2 films goes on for quite a bit so either settle back for your long perusal or use this as an exercise in speed reading (I had a roommate back in college who paid good money for a speed-reading-course; he said he built up some good muscles in his index finger but didn’t achieve much else with it).
One situational problem that creators in all of the arts sometimes face is timing of the release of their work into the general cultural stream, in terms of whether their ideas and expressions (in painting, photography, literature, cinema, theatre, dance, music, etc.) arrive at a time when they’re considered unique and attractive, part of something that’s still in the popular ascendency curve when this new installment is released thereby being accepted as enhancement of the embraced “whatever,” or are perceived as too late in the sense that we’ve seen too much of the “whatever” lately so that what may have been quite inspiring at the conceptual and execution stages for the artists is now dismissed as too much “been there, done that” by the public. Certainly, this timing situation could have been a problem for Luc Besson, writer-director of Lucy in which Scarlett Johansson—as the titular lead—once again plays an embodiment of advanced intelligence (although this time she’s a human being with unlocked brain capacity rather than a disembodied computer operating system as she voiced as “Samantha” in Her [Spike Jonze; review in our January 9, 2014 posting]) which causes her to evolve past normal human traits such as fear, pain, uncertainty, and compassion (very similar to her unnamed, no-nonsense-hunter-of-able-bodied-Scotsmen in Under the Skin [Jonathan Glazer; review in our April 16, 2014 posting]). Whatever qualms a potential audience member might have had about possibly seeing yet-another-Johansson-retread are quickly dismissed, though, upon watching her flawless work in Lucy, in which she evolves (literally) from an ordinary, scared young woman (apparently doing college work in Taiwan but gets involved with a scuzzy guy who pushes her into such a dangerous situation that she can’t even catch her breath to talk into the phone to the needed translator to explain to her why she’s now surrounded by Asian thugs who want the briefcase attached to her wrist) to become the supremely confident, powerful person who transcends her physical existence by the time her encounter with a new synthetic drug has pushed her to full cerebral potential. There’s a lot else to appreciate here as well—including marvelously-well-choreographed action scenes, editorial uses of inserted footage to expand the ideas and occurrences in the on-screen-plot, and the always-welcome-presence of Morgan Freeman as Professor Norman who successfully handles the task of explaining neural evolution to us—although it does seem odd at times to be dealing with what could so easily be a PBS exploration of the possibilities of a fully-functioning-person’s-brain juxtaposed with an action thriller where human death is as casual in Taipei and Paris as it is on the plains of Africa where leopards hunt down some overmatched gazelles.
By chance, I saw Lucy twice last week (once as an invited guest at a press screening [thanks as always for these opportunities to my friend and colleague Barry Caine], then again a few days later with my wonderful wife, Nina, and a couple of other close friends). I’m glad I got that second chance before writing this review because it helped me do something that Lucy herself decided to do in the film: push my brain cells beyond their previous capacity to gain additional insights. Now, I’m not saying that I’m exceeding the normal 10% functionality of the human mind that Prof. Norman cites as being the relatively-low-level-standard that we’re normally satisfied with (not that our 10% is so bad; he cites dolphins as the only creatures that normally go beyond us, reaching 20% in their standard existence, which has allowed them to do such things as evolve a natural form of life-protecting-sonar), but I do better see now that what I initially perceived as a genre mismatch of crashing cars, a growing mass of dead bodies, and some Matrix-like (Andy and Lana Wachowski; 1999, 2003) aberrations of the physical world vs. a scientific/philosophical probe into what powers are yet to be discovered when our organ of consciousness is called into higher levels of activity isn’t the crazy collage that I first assumed but is more of an intentional contrast of watching human beings barely beyond the jungle-ape-stage (with resonances from both 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968] and the entire concept of the Planet of the Apes franchise, especially the current one, Dawn of … [Matt Reeves; review in our July 18, 2014 posting]), furiously killing each other in the halls of a hospital vs. Lucy’s race to full 100% brain function, not to counterattack her would-be-killers (she’s done a good bit of damage to them already in this story as her cognitive capacity keeps growing) but to transform herself into the most advanced computer she can conceive of so as to store that knowledge to pass on to Prof. Norman before her physical existence completely disappears. (Of course, this slight change of heart could call into question any critic’s response to any art work if experienced a second time or more prior to publishing a review, but for me that’s just the subjective reality of how our perceptions are existential, part of a larger gestalt of our lives even when we don’t realize how the overall context might have changed for us; I remember that the first time I saw my all-time-favorite-film, Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] I was highly impressed but upon a second viewing I found it pompous and overwrought for some reason; since then I’ve viewed it as the ultimate cinematic masterpiece, so who knows what I was thinking with my self-absorbed-graduate-student-perspectives back in the early 1970s.)
Earlier in the narrative, Prof. Norman explains to a lecture audience in Paris how it is that organisms instinctively find that they must make 1 of 2 choices in order to survive: (1) If their host environment is fiercely inhospitable then they must become immortal, that is become totally self-sufficient in some manner that can transcend their hostile surroundings (essentially this is what Lucy does as the drug that she’s ingested is causing such rapid growth and evolution of her cells that they can soon no longer be contained in a traditional body so she finally becomes one with the space-time-flow of the universe—what Nina tells me that the late [But is she gone? Lucy says “We never really die.”] Maya Angelou noted to Oprah Winfrey as “The All,” the energy of life that physical existence returns to upon death, as understood from a physics-alone-or-possibly-merged-with-a-spiritual-perspective, similar to what various Eastern religions speak of as the final goal of life, the transcendence of the material world and its reincarnation cycle into some version of Brahman/Nirvana/Tao where we are totally free of the fears, desires, and limitations of organic-based-life); how this state is achieved by organisms not freed from their normal physical basis as was Lucy, Prof. Norman never gets around to explaining, unless he means that on a purely scientific level we’re talking about primitive-but-seemingly-indestructible-life-forms such as bacteria, viruses, and governors of the state of Texas; or (2) Organisms that are lucky enough to live in compatible environments (at least until careless/greedy humans [I never said I was non-partisan, now did I?] make those environments inhospitable) perpetuate themselves by reproduction, from the cellular level up to the most highly-developed-species, such as sequoia trees and human beings. (Lucy, at Prof. Norman’s urging, participates in this as well, not by mating with a male [which is why I mistakenly at first thought she continued to work with her helpful-but-clearly-inferior-colleague, whom she kept around simply as “a reminder” of what she used to be, Captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked)] quickly [by the time she contacts Prof. Norman she estimates she’s got only about 24 hours of body-life left], producing some 2001-like “Star Child” offspring, but by channeling her new-found-knowledge into a most-advanced-flash-drive [I guess Apple and Samsung could sue each other over which one has the OS capable of downloading it] before revealing on a cell phone at the end of our story that she is “everywhere” [at which point, she is like Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster in Transcendence (Wally Pfister; review in our April 23, 2014 posting) but on a cosmic scale and like the disembodied Samantha but apparently willing to stick around and continue her dialogue with Prof. Norman rather than disappear into cyberspace as did the advanced OS that we noted Johansson voiced in Her].)
This high-concept-plot-line could easily find itself overlaid with esoteric visuals such as those photographs-replaced-by-computer images that Richard Linklater used so effectively in Waking Life (2001) but instead this lofty cerebral content is pushed up against what we so easily recognize as an all-out-assault on our protagonists by the evil Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi), along with his mini-army of assassins (who’ve just flown into Paris themselves from Taipei but already have fast-moving-cars loaded with assault weapons ready to track down and take out their single adversary; I wonder what rental service they use?), in a story that would normally be resolved by Del Rio and his posse being able to employ a breathtaking-last-minute-rescue. However, this time around the French cops are outgunned (their pistols and rifles are no match for Jang’s bazooka that takes out the wall protecting Lucy and the small group of scientists because she’s so focused on that final stage of achieving 100% [completely absorbed with merging herself into a super-computer] that she has no attention available to dismay/disarm her adversaries as she’s done in their previous encounters [reminding me of how Capt. William Decker (Stephen Collins) merged his carbon-based-existence with the “V’Ger” silicon-based-super-machine at the climax of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, 1979), creating a new entity that we never saw the further manifestation of in other Treks]) so it’s all down to Lucy achieving her ultimate mind-computer-meld at the last second, thereby disappearing from our corporal world just as Del Rio rushes in to kill Jang in the more traditional manner of the action-adventure-aspect of this genre-hybrid-narrative. At first, Jang and his boys were after Lucy because her increasing powers had allowed her to escape his plot of sending her (back to the U.S. I think, although she must have exchanged that Jang-generated-airline-ticket for a trip to Paris instead to work with Prof. Norman in her final hours), along with 3 male mules, to major cities (Paris, Rome, and Berlin for the guys) where their local operatives would remove the bags of synthetic CPH4 from their lower abdomens where this stuff had been surgically-implanted for massive-profit-distribution as this powerful-consciousness-enhancing-stuff was to be the new drug-on-demand for the cutting-edge-junkies of the Western world (the organic version of CPH4 is what mothers produce in small quantities to enable their growing fetuses to properly form skeletons and organs; however, Lucy’s bag—which was too large anyway to have been implanted into any of these skinny carriers without showing more than it did or causing internal discomfort, but we’ll attribute that to the “fiction” aspect of sci-fi, then continue on with our movie analysis—bursts open during an assault by a vicious henchman during her initial capture so she was inundated by an unintended-huge-dose, leading to her rapid mental evolution).
By the time the evil bossman catches up with her, though, she’s already absorbed all 4 bags of the stuff (retrieved from the other mules through an operation set up by Lucy and Del Rio) in order to transcend her physical limitations, so all Jang wanted at that point was revenge on a woman who’d injured him financially, physically (jamming knives into both his hands before leaving Taipei, in a manner that doubled the viciousness of Luca Brasi’s [Lenny Montana] demise in The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972]), and professionally (outsmarting him at every turn, laying waste to so many of his henchmen either herself or through Del Rio’s troops). Even when he’s seemingly got the drop on her, though, she transcends him, becoming “more powerful that [he] can possibly imagine,” as with the sacrificial Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977). I have to admit, I still question that a human brain operating at close to the transcendence-threshold of up to 99% could take command over the physical world around her (in the same way I’ve never bought the “scientific” explanation that exchanging the red sun and stronger gravitational field of Krypton could give Superman x-ray and heat vision nor allow him to breath when flying through the vacuum of outer space, but I just have to accept those conceits if I want to enjoy what’s done with the character), causing adversaries to be swooped up to the ceiling or pushing cars around on Parisian streets in a chase across town that ups the ante on the old classics such as Bullitt (Peter Yates, 1968) and The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)—or, for that matter, sending a huge cluster of ugly tendrils from her body to “mate” with Prof. Norman’s computers rather than just mentally interfacing with them as she’s already demonstrated that she can control electromagnetic technology (then again, I never quite believed that some X-Men could control the weather or shoot fire or ice into the atmosphere as if they were enchanted beings from some Disney feature [but this is why I consider Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men (and other Marvel heroes with radiation-induced-powers) to be part of that Fantasy genre along with the Disney fairies and witches rather than something more plausibly-sci-fi-based such as Star Trek]).
But, Prof. Norman says anything over 10% of human-brain-function is just speculation, so maybe any of this is possible, and if Besson’s goal truly is to juxtapose the primitive-human-consciousness-level of movies that focus on action, bullets, speed, spilled blood, and sophisticated-CGI-effects with the higher levels of cognition that take us above the familiar-but-limiting-traits that Lucy discovers are all that we’ve allowed ourselves to define as human-identity-characteristics, then just as this photo above (taken from Lucy’s prison escape scene, the action nicely compressed in the movie’s trailer [first suggested video link far below]) shows her using the basest of human temptations in order to achieve an unexpected goal against her duped jailer so are we duped into assuming our highest achievements come through the control and manipulation of other humans and their surroundings rather than a greater understanding of and unity with the vast cosmos that we’re such a tiny part of, at least until we embrace either an appreciation for its higher levels of operations than we can understand from our single-planet-perspective or a willingness to be part of its manifestations, both in this life and in whatever might lie beyond.
Lucy may end up just being appreciated for its well-constructed-battle-scenes; its powerful presence of Johansson as an alluring body coupled with an assertive, mission-focused mind; and its stunning visuals that conjure up allusions to Kubrick’s previous 2001 bequeathing of higher consciousness to our long-ago-ancestors (as in the scene where Lucy directs herself on an actual trip back through time to touch fingers in a Michelangelo-Sistine Chapel-ceiling-Creation-like-manner with the movie’s previously-seen-“Lucy,” the primate considered the oldest true human ancestor [only now it's 2 female entities involved in the consciousness-enhancement-transfer—notice that Adam's eyes are open so he's already alive at the biological level]), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) where there were similar attempts at allusions to the interconnectedness of everything across the eons from dinosaurs (Lucy goes back briefly to their time also) to central Texas (as an evolved being, Lucy doesn’t travel there so maybe I’ve taken the right first steps in my own evolutionary journey after all), or Ken Russell’s human-regression-imagery in Altered States (1980) of consciousness-and-DNA-obsessed-scientist Edward Jessup (William Hurt) pushing himself through lab experiments into release of our primitive past, even down to the cellular level (which we witness again in Lucy as those Prof. Norman-described-nerve-cell-emergence-and-divisions from 3.6 billion years ago are pushed back to that singularity as Lucy finds her unity with the universe—I thank Barry Caine again for that observation). However, with our openness to being aware of the loftier intentions that Besson is trying to induce us to contemplate—while distracting us with flying cars and bodies at the macro level and Johansson’s intimidating, self-assured stare atop her shapely body at the more personal one—we might find that there’s something quite substantial being offered to us in Lucy if we can just get ourselves beyond the leopard-victor-over-the-overpowered-antelope-stage-of-awareness, looking instead for methods of meditation, contemplation, and transcendence of ego (for that wish, I thank Nina’s hopes of such higher-stage-self-understanding, a goal for humankind that she expresses frequently) that will not easily take us even to the 20% level of our brain’s capacity but at least will be start in the right direction.
As always, I like to wrap up the individual filmic comments with my Musical Metaphor of what’s going on in that narrative’s expression; this time an obvious offering comes to me with Joni Mitchell’s 1969 original version of “Woodstock” (from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon) at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=cRjQCvfcXn0, before it was amped up by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (and others, even America, whom I saw recently in concert still reminding us of their—and others’—hits, even 44 years after their start), in that she speaks of us as being the product of “stardust, billion year old carbon,” needing desperately to “lose the smog” in order to “get ourselves back to the garden,” whether an actual Eden that the more literal-minded-scripturalists among us might desire or a more metaphorical state of consciousness in its own right of communal-caring and resource-sharing (as that huge art and music festival was convened to celebrate those many years ago). But, given that Besson’s film is intended (as best as I can optimistically interpret it) to contrast the more contemplative aspects of cognition with the chaos of contemporary human life (and the miserable level of achievement we humans sometimes stoop to given our collectively-limited-brain-usage, as shown at times with some “life out of balance” Koyaanisqatsi [Godfrey Reggio, 1982]-like-footage by Besson), I guess I should also give you the more-energetic version of this hippie anthem as well, so here’s the original recording (from the 1970 Déjà Vu album) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKdsRWhyH30 that includes Young in the musical performance and some footage from the fabulous Woodstock documentary (Michael Wadleigh, 1970), along with this live 2009 performance from the 25th Anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=D3MUH8tFZTA, done at another famous Garden (NYC’s Madison Square) minus Young (and a good case in point of what a 10% brain capacity coupled with a 100% body capacity in a lifetime of rock and roll can do to your once-melodic-voice in the case of Stephen Stills, but at least they’re all still alive, thanks to David Crosby’s liver transplant accompanied (I hope) by continued sobriety—these guys could have benefitted from a Lucy-lecture on alternative means of consciousness-raising some decades ago you’d think, but then she got there through a drug overdose herself so maybe we should just appreciate what they achieved on their own terms even if some of the vocal cords haven’t made it as far as the guitar chords over the intervening years).
I’ll admit that the bulk of the moviegoers who coughed up almost $44 million last weekend to see Lucy might have been attracted more to the action-premise that its trailer implies than the cerebral possibilities that the actual story explores (and I acknowledge that Besson hasn’t postulated anything about higher levels of human attainment that aren’t rooted in millennia-old-concepts about some version of a return to “The All”), but if action for its own sake is “all” that these ticket-buyers wanted then you might have to wonder why the epitome of a muscular-triumph-story, Hercules (Brett Ratner)—starring no less of an action hero than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—would come in at the far-back #2 position of about $30 million (unless there were more guys ogling Johansson than gals ogling Johnson [with limited viewing time available, even Rock-enthralled Nina had to make a decision on that one but she saw more potential in the unlocked-brain-story and its intrepid-female-protagonist than in another pure destruction-by-superior-might-story [the lack of press screenings for Hercules which nixed any local reviews didn’t help much either, with our preference to base some viewing decisions on the opinions of those we’ve come to intimately trust or loath through constant encounters rather than risk our time and money on what some stranger from the other side of the continent thinks] so off we went to Lucy, which I’m glad I saw again and relieved that my “entourage” also found it fascinating [we talked about it for quite some time at dinner after the screening], but even if so I can hope that something deeper might have penetrated such a primate-focused-intention for those viewers). I remain quite impressed with Lucy, to the point of encouraging your attendance and serious contemplation of the loftier possibilities beyond the physical command of her surroundings that this CPH4-enhanced-human may open our minds to. At the very least, it might encourage us to have some conversations with dolphins about ways to better protect our oceans and find new water supplies for the land-dwellers on our climate-changing planet, then we’ll see if they have any ideas about ways that we can stop killing each other over centuries-old-ideological-clashes. But, we’d better do that soon before we find out that author Douglas Adams wasn’t just joking around in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984), that the highly-evolved-dolphins will leave Earth to go to an alternate dimension. At the very least, maybe some of us can make good enough friends with some of them to go along on the journey. As Lucy says in her sign-off-voiceover, “Life was given to a billion years ago, and now you know what to do with it.” We can only hope that such knowledge is truly ours to embrace.
Before we go any further, I'll remind you of my Spoiler Alert warnings from the head of this posting because Happy Christmas has been playing only in a few markets but is just now broadening out a bit—including in my own San Francisco area—so while there’s not much plot intrigue to reveal here you may still want to consider seeing this film for yourself before reading much further. Otherwise, glad to have you join me whenever you're ready to read.
However, unlike the expansive perspectives in Lucy, with Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg) there’s not much hope during most of the film that our primary protagonist, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), will evolve even up to reasonably-mature-adult-human-standards or knowledge-for-self-improvement-level (thus putting Swanberg’s auteur work at the intentionally-humdrum end of Prof. Norman's eloquently-described-but-reality-based-face-slap on the consciousness-raising-narrative-spectrum when compared to the lofty intentions of Besson’s film; it’s as if Swanberg and his cast want to celebrate the “10% or less” level that Norman has identified as our optimal-species-achievement thus far, recognizing that Kelly represents the many human beings whose goal is simply to swim with the mackerel rather than the dolphins), as a breakup with her boyfriend leads to her moving back to Chicago to crash with her aspiring-filmmaker-brother, Jeff (Swanberg), his aspiring-novelist-wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey, both above), and their very young son, Jude (Jude Swanberg; well, there's one way to avoid paying your actors). In this extremely-independently-minded-film, we can hardly tell if what we witness is from a script or purely from improvisation (although the elder Swanberg gets credit as scriptwriter so some of it must be his) because this fictional film feels so much like a well-observed-documentary of dysfunctional sibling behavior that it’s hard to believe there’s any acting going on here at all, a statement intended as a strong compliment to the ensemble—including Lena Dunham as Carson, Jenny’s long-time-friend, and Mark Webber as Kevin, good friend of Jeff and Kelly, frequent babysitter for Jude, and comfortable pot dealer, probably the last thing that Jenny needs to have easy access to given what a mess she’s capable of making of everything even when she’s consciously being as straight as she ever gets. Essentially, the plot here is about how her natural irresponsibility sets up immediate problems with Kelly, how Jeff’s attempts to be more forgiving toward his untrustworthy sister run into conflicts with Kelly as well, how ultimately Jenny and Kelly connect over Jenny’s idea that Kelly needs to write a quickie (so to speak) “mommy-porn”-sex-novel to make some fast cash in order to better support her budding writing career (including hiring professional child care on a regular basis) rather than submerging her own artistic hopes (she's written a serious novel previously) in deference to Jeff’s not-yet-very-successful-films, and how that emerging trust between the sisters-in-law is dashed when Jenny does another dumb thing that finally pushes Jeff to the point of wanting to kick her out of the house.
Ultimately, the focus here is on the never-quite-stable-relationship between Jenny and Kelly, 2 women who do have respect for each other but find it hard at times to express it properly, especially Kelly who worries that this relative, slightly younger than her and her husband (Jenny’s in her late 20s), is a threat to the health of her baby, even though a chief goal in agreeing to let her live with them was to utilize her as a built-in babysitter, allowing Kelly more alone time at the temporary office that Jeff had rented as a production center for his latest film but which he no longer needs, even though there is still 10 days paid rent time on the space. However, Jenny makes a mess of that hope on her first night back in the city, running off not long after she arrives to attend a party with Carson, only to get so drunk and stoned that no one can wake her up to go home. Finally, the party-givers have to call Jeff who comes over in the middle of the night, finally drags her back to her home-base-basement-bedroom (which, in an unhelpfully ironic manner is a full tiki-bar, built into the underground by a returning WW II vet, so that it came with the house when Jeff and Kelly bought it). Jenny's still out cold the next day when she was supposed to be caring for Jude, thus Kevin’s called in at the last minute, he does his usual useful job, Jenny finally wakes up to meet him, they begin a sense of mutual attraction which will blossom a bit later in this story, and Jenny sets out to redeem herself later, which does go well, allowing Kelly some time to herself even though when she returns she’s a bit concerned that Jude is sleeping upstairs while Jenny and Carson are availing themselves in the bar down below; they finally convince Kelly to join them, though, which leads to some confessional bonding over the career impasse between Kelly and Jeff, followed by another occasion at the rented office when Jenny and her pal start dishing out ideas for Kelly to pursue regarding the fast-cash-sex-novel, a situation displaying good rapport among the women.
Just when things seem to be getting stable on all fronts, though, including some better trustworthiness from Jude's parents toward their new tenant along with romance between Jenny and Kevin (it began when she went to his place to pick up her first stash from him, although she resisted at the time, probably not wanting to get into another relationship so soon after the busted one that sent her packing from wherever she left to get back to Chicago; soon enough, though, her hesitation has been overcome); however, that goes sour on Christmas Eve because she wants to go to his place for sex but he declines, saying he needs his sleep prior to spending the next day with his mother (I guess for Jenny all-nighters aren't just for exam-cramming but for other kinds of cramming as well). She storms off, gets drunk and stoned again, puts a late-night pizza in the oven back at her home but then passes out before it’s warmed up. This leads to overheating, smoke in the kitchen, an alarm waking up Jeff and Kelly, their panic on behalf of Jude until they realize that it’s just a hot oven problem that can be easily remedied but their ensuing anger at Jenny for jeopardizing all of their safety with such a stunt, followed by Jenny sneaking out to the office in shame for her miserable mistake. The film then comes to a simple conclusion with Kelly going to retrieve Jenny (Jeff doesn’t want to have much to do with her at this point) to come home on Christmas morning so that they can try again to connect as a family. There’s really nothing more to Happy Christmas than these events of problematic behavior, misunderstandings, intra-family-tensions, and sincere attempts to rise above the problems that flew into the house upon Jenny’s arrival, as if rain clouds hover over her head. We end on a hopeful note but one not yet grounded in needed fact for this family-in-progress.
What would attract you to Happy Christmas will be your openness to watching very ordinary people encounter very ordinary problems with no grand insights, revelations, or notable conclusions to push our understanding of human nature into a higher level of just mundane consciousness of even our famed 10% of cerebral existence. Jenny is a flake, but who isn’t when in their 20s? (I could certainly have done without that 4-year-first-marriage during those years for me in the early 1970s, although my marvelous second wife of 24 years, the ever-present Nina in my weekly ruminations, says she could easily have been married at least 3 times herself before we met in 1987 had all of her young-adult-engagements gone to full term, so it’s just a period in probably all of our lives when we think we know what we’re doing but haven’t yet gotten a good enough handle on far-reaching-decisions to truly know which way to turn much of the time.) Jeff and Kelly, now in their 30s, are determined to be more mature in their actions for the sake of their child (certainly they’re better than the played-for-absurd-laughs-similar-young-couple-with-a baby in Neighbors [Nicholas Stroller; review in our May 21, 2014 posting]), although their professional compromises are all on Kelly’s side so far with Jenny’s encouragement being the needed factor that finally prods her to ask for more for herself at this stage of her just-barely-older-than-the-turbulent-twenties-life. By recognizing that Jenny sincerely wants to better clean up her act, contribute usefully to their inconvenient family relationship, and offer more-than-mere-in-law-friendship, Kelly’s able to keep the door open for Jenny to regain some stability in their group portrait, whether it’s with their friendly neighborhood pot dealer (far right in the above photo) or not. Whatever happens to this struggling group isn’t Swanberg’s concern at this point; he merely wants to show us how these combustible elements come together, what sets them off, and what may be the remedy for a more stable future, even if we’ll never know much about what really evolves here, where even just a full embrace of the storied 10% cognitive capacity would be helpful for all concerned.
Kendrick really stands out as the actor to watch in Happy Christmas, delivering a full range of effective joy and turmoil; her castmates all carry their roles well but seem less in command of their characters and their deliveries, although if they weren’t being outshined so well by Kendrick then this story would fully feel like just one step removed from a true documentary (I have a sense that a lot of the final dialogue results from improv, which furthers the “surveillance camera” approach of what we’re seeing here, with the only real drama coming from Jenny’s occasional major screw-ups). It’s a bit of a reverse from The Godfather Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990) where director’s daughter Sofia seems too much to have wandered in from behind the camera, making herself too noticeable in an ensemble of top-notch-actors; in Happy Christmas, Kendrick is just too good for her companions most of the time, although without her intriguing presence I think that this low-key-film would have trouble maintaining much interest at all. I respect what goes on here well enough (as have the Tomato tossers, with an 81% positive response; just a 69% score from the Metacritics [details on both in the links below] but based on just 17 reviews at my posting time so you might check back on that one later), but this very restrained slice of life will likely be playing in a minimum number of theaters so if what I’m saying about it catches your interest you might best be served by putting it on a future video queue; if you do find it being screened, though, stick around for the final credits where you get a full extra scene of Jenny, Kelly, and Carson discussing that proposed sex novel, a marvelously-witty bit of chatter among these women, improv-ed or not. I’ll wrap up with a final Musical Metaphor, one that I hope doesn’t prove too prescient for Jenny and family but there’s already reason enough for at least her to look back on these younger days some time later in her life, wondering “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” as sung angelically (as usual) by Judy Collins (from her 1968 album of the same name, although as you'll see her introduce it she adds a year, but as they say with the human body [except for Lucy's], "Memory is the second thing to go") in this 2002 live performance at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onKhceL303M, a song inspired to me both by wanting to balance the above Joni Mitchell tune with something from my other-most-favorite-female-singer from my olden-folkie-days and by seeing the incomparable Ms. Collins in concert just last weekend, being amazed by that golden voice still ringing the rafters at age 75 (unlike her former paramour, Steven Stills—she’s the inspiration for his famous “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”—who at least can still rock a mean lead guitar if not a melodious lyric). I wish less melancholy for Jenny than what Judy’s offering here, but that’s up to her to build a life that doesn’t seem to vanish in the haze of lost years, needing “Help” from whomever’s willing to offer it (OK, one more song, but at least it’s relevant: The Beatles, from their 1965 movie soundtrack album, at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=ZNahS3OHPwA, from a live performance during that now-long-ago-time).
Believe it or not, that’s finally all for me for this posting, but I’ll be back soon with comments on the newest critics’ darling, Richard Linklater’s ambitious Boyhood, which follows his actors over a 12-year-span with a focus on 2 children growing in fits and spurts into young adults.
If you’d like to know more about Lucy here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwHv63Ynw5g (4:46 commentary by actor Scarlett Johansson on her character and the shooting process of the movie)
If you’d like to know more about Happy Christmas here are some suggested links:
clips from Happy Christmas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=455rWXML_H8 (1:42 bath time for baby), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OF_1QFy6F6g (1:05 babysitting), and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xldpK_8TN50 (0:48 second chance at babysitting)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.