Sunday, November 21, 2021


A fluke of pandemic scheduling found Andrew Garfield starring this year in a loose accidental trilogy of movies about ambitious people for whom others’ perceptions of them becomes their reality. In Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, he’s a social media influencer on the rise. In Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye, he’s a televangelist in over his head. And in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s filmmaking debut adapting Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM!, he’s a struggling young musical playwright hoping to finally get a break on the eve of his thirtieth birthday. Garfield appears to be working out ideas of stardom and success, artistry, ambition and attention, and these films give him different notes to play and conclusions to draw. It’s fitting for a supremely talented actor looking to find the best avenues for his atypical charisma.

His career so far has been one of the attractive young man who gets stuck between character actor and matinee idol. Either way, he’s always one to watch, from artful ease in the likes of The Social Network, Silence, and Never Let Me Go, where his stubborn wet-eyed self-seriousness forms a moral backbone, to shouldering Mark Webb’s underrated Spider-Mans with a loose-limbed moodiness that sets him apart from Maguire’s sturdy earnestness and Holland’s jumpy excitement. Stuff like the flat-footed war movie Hacksaw Ridge strand him between those modes, while the loopy pop conspiracy Under the Silver Lake tapped into a wilder streak that springs from a fount of wiry, wound-up interior intensity. The through line is clear: Garfield loves to perform. No wonder he’s been drawn lately to this material that interrogates that impulse, asks what people get out of that transaction, and sees all too clearly how it’ll hollow someone out if they aren’t prepared, just as surely as it’ll be a lingering frustration to never make it there to begin with.

Mainstream is an underwritten modern Network that noodles around Big Ideas about How We Stream Now without ever quite getting to a point. Somehow Gia Coppola, in her follow-up to her level intimate teen drama Palo Alto, is content to swirl up a storm of ideas and moods and leave it at that. Garfield plays a free range prankster whose antics catch on through the help of a bartender with a crush on him (Maya Hawke), and eventually the two get hooked up with a promoter (Jason Schwartzman) who’ll fake their way to the top of the viral charts and all the promoted content that implies. Of course it spirals out of control, fame going to the head, power corrupting, and underlying mental problems compounded, as the feedback loop between audience and star grows precariously thin. But even if the general spirit of the thing has a bleeding-edge bite, the scenarios it concocts are never convincing enough to underpin any serious social satire, from an interview show that literally puts its clownish lead between Johnny Knoxville and Logan Paul to some kind of YouTube gameshow—called “Your Phone or Your Dignity,” natch—that looks like something Paddy Chayefsky might’ve put in a first draft. It’s all so much glitter and flailing, but Garfield’s wild-eyed gesticulation sells that dead-eyed striving you see creep into these wannabe pseudo-celebs from time to time. It ends with everyone involved worse off in some way, and a towering close-up of Garfield grinning like a maniac while he’s applauded, as if to say, that’s showbiz, folks.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
is a more believable look at this kind of boom and bust celebrity. The film is based on the true story of televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, played here with sunny surface cheerfulness and an undertow of sadness by Jessica Chastain and Garfield. They inhabit them with a cheery artifice and cheek fillers. The result is a serious character study with a slight satiric streak as it watches their scrappy rise and eventual entanglement with evangelical corruption that brings them down as scapegoats while letting the worse above them off free. Showalter, a long-time comedy pro, views his central figures with sympathy and skepticism, which sometimes softens the edges and holds them at a slight remove. The style, too, is a soft and pillowy look, a critique cushioned in unlikely blurred affection. 

 His film cares about them to a point, but doesn’t quite know how seriously to take their early intentions to spread the word of God. The couple starts young and passionate, speak softly and earnestly about their missionary fervor as they meet in Bible college and, quickly married, set out on a touring puppet show that catches the attention of Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his burgeoning Christian television network. It’s clear they like the spotlight and the trappings of fame as their show grows into a media empire. But the movie also sees the poignancy between the distance between who they want to be and who they actually are, the blindness in their conflation of their desires and the Lord’s. Garfield, especially, leans into the sleaze that can ooze in around the edges of such an ego. Ultimately the movie enjoys the silliness of Christian kitsch surrounding them—the outlandish 80’s hair and makeup mixed with reverential semi-country ballads that are sticky as hell—while allowing for the weight of semi-secret struggles within the community—especially the plight of women and gays. I found an improbable amount of empathy for these two despite their obvious shortcomings, since eventually they’re as much victims of this system—typified by a slimy Falwell—as they are victimizers within it. Chastain and Garfield are capable of showing the pained souls underneath the layers of fakery.

Garfield’s at his best, though, in tick, tick…BOOM! Here he inhabits the bohemian energy animating a frustrated artist who believes entirely in his talent, but has run aground on worries he’ll never break through with it. You can see that tension in his posture, the moment where the carefree drains away, leaving that do-or-give-up sense of now or never. In Larson’s semi-autobiographical show, the future writer of Rent is on his eighth year working in a diner while struggling to complete a sci-fi musical opus. (That we know the real Larson would die before Rent opens gives a melancholy layer to this youthful work.) Under the direction of Miranda, it becomes a kind of doubled vision of aspiring theater-making. He knows of musical workshops and the difficulty in honing a massive vision to a kind of pop theatrical purity. (One sees his capable direction in this feature and might think, gee, does the creator of In the Heights and Hamilton need to be a solid filmmaker, too?). 

Told through the kind of conversationally anthemic songs that would make Rent itself such Gen X lightning-in-a-bottle, the musical plays out in greasy booths and corner offices, cramped apartments overflowing with struggling artists and practice spaces warmly lit. Garfield sits at a piano and invites us into his mindset—a frame story that snaps into place with a softly moving reveal near the end—while a backing band croons support. He takes us into anecdotes as he drafts songs and scrapes together money, tries to get his agent to call back, juggles friendships and romance, and, yes, takes shifts serving coffee and toast to dismissive diners. Miranda balances the tone between realist and theatrical and Garfield straddles both admirably, able to dive into an artificial flourish of magical realism as his character’s Broadway mind imagines his surroundings out into stage lighting and prosceniums, or hunker down on the arm of a tattered couch to extemporaneously sing his feelings. The rest of the cast (Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Vanessa Hudgens) capably follows along as a swirling ensemble of influences, supportive yet clear-eyed. The songs are strong; the dynamics are believable; the small flights of fancy are a window into a writer’s mind where everything can be material. The constant across scenes is the simmering suspense of doubt that’ll be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever felt stuck in a life of artistic interests, in that awful double-bind of needing experience to get recognition and recognition to get experience. He just needs a break. The clock’s ticking.

No comments:

Post a Comment