Friday, September 23, 2022

Characters Welcome: PEARL and CONFESS, FLETCH

Ti West’s Pearl is an unusual horror prequel, and all the better for it. The movie follows a few weeks in the life of a young woman who’ll grow up to be the elderly woman partially responsible for the deaths of the cast and crew of an indie porn film in X. That enjoyable 70s-set slasher homage was a fine return to form for horror filmmaker West, who here takes his tale back to 1918 and settles in for something with less gore and violence—although, oh, yes, there will be blood. It’s more of an unnerving character piece about an odd young lady having a tough time. In that sense, it’s less a slaughterhouse and more in line with a Carrie adaptation’s adolescent confusion winding its way to bloodshed, or Lucky McKee’s cult favorite May, about a disturbed woman whose attempts to make friends get uncomfortably surgical. Pearl (Mia Goth) is hunkered down on the family farm, avoiding the flu pandemic with her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) and stern mother (Tandi Wright) while her husband (Alistair Swell) is off fighting in World War I. There are verdant fields and saturated gingham patterns at play in the frames—a pleasant sight, but one ominous with loneliness and isolation, too. The movie does fine, broad strokes work that can be filled in with squirming specificities of character.

She feels stuck, and the film acutely sees the pain in the smiles she fakes for family and friends. She just wants a way out. Maybe stardom as a dancer, like in the picture shows she loves so much, is her ticket? Shame, then, that life conspires to keep her down, although her off-putting neediness and grindingly pathetic obliviousness can’t be much help. Still, she blames everyone but herself, and slowly starts to think she’d be better off without them. West, co-writing with Goth, digs into the oddities of this broken woman’s psyche, and follows on her dark path papered over with obvious falseness of Americana Pollyanna psychopathy. The screen is wide, the colors lush, the music swirling with Herrmann-style romantic strings, and the lighting bright and overpowering. There’s a gleam to the look and a glint in Goth’s eye as the poor lady starts to crack. The film’s high point is not the few bloody axings or slow-motion self-destruction of this cramped family unit, but a high-wire, close-up, one-shot monologue in which Pearl finally unburdens every nook and cranny of her conflicted emotional storehouse to an unsuspecting friendly ear. It’s a nervy, unsettled, bleakly funny, and even empathetic scene that goes on and on. We somehow care for Pearl, in all her raw vulnerability, even as the long speech winds on, digging herself deeper into a whole lot of trouble. We know her so well by then it’s hard to look away.

But for a character who’s a much more pleasant hang, check Confess, Fletch. Writer-director Greg Mottola—whose Superbad and Adventureland are also pleasant hangout comedies—once more proves not every character-based movie needs trauma to excavate. (How refreshing.) Fletch, the star of a series of dry, sly mystery novels by Gregory Mcdonald, is an ex-investigative journalist whose appeal sits squarely in how effortlessly at ease he feels bumbling into any situation, even as danger and disorder escalates. He’s just an appealing personality in a shaggy genre package. Here, played with rumpled charisma by Jon Hamm, he’s on the case of some missing paintings, which may or may not be related to an abducted Count. There’s also a murder Fletch didn’t commit, but the facts keep stubbornly implicating him anyway. This tangled web grows to involve art dealers, an Italian heiress, a few shady rich folks, a countess, a couple of cops, a yacht club security officer, and a loopy stoner. The screenplay provides eccentric characters and sequences with a charming straight-faced silliness. The repartee sparkles with wit, and the clues assemble with intelligence, while Fletch unflappably stumbles into deeper and deeper trouble while barely breaking a sweat.

It’s a character-driven comedy, in that it’s all about conversation and relationships and adult foibles and has an interesting person drawing us along through it all. He’s the sort of guy who thinks he can talk his way into or out of any situation, and probably can. He was played by Chevy Chase in two 80s adaptations, who gave the concept his own layer of smarminess. Luckily, Hamm knows he can’t out chase Chevy on that terrain, and so leans into a relaxed confidence that’s totally appealing. Here’s a movie that knows how to have a good time, giving a fun presence smart speech and a compellingly complicated mystery told so low-key that it’s more about the fun energies of a pileup of character actors (Roy Wood Jr, Kyle MacLachlan, Annie Mumolo, John Slattery, Lucy Punch, Marcia Gay Harden) circling each other until the solution half-accidentally resolves. Mottola wisely keeps this chill movie at jazzy remove, a sort of brushes-on-snare shuffle to the rat-a-tat dialogue and sparkling fizz to the complications. Fletch always has some trick up his sleeve, planning out contingencies and doling out fake names to wriggle wherever the next clue, or escape, might be found. It’s a cool pleasure to pass time with a movie that so generously lets us enjoy this enjoyable character’s company and try to think a few steps ahead with him.

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