Love is All You Need & Trouble with the CurveDecember 15, 2012
Danish films have come a long way since the days of Dogme 95. Zentropa, the film production company started by Lars Von Trier and Peter Aalbaek Jensen, was known for initiating the controversial movement that banned the use of background music and special effects; refused to credit the director and required the exclusive use of handheld cameras.
In post-Dogme days, Von Trier opened his most recent movie, Melancholia, with a blast of Wagner, and created the not-inconsiderable illusion of a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth. Zentropa itself has grown into the largest film production company in Scandinavia, turning out arthouse productions, ‘pornography for women’, and shameless attempts to infiltrate the mainstream such as Love is All There Is.
Danish director, Susanne Bier, has departed so far from Dogme principles that she frames this story with raucous choruses of Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore!”
This seems extreme, even for a director more keenly attuned to a popular market than most of her Scandinavian peers. Bier won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, for A Better World, and with Love is All There Is, claims to have made a feature devoid of cynicism. This is a big call in a world that provides so many reasons to be cynical. It also opens the door to all those heartwarming, feel-good sentiments that can quickly transform any movie into a king-sized cheese platter.
All the ingredients are present for a cinematic fromage fest. Piers Brosnan plays Philip, a British businessman running a fruit and vegetable wholesale business in Copenhagen. Philip is a workaholic who drives his staff and himself relentlessly, while still carrying a burden of grief for a wife who died years ago in an accident.
Trine Dyrholm plays Ida, who has just received the all-clear from her oncologist after a masectomy and chemo-therapy. She is married to an apalling slob named Leif (Kim Bodnia), whom she catches en flagrante with a girl from the office when she returns early from a doctor’s apppointment.
Philip and Ida will be brought together accidentally in Denmark and realise they are both on the way to the Sorrento coast where his son is about to marry her daughter. The wedding preparations set the scene for a romantic comedy with a terrifying resemblance to Mama Mia, although no-one actually bursts into song. As well as the increasingly fraught relations between the children, Astrid (Molly Blixt Egelind) and Patrick (Sebastian Jessen), there is the problem of Leif, who has brought along his new girlfriend; and a raft of other dysfunctional friends and relatives, including Benedikte (Paprika Steen), Philip’s sister-in-law, who feels she should be his natural love interest.
There is much about this story that is entirely predictable. In Mills & Boon style, Ida initially finds Philip arrogant and unpleasant, while he considers her an air-head. Soon their feelings are transformed. Ida is revealed as a completely natural, positive person who will discard her wig and clothes to go skinny-dipping, with no concern over a bald head or missing breast. Philip is a moral paragon, not deterred by these disfigurements. He sees only the beauty within.
I apologise if this is making you feel ill. There is much about this movie, including the title, that seems specially tailored to this purpose. Yet somehow it clings precariously to the edge of the abyss. Pierce Brosnan is perfectly cast as the stiff widower who falls for good-hearted Ida. Trine Dyrholm is also excellent, as a woman prepared to forgive almost any wound inflicted by her self-centred husband.
If this creaky story works it is because we are drawn in by the quality of the acting and the chemistry between characters. There is also a skilful mesh of motifs and repetitions, with the humble lemon playing a wide variety of symbolic roles. There will be many viewers taken by surprise by a film they would normally love to hate. While the plot may unfold in formulaic fashion, the overall package cannot be dismissed.
Love is All There Is is sentimental but not moralistic. It doesn’t preach to us, it doesn’t present a set of wholesome values that we might emulate. The characters are individuals rather than types, who are simply trying to sort out their own lives. The romance between Philip and Ida does not run smoothly, but we are never in much doubt as to the inevitability of a happy ending. Other relationships are not so neatly resolved, taking us out of the realm of fairy tales into a vision of life that is far more messy and realistic.
No-one should ever expect a movie to parallel the real world too closely. Most often our enjoyment springs from the satisfying resolution of a story more likely to end in tears. In films the good guys triumph over the bad guys, the boy gets the girl or vice versa. The more improbable the happy ending, the more pleasure it creates.
Stories get more problematic when imbued with a clear set of political and cultural values. With its universal message that true love conquers pain, Love is All There Is has virtually nothing to tell us in this regard.
Robert Lorenz’s Trouble with the Curve is another well made comedy-drama, but it has a core of old-fashioned values that cannot be ignored.
Lorenz has been Clint Eastwood’s assistant director on at least eight films. Trouble with the Curve is the first feature in which he takes a full directorial credit, although it is exactly the kind of project Eastwood himself might have put together. It is one of the hallmarks of the Eastwood style that decent, ordinary people always seem to triumph over crooks, corporate greed, or other forces that threaten the fabric of American life.
When Eastwood stepped up to praise Mitt Romney in the recent election campaign, one could see that his commitment to these fundamental, middle-ground values is not merely a pose for the camera. Eastwood may be a longtime resident of Hollywood, but he is a true representative of the conservative, mid-western heartland that votes reflexively for the Republicans. “There’s not much time left,” he told voters on a TV commercial, “and the future of our country is at stake.”
When Clint says it, such an ideologically loaded statement has the ring of truth, although it hardly takes account of Romney’s credentials as a corporate raider, complicit in closing a string of businesses and putting people out of work.
The ultimate impression conveyed by Eastwood’s political interventions is that he would have been wiser to save it for the big screen, where the outcome is always assured.
In Trouble with the Curve, he plays Gus Lobel, an aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves who travels to North Carolina to check out a promising young batter.
Gus’s problem is not simply his failing eyesight, but the attitude of a new management team, who feel he is past his expiry date. In the contemporary world, baseball scouts sit at laptops and download reams of statistics, but Gus believes there is no subsititute for first-hand experience.
He has a friend and ally in head office in the form of Pete Klein (John Goodman), who convinces Gus’s daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams) to accompany her father on this final quest to prove himself. Needless to say, Mickey has issues of her own that need addressing. She is on the verge of being made a partner in a snooty law firm, and can hardly afford to take time out. Even more significant is her personal relationship with Gus, who became a distant, uncaring parent when her mother died.
In North Carolina, Gus and Amy meet up with John ‘the Flame’ Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), a former protégé of the old man, who has become a scout after injury derailed a promising career as a pitcher. This, of course, leads us to the romantic subplot, whereby Mickey will be weaned away from her sterile, high-pressure job as a lawyer, and become reacquainted with the baseball scene she has known and loved since childhood.
Aside from the conventional evolution of a plot that sees father and daughter reconciled, young lovers brought together, and the triumph of old-fashioned know-how over modern technology, the game of baseball is used as an all-encompassing metaphor for life. It has its own class structure, its own rules of courtesy and etiquette.
Although his eyesight is blurred, Gus can judge a player with Zen-like insight, partly through the sounds made by bat and ball. We are made to realise there is an integrity, almost a spiritual quality in the game that stands in marked contrast to the machinations of the law firm to which Mickey has devoted so much time and energy.
The intrusion of corporate logic and new techniques into this enchanted sphere is an evil that must be resisted. In the traditions of baseball we find an echo of those fine, old conservative ideals of healthy competition, opportunity based on merit, and collective devotion to a greater cause. It suggests the world woud be a better place if only it could be regulated like a game.
Love is All You Need, Denmark, rated M, 116 mins
Trouble with the Curve, USA, rated M, 111 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 15, 2012