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EW review: 'Syriana' lacks humanity

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Entertainment Weekly

George Clooney plays a veteran CIA agent in "Syriana."

(Entertainment Weekly) -- "Syriana" has a lot of big, important things to say about big, important things, and it says them with a sense of urgency.

This dense, talky, proudly complicated adult drama of geopolitical intrigue weighs in on the amoral realities of covert CIA operations, Middle Eastern politics, global oil business and U.S. government antitrust investigations -- the whole military-industrial ball of wax. Indeed, the point of Syriana appears to be that the whole lousy, corrupt, oil-producing and -consuming world is a ball of wax, ready to melt.

The movie tells interrelated stories in knotted loops of simultaneity and jagged shards of documentary-style realism, with conspiracy on its mind and the piecemeal structure of "Traffic" as its screenwriting template, in good part because Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the Oscar-winning "Traffic" script for Steven Soderbergh, here writes and directs, too.

It's as earnestly, politically left-leaning as "Jarhead" is coyly apolitical; it's also the kind of movie that requires a viewer to work actively for comprehension, and to chalk up any lack of same to his or her own deficiency in the face of something so evidently smart.

But while I'm all for political dramas that take stands rather than feign neutrality, what "Syriana" forgets to provide is the one thing that makes any movie, however difficult, easy to love: emotional empathy. Like the title itself -- think-tank talk for a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East -- this is a working paper of ideas driven by hypothesis, rather than a compelling drama driven by compassion.

And while those with an eye for vast left-wing conspiracies are welcome to believe that Gaghan planned all along to make a movie shaped like a big-picture that fails to take into account small-picture human needs, I am not one of those conspiracy junkies; I think the absence of soul is just the filmmaker's big gaffe.

Consider George Clooney as Bob Barnes, a veteran CIA man who serves as one of the character tentpoles of Gaghan's construction.

Bob's got the thickened gut of a middle-aged company spook slowed down by years of routine (even if the routine involves assassination), and Clooney, who grew his own morose gut and beard for the part, is nothing if not generous in his habitation of such a shady yet loyal, freewheeling yet lonely man. (The actor's commitment to politically engaged movies, in this as well as "Good Night, and Good Luck," is one of the most effective uses of his well-earned stardom.)

But for all we see of Bob, we know nothing at all about the guy, except that having been arbitrarily double-crossed by a field contact during the course of a mission, he now finds himself just as arbitrarily made a scapegoat by his own CIA handlers, who want to distance themselves from such a liability.

We watch Matt Damon, as an open-faced go-getter of an energy analyst, negotiate business with a Middle Eastern prince (Alexander Siddig), and Jeffrey Wright, as a Washington attorney, work on a merger between two American oil companies, and there's no reason given for the double-dealing, power plays, and American capitalist thuggery that shape the landscape.

What little humanity this trio of clueless, overmatched American men retains is conferred by fleeting interaction with kin; in the case of Wright's ambitious lawyer, his private burden is an embarrassing drinking bum of a father. And he handles the old man with much the same distraction shown by Michael Douglas as a drug czar with an addicted daughter in "Traffic."

The same schematic shorthand goes, by the way, for the Middle Easterners involved, who are less fallible men tripped up by the modern (and specifically American) world than walking position statements: corrupt Gulf-country prince backed by American oilmen versus his reform-minded brother, or long-suffering migrant Pakistani oil worker versus his angry son recruited by nuclear-weapon-toting extremists.

"Syriana" makes a point of circling the globe, with scenes shot in Geneva, Dubai, London, etc. -- it's a picture that displays datelines as a show of geopolitical bustle. And the speeches of even the most passing players are honed to draw blood -- Chris Cooper as a scheming oilman, Christopher Plummer as the head of a powerful law firm, Amanda Peet in a slicing performance as Damon's distressed wife.

But what do those speeches say? They say, "We're talking about big, important things, so pay attention" -- and then make it a challenge to do so.

EW Grade: B-

'Yours, Mine & Ours'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

The late 1960s saw a boomlet in wholesome comedies about big blended American families just when the influence of free love (with accessible contraception) was turning the big American family into an endangered species.

That explains the back-in-the-day success of "The Brady Bunch," but don't look for the same conservative counterprogramming success from "Yours, Mine & Ours." Rene Russo stars as Helen, a loosey-goosey widow with 10 kids who marries Dennis Quaid as Frank, a rules-and-regulations-minded widower with eight of his own. (He's a Coast Guard admiral; she's a handbag designer.)

The movie, directed with a gym teacher's whistle by "Scooby-Doo"'s Raja Gosnell, is a contempo soft-focus remake of the 1968 original starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. Problem is, the modern soft edges only accentuate the datedness of the premise. Helen's gaggle now includes six multiculti adoptees, and Frank's now a sensitive type, even in uniform, who holds parenting sacred. Handsome couple, though, especially when Dad takes his shirt off.

EW Grade: C

'The Ice Harvest'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

In a season of bulging Movies Earmarked for Importance, it is almost startling to come across something as unhyped -- and perfectly swell -- as "The Ice Harvest." This acerbic, unpretentious black-comedy thriller, directed by Harold Ramis with mature glee, and written by Richard Russo and Robert Benton with grown-up literacy, takes place on what is possibly the lousiest Christmas Eve in the modern history of Wichita, Kansas.

It's a night on which a couple of bumbling embezzlers who think they've struck it rich find the ground cracking beneath them: Having siphoned off over $2 million from the coffers of a Kansas City crime boss, Charlie (John Cusack), a sleazeball lawyer, and Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), for whom being a sleazeball is profession enough, promptly begin to screw up. And as they do so, with greater and more pathetically dipstick complications, the movie takes on the swingin' inevitability of comic disaster.

A tricky dame (Connie Nielsen) exudes musk and danger. A drunken friend (Oliver Platt) causes trouble. The crime boss himself (Randy Quaid) gets wind of the dirty dealing and is out for revenge. The roads become increasingly icy (Midwestern locations supply Midwestern authenticity for the Chicago-bred director), and the Zen-ish graffiti that reappears in bathrooms and phone booths begins to suggest something simultaneously deep and meaningless: ''As Wichita falls, so falls Wichita Falls.''

"The Ice Harvest" is surely the most bracing, opposite-of-gooey holiday picture to appear since Bad Santa -- which, come to think of it, also made inspired use of Thornton's unmatchable talent for playing a vinegary puss. But even out of season, the movie is an exemplary specimen of collaborative professionalism.

In this sophisticated yet seemingly straightforward contraption, Cusack's twitchiness plays off Thornton's oiliness (the two squared off previously, don't forget, in "Pushing Tin") while Platt's theatricality finds its female counterweight in Nielsen's cartoonish sensuality. The dialogue is a festival of good talk without drawing attention to itself as ''snappy.''

There's nothing especially groundbreaking about the work, and that, too, plays as a strength: Here's a movie neither too big nor too small -- just good. We need more of this size, this shape. Because, as "The Ice Harvest" rises, so rises the stock of the midsize American movie.

EW Grade: A-

'Just Friends'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Hard to believe it's been 16 years since Harry met Sally and told her all that 1980s guff about the impossibility of platonic relationships between men and women. In the cheerily clean and notably bright teen comedy "Just Friends," Chris (Ryan Reynolds, a rising pro at playing cute/funny) meets Jamie (Amy Smart, likewise) and adores her, yet he can't escape from her ''friend zone'' to become boyfriend material. He's an overweight dweeb in New Jersey high school hell, circa the 1990s; she's a Miss Popularity who loves Chris -- like a brother.

The movie, directed by "Cruel Intentions"' Roger Kumble from a script by Adam ''Tex'' Davis, argues on behalf of the Darwinian theory that all of life imitates high school: Ten years later, Chris is a svelte, babe-slaying record-biz success in L.A. who reverts to dweebhood when he's back around Jamie.

But the argument is only halfhearted. "Just Friends" is much more interested in -- and hilarious about -- the small nostalgias of suburbia. (Not for nothing does the quintessential suburban-nostalgia band Fountains of Wayne contribute a tune.) And for added value, there's a running joke about the movie "The Notebook" that the South Park guys only wish they had written.

EW Grade: B+

'The Libertine'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

At the beginning of "The Libertine," Johnny Depp, in long black Renaissance curls that make him resemble a debauched rock-star musketeer, sneers into the camera as he describes his ability to seduce women and men alike -- a boast masquerading as a confession. ''You will not like me,'' he declares, spitting out the words with ice-blooded disdain, and it's easy to think, That's well and good -- as long as we get to see you indulge in a bit of nasty sexy gamesmanship.

In "The Libertine," however, it's all downhill following the terse misanthropy of that opening monologue. As John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester, a 17th-century poet, wit and drunk who was celebrated and reviled for the single-mindedness of his depravity, Depp singes away his sweetness, making himself a cross between Casanova and Richard III. The movie, though, in a singular feat of perversity, never shows him doing anything even remotely pleasurable -- like, you know, sleeping with someone. This may be the most sexless film about a seducer ever made.

So what does the Earl do? Why, he talks. That's all anyone in "The Libertine" does. On top of that, what comes out of their mouths isn't what you might call, except in the most loose technical sense, ''dialogue.'' It is gibberish, verbiage, ghastly faux-literate conversational diarrhea. The Earl forms one quasi-attachment to an actress (Samantha Morton) who's too naive to save him, and he writes a play mocking Charles II (John Malkovich), which propels him on a downward spiral that culminates in an icky death by syphilis.

"The Libertine" is such a torturous mess that it winds up doing something I hadn't thought possible: It renders Johnny Depp charmless.

EW Grade: F

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