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At the Movies

Out of business


The central situation of Laurent Cantet’s Time Out is ominous. At the outset Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) is living with his wife Muriel (Karin Viard) and three children in a well-to-do French suburb not far from the Swiss border. All seems well, but the situation is built on a lie: He has lost his job with a consulting firm and is afraid to tell his family.

Or maybe he is enjoying his sudden chance at irresponsibility. He drives through beautiful scenery according to his own schedule, but tells Muriel that he won’t be home that night because he has a meeting to attend. When he tilts his seat back so that he can sleep in the car, we observe a smile of inner satisfaction. He finally comes home with a story that he has taken a position in Switzerland as an adviser in international development. He is genuinely concerned about creating a closer relationship with his adolescent son, tries to placate his wife, a part-time teacher, and even borrows money from his prosperous father, who is delighted that his son speaks so enthusiastically about his new position with an international agency.

Cantet’s first movie, “Human Resources” (2000), dealt with union problems in a factory, during which an up-and-coming business school graduate is asked to fire his father who has worked for years on the assembly line. In “Time Out” no one seems to be doing anything we can recognize as work; Vincent learns the vague lingo of today’s international business by picking up a brochure in Geneva describing a company that apparently trains management teams for poor countries in Africa. Soon he is spewing impressive-sounding abstractions, presenting himself as a United Nations official, and fleecing acquaintances and former friends who are all too ready to believe in his phony get-rich-quick scheme about investing in Africa.

Aurélien Recoing’s Vincent is low-key, plausible, reassuringly vague, the kind of man I might buy a used car from. His interior crisis is real, but he’s not really evil; he is rather embarrassed when an old friend and his wife who are struggling to get by invest all their savings in his fake project. While explaining his plan to another prospective investor, Vincent is overheard in a hotel lobby by a more straightforward con artist, Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), who imports cheap imitations of brand-name products from Eastern Europe. Since Vincent has become worried about how he can pay back his investors, he agrees to work for Jean-Michel, who at least is dealing with real products, however shoddy.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Vincent and partly hope he’ll get away with his scam, but there is no way for “Time Out” to concoct a Hollywood ending for his alienation. It remains a stylishly affecting French movie that avoids violence and offers convincing suggestions as to how globalization really operates.

Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending starts with a promising premise, but its comedy is less insightful and funny than his earlier “Annie Hall” or “Broadway Danny Rose.” It seems obvious that Woody shouldn’t insist on still being teamed romantically with the female lead; better to play the secondary role of narrator or wise-cracking cynic.

In his new film he is the over-the-hill movie director Val Waxman, with delusions of artistic grandeur and an earned reputation for being difficult to work with. When we first meet Val, he’s shooting a TV commercial in a Canadian blizzard, phoning in his complaints to his lowbrow actress girlfriend, Lori (Debra Messing). Against the opposition of Hal (Treat Williams), a studio executive who is also her fiancé, Val’s ex-wife Elli (Téa Leoni) succeeds in getting him hired to direct a script about an earlier Manhattan, “The City That Never Sleeps.”

It is clear from the outset that Val will clash with his reluctant boss because he is still passionately in love with Elli. One of the film’s funniest scenes takes place in a restaurant, where the couple is supposed to have a business meeting. Though he tries at first to be professional, Val cannot control himself and bursts into repeated personal outbursts at Ellie for leaving him for a profit-hungry “suit” from the West Coast.

Neverthless, preparations for the film start out well despite his demand for a famous Chinese cinematographer whom no one can understand (including Val) and a production designer who ruins budget calculations and the backers’ blood pressure by insisting on reproducing the Empire State Building and parts of Central Park because he is dissatisfied with the originals. The situation becomes desperate when Val is struck with psychosomatic blindness just before the first day of shooting. His unbelievably patient agent Al (Mark Rydell) improvises a solution in which the cinematographer’s translator (Barney Cheng), an NYU student who speaks stilted English, is drafted to stand next to Val, and in effect direct the film himself. Flying in from California to see how the picture is progressing, Elli is worried by the utter confusion of the rushes but still hopeful -- until she learns that Val is blind.

The blindness leads to some well-executed pratfalls, and I even enjoyed Lori’s line to her gangster sweetheart in “The City That Never Sleeps”: “Even if you get two life sentences, I’ll still be waiting for you.” The scene between Val and his punk son (Mark Webber), however, which comes late in the story, is a huge mistake, neither funny nor affecting. Knowing the conditions under which it was made, we’re hardly surprised that Val’s movie is roundly panned by the critics, but Woody Allen manages to give us a “Hollywood ending” anyway.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is Scunn24219@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002