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Issue Date:  October 29, 2004

The unbearable perils of being

'Vera Drake' looks at women's dilemmas; 'I Heart Huckabees' examines existential angst


Vera Drake was named best film at the Venice Film Festival of 2004 and will be on most best-movies lists this year, including mine. Director Mike Leigh (“Secrets and Lies,” “Topsy-Turvy”) is always on the side of the underdog. Here his London heroine, brought superbly to life by Imelda Staunton, is a devoted mother and good neighbor who performs abortions for young women who are “in trouble.” It’s important to keep in mind that the story unfolds in 1950 when abortion is still illegal in London and that Vera receives no money for her help. Though Leigh is clearly sympathetic with the present-day acceptance of “choice,” he has managed to avoid didacticism in his movie, and “pro-life” audiences will find themselves powerfully moved.

Vera is seen from the outset as a comforting and competent woman, an affectionate wife to her mechanic husband Stan (Phil Davis) and mother to Sid (Daniel Mays), a fast-talking tailor and Ethel (Alex Kelly), a painfully shy young woman who has no marriage prospects. Leigh is good at establishing the film’s working-class setting, with Vera dropping in on her invalid mother, climbing stairs to make tea for a sick neighbor and stopping to invite downbeat bachelor Reg (Eddie Marsan) to dinner, before proceeding on cheerfully to fancier quarters where she works as a cleaning lady.

Leigh is an ideal actors’ director, working closely with his cast for weeks, encouraging improvisation and input for revisions. He builds his film out of a quick series of vignettes: Vera and her husband snuggle in bed; Ethel and Reg sit together on a sofa, unable to speak to each other; Vera has tea with her old friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who makes appointments for her with girls who need help.

Leigh’s films always imply a criticism of privilege, as when Vera cleans the fireplace at a wealthy home where the parents dress up to go out at night and the swank young man who calls on their daughter Susan (Sally Hawkins) commits date rape. Susan’s aunt sends her to a psychiatrist, who arranges an expensive abortion at a private sanitarium; next, we watch Vera bring her cheer and her syringe to a poor, frightened client. Vera’s work has brought comfort to many, but the law comes crashing down on her when one young woman almost dies of complications.

Leigh shows his genius in what follows: Though justice is seen in terms of male control of women, the police detective is no monster, and his woman assistant tries to be comforting. Nevertheless, Vera has been brought to total collapse. She feels she has committed no crime but cannot defy the law or break out of the sexual reticence of the time. Staunton uses no histrionics but conveys with the simplest means the inner passion she is enduring. The impact of Vera’s arrest on the family results in further affecting scenes: Even her son is at first judgmental while her husband remains insistently loyal.

In seeing “Vera Drake” it is useful to keep in mind the warning that Walter Kerr, the distinguished drama critic, used to give his students at Catholic University. “A play can’t demonstrate anything,” he reminded those who had often been taught to look for “messages” in literature and the theater. “Vera Drake” will make you feel compassion for its heroine, but it can no more show that abortion is right than a play by John Paul II could prove that it is wrong. Of course, we may wonder what would happen to the movie if it had explicitly asked ethical questions. Vera’s son first cries out that what his mother has done is disgusting, but a minute later he hugs her and says he loves her. Personally, I would have liked more from Vera when the detective asked how she got started on her illegal career. Her primary motive was helping others, but wouldn’t she have had some questions about her action?

If you’re going to I Heart Huckabees, try to bring along a philosopher with a sense of humor. (S)he may think it’s trash, or might like it better than you do, because director David O. Russell (“Flirting with Disaster”) is willing to raise such basic questions as “Is existence a cruel joke?” Russell himself says, “As a Zen monk once told me, ‘If you’re not laughing, you’re not getting it,’ ” but his Buddhist professor probably used less obscenity.

There’s no question but that the director is juggling all kinds of ideas in this talky new film, and he has assembled a wonderful cast both to confuse and entertain us. Poet-environmentalist Albert (Jason Schwartzman) is so overwhelmed with confusion that he hires “existential detectives” Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to unravel the coincidences of his life. Brad (Jude Law), an obnoxiously confident executive of Huckabees, a popular retail superstore, pretends to be aiding Albert’s campaign but is really only interested in profit and control -- including control over Huckabees model Dawn (Naomi Watts). More human and likable is Tommy (Mark Wahlberg), another client of the Jaffes, a fireman who is enraged with our petroleum-centered economy and becomes Albert’s buddy.

Hoffman and Tomlin are very funny as a married couple who snoop on everyone while arguing that everything is ultimately connected. Hoffman’s remedy for what ails you is to put you under a blanket until you feel those connections. Introduced to present a contrasting philosophical position, but providing far less humor, is Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), a French analyst who insists that life is only “cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness.” Huppert, a classy actress, is indeed still attractive in middle age; it’s depressing to see that her real function in this story is simply to have sex with Albert on a log.

There are lots of over-the-top laughs in the script by Russell and Jeff Baena, but the proceedings seem to go downhill once Tomlin has gone through everyone’s trash for clues regarding her clients’ problems. Although “I ™ Huckabees” doesn’t end in complete despair, the movie is always trying too hard. It pours on extra characters and incidents, losing focus on its central comic premise and making it difficult for us to have confidence in human possibility.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes
Friday Night Lights, which closely follows the 1988 season of the Odessa, Texas, high school football team, features plenty of exciting, well-executed sports action. These Friday games before 20,000 fans are the most important events of the year in this dusty town, and the movie shows how excessive pressure on winning affects several key players as well as the new coach (Billy Bob Thornton). The movie succeeds in involving us in football without completely ignoring the lopsided values that dominate its story. “Friday Night Lights” is based on journalist H.G. Bissinger’s book of the same title, which profiled the economically depressed town of Odessa and its heroic Permian High Panthers.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 2004

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