HELL OR HIGH WATER
Jeff Bridges has given so many fantastically lived-in, and just plain fantastic, screen performances over nearly a half-century that picking out his best is a true fool’s errand. Yet if pressed for his most entertaining one, I’d be tempted to go with Bridges’ drunken sharpshooter Rooster Cogburn in 2010’s True Grit, which would make his portrayal of Hell or High Water’s Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton – more sober than Rooster but equally funny, marble-mouthed, and moving – a close second.
In director David Mackenzie’s languid crime drama, Bridges’ Hamilton and his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) are hot on the trail of fledgling bank robbers Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster), brothers whose seemingly petty thefts – no bills over a $20 denomination – are quite ingeniously tied to their plan to get the family farmstead out of hock. “Hot on the trail,” though, is really overstating matters, because at best the Rangers are lukewarm on the trail. The brothers’ crimes aren’t so heinous that the manhunt can’t be delayed in favor of a few Lone Stars and some teasing conversation, and several scenes here are spent with Hamilton and Parker awaiting the Howards in an Oklahoma dust bowl before realizing that, doggone it – they’re awaiting them in the wrong town.
All told, I really enjoyed Mackenzie’s and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s ultra-low-key take on a traditional chase picture – a work that suggests The Fugitive performed at 16 rpm – and loved the ease with which its West Texas figures conversed, their drawling insouciance disguising, or at least deflecting, the seriousness of their missions. If, however, I find Hell or High Water a good time rather than a great one, it’s because its stakes feel almost too low. Admirable though he is, Pine is forced to carry too much of the drama’s weight through a façade of terse implacability – which, in turn, makes Foster’s expected showiness as The Crazy One look all the more like grandstanding – and the sun-drenched casualness is occasionally indistinguishable from aimlessness; at times, it’s like an action thriller with heatstroke. (The movie also overplays its thematic loathing of big banks, and the economic plight of depressed Southwestern burgs, both verbally and visually. Whenever characters drive on the highway, you can bet they’ll pass at least two billboards advertising whom to call in the case of foreclosure.)
Still, the film is strong and effective, and despite its downbeat subject matter, an awful lot of fun. Bridges earns best-in-fun honors for his seen-it-all Ranger who’s fighting his imminent retirement with a whip and a chair, and he shares comically combative rapport with Birmingham; the two are like longtime marrieds who substitute racist and ageist jokes for sex. Sheridan’s non-sequitur-laden dialogue is as crisp and heated as cinematographer Giles Nuttgens’ regional photography. And while Hell or High Water’s women are relegated to minor roles, they’re almost freakishly well-cast and -performed: Marin Ireland as Toby’s bitter ex-wife, Dale Dickey as a salty bank teller, Katy Mixon as a flirtatious café employee, and, finest of all, Margaret Bowman as a hilariously mean café waitress who doesn’t ask the Rangers what they want for lunch (she’s bringing them medium-rare T-bone steaks, damn it), but asks what they don’t want – a side of baked potato or green beans. Hamilton doesn’t fight the woman about the imposed meal, and sheepishly demurs on the green beans. An actor as great as Jeff Bridges knows when a scene partner has him beat.
SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU
Have you heard about the hero of Southside with You? He smokes! He smokes like a freakin’ chimney! Not only that, but he drives a beater car with a passenger-side hole in the floor through which you can see the pavement! And he defends Mookie throwing that garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing! And he drops the F bomb! And he doesn’t like ice cream! What kind of monster is this guy?!
Turns out he’s the kind that eventually becomes President of the United States, and writer/director Richard Tanne’s Southside with You is the somewhat fictionalized account of Barack Obama’s and Michelle Robinson’s very first date in the summer of 1989 – a sort of Before Sunrise with Chicago locales in place of Viennese ones and just a bit more discussion of politics. As your enjoyment of the film will almost inevitably dovetail with your general feelings about the President and First Lady, I may as well state that I ate this thing up with a spoon, even though I don’t feel blind to the movie’s flaws: the too-obvious lionization of its subjects; the dialogue that sounds more like practiced banter than actual talk; the awkward conversational repetition of the names “Barack” and “Michelle,” as though Tanne felt we needed constant reminders about who these characters are (and are going to be). But running an ideal 84 minutes, Southside with You is a total winner as a romantic comedy because it gives you what all satisfying rom-coms should and so rarely do: a pair of extremely talented, engaging leads whose effortless chemistry suggests they’re a match made in Heaven, and whose personalities clash just enough to make you appreciate how rare and wonderful it is when a perfect match is made.
It certainly helps that Tika Sumpter, as Michelle, and Parker Sawyers, as Barack, look and (especially) sound enough like their counterparts for you to buy that they truly are the famed figures they’re portraying. (If you close your eyes during Sawyers’ church speech about plans for a neighborhood community center, you could easily be fooled into thinking he was the genuine article.) Yet even if the movie were purely a work of fiction, you’d have no trouble buying the actors’ alternately playful and wary dynamic, with the leery Michelle repeatedly insisting, because of their business association, that theirs is a “non-date,” and Barack repeatedly proving that he doesn’t care; he’s happy just to finally be spending time with her. (After a lengthy monologue in which Michelle explains that, as a black woman, she’s worked too hard to gain professional respect to fall for the first cute guy who walks in the office, Barack’s immediate response is “You think I’m cute?”) Michelle keeps half-fighting the romantic ardor of this unmistakably smooth operator, and as she does the film smuggles in a Linklater-movie’s worth of confession and reflection and beautiful character detail wherever they go: an Afro-centric art exhibit showcasing the joyous works of painter Ernie Barnes; a city park where Barack shares his unresolved feelings about his father; a downtown bar prior to a screening of Spike Lee’s controversial summertime smash. Michelle and Barack, and Sumpter and Sawyers, prove to be exquisite company, and even though you know how well this date will ultimately go long before its participants do, Tanne and his stars make you nearly ache for its Happily Ever After, which all three deliver to thunderously moving effect in, of all places, the parking lot of a Baskin-Robbins. For all of its carefully prescribed badinage and Wikipedia-like biographical info, I’m not ashamed to admit that Southside with You made me swoon. “Four more years!” may not happen, but that’s roughly how long I wish this movie had lasted.