The relationship between one man and one woman is a classic mainstay of storytelling--from Adam and Eve, to Romeo and Juliet, to Elizabeth and Darcy, to (dare I say it?) Jake and Neytiri in Avatar. In the cinema, an enduring offshoot of this paradigm is the mystery/thriller/whodunit which must be solved by a man and a woman who are, should be or are in the process of becoming a couple. (Alfred Hitchcock's career is hard to imagine without it.) Two current, very different and very entertaining films demonstrate both the versatility and the durability of this storyline.
Juan Jose Campanella's El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) has three things in common with Das Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film of a few years ago: star-crossed romance, a Best Foreign Film Academy Award, and an engrossing plot set in a time and place of dire political oppression.
The Secret in Their Eyes is set in Argentina, switching back and forth between the turmoil of the mid-1970s and the comparatively peaceful year 2000. The story begins in the latter year with Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a recently retired investigator for the Buenos Aires district attorney's office, trying to write a novel about a case that has haunted him for more than a quarter-century: the rape and murder of the beautiful Liliana Coloto (Carla Quevedo). To clarify his memories of the case, he visits his former boss, Judge Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). It is apparent from the way they greet each other that Benjamin and Irene are rather more than friends.
Benjamin and Irene discuss the Coloto case, and Irene reads the draft of Benjamin's novel. This cues Campanella to take us back to 1974, when Irene is entering the D.A.'s office straight out of law school and Benjamin is working with Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella), his drunken, likable, sometimes brilliant fellow investigator.
From the beginning, Benjamin is obsessed by the Coloto case. He is desperate to obtain justice for Liliana and for her widower, the quiet, nice guy Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago). Evil Inspector Baez (Jose Luis Gioia) beats a confession out of two migrant workers, but Benjamin knows they're innocent. Just from looking at old photographs of Liliana with her friends, Benjamin knows who the murderer is: Isidoro Gomez (Javier Godino). Benjamin has an uncanny ability to read people's eyes, and the look in Gomez's eyes as he gazes as Liliana is—to Benjamin at least--unmistakably predatory.
It is giving away nothing to reveal the murderer. The crux of the plot resides in what happens after Gomez is caught. The mid-1970s were the days of Isabel Peron and her thugs, in which justice was subservient to the whim of the state. And those Argentinians who insisted on justice—even those who worked within the justice system--were supremely expendable
Though not quite as deep or powerful as The Lives of Others, The Secret in Their Eyes works on several levels. It is a fascinating legal procedural, a political thriller, a mystery with a twist ending you won't see coming, and a parallel story of two lost loves. Above all, it is a story about memory and how it affects us, for good or ill. Benjamin, like his country, is drowning in memories. "If you live in your memories, you have a thousand pasts and no future," Ricardo tells Benjamin late in the film. The film's ending, though problematic from a logistic standpoint, is a perfect metaphor for characters and a nation imprisoned by memories.
While The Secret in Their Eyes, like so many films these days, could have benefited from a shorter running time—it clocks in at 129 minutes, and the story feels slightly padded—it is still a fine, expertly made film. Campanella is a veteran of American TV—particularly the various incarnations of Law & Order—and his direction is clean and sharp. He creates a dark, claustrophobic ambience for the film, so that it seems to take place in an eternal twilight. He knows how to edit sequences for maximum excitement: the scene in which Benjamin, Esposito and a squad of cops chase Gomez through a crowded futbol stadium is as breathtaking as anyone could wish.
Campanella also knows how to get the best out of his actors--especially Darin and Villamil, who make Benjamin and Irene a couple you root for all the way. Villamil has a warm, glowing beauty reminiscent of the late Anne Bancroft; her standout scene comes during the interrogation of Gomez, when—seeing that normal tactics aren't working—she suddenly turns into a siren, verbally taunting Gomez until, at last, he literally reveals himself as a murderous pervert. With that scene, Villamil takes her place with Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall and Ida Lupino among the Great Tough Women of the Movies.
From the sublimely suspenseful to the sublimely ridiculous, I now turn to Shawn Levy's Date Night. Haven't decided whether you want to see Date Night? To help you decide, I note this fact about the movie: Steve Carell and Tina Fey do a pole dance.
A great deal happens in the movie before that momentous event. The story concerns a harried New Jersey couple, the Fishers. Tax attorney Phil (Carell) and realtor Claire (Fey) are the frazzled, overworked parents of two small children, their only respite being a weekly night out at the local pub for potato skins and salmon.
When their best friends (Mark Ruffalo and Kristen Wiig) announce their divorce, Phil and Claire feel a need to put the oomph back in their marriage. They get more oomph than they bargained for when Phil decides to take Claire to an elegant restaurant in Manhattan. They have no reservation, so when Phil hears the hostess calling, "Trippelhorn, party of two," over and over, he impulsively cries, "We're the Trippelhorns!" Big mistake, Phil and Claire discover, when two very threatening gentlemen appear at their table with guns drawn.
The ensuing story takes Phil and Claire on a wild, After Hours-style ride through nighttime Manhattan, their adventures encompassing car chases, gunplay, mobsters, corrupt lawmen, a stolen flashdrive, a sex club, refereeing a fight between the "real" Trippelhorns, and a disturbingly (for Phil at least) shirtless Mark Wahlberg, playing an old client of Claire's who's the only person in New York willing to help them.
Did I mention that Steve Carell and Tina Fey do a pole dance?
Nobody's going to call Date Night a masterpiece, but who cares? It's one of the very few recent mainstream comedies that makes you laugh consistently, heartily, sometimes hysterically. Its stars are the main reasons why. Carell and Fey may not be a match for William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man, but they're a match for Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery, and for Mel Brooks and Madeline Kahn in High Anxiety. That is more than adequate—much more. It would spoil the fun for me to describe their routines in detail. Suffice it to say that Fey gets one of the biggest laughs when she tells Carell, paraphrasing Ginger Rogers, "Everything that you're doing, I'm doing in heels. Remember that!"
The supporting cast adds greatly to the fun, mostly (and blessedly) by playing their roles as straight as possible. These include the aforementioned, awesomely pumped-up Wahlberg; Ray Liotta, goofing on his Goodfellas persona; William Fichtner as a sleazy D.A.; James Franco and Mila Kunis as the "real" Trippelhorns; J.B. Smoove as a panicky cab driver; and Taraji P. Henson as a police detective trying to make sense of the whole mess. Also adding to the pleasure—at least to this reviewer—is the film's PG-13 rating, which means that when Phil and Claire do their pole dance, the emphasis is on funny, not raunchy. Those of us who don't entirely approve of the Juddification and Apatovization of American film comedy can be thankful for this small respite.