December 2013

"Kill Your Darlings" reviewed by Miles David Moore Scene4 Magazine December 2013

Miles David Moore

Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said proves conclusively that, despite the lyrics of the old song, love isn’t necessarily lovelier the second time around.  Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen assumed that, when you fall in love in middle age, you will have both feet on the ground.  Holofcener begs to differ—and that is what makes her film such a perceptive, humane, satisfying romantic comedy.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a Los Angeles masseuse at or near the half-century mark in age.  Enough Said begins with a quick overview of her troublesome clients: the chatterbox matron, the old man with abattoir breath, the handsome young guy who won’t help Eva carry her heavy massage table up a steep flight of stairs.

Long divorced and with her only daughter about to fly East for college, Eva is emotionally at loose ends.  When Eva’s best friend Sarah (Toni Collette) takes her along to a party, Eva separately meets two people who pique her interest: Marianne (Catherine Keener), a potential friend and client, and Albert (James Gandolfini), a potential lover.  Marianne is a renowned poet, the sort of stylish, self-confident woman Eva wishes she could be.  Albert, a historian of early television, is a stout, easygoing, slightly sloppy but attractive guy whose own daughter is about to fly East for college. 

Eva adds both Albert and Marianne to her life.  Both the relationship with Albert and the friendship with Marianne go wonderfully, though Marianne has one flaw: she can’t stop trashing her ex-husband.  Still, this creates no problems until Eva, adding up the accrued details, realizes that Marianne’s ex-husband is…you guessed it.


Modern life constantly presents people with situations for which no rules of etiquette prepare them.  When a couple divorces, in the words of Elvis Costello, “all (their) friends must choose/Who they will favor, who they will lose.”  Eva, confronted with that choice after the fact, finds it impossible to make the choice, or even to confess what she knows. She is emotionally needy—not enough to make her unlikable, indeed quite the opposite, but enough to get her into trouble. 

Eva’s feelings for Albert are real and growing, but she regards Marianne with something close to hero-worship, and she can’t help allowing Marianne’s harsh judgments of Albert to affect her own relationship with him. (Marianne’s example also seeps into other aspects of Eva’s life: because Marianne commands Eva and all other visitors to her house to remove their shoes and socks before entering, Eva starts doing the same to her daughter at home, with no explanation.)  At the same time, Eva’s separation anxiety with her daughter motivates her to make ill-advised overtures of friendship to her daughter’s best friend, who is staying in L.A.

Yet despite the turmoil, Holofcener’s characters are lovable, and she treats them benignly.  Hurt feelings arise from ineptitude rather than cruelty, and at the end there is the indomitable hope that hurt feelings, however profoundly they have been hurt, can be overcome.

In Enough Said, Holofcener presents a middle-class, laid-back, flip-flop-wearing Los Angeles that rarely makes it into the movies.  Just as rare is the film’s intense aura of real people with real problems; these are not the fashion-model characters we usually see in a romcom.  The dialogue has a witty tang without being unbelievably clever, and the cast is more than capable of doing justice to it.  Deserving special praise are Tracey Fairaway as Eva’s daughter Ellen, Eve Hewson as Albert and Marianne’s daughter Tess, and Tavi Gevinson as Ellen’s friend Chloe—all young actresses of exceptional poise and promise.


However, it is Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini whom you will remember best, in two of the finest performances in any movie this year. Louis-Dreyfus’ Eva has a great many of Elaine Benes’ neuroses, but none of her sharp edge; you ache for her when, through well-meaning clumsiness, she becomes the focus of everyone’s anger. Gandolfini, in a role as far removed from Tony Soprano as possible, just seems to be Albert, a man thoroughly comfortable in his place in the world, acknowledging his eccentricities but not fretting over them too much.  Seeing Gandolfini as Albert, it is unbearable to think of his sudden death at 51, three months before the premiere of Enough Said. Not since Waitress, and the murder of writer-director Adrienne Shelly by a brainless thug, has a delightful comedy had such a pall of sadness hanging over its release.  But we can think of Gandolfini in The Sopranos and Enough Said, and remember what a great, versatile actor he was.

Taking the opposite tack in subverting the romantic comedy genre, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets In-Your-Face with his audience in Don Jon, his debut as writer-director of a feature film.   

Jon Martello, Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) is in some ways an updated version of Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero, except that dancing isn’t Jon’s major interest.  Christened “Don Jon” by his admiring wingman-buddies (Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke), Jon is the Super-Stud of his New Jersey town, going home with a new woman every Saturday night, then confessing in church every Sunday morning. In his own words, Jon is very happy with the pattern of his life: he loves his babes, his church, his car, his apartment (which he keeps clean with almost religious devotion), his Sunday dinners with his family.  But what he loves with greatest passion—what really makes him feel whole and happy—are his regular sessions with Internet pornography.


In a witty montage, Gordon-Levitt depicts the hedonistic, heedless repetitiveness of Jon’s life—always ending with another tissue tossed in the wastebasket.  But then one Saturday night Jon meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), a Perfect 10 on his woman-rating scale, and starts thinking about making changes.

Barbara is only too happy to change Jon into the man of her dreams—the man of her dreams being a composite of the endlessly charming, endlessly self-sacrificing male characters in the fluffy romantic comedies she loves. (Anne Hathaway, Channing Tatum, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Meagan Good provide cameos as Barbara’s favorite romcom stars.) Barbara persuades Jon to go back to night school, where he meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a daffy older woman who can’t seem to refrain from annoying Jon.  Meanwhile, the sex is good with Barbara, though not good enough to stop his porn sessions.  The relationship goes along well enough, though Barbara goes ballistic when Jon tells her he loves to clean his own house.  That, she decrees, is something a real man leaves to the maid.

And then…she discovers the porn.

Gordon-Levitt had serious intentions in making Don Jon, as he explained in a recent interview in Entertainment Weekly.  “I wanted to talk about how media influenced people’s expectations,” he said. “Pornography is a huge, huge part of our media culture.  The message Don Jon is trying to bring to light—and make fun of—is reducing people, especially women, to nothing but sex objects…whether it’s rated X or approved by the FCC to sell Doritos, the message is the same.”

As Gordon-Levitt presents it, romcoms in their own way are just as twisted as hardcore sex videos, and Jon and Barbara are victimized equally by the unrealistic expectations set up by their media consumption. The sheer verve of his writing and direction goes a long way toward advancing his argument.  Although this is Gordon-Levitt’s first feature, he has been directing innovative short films for years, and also helping others create their own video projects through his production company/website, Don Jon is not the work of a neophyte: the characters are sharply drawn, the editing sure-footed.

The acting is first-rate, beginning with Gordon-Levitt himself.  Sporting a buffed body and a butch haircut, Gordon-Levitt nails Jon’s strutting egotism and self-delusion.  Later, as Jon begins to realize that something is wrong with his life, Gordon-Levitt makes us like him more than we ever thought we could.  Johansson is effective as a woman who will never feel the need to reconsider her life, as is Moore as a woman whose flightiness masks—or is, perhaps, a symptom of—deep sorrow. The sharp performances go straight down the line—Brown and Luke as Jon’s buddies, Tony Danza as his loudmouth father, Glenne Headly as his passive-aggressive mother, Brie Larson as his unexpectedly perceptive sister.


I can see Don Jon becoming a cult movie, but its subject matter limits its appeal here and now. The film sank like the Lusitania through the box office charts; Enough Said, by contrast, maintained a toehold in the Top 10 for weeks despite its limited release.  Just as Tom Cruise had Renee Zellweger at “Hello,” Gordon-Levitt lost audiences at “porn.”  If Seth Rogen or James Franco had written and directed Don Jon, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to see it.  Once again Gordon-Levitt affirmed my faith in his talents, but I’m not sure how other viewers—particularly women viewers—feel about it.  I have only anecdotal evidence for this, but I suspect Gordon-Levitt already alienated some women with (500) Days of Summer, a film he only starred in.  I can’t imagine he’ll please them by writing, directing, and starring in Don Jon.

To be blunt, there are reasons why Barbara Sugarman’s fantasies are more acceptable to society than Jon Martello’s.  Also, the ending of Don Jon—which I will not reveal—isn’t exactly bereft of romanticism. Nevertheless, if you can get past this film’s premise, you will find it a rewarding comedy by the man who may be the greatest all-around cinematic talent of his generation.

Meanwhile, if you really want to see love at its cruelest, look no further than Kill Your Darlings.  This film—the first feature by director John Krokidas, with a screenplay by Krokidas and Austin Bunn—is based on the true story of the very young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), his love for the murderer Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), and the first flowering of his talents as a poet.

From the beginning, Kill Your Darlings leaves us in no doubt that Carr is a murderer.  In the first scene, we see him standing up to his waist in the waters of the Hudson River, holding the body of his victim, lover and probable stalker, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall).  Only the circumstances are unclear; in the course of the film, Krokidas and Bunn offer several possibilities.

After the first scene, the focus switches to, and remains on, the 18-year-old Ginsberg, a shy kid from Paterson, N.J., with a poet-teacher father (David Cross, who himself played Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There) and a mentally disturbed mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Bearing enormous loads of guilt because of his mother’s illness and his yet-unacknowledged sexuality, Ginsberg crosses the Hudson to enter Columbia University, where at first he is relegated to geekhood by his conventional (and conventionally anti-Semitic) classmates.  But when he meets the moody, glamorous Carr, everything changes, in the way everything changed for Charles Ryder when he met Lord Sebastian Flyte. 


Carr wastes no time in introducing Ginsberg to his friends: Kammerer, William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and, a little later, Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).  These men instinctively despise the sedate, trivial literary culture of the 1940s, symbolized for them by Ogden Nash, whom they see at a bar and mock behind his back. Together Carr, Burroughs, and Kerouac initiate Ginsberg into their world of drugs, booze, banned literature, and petty crime. 

In all these escapades, Kammerer is the odd man out. The others arouse his ire early on by cutting up his extensive home library to make a collage on his bulletin board; later, when they break into Columbia’s library, he’s the one who notifies the police.  Kammerer makes it plain he’d love to see them all in jail—except for Carr, whose attention he seeks with almost canine obsessiveness.

Ginsberg shares Kammerer’s passion for Carr.  According to Kill Your Darlings, Carr gives Ginsberg one kiss in the moonlight—then takes the handsome, athletic Kerouac home to bed.

The relationships in Kill Your Darlings become increasingly tangled and toxic, right up to the night of the murder, in which Kerouac and Burroughs are implicated. Ginsberg escapes with a broken heart and a firm sense of purpose, both as an artist and a man.

The history of the Beats has virtually become a cottage industry within the independent film world.  In the last year Kerouac’s novels On the Road and Big Sur have been filmed, and in 2010 James Franco played Ginsberg in Howl. Kill Your Darlings might seem like overkill in that context.  I would have cut some of the sequences in which Krokidas presents the action through the filter of Ginsberg on drugs; they derange viewers’ senses a little more than necessary.  Generally, however, Kill Your Darlings is an engrossing film about a literary movement that, like its most prominent members, almost self-destructed before it began.  It and they were saved, in a profound instance of historical irony, by the homophobia encoded in New York state law.

The artistic value of the Beat movement is still a subject of debate, but Krokidas, Bunn, and the excellent cast make a compelling case for the Beats.  Daniel Radcliffe looks and sounds nothing like the real Ginsberg, but he brings a powerful immediacy to Ginsberg’s yearnings in both love and art.  You can easily believe that this young man, whipping himself into frenzy with Benzedrine and Henry Miller, is a budding genius.

As Kerouac, Jack Huston is as effortlessly charismatic as any member of his illustrious family.   Ben Foster is even better, capturing Burroughs’ cadaverous presence and zombie-deadpan voice with lethal accuracy.  But the true acting honors go to Dane DeHaan and Michael C. Hall, both pathetic and despicable by turns.  By the end of the film, their sexual co-dependency has blasted past the creepy into the realms of the truly terrifying, so that murder seems the only logical outcome.  The only question was which one would be the victim, and which the murderer.

Other notable actors in Kill Your Darlings include Elizabeth Olsen as Edie Parker, Kerouac’s fed-up girlfriend, and John Cullum—looking no older than he did twenty years ago in Northern Exposure—as Prof. Harrison Ross Steeves, a crusty old traditionalist who nevertheless has a grudging respect for his rebellious student Ginsberg.  It was Steeves who said, “Kill your darlings”—by which he exhorted his students to excise the most purple passages from their poetry and prose. The ironic double meaning in Krokidas’ title is obvious.  It is also obvious that Ginsberg didn’t always obey Steeves’ warning in his poetry—and that Krokidas should have left some of his own most darling scenes on the cutting-room floor.  But Ginsberg created an impressive body of work despite that, and my guess is that Krokidas will too.

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Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and the Film Critic for Scene4.
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