Monday, December 25, 2006

Rocky Balboa

Some artists become so closely associated with their most archetypal characters that they remain unable to live that shadow down. Sylvester Stallone’s knockout masterpiece Rocky Balboa is nothing less than the summation of a career…and not just that of the titular pugilist. Sylvester Stallone’s career has been a non-stop series of extreme highs (Rocky, First Blood, Copland) and extreme lows (Judge Dredd, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, Rhinestone). He has been embraced and ridiculed, often by the same people for making choices affected more by ego than creative impulse. The supposed swan song for his most revered character, Rocky V, was met mostly with derision by both Stallone’s fans and the critical community at large. Stallone himself has expressed extreme disappointment with the film, and for years was worried that he had perhaps wronged the legacy of the character in some way. With Rocky Balboa, Stallone has set out to right that wrong, and he’s done so with glorious results.

Looking punchy and weathered, Rocky (and Stallone by extension) is long retired, managing a neighborhood restaurant and mourning his years-dead wife and muse Adrian. We meet up with Rocky as he’s going through his yearly ritual of visiting locations throughout Philly of nostalgic and romantic import. Adrian’s brother, the ever-put-upon Paulie, has grown weary of the reverie, as his memories are plagued with the disease of regret. Rocky, always the bleary-eyed dreamer, longs for the fairy tale days of being champion and having the woman of his dreams on his arm. It claws at him from inside and aches to be released, if only for a bit.

How Stallone pulls off Rocky’s return to the ring is best left for the viewers to discover. It’s at once implausible and utterly believable, mostly due to Stallone himself. His direction is crisp, intimate and nearly flawless. The central performance is the best he’s ever delivered, buoyed by what I can only assume is his personal connection to the character. After all, Stallone has as much to prove as his fictional counterpart. Two legacies hang in the balance.

Rocky Balboa is quite nearly the mirror image of the original film. Its early moments are quiet, poignant and poetic. Stallone has a breakdown with Paulie in the meat house that is probably the single greatest moment of acting in his entire career. In this instance, he is channeling all the animal and primal method instincts of the late Marlon Brando, and it’s exciting to behold the aging actor rediscovering the innate power of his acting prowess. The creation of this late-career palooka is a stunning achievement, and Stallone is to be admired and praised for it.

That Rocky Balboa succeeds at all is a surprise. That it is, in fact, a major film, certainly one of the year’s best, may in fact be a miracle.

For Your Consideration

If anything is ripe for parody, it is the yearly Oscar bait season. Under cover of Hollywood’s most prestigious honor, the industry elite fall all over themselves chasing that elusive gold, the standard of which has fallen with all of the hoopla and cheapness of awards chasing.

Master satirist Christopher Guest would seem to be the perfect fit for this high value comedy concept and, for much of For Your Consideration, it seems like Guest and Co. might be on the right track. The problem with Guest’s rather (surprisingly) broad film is that it takes a far too acidic tone in dealing with the industry in which all involved are a part. Guest has never taken this approach before – his films have always had a certain respectful grace about them, even when they are lampooning the ridiculous – and it comes off as a bit mean-spirited, even if Hollywood has earned the venom.

The performances are generally as fine as ever, with Fred Willard the comic standout as a faux-hawked entertainment “reporter” and Eugene Levy as an inept agent (has there ever been any other kind in a Hollywood satire?). But For Your Consideration features a pair of truly fine performances, from Catherine O’Hara as the matriarchal star of Guest’s fake indie drama and Parker Posey as the bright young ingénue; both of whom get caught up in pre-release Oscar buzz (more on this later). Posey has rarely ever been this understated, and O’Hara has never been as nuanced. Ironically enough, O’Hara has generated substantial Oscar buzz for her knowing portrait.

Where For Your Consideration fails the most is in its rather juvenile interpretation of how the entire awards season functions. Oscar buzz never begins when a film is still in production, and studios don’t really have the opportunity to change their production based upon said buzz. While I’m certain that Guest has a more than sharp grasp on how awards season works, it seems that in bringing the concept to the big screen, the process has been watered down and simplified. This is unfortunate, because I think there was a great film to be made here.