Human Resources is Admirable; Almost Famous Panders to Aging Adolescents

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Human Resources directed by Laurent Cantet

Cantet argues for Franck's awakening through means similar to Ken Loach's dramatic verite. Franck's acted-out solipsism (the right overanxious manner) is planted in the midst of nonprofessional performers who vent their own workplace experiences and (probably) their senses of justice regarding labor and exploitation, especially that defensive sparkplug Mrs. Arnoux (Danielle Melador), who is reminiscent of America's tough, matronly workers' heroines. It's an obviously propagandistic approach (and is occasionally artful?as when Franck and his father, epitomizing management-vs.-labor tensions at the same factory, are forced to silently ignore each other). But Cantet's politicized method seems too calculated to get the maximum emotional effect out of Franck's quandary.

Switching sides in the labor fight teaches Franck how deeply uncommitted?how pampered?his life has been. Mike Judge's Office Space was the rare American movie to show awareness of workplace anxieties in an era lacking political perspective. That widespread condition needs succinct dramatization. The Dardenne brothers found a way in the coming-of-age stories La Promesse and Rosetta; and Erick Zonca did it in The Dreamlife of Angels and with special, memorable vividness in last spring's The Little Thief. All these films summarize young people's coming-to-consciousness?the lessons of human dignity in stressful social situations that every generation must learn all over again.

Have you noticed: Various responses to Europe's economic changes, the issue of the 35-hour work week and the specter of the World Trade Organization, now make up the most urgent, common theme for contemporary filmmakers? (And Brits have been ruefully comic about it in films as distinct as Topsy-Turvy, Brassed Off, Among Giants and, oh well, The Full Monty, too.) Among a mostly first-rate, conscientious field, Human Resources may not be the peak, but it understands the practical (family and friends) aspects of Franck's predicament; the unresolved ending makes his crisis clear and irrefutable.

Almost Famous directed by Cameron Crowe

"Adolescence is just a marketing tool!" a mother (Frances McDormand) snaps when her mouthy kids claim their rights as teens. With that, Almost Famous is off to a clever start. Writer-director Cameron Crowe seems poised to satirize the teen-baiting nonsense of most movies, but then winds up pandering to the sentiments of slightly older adolescents.

Something must explain how Crowe went from writing the wonderful Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then writing and directing the charming, incisive Say Anything, to making Jerry Maguire?one of the most meretricious hits of Hollywood's modern era. Almost Famous almost does explain. In this semiautobiography, Crowe presumes to give a fresh, wised-up view of his world?evoking the impudence and privilege celebrated by pop music journalists, particularly as promoted in the 60s and 70s by Rolling Stone, the publication in which Crowe launched his career at age 15.

Crowe's alter-ego William Miller (Patrick Fugit) embarks on a rock journalist sojourn following advice from the semilegendary critic Lester Bangs (played with uncommon precision by Philip Seymour Hoffman) in a scene also recounted in Jim DeRogatis' Bangs bio Let It Blurt. William skips school (and worries his mother), leaving San Diego to travel with a band, hang out with groupies and muse on his own relationship to fame and success. Actually, there's not much musing; Crowe's too commercially oriented to challenge the sex and drugs and high times. He knows adolescence is a marketing tool as much as Rolling Stone and MTV do, so Almost Famous never scrutinizes the lifestyle it can more profitably flash for audience envy.

That's where Almost Famous goes wrong. Crowe wants to sell the hedonism of his adolescence instead of understanding what was special about it and the institutionalization of youth culture in which he played a part. This movie shows the same blithe, careerist ignorance that plagues Franck in Human Resources. The 15-year-old Crowe may understandably not have known who he was, but the now-43-year-old Crowe doesn't even inquire. Crowe takes privilege for granted the way established rock critics always have: boasting about backstage passes and free records, smoking and balling instead of asking what any of it means.

But Crowe's no dummy; in tribute to rock's dubious commercial virtues, his entire plot fakes out the secrets he knows. William gets caught up in admiration for the band Stillwater, led by sharp-cheeked guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup), and Russell's hanger-on groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Both road-tour veterans beguile and mislead the starstruck kid reporter. Crowe writes shrewdly observed scenes, like Russell going on an egotistical bender and lording it in Topeka. ("You're real," he says to a pimply Midwestern fan. "Wanna see me feed a mouse to my snake?" the fan offers.) But knowing as this is, it also detracts from Crowe's depiction of fame and its discontents. That distance between jaded star and innocently bored plebe makes for a laugh, yet Crowe fails to show that Russell or even William was ever as culturally low as the snake handler. He implies that as rock insiders they're somehow better, if only more knowing. And that's how the Rolling Stone rock institution first became snide and obnoxious.

Much of Crowe's distasteful conceit is based on fabricating William's relation to the fictitious Stillwater. Though proposing an honest look at how personalities clash in a rock band, pretending his own moral awakening, Crowe falsifies his early professional experience. While covering Humble Pie, Crowe began an ongoing friendship with Peter Frampton, yet Stillwater (recently contrived on two cross-promotional VH1 specials) substitutes fantasy for revelation, self-flattery for personal disclosure. The subplot of Russell's (Frampton's?) abuse of Penny?and William's infatuation with Penny?is hollow and sitcommy. Dislikable characterizations are unexceptionally performed. Crudup's bland and Hudson's as annoying as a young Meg Ryan. Supposedly airy and charming, she's just a foolish drag.

These characters are idolized rather than understood. Crowe's kindliness (indulging Penny, who calls herself a "band aid" rather than a "groupie") turns out to be an artistic liability. In Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, Robert Draper quoted former music editor Abe Peck's description of teenage Crowe as "the guy still getting a kick out of the dressing room experience, a kick out of dangling groupies out the window and a kick out of the music in a way that [the magazine's] thirty-year-old [writers] weren't. He was the guy who could bring in a cover story on all the big white bands. He was our man with the Eagles." But Almost Famous doesn't show this side of Crowe's story. Bangs tells William to "make your reputation by being honest and unmerciful," but Crowe's m.o. is so much the opposite that his sweet-tempered vision mitigates his basic sunshiney, California optimism.

Almost Famous' rock-tour prevarications sell short the good and moving story of a liberally educated kid who remains gaga over the world of knowledge presented by his schoolteacher mother ("Be bold, the higher forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that") and his older sibling ("Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future"). It's unfortunate that Crowe's gentle family story (much like the best scenes in Ridgemont High and Say Anything) gets bulldozed by showbiz fantasy. (This is the only movie I know to salute the grace of an older sibling's pop-music bequest.) William's rapport with his mother and sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) is funny, idiosyncratic without being absurd. When Anita puts on a Simon and Garfunkel record to explain herself, the mother exclaims, "We can't talk? We have to listen to rock music?" (McDormand's combination of Carol Burnett humor and Jane Fonda acerbity has never been better displayed.) And Crowe has found an ideal embodiment in Patrick Fugit?believably precocious, yet as cute as a muppet. Looking crestfallen at Russell or Penny's follies, Fugit conveys the essence of baby-brother disillusionment.

That may not suit Crowe's sense of his grownup self, yet his very real talent is for expressing adolescent sensibility. That's why the adult compromises of Jerry Maguire were false and offensive. Almost Famous nearly repeats that dishonesty when Bangs counsels, "They will strangle rock and roll and everything you love about it!" Bangs confused the advent of youth culture with the search for art?a contradiction common to all youth pop theorizing. And besides, Crowe doesn't really buy it. He's still childishly infatuated with the showbiz aspects of rock (and the rock aspects of showbiz) that he learned to report for the mainstream. Coming out of rock writing, Crowe might have been expected to be a counterculture genie like Hal Ashby or Alex Cox. But instead, he developed Hollywood slickness.

"When did you get so professional?" Russell asks William. You may also wonder that after Almost Famous neglects its most promising details. When the group of "band aids," out of boredom, decide to deflower William, the experience has no aftereffect or emotional consequence in how the world looks or people relate?shocking for a pop-based movie, let alone one with "Every Picture Tells a Story," Rod Stewart's epic of adolescent social arousal, on the soundtrack. Such emotional, political awakening is too scarily personal for the kind of filmmaking Crowe espouses. Recall Robert Draper's Uncensored observation: "By the mid-seventies, the teenager had a virtual lock on America's most popular acts... Crowe embodied all the traits of mid-seventies American rock?amiable, unoffensive and enormously successful." If Crowe's commercial knack is innate, not just something he was taught at Jann Wenner's Perception vs. Reality School, it's an even greater cause for alarm. Crowe's enthusiasm for the terminally overrated Billy Wilder might be another cause for his irredeemable slickness. Wilder's wit also defeated a richer presentation of character?as bad an influence as Stillwater's Elton John singalongs. Crowe's so slick that even the best of his often good dialogue might as well be written on wax paper.

Almost Famous misperceives the reality of privilege in a way that seems willfully at odds with the truth. For all the film's confused romanticism (Russell's confession?"Let's say all the things we never said"?is as fake as Jerry Maguire's "You complete me"), the final scene suggests Crowe has finally learned something about presenting a crock to the public. Russell's comeuppance provides William's rescue; it's a well-shaped and textured finish. But what has Crowe learned about the secrets of success?of professional collusion, of showbiz falsification, of cultural dumbing-down, of rock journalism's precocious arrogance? (I wish his mother had made this movie.)

Because Crowe doesn't examine his own aspiration, Almost Famous negates the subject of a California innocent's class strivings. Instead its subject becomes that sure-fire seller: celebrity?Crowe, Bangs, Wenner, Ben Fong-Torres, Russell (Frampton), etc. And our relation to it remains unenlightened. As Nurse Betty is Trixie for the nondiscriminating, Almost Famous is Being John Malkovich for the hopelessly sentimental.

Turn It Up directed by Robert Adetuyi

You wouldn't know it from the dark and violent hiphop milieu of Turn It Up, but its lead characters Diamond (Pras Michel) and Gage (Ja Rule) share Franck's Human Resources problem. Both young men want to rule the music biz, but their methods?selling drugs, killing thugs?are entirely without conscience. This miserable gangsta flick misplaces the humanity that Franck painfully, complicatedly discovers. Greedy, vain, materialistic Diamond doesn't know who he is because the filmmakers don't understand their own positions in the world. Director and cowriter Robert Adetuyi repeats plotlines from Purple Rain and Belly, but worst of all he repeats the hiphop canard that confuses ambition, tenacity and will with murderousness and theft.

Diamond and Gage (like Adetuyi, Ja Rule and Pras, the least talented of the Fugees) are of a generation detached from the social protest that used to fuel hiphop. Pledged to aggression and egotism, they mythify hiphop's most dubious social drives. They're as career-minded as Franck (or Crowe's alter ego William). Crime and viciousness are their obscene correlatives for what used to be hiphop's creative urge. That's why Diamond can gun down rival drug dealers then go into a recording studio without flinching. That's why Ja Rule transfers his stage bravado into warehouse homicide as if both were necessarily the same. Turn It Up sells the lie that has corrupted hiphop and duped its current audience. It justifies the pop fantasy of greed by any means necessary. Produced by Madonna's Maverick Films branch, Turn It Up is another example of her slumming regard for black culture.

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