Monday, August 13, 2007

Vote for Robert Downey Jr.

By Lars Trodson

Last year I wrote a review of “Bobby” for The Wire in Portsmouth that singled out Shia LeBeouf, saying essentially that it was exactly the kind of performance that members of the Academy should honor for a Best Supporting actor nod. He didn’t get it, and I think maybe it was for a couple of reasons. One, the movie was not a success, either at the box office or, two, in the fundamentals of storytelling. It was too bad, but no tragedy, because clearly the young actor is headed toward good, if not great things.

Now we come to this year, and we do have a bona fida contender for a Best Supporting Actor in Robert Downey Jr., who plays the newspaper reporter Paul Avery in David Fincher’s “Zodiac”, which came out earlier this year. It did not set the box office on fire.

I rented “Zodiac” and watched it twice, back to back, on a day that was much too beautiful to be inside, but there it is. It’s about two hours and 40 minutes long. I have a couple of quibbles about the film (what was the deal with the Animal Crackers?), and I have very real issues about the way the Jake Gyllenhall character was handled (more on these later), but to me the film was Fincher’s most assured and unsettling work to date -- despite “Se7en” -- and the depiction in such a non-cliché way of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s felt truer than if we had seen a bunch of hippies hanging around Haight-Ashbury.

It was also the best newspaper movie since “All the President’s Men.” It must have been hard for any actor or director not to succumb making media people out to be a bunch of buffoons, but they resisted and we have a better movie for it.

Especially Downey, who of course has in the past been a bit of a player in the tabloid scene, who plays a San Francisco Chronicle police reporter. Downey’s presence in the tabloids doesn’t make him any different than a lot of other serious actors, whether it’s Robert Mitchum or Nick Nolte or anybody else. Because these actors, once they overcome their demons, will win out because have real talent to fall back on. It is exactly the reason why I think a Lindsay Lohan will make it and a Britney Spears probably will not.

Back to Downey. I remember Geraldine Chaplin saying, in an interview published when the Richard Attenborough biopic “Chaplin” was coming out, that Downey had more talent than she had previously seen -- something like that -- and that he had captured the spirit of her father.

I didn’t believe it. If there was any actor, ever, that seemed doomed to an interpretation by another actor, it would be someone like Chaplin. He was -- oh no -- a genius, and a very troubled person.

I am just old enough to remember a time when there was a lot of dead space on the TV grid. Saturday nights and Sunday mornings on your low wattage UHF stations were once filled with all kinds of odd programming -- films that had lapsed into the public domain, Bowery Boys movies, the Sherlock Holmes serials, and Chaplin films. It seems incredible to me that black and white silent films would have a place on broadcast television, but back then it wasn’t so strange. I watched the Chaplin shorts. So I knew a little bit about Chaplin -- and I read about him as much as I could, including his mammoth, unreliable autobiography. He was also alive when I was a kid, so he had not quite lapsed into the past.

My first viewings of “The Gold Rush” and “City Lights” also remain indelible moments in my movie-going history, and I still think that “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Limelight” are great films, as is “The Great Dictator.” These are films that to me were unfairly maligned because there were critics, such as James Agee, who didn’t think Chaplin could write dialogue. I disagree, but anyway that’s just me.

So, when I read Geraldine Chaplin’s comments, and having seen such movies as Dick Van Dyke in “The Comic”, I was certainly prepared for the worst -- up to and including knowing that Richard Attenborough was not a director of any kind of delicate sensibility.

But, Jesus, when I saw Downey move in that picture, and his spot on English accent, and the recreation of some of the Chaplin bits, I was mesmerized and forgave almost everything about the movie except the truly idiot explanation of the origins of Chaplin’s disturbing sexual habits.

So, after that, Downey was the man to watch, and watch I did, even through the non-descript entertainments, and his unhappy choices of playing articulate and attractive junkies. He seemed incapable of landing a role that matched his talents.

In that way his role in “Zodiac” is not much of a departure. The reporter Paul Avery, who was a real life guy who reported on the Zodiac killings in the Bay Area for the San Francisco Chronicle during the very late 1960s and into the 70s.

I would bet -- and this is important -- that the character of Avery wasn’t all that enticing as written on the page. It’s a largely reactive role. Reporters in real life don’t often crack the big case, or hunt down killers in back alleys brandishing a gun. Avery does none of that here, of course, and as the case of the Zodiac killer recedes further into history, Avery becomes more and more dissolute, and we last see him sucking on a filterless Camel and breathing bottled oxygen.

But the elegant line readings that Downey brings to this role are really something to savor. He imbues his character with a rich humor, slightly condescending (Avery is a talented writer and reporter and he knows it), and the brief scene in which Avery, in his crime reporter mode, interviews a cop is one of the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a movie (I did a fair bit of that in my day, so I kind of know about it).

Downey is charming. In an utterly toss-away moment, he is called into an editorial meeting, and his jaunty “Very well” response had me laughing out loud. It is impossible to describe, because it is the actor carrying this off; no interpretation of mine could do it justice.

That he shines in a role that is surrounded by actors given far more meatier parts is testimony to Downey’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Mark Ruffalo as Det. Dave Toschi of the San Francisco PD (apparently the real-life inspiration for Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”, as well as Harry Callahan in “Dirty Harry” -- the latter of which I don’t see, but …), is quiet; he murmurs and his sly jokes back up on you. After a screening for San Francisco dignitaries of “Dirty Harry”, which Toschi attends, some smart ass yells out, “Hey, Toschi, Dirty Harry did a better job on your case than you did,” Toschi responds, not looking at his heckler, “Yeah, without worrying about due process.” And you have the feeling the real-life Toschi said it just like that. Ruffalo is wonderful throughout, but the screenwriter James Vanderbilt on occasion does dumb things, like giving Toschi a small crutch in his craving for Animal Crackers. It may be based on real life, but it’s such a stupid gag the filmmakers simply drop it before you get too tired of it.

Jake Gyllenhall has a ridiculous role, made murky by some script choices and, I think, directorial choices. He plays a goofy, single-father cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Graysmith, who becomes obsessed with the Zodiac case. Graysmith seems to have some weird understanding of the killer, and it is unclear whether Fincher or the script is throwing out some red herrings here as to who the actual killer is. It’s an unfortunate distraction (as are some of the other non-descript departures in logic in the script), because it doesn’t, in the end, add to the tension or the mystery; it’s just an unnecessary diversion. The Graysmith character is also depicted as a nuisance in the newsroom -- not unlike Jimmy Olson at the Daily Planet -- and an extremely inattentive husband (to Chloe Sevigny) and distracted father.

Graysmith went on to write two books about the Zodiac killer, one of which formed the basis of this film. Toschi is retired, and Avery died in 2000. The prime suspect in the killings, Arthur Leigh Allen, chillingly played by actor John Carroll Lynch, who also deserves an Oscar nod for his bizarre and detailed performance, also died. The case is still open in two counties, but not in San Francisco.

This is a film rich in the kind of funky, detailed performances, both small and large, that you associate with the Godfather films. Downey here is our Robert Duvall, our Tom Hagen, bringing depth and nuance to a character not richly drawn on the page.

“Zodiac” was not a box office success, so it will be easy, in the end-of-year onslaught of Oscar contenders, to forget about Downey and Lynch. Academy members, if they haven’t seen “Zodiac”, should check it out, and check off Downey’s name for a supporting actor Oscar, because a more finely observed portrait, etched in so little time, will be hard to come by this year.


Watch the trailer for "Zodiac" here: