18 June 2012

Roadie (2011)

The Blue Öyster Cult fires Jimmy (Ron Eldard), mid-40s, as their roadie. He returns to his mother's house in Queens, where he grew up. People from his teen years linger on: Randy Stevens (Bobby Cannavale), who used to bully Jimmy and call him "Testicles," inherited a car dealership and married Jimmy's ex-flame Nikki (Jill Hennessy), who took up songwriting ten years prior and performs in the local bar for a crowd of 30-40 people each Sunday.

Co-writer and director Michael Cuesta spends the movie's long beginning establishing and framing these particulars. To me it feels less like a person named Jimmy re-enters ordinary reality and deals with the agony of incomplete dreams, and more like a character named Jimmy written by some person and acted by some different person travels through a narrative that depicts these ideas. Like, I don't believe the movie for a second. Cuesta attempts to depict harsh realities (time lost, regret, squandered opportunity, irresponsibility, fading glory, etc) but makes such an effort to cram these within the narrative, and in such clear and shaped ways, that the script feels superimposed.

It's a style of moviemaking that Cuesta isn't alone in creating -- this feels philosophically related to the work of Thomas McCarthy (Win Win) and Miguel Arteta (Cedar Rapids). Basically these movies detail the highs and lows of middle-brow characters, whose lives are neither wacked-out disasters nor remarkable successes, and who struggle to carve out pieces of happiness for themselves each day. But these movies also not-so-secretly celebrate our resilient spirits and determination.

I don't mind a movie with a message, but I prefer movies that don't warp reality to make their messages, because when this happens the message loses its value when converted back to real life. Plus these characters feel so passive I almost blamed them and it's frustrating.

Cuesta's '01 movie L.I.E.,  a graceful and brave portrait of dark hearts, is one of my favorite American independent movies from the gritty era. The center of the movie was a cold truth that was larger than the movie.

Cuesta is still capable of going there, as demonstrated by the best moment in '05's Twelve and Holding, and the best sequence in Roadie. Jimmy, Randy, and Nikki party in a hotel room that's the same hotel they used for parties when they were teenagers. They come to let loose, drink a bunch of liquor, and snort a bunch of coke. They go off the rails, and Cuesta follows.
The sequence is not less dramatic than others in the movie. It culminates in raw-truth admissions and hurt feelings:
Randy acknowledges the sexual tension between Jimmy and Nikki. He makes a big show about putting Jimmy down. He tells Jimmy that Nikki gave him the nickname Testicles and she always thought Jimmy and his dreams were a joke. He tells Jimmy he doesn't believe things Jimmy has said about being the band's manager and writing songs. He thinks Jimmy is a "schlepper" and accuses Jimmy of seeing himself as superior for unwarranted reasons. Most of these things are truthbombs.
Jimmy tells Randy he's toured the world and lived for real the rock and roll lifestyle they sometimes pretend to have.
During this sequence there's a wild and untamed tension. I felt like I didn't know what was going to happen next, and I felt bad for everyone.

During this sequence Cuesta penetrates to sub-surface realities and offers doses of perspective in an organic and challenging fashion. It feels like people dealing with being themselves, while at so many other points in the movie it feels like characters dealing with a script. If the point of the movie is that life is ugly and messy and difficult and painful, then I think the movie should feel ugly and messy and difficult and painful, like it does in this hotel sequence.

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