Friday, December 01, 2006

The Architect: Too Much of Too Many Good Things


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There’s the germ of a good movie in The Architect. In fact, there are the germs of quite a few good movies in The Architect — and that’s precisely the problem with it.

Written and directed by Matt Tauber from a play by David Greig — though the film’s action moves so peripatetically around Chicago it’s hard to imagine the piece being played on stage — The Architect is a sort of anti-Fountainhead. For those of you who aren’t up on the collected works of Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead was a heavy-breathing 1943 novel, filmed five years later with Rand writing the script herself, about an idealistic super-architect who ghost-designs a big public housing project for a hack colleague, blows up the project when the people paying for it change his design, goes on trial, makes a long speech about the need to protect the individual against the masses and is acquitted.

The Architect is also about an architect and a public housing project, but the time is the present, the project is already several decades old, and it’s become so decrepit and dangerous to the people who live there that Tonya Neeley (Viola Davis), an African-American woman who lives there with her daughter, granddaughter and the memory of her son, a suicide, becomes an activist and organizes a drive to have the buildings torn down. She confronts the architect who designed the place originally, Leo Waters (Anthony LaPaglia, top-billed), hoping that if he agrees that the project is no longer workable as a living space, she’ll have the support she needs to get the Illinois state government to pay for its destruction and replacement by smaller, more “homey” housing.

By far the best scene in The Architect is the one in which Leo and Tonya actually meet. The setting is Leo’s own home — which, like virtually all houses movie architects design for themselves, is beautiful but soulless and uncomfortable to live in — and the prop is an elaborate model Leo has constructed to show how the existing project buildings can be rehabilitated as an alternative to tearing them down. Tonya rips apart all her ideas, noting that all the decoration he wants to add to the site won’t make one bit of difference in terms of their lives and the great “communal patio” he wants to add to the site will just make it even easier for the neighborhood gangs to terrorize and dominate the project residents than it is now.

Anyone who remembers The Fountainhead and catches the obvious reference to it in this scene will be jolted by the realization that in Rand’s tale of a battle between an architect and the people who commissioned the housing project he designed and then destroyed, neither side gave a damn about the priorities of the people who would actually live there. As Leo, speaking from the ritzy home he’s designed and built himself with the profit he’s made from similarly well-heeled clients, snarls that the project was designed in the first place as “mass housing” and it wasn’t supposed to be nice — and Tonya fires back that his intent in designing it wasn’t to build people houses but to “house people,” leaving unspoken but nonetheless making the obvious point that Leo’s project “housed people” the way animals are housed, or the way its African-American residents’ ancestors were “housed” when they were slaves — we’re being confronted with a clash not only of race but even more of class. The scene makes the radical point (just the opposite of Rand’s ideology) that poor and working-class people are just as deserving of decent, comfortable living spaces as those above them in wealth, income and status.

If there were more of that knife-edged class consciousness in The Architect, it would have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, writer-director Tauber and original playwright Greig can’t leave it at that. The architect has to have a dysfunctional marriage with Julia (Isabella Rossellini, looking surprisingly frumpish after Guy Maddin’s marvelous glamorization of her two years ago in The Saddest Music in the World, where she hauntingly resembled her mother, Ingrid Bergman), who breaks plates and flowerpots to express her frustration in ways that seem awfully atavistic 42 years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. He’s also saddled with a son, Martin (Sebastian Stan), who’s just dropped out of college over a malaise that turns out to be confusion about his sexual orientation; and a daughter, Christina (Hayden Panettiere), who’s written as a Freudian textbook illustration of the Electra complex, taking her dad’s side in all her parents’ arguments, giving him a hug that stops barely short of out-and-out incest and so mechanistically throwing herself at virtually every other white male in the film she might as well be wearing a sign saying, “Take my virginity — please!”

The Black characters aren’t any better off — or any more realistic. Tonya actually had three children, one of whom, daughter Cammie (Serena Reeder) she sent off to live with a more affluent African-American family, headed by a doctor, to get her out of the ghetto and give her a chance at the education and material success she deserved. She and her other daughter, Missy (Marsha Stephanie Blake), continually argue over Tonya’s motives for mounting the campaign that, if successful, is going to render them at least temporarily homeless. In one scene Tonya literally attacks a young man Missy is talking to before she realizes that he’s just her old childhood friend, Big Tim (Malcolm Goodwin), even though he’s dressed like an extra in a gangsta-rap video. As if that weren’t enough dysfunction — the plot of this movie seems to be aimed at proving that whites and Blacks are equally susceptible to mental illnesses of all sorts — there’s also the character of Shawn (Paul James), a Black Gay teenager who lives in the neighborhood of the project and falls in love with Martin — whose confused unwillingness to reciprocate precipitates a fate so dire for the Gay character Brokeback Mountain looks like a bundle of laughs by comparison.

Writer-director Tauber, making his feature-film debut — his only previous credit was The Great New Wonderful, a micro-budget film shot (like The Architect) on high-definition video and dealing with multiple New Yorkers in the year after 9/11 — simply isn’t good enough at structuring his various plotlines to make this sort of film work. He has the misfortune to be opening his movie right after the death of Robert Altman, a master of the multi-character, multi-story film who actually had the knack of blending plural storylines in a way where the various plots reflected and added to each other. In Tauber’s movie, by contrast, they clash. The Architect is less a movie than a war zone in which various story threads, dramatic issues and themes fight it out for dominance, and an ending that Tauber no doubt intended as daringly inconclusive comes off instead as simply sloppy and a cheat. Tauber does share one of Altman’s talents — the ability to get good performances out of his actors (perhaps a legacy of his years in live theatre, where he didn’t have to worry about story structure because a playwright had already taken care of that, and he could concentrate on working with actors, the directorial function he clearly does best) — and maybe with time and experience he’ll acquire the knowledge to construct this type of film and make it work, but he’s not there yet.

What’s more, as a writer Tauber has an annoying tendency to leave loose ends lying around, tying them up either later or not at all. When we see in Tonya’s front room a framed picture of an African-American teenager with a cross draped over the front, indicating that he’s dead, our first thought is that he’s the father of Missy’s child and that he was killed in gang violence. Only later are we told that he was really Missy’s brother and that he committed suicide by jumping off the roof of one of the project buildings. When another character commits suicide similarly, we’re left to wonder if the scenes involving him were flashbacks and if he was Missy’s brother, and only later does Tauber’s dialogue nail home the point that these were two separate people.

Landmark Theatres is making a big to-do about the format in which The Architect is being shown. Instead of film, it’s being projected from a Samsung Blu-Ray high-definition DVD via a system not coincidentally owned by the same people who own the Landmark chain itself, Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. The resulting image is spectacularly clear, perhaps a bit too clear; scenes that on film would have seemed more artistically shadowed register with the sharpness and meticulous color definition of a very good picture postcard. Still, it’s a film to reassure the doubters (including anyone who’s suffered through a screening of an ordinary DVD or VHS tape on a standard-issue PowerPoint projector) who worry that digital projection can’t be as good as film. The Architect is a technological triumph; it’s the human aspects of the movie that fall short of what they could have been and make this a regrettable disappointment.

The Architect opens December 8 at the Landmark Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2100 for showtimes and other information.