Tuesday, November 17, 2009

'bad lieutenant: port of call new orleans': can't you take a joke?

Glenn Kenny touches on something in his mixed review of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans that I think is worth discussing further:
For all of its strengths and weaknesses, Werner Herzog's movie, from a script by William M. Finkelstein, is best appreciated as a comedy.


[Nicolas Cage's] performance is a piece of virtuosic slapstick rather than the exhibition (exhibitionism?) of raw-nerve emotional torment that Harvey Keitel essayed in [Abel] Ferrara's [original] film. If you're not in on the joke by the time Cage's character gets the run of the property room from whence he filches a lot of his dope, whereupon his eyes go wider than Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu did at the sight of Jonathan Harker's blood, then you'll never get it.
This notion of "getting the joke" is odd to me when it comes to this movie. Taken as a crime drama, Port of Call is almost woefully inept. First off, it looks cheap. And its plot, as Kenny mentions, doesn't really build or evolve -- stuff just happens. As for Cage's performance, it's not that different than his turn in something like Bangkok Dangerous, although it's admittedly several notches zanier. And the film lacks the smarts of Herzog's last attempt to make a "studio movie," Rescue Dawn. But we're not supposed to let any of that bother us. In fact, if you point these things out, it's as if you didn't even get what the movie was supposed to be about. "Geez, lighten up! It's a comedy, OK?"

But is it? Are we supposed to take Cage's character's depraved, sometimes dangerous behavior as a big joke? But why? What's the object of satire? Crime dramas? Are we supposed to be impressed that Herzog made as chintzy a police procedural as some anonymous hack could?

There's something about New Orleans that brings out the loopy in major auteurs. Or maybe I'm just thinking of Robert Altman, who took a John Grisham story and turned it into The Gingerbread Man. (As opposed to Port of Call, though, that movie's a failure because it doesn't keep winking at us. Or something.) Now comes Herzog, who (I've been told) has delivered a stirring portrait of poverty in America by, uh, including shots of rundown houses. But whereas with Rescue Dawn, where he guided Christian Bale through one of his most restrained performances, Herzog seems to have let Nic be Nic here.

At this stage of his career, Cage is probably as un-direct-able as Jack Nicholson -- you cast him not despite his indulgences but because of them. But the "brilliance" of his performance in Port of Call reminds me of my film-school days when my classmates and I (knee-deep in fashionable college irony) would proclaim certain terrible films "amazing" and "genius" because, well, we got the joke. We knew they were awful, but, you see, we were hip enough to enjoy them for their awfulness. Or something. Eventually, I grew out of that mindset -- proclaiming terrible films "amazing" to random strangers is a good way to never make new friends. But when I watched Port of Call, I was reminded of how easy it is to fall into that trap. So, yes, I suppose I'm "in on the joke." I just don't think it's that funny.