Leto Giveth, Leto Taketh Away

I was shocked—SHOCKED!—to see Jared Leto finally give the first entertaining performance of his career in House of Gucci.  He was easily the best part of Ridley Scott’s crimes-of-fashion melodrama, despite working alongside dependably entertaining co-stars like Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, and Al Pacino.  Out-overacting Pacino would be an impressive feat for any performer, but it’s especially staggering coming from Leto.  And yet his oblivious goofball energy is the only sign of life to be found in the film. Otherwise, House of Gucci is too conceptually silly to be so well-behaved.  It asks the audience to take its exaggerated Italian accents and vintage fashion stunts seriously for the sprawling length of a Godfather movie, when the best it has to offer is a few flashes of outrageous outfits & sitcom hijinks; so, less The Godfather and more an overlong episode of The Nanny.  In that context, there is only one knucklehead in the cast who perfectly understands the assignment (or at least perfectly misunderstands it), and he happens to be one of the most annoying Hollywood personalities around.

There is no other context where engaging with a Jared Leto performance is a positive, charming experience.  Because of his literal, boneheaded approach to “method acting”, Leto is more of a social terrorist than he is a professional entertainer.  His main job as an actor is to derail everyone else’s work on-set by remaining “in-character” as villainous pests, making his co-workers’ jobs as difficult as possible for no practical, discernible reason.  After months of tabloid stories about Leto blinding, starving, or gorging himself for a role, he’ll reliably put in a performance so bland & textureless that you forget he was even in the movie (i.e., Lonely Hearts, Blade Runner 2049).  In his greatest act of “method acting” terrorism to date, Leto “gifted” his Suicide Squad co-stars animal corpses, anal beads, and used condoms while “working” in-character as The Joker.  His scenes were then almost entirely cut out of the film, making it clear that the horror stories behind his performances hold a more substantial place in our cultural imagination than the actual footage of those performances.  All anyone remembers is his personal misbehavior, not his professional product. He’s effectively being paid to be an obstacle, not an actor. 

This is not true in House of Gucci.  Lady Gaga’s award-season ambitions completely overpowered Leto’s method-acting shenanigans during that production.  Gaga’s interviews about needing “a psychiatric nurse” on-set because of how far she pushed herself in her portrayal of Patrizia Gucci—or how the real-life Patrizia put a real-life curse on her as retribution for that portrayal—filled the exact role that reports of Leto’s method-acting pranks usually fill: they’re way more interesting & fun to talk about than anything she accomplishes onscreen.  Meanwhile, every single time Leto appears in his fat suit & bald cap combo as Paolo Gucci is a pure delight.  He looks ridiculous, and his personality matches, playing Paolo as an overgrown Pinocchio with a wonderfully tacky fashion sense.  I’ve never been so excited to see Jared Leto appear onscreen, knowing that every single line-delivery was going to be an absolute howler.  And yet there was no significant tabloid baggage that came with the performance besides an off-hand joke(?) about “snorting arrabbiata sauce” and having “olive oil for blood” while immersed in the role.  Gaga hogged up all the method-acting spotlight this go-round, and Leto was—against all odds—simply fun to watch.

I do not want to get into the business of becoming a Jared Leto apologist, so thank The Dark Lord for Morbius.  There was something weirdly comforting about seeing Leto return to his same old tedious self in his very next role after House of Gucci.  He is completely anonymous as Doctor Michael Morbius, the vampire superhero, delivering a lead performance just as forgettable as his fleeting appearances in movies he’s barely in.  His line-deliveries are so flat & inflectionless that you cannot distinguish when he’s telling a joke.  His only detectable facial expressions are computer-generated, signaling the emergence of an entertaining monster that the self-conflicted Morbius fights to contain under his boring, placid surface.  The only brief moment when it’s apparent what Leto brings to the role is a scene where he appears buff & shirtless, enjoying his new vampire-bat superstrength before quickly covering up, lest the audience actually gets excited about something.  He looks phenomenal for a 50-year-old, but there’s nothing else about his screen presence that could possibly impress an audience – mostly because the audience is snoring in their seats by the second act.

It’s not enough for Leto to be a bore.  For him to truly be back on his bullshit, he needs to be a bore and a nuisance, making it unnecessarily difficult for his collaborators to record his trademark tedium on film.  That’s why it’s a blessing to see Morbius director Daniel Espinosa confirm reports that Leto frequently derailed production with 45-minute bathroom breaks, remaining in-character as a physically disabled man (pre-vampire powers) between takes.  Interviewer Mike Ryan prompted Espinosa with the anecdote, “Someone told me that Jared Leto was so committed to playing Michael Morbius that even when he had to go to the bathroom, he would use his crutches and slowly limp to get to the bathroom.  But it was taking so long between for pee breaks, that a deal was made with him to get him a wheelchair so someone could wheel him there quicker and he agreed to that.”  Espinosa confirmed, “Yeah. Because I think what Jared thinks, what Jared believes, is that somehow the pain of those movements, even when he was playing normal Michael Morbius, he needed, because he’s been having this pain his whole life.”  That is the exact level of off-screen bullshit we expect from Leto: going out of his way to inconvenience his coworkers so he can deliver a flavorless, textureless performance of no consequence.  Everything is in its rightful place again; order has been restored.

Of course, not everyone is not going to agree that Leto’s affable performance in House of Gucci is superior to his dreary return-to-form in Morbius.  In fact, The Hollywood Reporter headlined its Morbius review with the blurb, “After his bizarrely cartoonish turn in ‘House of Gucci’, it’s a relief to see Jared Leto channel his lust for transformative characters into a film that’s quite literally written into the role’s DNA,” a line that was apparently written to troll me, specifically.  Some people are just determined to not have fun, and there is no hope for them.  At least we can all agree that House of Gucci was a fluke, a one-of-a-kind miracle where a Jared Leto performance was worthier of discussion than the backstage circumstances of its production.  And so Morbius was a much-needed cooldown & career re-set, so that we don’t get too excited about seeing another fun, “bizarrely cartoonish turn” from him.  Leto giveth, and Leto taketh away.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Takes: 2022 Oscars Catch-up

For the second year in a row, I found myself wildly out of sync with 2022’s announced list of Oscar nominees. Even though I watched over a hundred feature films released in 2021, only three of them were nominated in any category – even the lowly technicals. It used to be that I’d seen at least a dozen without trying. And of the three films I had seen, only one registered as anything especially praiseworthy. I like the idea of Cruella as a superhero movie for gay children, but as Disney’s attempt at “a punk film” it’s embarrassing. Dune was pretty, lavish, and competently made, but it was also my least favorite kind of literary adaptation: the kind that’s pinned down by obligation to its source material, never managing to take off as its own unique thing. Surprisingly, Power of the Dog is the one Oscar nominated title I had already seen that I was impressed by, even though I don’t usually care much for Westerns. It was one of Swampflix’s Top 10 Films of 2021, after all. Looking at the 38 feature films nominated for statues this year, I felt totally out of sync with what titles the film industry has deemed Important. Or maybe it was just another sign of the pandemic scrambling everything up to the point where there is no clear zeitgeist right now. Hard to tell.

Knowing that I’ll end up watching the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony live on TV with or without having seen any of the films nominated, I again used the Oscars an excuse to catch up with some of last year’s high-profile releases that had slipped by me. And so, here’s a ranked list of movies I recently watched because they were nominated for Oscars – each with an accompanying blurb. I only watched movies that I had a genuine interest in seeing; I would have found no pleasure watching Belfast or Don’t Look Up just to shit on them, so I didn’t bother. It was partly an excuse to check out a few titles I meant to catch up with anyway, and partly an excuse to gawk at all the sparkling evening gowns at this week’s televised ceremony. Enjoy.

Parallel Mothers

Nominated for Best Actress (Penélope Cruz) and Best Original Score

I guess you could complain that this isn’t anything new from Almodóvar, but since he’s specifically returning to the exquisite melodrama flavors of Volver & All About My Mother, it’d be like complaining about eating strawberry ice cream for a third time in two decades. It’s still delicious and a rare treat! I especially love this as an acting showcase for Cruz and as a political parable that manages to feel elusive of a 1:1 metaphor but still furious over a very specific issue. A huge step up from the muted navel-gazing of Pain & Glory in my book.

Drive My Car

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Ryûsuke Hamaguchi), Best International Feature, and Best Adapted Screenplay

I’m always unclear on how critical consensus rallies so quickly around a single, seemingly arbitrary title, but it’s nice when the beneficiary turns out to be this damn good. A patient, complex drama for adults, routinely landing direct stabs to the heart without ever making a big show of it. I generally consider myself a low-brow audience, so it feels significant that the big moment that made me cry was someone performing Chekhov in sign-language.

The Worst Person in the World

Nominated for Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay

I’m an easy sucker for a story about a woman who is an absolute mess, but even so this feels like one of the best entries in the “Girl, same” canon since Fleabag. Visually playful & morally tricky enough to avoid feeling pedestrian or overlong, even though it’s sometimes stuck halfway between a Sundancey romcom & a solid season of television.

Summer of Soul

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature

I was prepared to dismiss this for allowing contextual talking-head interviews to overpower the music festival it’s documenting, but the editing is so persistently sharp and exciting that it justifies the interruption. I’d still love a full-footage box set release, but the truth is I’d probably treat it like background noise for laundry days, and this overview is something much more pointed & emotional.

Nightmare Alley

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design

The most a movie has felt like an unofficial entry in the Tim Burton Batman canon since the 2003 Willard remake, which I mean as a compliment.  It’s easy to miss the extravagant carnival setting of the first hour once you leave it for the big city, but the pure noir pastiche that follows is grim & gorgeous enough to overcome that loss.  A lot of people seem to have retracted their love for del Toro in recent years, but I’m still buying tickets for the dark ride every time it passes through town. This one isn’t his best; it’s still pretty great.

Licorice Pizza

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), and Best Original Screenplay

I’m surprisingly super conflicted about this movie depending on whose coming-of-age story it is.  As a story about the adorability of teen-boy confidence I’m intensely icked out by it.  As a story about a twenty-something’s self-destructive resistance to growing up, I find it oddly moving & dark.  And since PTA is careful to balance everything evenly between those two POVs, I didn’t walk away with any easy answers or summations about that tonal conflict, which might’ve been the point.  All I can really say with any certainty is that these images look nice but the 1970s look sad & gross.

The Lost Daughter

Nominated for Best Actress (Olivia Colman), Best Supporting Actress (Jessie Buckley), and Best Adapted Screenplay

Part of me wants to say that trimming this down a half-hour would help sharpen the tension, but you’d probably lose some of the eeriness of its beach vacation purgatory setting in the process. Either way, it works better as a thorny drama about Difficult Women than as a psychological thriller, which is totally fine (except that only one of dual genres builds to something). Great performances all around; it’s just missing a climax.

Flee

Nominated for Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature

Probably uncool to say, but I couldn’t get over how ugly & lazy the actual animation looked in this. As an oral-history document, its content is obviously much more important than its form, and the narration is vital, heartbreaking stuff no matter how it’s illustrated. Still, I was way more personally, emotionally engaged in the moments of archival footage than I was looking at its Flash animation style (the expressive A-ha music video flourishes were effective, though).

House of Gucci

Nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling

I regret to report that Jared Leto is the best part of this movie. It’s too silly to be so well behaved otherwise, so the overly committed excess of his Italian caricature is the only performance that feels appropriate for the occasion. Fun fashion & ridiculous accents all around, but there’s only one goofball in the cast who truly understands the assignment (or at least perfectly misunderstands it).

Spencer

Nominated for Best Actress (Kristen Stewart)

I hate to say it, because I’m generally a fan, but Stewart’s performance is the only reason this did not work for me.  The retro couture, ghostly imagery, and suffocating tension are all consistently effective, but she’s the anchor of every dramatic beat and it all just rings as phony.  It feels like a Kate McKinnon parody instead of the genuine thing, which didn’t bother me so much when Natalie Portman channeled Jinkx Monsoon in Jackie but here feels like it’s running away from the laidback cool of Stewart at her best and the gamble just didn’t pay off.

-Brandon Ledet