Acting in Timecode

Photo © 2000 Screen Gems/Red Mullet Productions
NICK: Gabby as we are, let's spike the rhythm a little bit. For this section, I'll say a name, and you tell me what you think of the character and the performance (often hard to distinguish, given all the improv). You reciprocate with another name at the end of your response. For instance, if I say Leslie Mann...

TIM: Great! Well, I have to admit I'd clean forgotten she was even in it between the last viewing and this one, which is possibly due to her spending so much of her time mingling with the Burrows. It's not prime Leslie, and the ingénue she's playing basically means falling back on that Marilyn Monroe, poo-poo-pee-doo affect she's got going on; still, among the more peripheral players she's certainly better at grabbing your attention away than most. If we were doling out hearts a la StinkyLulu, she'd get two. Let me try you on... Xander Berkeley?

NICK: I like Leslie a little more than you do; she has a kind of baseless but sturdy confidence in herself that I found really unfussy and funny, a superficially casual way of assuming that everyone is fascinated with her without playing down to the character too aggressively.

As for Xander, I always wish he had more time and bigger chances, and I'm impressed that he's able to project the swagger of a big fish in an infinitesimal pond, even though he seems conscious of his own absurdity. Love how he captures all this while Sands is massaging him. He rewards almost any quick glance to see what he's doing, even though it's a low-key performance. I like the slow burn of how much Stellan's flakiness really rankles him. And so, speaking of... Stellan?

TIM: I can't improve on what you say about Xander, who I've loved ever since Candyman, and I think is especially good playing peacemaker around the board table at the end. That's one of Stellan's major moments also, and I think the doomed effort to suppress his contempt is super. On the phone earlier, where he's trying to sustain a banal business conversation in mid crying-jag, he's up to something similar, and the movie reminds us generally what a wizard he is at this sort of thing. You've mentioned how the character's alcoholism feels like pale imitation of Leaving Las Vegas, which I can't deny, but I like the fact he's reached a stage in it which isn't quite the full-blown Cage, but just a couple back from that: one where his excuses are so half-hearted he may as well not be bothering with them at all, like blaming his tardiness on the traffic when he lives three blocks away, because etiquette seems to demand that token gesture of explanation. Terrific vocal work throughout—his husky whisper sounds like it's coming from the edge of damnation. I certainly feel it's one of the film's most substantial performances, without need of grandstanding or even much artificial "flamboyance"—you feel the substance of this man at the end of his tether.

Since it's one of my favourite things about the movie that she's even in it, and confessing right up front that I love the completely sidelined and often baffled nature of the performance, what are your thoughts on Holly?

NICK: I basically agree with every "plus" you put in Stellan's column, especially his comic exasperation in the Maestro meeting, and his pathetic veneer of pretense about his addiction. I respect the integrity of all his choices, but I just can't work up any enthusiasm about them. I don't feel a single thing when his comeuppance arrives, and I'm never inclined to look away from other actors, even lesser ones, to see what he's doing, except when the whole film is coercing our attention his way (again, boardroom convo excepted). Then again, maybe that's why I'm underestimating him.

Holly = a jewel. She just gets the ensemble thing; she's always, always good in big-cast movies. I love the choice to have the character so hilariously at the frayed end of her last nerve at all times, and that she can pull this off without pulling focus, ever. Watching her on the brink of tears as she delivers that delectable improv-pitch about the horror movie Botswana Wannabe is one of my favorite bits in the piece: "There's a worm - and it's like a glass noodle worm, like the kind of glass noodles you... you - Japanese restaurants! You know, the glass noodle worms? I mean, noodles? And that's what the worm is like!" And I love when she talks about a script she admires for being "almost rude, it has a raw kind of crass quality to it that I really responded to, almost like pornographic, but in a legal way." But we know I'm ...a little biased. One could not call me biased on behalf of Salma Hayek, yet I think she's pretty fab, too. But I sense that here, too, we might have different feelings?

TIM: Wow. I think Salma is fairly rotten in this. But Holly first—yes! She's wonderful doing her tiny wobble at the beginning, one finger above her top lip to steady herself from total breakdown, and during all the earthquakes, when she literally looks as though the ground is going to give way. I absolutely love the moment where everyone is asked to introduce themselves to Maestro, and she looks surprised to be revealing that she even has a name ("Renee Fishbine"). Even the end credits just list her as "executive." She seems to be constantly seeking assurance by looking at other people. She's entirely treasurable in this, and I wonder if there's another actress of her stature (professional, not vertical) who has ever taken such a meek, self-effacing part and made it so obliquely memorable.

Salma. For starters, I find her near-impossible to like, here as always, with the added quirk that it's hard to know how much credit to extend her for portraying or simply embodying a vain, bolshy, very beautiful actress who clearly feels her career hasn't taken off in the way it should. For me, it's glib, just-parody-yourself casting a la Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland, playing to her limitations. OK, she goes with it, and has her barefaced moments of "Who, me?" mendacity—I'll give her that. But she's so often caught looking stricken or uncertain, and I'm not sure she thrives nearly as much within the ensemble as most of her co-stars. The actors here need the confidence to do their thing without a director to shepherd them in the moment, and Hayek mostly projects thrusting determination to get from A to B without the underlying sense that she actually knows what she's doing. Again, it's entirely tempting to map this on to the character, but it makes any acting virtues here pretty accidental ones.

Am I being needlessly harsh, though? I hope you're not going to say you like her more than Jeanne Tripplehorn!

NICK: Well, no reconciling our positions on Salma. Granted, she has never radiated to me that she was born to act, but I always sense that she's smart, and when she isn't stuck Showing Us She Can Act, as in Frida, I think she's actually pretty savvy and fun. For me, she sells the moment of idolizing Lester Moore, or pretending quite charmingly to idolize him, and I love the rattling off of his film titles in Spanish, including Yo, Abuelo! I like her physical restlessness, I believe the quick shifts from fake-luvvy to peevish at the outset and from tawdry betrayal to "tell me that you love me!" neediness after she meets Lester, and when she re-enters the limo, I think she's as good as Skarsgård, frankly, at telling lies that she knows no one will believe. I won't pretend to recuperate her broad overacting of the ghastly audition. But still, who ever thought I'd become Salma's big champ?

Breathe easy, though: I don't like her more than Tripplehorn (if only by a hair!), who I once read described as "a revelation" in a book called The DVD Stack. I fully agree; in my book, and in lots of other people's who saw Timecode, she instantly passed from "Why do they keep forcing her on us?" to "OH, I see..." Great at bitterness, good at co-dependency, excitingly able to hold the camera while doing the same, static activity for long periods of time. I'm especially impressed by how formidable she seems while listening, but suddenly reveals her profound and pitiful agitation at both moments when another character unknowingly catches her off-guard. Her first, rebuffed charge into the studio office is a peak scene for me.

You'll surely have more to say about her. I'm also curious about Golden Brooks, and about whether you have anything on the order of two or three words to say about MacLachlan or Sands.

TIM: Phew! Yes, Tripplehorn is still best in show for me, for all the reasons you say, and a stunning anchor for our attentions even when nothing super-dramatic is happening elsewhere. Her dialogue in the movie is quite limited, and yet we still come away with a better fix on Lauren than almost anyone else. She's brilliant at hell hath no fury, but still projects enough vulnerability that her obsessive neediness has some real emotional weight. I wish she'd been even half as well used in anything I've seen her in since...

Golden Brooks is striking and funny, no? I get pretty dubious about the racial dogma ("black film noir"?) her character keeps having to facetiously spout—she feels like someone half-sketched from Bamboozled. Much as I raise an eyebrow at Suzy Nakamura being called "Connie Ling". Out of place though he seems, I think Sands is often good for a laugh, particularly when he has to skulk out of the boardroom and makes a mess of it; MacLachlan has that one moment trying to scotch Stellan's hysterics, and I believe him as a two-faced sycophant even when we hardly get to see the other face. You? Dare I even mention the words Danny Huston? However we feel about the lesser participants, I think there's enough cracking, vital work across the board here to lay in with a B+.

NICK: I only got the "Connie Ling" joke yesterday, which raises questions about my competence. I wish Brooks didn't make the "racial consultant" perspective sound like such total mumbo-jumbo that it itself becomes the joke, but she has snappy moments, like stumping to change the title of The Bitch out of Mississippi. I'm always happy to see Glenne Headly, Steven Weber scores a good zinger or two, and I think Nakamura—a real trooper looking for a breakthrough, to judge from IMDb—is very funny. If you can crack Holly up on the spot, you're in with me. Nivola, I'm sad to say, is way too broad for me, and Maestro lacks the finesse that really could have made her part a showstopper. I think I find Richard Edson appealing for the same reasons you extend benefit of the doubt to Julian Sands, though Julian, to me, has the "impossible to like" problem you identify with Hayek (aka Andy Garcia Syndrome, in honor of past Robey assessments), and I think a bit more charm would have gone further in his part than in hers. But speaking of a congenital failure to be likable, if one must hire Danny Huston in a film, he may as well be stuck harmlessly behind a security desk, though I still wonder why he works so often and his brilliant sister so little.

Oh, and isn't Saffron Burrows in this? I could have sworn I spotted her somewhere, unless that was just a pair of tweezers with a massive set of cheekbones and a short leather skirt. I don't understand Figgis's fascination with her, but based on the non-unanimity of tone and ability in this cast, I think he must view actors in a really different way than I do. A few more notes spread over the fifteen takes would have done a lot of good, I think, but the comic inanity of the Red Mullet office makes for a memorable assemblage, so I can just barely scooch over the line to a B.

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