“Detachment”: it disengages [MOVIE REVIEW]
Director Tony Kaye begins his latest film, “Detachment,” with a quote from Albert Camus – “And never have I felt so deeply at one and the same time so detached from myself and so present in the world.” We are then introduced to Henry Barthes who makes his living as a substitute teacher. As a substitute, he can make an impression, make a small change and move on without ever relating to or with his students or fellow faculty members. Henry is detached. He lives in what appears to be temporary quarters and spends his free time visiting his grandfather in an assisted living facility. We know nothing about Henry other than what is presented in small flashback clips some of which imply that his benign grandfather was anything but. He is a no man in a no-man’s land. Even Henry’s rescue of a young teenage prostitute is presented dispassionately; as she begins a transference of filial affection for him he maintains the icy distance of a homeroom teacher.
“Detachment” is also allegedly a film about the failings within the school system. Henry’s latest assignment places him in a bottom ranked school where the principal is under fire for the school’s performance even though the school has been the receptacle for everyone else’s failures. The other teachers run from idealistic to cynical and the students cover the ground from murderous to talented and depressed. But try as he might, Henry is drawn into the vortex of the human condition of the students, the underage prostitute and his grandfather’s impending death.
The problems are many, but none relate to the familiar actors who populate this film. Adrien Brody as Henry, has found another film where his distinctive sad-eyed look can be played to maximum effect as he communicates inner angst through a stoic presence and allows the viewer to identify with a character who is seemingly devoid of empathy. Newcomer Betty Kaye plays a student who momentarily breaks down Henry’s barrier with the shattering portrayal of a student who is captive to the hazing of her father and fellow classmates because of her lack of physical beauty and large size. In a brief foray into emotion, Henry tries to help her understand that this torture is temporary and that her artistic talent will one day be valued. Marcia Gay Harden, the principal, Bryan Cranston, her husband, Lucy Liu and James Caan as counselors, and Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson and William Peterson as teachers are all effective in their roles.
Tony Kaye, never known for subtlety, has a lot to say. “Detachment” is not one film but several and none is fully or effectively developed. His use of Henry’s voice-over narration and quasi-documentary interviews speak to Kaye’s inability to focus. It is expositional and covers up a lack of character development. Henry cannot be “no man” and “every man” at the same time. Kaye’s desire to explore the failings of the school system is truncated and superficial at best. The teachers, all sympathetic (and all white) are undeveloped. Only Tim Blake Nelson, drowning in a sea of ambivalence, finds a character that holds some intrigue.
At best, Kaye’s efforts are misguided. This is no “Blackboard Jungle,” “Cooley High” or even “Up the Down Staircase.” At worst, it’s a pretentious mess of ideas based on Kaye’s desire to present an Existential diatribe on the human condition. But this is not “The Stranger” by Camus; this is imitation Polanski, and not a good imitation at that.
Opening March 23 at the Laemmle Monica 4-Plex.
Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at www.nomeanerplace.com.