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Return to Bad Form: Magic in the Moonlight, Lucy, and A Master Builder
Woody Allen, Luc Besson, and Jonathan Demme have all seen better days.


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It’s an ultimate expression of Besson’s major interests: The cosmopolitan diversity he enjoys depicting in post-colonial Europe; his fascination with female strength from La Femme Nikita to The Professional, The Fifth Element, and Angel-A as well as Colombiana and The Lady; and his action flick connoisseurship as producer of geopolitically astute action flicks like Transporter and the Taken movies. All that is built into the gimmick of Lucy counting up to gaining 100 percent of her brain power. She becomes a superheroine who — in a Marvel Comics touch — then counts down to her own extinction, a dire fate only neuroscientist Dr. Norman (Morgan Freeman) understands.

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The sympatico communication between Lucy and Norman is pure New World Order Besson. Lucy’s smooth, rejuvenated flesh contrasts Norman’s dark, freckled countenance. But there’s too much commercial calculation in Besson’s conceit. Lucy and Norman’s complementary youth and age, anger and patience, instinct and wisdom, achieve nothing comparable to the rapport Yeoh and David Thewlis had in The Lady. In hasty, sentimental bits with her mother and a school roommate, Lucy lacks Colombiana’s interior romantic life. She’s just a killing machine. Her morphing intelligence and special powers are given loopy explanation (to appeal to nerds who liked the movie Looper?). Yet this new form of anthropological, Glock-9 sci-fi needs genuine philosophical exploration, perhaps like Alain Resnais’s sci-fi foray, Je t’aime, Je t’aime, or a moral response to violence like Clark Kent’s synthesis of earthly stimuli in Man of Steel. Lucy’s vision of radio signals as rainbows suggests that Besson appreciated Zack Snyder’s vision.

As Lucy gets weirder and less satisfying, it suggests an unofficial sequel to Johansson’s previous films, the ghastly Under the Skin where she played an alien killbot and the insipid Her where she voiced a computer operating system. At least Besson provides this pouty film star some apt dialog: “Life was given to us a million years ago. What have we done with it?” For himself, Besson manages two intriguing bits: When Lucy kisses an Arab cop (Amr Waked) and tells him “You’re a reminder” and a DePalma-style scene where she likens fast-motion film to human experience: “Time is the only measure of existence.” Flashy and pithy. Take that, Richard Linklater!

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Jonathan Demme’s film version of The Master Builder should have been the revelatory political movie of the moment (a distinction that rests instead with Vincere, Marco Bellocchio’s analysis of a nation’s mass hysteria over a political leader). Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play scrutinized a celebrated architect’s selfish use of influence, analyzing the psychology of power and the cult of personality. Coming close to the sympathetic Richard Nixon satire Robert Altman achieved in Secret Honor, Demme’s compassion is blocked by the lead performance of Wallace Shawn, whose cartoonishness nearly destroys Ibsen’s insight.

Now titled A Master Builder, this adaptation is another collaboration between Shawn and Andre Gregory, whose My Dinner with Andre (an acquired taste) was filmed by the late eclectic adept Louis Malle. Humanist master Demme wasn’t given enough latitude. Ibsen’s psychological tragedy isn’t Demme’s thing. Shawn’s rewrite invokes dream logic, which Demme uses to make the female characters especially compassionate — as in his masterpieces Beloved and Rachel Getting Married. Yet the central expose of a man’s vanity and paranoia should have contemporary relevance as in PiL’s “Open and Revolving” and Morrissey’s “Oboe Concerto” — songs that pop adept Demme surely knows. But, unfortunately, he doesn’t provide the timely connection.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.



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