When we wonder why our reality turns out as it does, if we want an honest answer to that question, we have to ask ourselves what motivates us. All too often we drift through life not taking stock of our intentions, letting life unfold seemingly on its own, as if we’re oblivious to the part we play in its manifestation. But, even if we believe we have no hand in the process or are afraid to see what those motivations might entail, in the end we can’t ignore them or how we employ them, a subject explored at length in the new domestic drama, “The Wife” (web site, trailer).
Famed, best-selling author Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is on the verge of the biggest accomplishment of his storied career. As a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he nervously awaits word from the awards committee beside his ever-supportive wife, Joanie (Glenn Close), who has spent many years dutifully attending to his every need. And, when word finally arrives that he’s been named the winner, he’s ecstatic. However, the same can’t be said for Joanie. Sure, she puts on a smiling face, but, somewhere amidst all the celebrating, she just doesn’t seem to share in her husband’s happiness. The question, of course, is why.
As the couple prepares to head to Stockholm, Sweden for the awards ceremony, Joanie’s mood grows ever more perplexingly dour. And the more her celebrated spouse is thrust into the limelight, the harder it is for her to contain her feelings, which gradually surface as part melancholy, part resentment and part rage. But what’s behind these emotions? For what it’s worth, that begins to emerge, too, thanks to the increasingly inquisitive and intrusive questioning of her son, David (Max Irons), and of an ambitious would-be biographer, Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), both of whom accompany Joseph and Joanie on their trip.
In quiet moments between the festivities, Joanie turns reflective, thinking back to the days when she first met her future husband while she was his creative writing student at Smith College. Through a series of flashbacks, viewers discover how a young Joanie (Annie Starke) and a young Joseph (Harry Lloyd) came together. Details of their romance and of their respective literary aspirations are revealed, aspects of which helped forge and fuel the feelings that Joanie is experiencing now. The question is, can she handle the revelations that are finally breaking through and demanding attention? And, perhaps even more importantly, what implications will they carry as she and Joseph look to move forward with their lives?
Joanie’s reflection process deals with many issues, but it principally focuses on her motivations, the reasons underlying what she does and did. It can be a trying process, especially if we come up against motivations that we were unaware of, particularly if they involve matters we dislike. It can also be disheartening, exasperating and troublesome if we had been engaged in such practices for a protracted period of time. Thoughts of wasted efforts, foolishly expended energy and other worrisome concerns come to the forefront. And it’s those issues that Joanie must now face front and center.
For instance, as a creative writing student, Joanie obviously had a love of the craft. And, from all indications, based on the glowing feedback from her professor-turned-spouse, she had real talent. Yet, from all appearances, she simply walked away from it, without hesitation, seemingly because of the discouraging advice she received from author Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern), a prolific and gifted but commercially unsuccessful writer who told Joanie that women couldn’t cut it in the male-dominated publishing industry of the late 1950s.
So why did Joanie cave? Fear of failure? A desire to spare herself the kind of frustration that Ms. Mozell endured? Or did she instead decide to refocus her efforts on being a devoted wife and mother? But was the domestic life enough for someone who obviously had so much to say? And now, years later, seeing Joseph experience such success, can she live with her past decisions?
As becomes apparent, though, such considerations ring hollow. There’s more to the feelings that are now surfacing, and they suggest that she’s been concealing some bigger, even more troubling secrets for decades, revelations that she can no longer contain. What is she to do with them as she struggles to keep a lid on them that will no longer stay in place?
Then there’s also Joanie’s relationship with Joseph. As the flashbacks reveal, she fell for her future husband rather easily – while he was already a married man and father of a young daughter. Were they truly in love and destined to be together, or was she an impressionable young admirer who took advantage of an opportunistic situation? And, if the latter, can she realistically live with that?
What’s more, after many years together, it became apparent that Joseph was a serial philanderer, pursuing affairs without being especially discreet about them. This penchant even follows the couple to Stockholm, where Joseph engages in a less-than-veiled flirtation with a photographer (Karin Franz Körlof) assigned by the Nobel Committee to document his time in Sweden. This is another consideration that Joanie must wrestle with.
On top of all this, Joanie must consider her feelings about the way Joseph treats David, an aspiring author in his own right. As a protective mother, she’s naturally concerned about her child’s feelings. This instinct is particularly strong, given that she can see the talent that her son possesses, something that Joseph tends to dismiss out of hand. His hypercritical assessment of David’s work clearly eats away at the younger Castleman, and Joanie is troubled by this, seeing Joseph’s heavy-handed scrutiny as unduly harsh. She can’t help but wonder if her husband feels threatened by their son’s talents and if his scornful treatment is legitimate criticism or perverse jealously. In light of that, then, she begins to question the respect she holds for Joseph. Can she genuinely continue to support him the way she has for so many years?
Joanie’s introspection on these issues is a lot to bear, especially in the shadow of all the praise being heaped on a man she’s beginning to have serious doubts about. The questions raised by David and Nathaniel exacerbate this process, too, as if they’re prodding her into accelerating her scrutinous activity. It’s as if she’s intentionally drawn these taskmasters into her existence to keep her on track, to push her to continue the process of evaluating motivations she’s long kept at bay.
Indeed, the process is difficult, but it also has the potential to pay significant personal dividends. For example, it holds the promise of facing fears and prompting Joanie to live courageously, perhaps for the first time in decades. It also makes it possible to unearth some long-buried personal integrity, enabling her to openly be her true self, again for the first time in ages. These are significant personal gains not to be minimized.
But, perhaps most importantly, Joanie’s motivation assessment enables her to see clearly her true purpose in life, perhaps for the first time. This becomes apparent at a banquet honoring the Nobel recipients in which the presenter of the awards, His Royal Highness Gustav of Sweden (Nick Fletcher), speaks of his “job” as king, after which he asks Joanie if she, too, has a job of her own. After an extended, reflective pause, she waxes poetic with a response that she indeed has a job – that of kingmaker. Yet, even with such a frank, insightful acknowledgment – a realization that she has perhaps come to for the first time in her life – there’s a certain discontentment with her own answer, suggesting that her evaluation of her motivations is still incomplete, that she must continue to dig deeper into the amalgamation of thoughts, beliefs and intents that has shaped her reality as it has materialized – and to decide if she wants to keep manifesting it the same way that she has throughout all that time.
For all of the film’s many worthwhile metaphysical strengths, though, there are aspects of the picture that come up short. The biggest issue is the story’s predictability, some of which is apparent even in the trailer and the remainder of which tends to become fairly obvious early on in the movie. This lack of suspense consequently undermines a plot where there should have been intrigue aplenty. What saves the film from this innate shortcoming, however, is the power of the performances by Close, Pryce and Slater, all of whom are outstanding in their respective parts. In fact, this could be the role that finally earns Close her long-overdue Oscar, considering that she shows a range here not previously apparent in most of her other performances. If strong portrayals and philosophical insights are enough for you, by all means see this one, but, if you find formula story lines tiresome, you might want to skip this release.
Motivations can be tricky to deal with, because we can convince ourselves to turn a blind eye toward them, especially if we’re afraid of what we might see. But, nevertheless, they’re always with us, like companions for the journey. So, if we’re to make the most of our trip through life, we should pay attention to what they are and what they’re intended to achieve. To do less is to face a lifetime of disillusionment and disappointment, the makings of a tragedy far more troubling than anything even the most talented novelist could ever conceive.
Making the Cut
It’s been said there’s no greater joy in life than one’s family. But is that indeed so? Some have also said, somewhat cynically but often accurately, that we can pick our friends but not our relatives. As with everything, it all probably depends on the specific family (or sometimes the specific relatives) in question. In any event, maneuvering through such a complex interpersonal minefield can be tricky at best even for those from within the familial ranks. For outsiders considering becoming part of such clans, though, the process can be much more difficult, as an aspiring new relation finds out in the endearing new romantic comedy, “Crazy Rich Asians” (web site, trailer).
New York economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) leads an enviable life. Having been lovingly raised under somewhat trying circumstances by a single mother (Kheng Hua Tan), the Chinese-American educator has since gone on to a successful career. What’s more, she’s landed a handsome and adoring beau, Nick Young (Henry Golding), who devotedly attends to her every wish. What more could she ask for?
Having been involved with Rachel for about a year, Nick suggests that it’s about time that she finally meet his family, many of whom live in his native Singapore. As the best man for the upcoming wedding of his best friend, Colin (Chris Pang), Nick asks Rachel to accompany him to Singapore for the ceremony, an invitation she accepts. But Singapore is a land almost as foreign to Nick as it is to Rachel. Having attended a British boarding school and spent considerable time in New York, Nick hasn’t been home for a while. And, despite his Asian looks, he comes across as thoroughly Western. But, try as he might to set a path for himself, the demands of traditional Chinese culture push him to follow long-established conventions, even if reluctantly.
This runs counter to Rachel’s sensibilities. As someone fully invested in the American dream, she’s completely comfortable following her own destiny. And, as someone who has been around such independent-minded influences much of his life, Nick seeks to follow suit. However, Rachel has no idea how much pressure he’s under to conform to the ways of his culture, something he’s kept carefully under wraps from her. But, then, that’s not all he’s been hiding; he’s also concealed his family’s tremendous wealth. The Young clan, it seems, is phenomenally rich, and Nick is part of the latest generation of very old money that has its origins from when the family still lived in colonial China before its immigration to Singapore years later. And, even though Nick treats his family’s fortune rather matter-of-factly, he nevertheless wrestles with the “obligations” that come with such affluence, especially when it comes to who gets let into the tribe.
Once Rachel discovers the magnitude of Nick’s wealth and learns that his family is practically Singapore royalty, she’s sufficiently intimidated. How will she be received? Can she be comfortable in the presence of such extreme opulence, conditions far different from what she’s accustomed to? Will her Chinese-American cultural upbringing clash with that of a more traditional Eastern mindset? Indeed, will she be able to make the cut?
Upon arrival in Singapore, Rachel meets Nick’s family and friends. And, despite a sincerely genial welcome from Colin and his fiancée, Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno), she receives mixed reactions from Nick’s relatives. Some, like Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), greet her warmly. Others, like his grandmother, Ag Ma (Lisa Lu), and his gay cousin, Oliver (Nico Santos), send mixed or deceptive signals. And others still, like his mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), make it clear that the newcomer simply doesn’t measure up.
And so, with a slate of over-the-top wedding festivities about to begin, Rachel seeks to find her place, to attempt to fit in with people who are far different culturally and economically from her. At times she feels quite alone, her only significant source of moral support coming from an old friend, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who returned home to Singapore after attending college in the US. Through this experience, Rachel thus learns what it means to be truly accepted – by Nick, by his family and, perhaps most importantly, by herself. It’s a process that affords her a new understanding of the concept of family – and where one finds oneself in it.
Though slightly overlong and somewhat rich in clichés (some might even say stereotypes), this endearing offering sufficiently entertains and charms with its many humorous and touching moments. While this is far from groundbreaking cinema, the film nevertheless provides ample laughs and heart-tugging sequences that leave viewers pleasantly satisfied. It’s also heartening to see a film provide a high-profile showcase for an underserved and vastly underrepresented cinematic constituency. Enjoy this one for what it has to offer; just don’t expect it to go down in the annals of epic filmmaking.
Appreciating (or even simply coping with) one’s family can be a challenging prospect, especially for would-be in-laws. But, no matter how one is related to the collective, acceptance begins with oneself. And the importance of this can’t be stressed enough – regardless of how much money one might have.
Chicago, City of Film Festivals
Movie buffs who live in or are traveling to the Windy City over the next month will be in for a real treat with the presentation of three outstanding film festivals, all well worth one’s time and attention.
This trio of festivities begins with the Music Box Theater 70mm Film Festival, running September 14-27. When it comes to big screen spectacles, there’s virtually no better way to see such pictures than with this format. This year’s program features festival staples, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “West Side Story” (1961), as well as some new offerings, such as “Indiana Junes and the Last Crusade” (1989), “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991) and “The Remains of the Day” (1993). Enjoy these classics in the charm of this vintage moviehouse with its working theater organ and old school appointments.
Up next is Reeling 36, The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, running September 20-30. Sponsored by Chicago Filmmakers, the event is being held at various locations, with most of the screenings taking place at Landmark Theatres Century Centre Cinemas. The program features a wide array of LGBTQ-related productions, from short films to new features to restored classics, along with special presentations, such as an advance screening of the new Oscar Wilde biopic “The Happy Prince,” scheduled for general release in October.
Finally, this triad of events concludes with the 54th annual Chicago International Film Festival, the longest-running international competitive film festival in North America, slated for October 10-21, primarily at the AMC River East 21 Theaters. This granddaddy of film festivals showcases scores of features from around the globe, as well as shorts programs, special presentations and other events. This event includes exclusive engagements that may not be available for screening anywhere else. It’s a fabulous way to see some excellent films that may otherwise never see the light of day in US theaters.
I know where I’ll be for much of the next month! Look for me – you might even see me on the red carpet!
Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.