Talk about counter-programming. While most American moviegoers were rushing out last weekend to see a CG-animated comedy about a rat, an action film starring shape-shifting robots, or a thriller about the Vietnam War, a handful of art-house buffs were instead finding their way to a drama about a quirky Australian family.
They are the Dwights, as in "Introducing the Dwights," a family with no shortage of flaws. For starters, mom and dad — both fledgling artists — are divorced, and to make matters worse, their two sons are going through something of adolescent crises. Mark, the younger of the two, is a developmentally disabled child taking his first baby steps toward independence; Tim is starting to experiment with sexuality and falls in love for the very first time. All of this leads mother Jean, played by the acclaimed British actress Brenda Blethyn, to start panicking that her two boys no longer need her.
Between awkward dates with would-be boyfriends, a relentless drive to revive her stalled stand-up comedy career and, tragically, more booze than she seems capable of holding, Ms. Blethyn's character spirals out of control. She loves her boys, but wants to keep them close, and as she subtly undermines Mark and overtly attacks Tim's new girlfriend, Jean becomes a household monster.
"I do think that mothers are too often reduced and oversimplified in movies," Ms. Blethyn said in an interview last week. "And Jean's more complicated than your average mum. She's already lost her husband. Her career's not going the way she thought it would. Her comedy's old hat, and now suddenly it looks like she's not needed anymore. It's a terrifying thing for her."
Long known for playing strong mothers in the movies, from the nervous wreck in Mike Leigh's "Secrets & Lies" to the more vulgar matriarch in 1998's "Little Voice" and the cold and calculating leader of the household in Joe Wright's 2005 adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice," Ms. Blethyn has repeatedly brought to life the conflicting emotions of mothers under pressure.
She said what drew her in large part to "Introducing the Dwights" was the way the movie refused to pigeonhole not just Jean, but any of the story's confused characters, all of whom teeter at times on the brink of sanity. "This does walk the line of comedy and drama," she said. "I personally think it's a drama that happens to be funny. You have to see the light and shade of everything, how you can be crying at one part and laughing at the next. That's life, the way it should be. Everyone behaves badly — you do, I do — even when they know they shouldn't. And then sometimes things happen that turn a person into somebody else, and that's what happens to Jean."
Though her performance was well-received both in the film's native Australia and at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Ms. Blethyn is well aware of the harsh words her role has inspired from some New York reviewers, who have been critical of her character's self-destructive demeanor (one critic said she was an actress who would overact brushing her teeth).
"This woman is on the brink, her world is falling apart. She's in uncharted territory and terrified. How do you play that sedately?" Ms. Blethyn said. "In ‘Secrets & Lies,' I got that too [from critics]. It would be so easy to smooth the edges on these characters, but then it would be patronizing and not showing them as they really are. I tried to play this as honestly as possible, and I know it's unsympathetic, that some in the audience won't realize the dark place she's going to. But there you are. The ugly side of people's nature is hard to take sometimes."
And the bumpy journey to that dark place, she said, is what has intrigued audiences around the world: "Yes, she's falling apart, but you know, so many people have come up to me and said, ‘That reminds me of my mother at times, you have no idea.'"
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Judging by the looks on the faces of the employees at a Union Square movie theater, and by the chaotic lines of ticket buyers pouring outside the lobby doors onto the street, they never saw it coming.
Call it something of a perfect storm, but as the raindrops started to fall last Wednesday on a buzzing New York City, a wave of weather-weary vacationers made the last-second decision to get out of the mist and into a movie theater. The result was nothing short of pandemonium.
While afternoon films screened to over-crowded theaters upstairs (theater management had to repeatedly eject people sitting on the floor of a packed "Sicko" screening), it was the comments being made down at the ticket kiosks that struck this movie writer as particularly interesting. Flipping through the titles, unaware of what was showing when, two different couples said they weren't here for a specific title; they just wanted to be entertained. "The weather started looking bad, so we thought we'd duck in here," Jeannine Ruby, 29, a Brooklynite who came to Union Square in advance of the evening's fireworks, said. "I'm surprised that there aren't more movies showing here, but it doesn't matter. We'll find something."
Finding the next screening of "Live Free or Die Hard" and the next three showings of"Sicko" sold out, Ms. Ruby and her boyfriend ended up attending a screening of "Ocean's 13" instead. But their comments, as well as those by others in the lobby, sparked two interesting ideas that fly in the face of modern moviegoing conventions: First, aside from the "event" movie crowd, there's still a band of movie fans out there who will come to the theater cold, open to just about anything. Second, because the movie theater was devoting three or four screens to the biggest titles, people like Ms. Ruby were left with surprisingly few choices.
Is there a chance that Hollywood, by catering solely to 15-year-old boys with big-budget special effects bonanzas (each of which requires five screens per theater to recoup its budget), is alienating the rest of us? Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: There were a lot of annoyed people at the movie theater last Wednesday who couldn't find something to see.