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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 24, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Lincoln Lawyer, Company Men, Idol

I've long been an anti-fan of actor Matthew McConaughey. I have never believed in any acting performance of his -- smugness and vanity always seep through, making it impossible for me to care.

Until The Lincoln Lawyer. With an excellent script by John Romano, based on Michael Connelly's brilliant legal thriller, McConaughey was given plenty to work with. But he's wrecked good scripts before.

So what makes the difference? McConaughey's face is beginning to show his age; I think his acting is, too. Maybe what I thought of as smugness and vanity were merely his youth, which as an old man I found irritating -- I'm as likely to be deceived by my own biases as anyone else.

But he's joining the ranks of tired old men, which is exactly right for the character of Mick Haller, a defense attorney who works on the cheap, maintaining no office except the Lincoln Town Car he drives (or rides in) from place to place. He has an ex-wife (the ever-luminous Marisa Tomei) in the state's attorney's office, who still loves him but hates the fact that he helps bad guys get out while she's trying to put them away.

The film is rated R for language -- needless F-words -- and one sex scene that, by itself, wouldn't have rated more than a PG-13. Nor is the violence particularly graphic. In other words, I think the R is there just to make sure dating teenagers don't bother the grownups while they're watching a good movie.

Unless the F-word bothers you a lot, there's nothing to bar you from watching a morally fascinating story about trying to make the system work despite legal obligations that force Haller to work against his own interest and against justice for a previous client he feels that he let down.

Then again, I find it more than a little bothersome that the F-words didn't bother me. Nobody I know personally uses the word at all -- I have become jaded to it solely through watching movies that have it.

Raise your hand if movie people are the only ones who ever use the word in your presence. I wish Hollywood could understand that most of us, as grownups, don't feel the need to use the word. It's such an adolescent thing. Ironic that using it more than once in a movie is likely to get you precisely the audience that no longer thinks the word is cool or even interesting.

But Michael Connelly used the word in the book, too -- it isn't only screenwriters and talentless comedians who need to outgrow the F-word habit. When writers tell me, "But that's how my character would really talk," I always answer, "And do you also have to show us how they really wipe their bums after they poop? No? You're able to leave out that extremely realistic trait of your characters? Then why not keep their poopy language out of our heads, too?"

Enough of that: You'll make your own decision about the rating. Suffice it to say that The Lincoln Lawyer is the first really excellent film adaptation of a Michael Connelly novel. (Clint Eastwood's Blood Work was well-intentioned, but it really didn't do the novel justice.) One of our best contemporary writers finally gets a really good film version.


The Company Men was, very quietly and without a single nomination, quite possibly the best movie of 2010. The reason I didn't mention it before is that I finally got around to seeing it in its tiny-theater two-showings-a-day holdover run at the Carousel.

What a mistake to wait so long. My guess is that most of you won't have a chance to see it until it's on video or cable. But when you get the chance, don't miss it. I mean really: Don't.

It's an absolutely contemporary, real, moving, yet subtly-handled story of men who spent their careers in a ship-building firm that over the years had become an international conglomerate, and is now, in the recession of 2008, downsizing in order to keep stockholders happy and earn huge bonuses to the top executives who do the firing.

The movie follows several executives as they are laid off, one by one. We see how decisions are made, as Tommy Lee Jones's character, a shipbuilder who was once the big boss's only employee and closest friend, tries and fails to protect several men who deserved better from the company.

All the rituals of being laid-off from a "caring" company are observed, but in an economic downturn, four months of job-placement help don't accomplish much except delay the inevitable sense of being adrift without a sail or oar.

We watch as Ben Affleck -- in the best and deepest performance I've ever seen him give -- is forced to humble himself and go to work (as a second-rate carpenter) for his contractor brother-in-law (Kevin Costner at his very best). Affleck learns the man's real value, but gradually. I love it when people discover that they and others are better people than they had suspected before.

By the end we see that the one laid-off executive who doesn't make it really decided, by his own despair, not to get a new life after being fired. To be fair, he didn't have the stock options that left one of the characters with millions in the bank (so he could afford an expensive divorce) after he was fired. But if there's a lesson in the movie, it's this: When bad stuff happens, you do what it takes to stay alive.

Ben Affleck's character's wife (I can't tell you the actress's name because the credits list only the women's first names, so I can't tell who is whose wife) immediately starts to cut back on costs even as Affleck tries to "keep up appearances." Another character's wife won't even let him come home during the day, so that neighbors can't see that he's lost his job. Delusional! Yet people really do act this way about money.

What the smart ones learn is that they are not their job; nor are they their house or their car or their club membership. But they are husband and father, if they really want to be and put some work into it.

Here's a spoiler, so you can skip the next paragraph -- though this movie does not really depend on suspense, but rather depends on development of relationships, which can't be spoiled.

I've heard the ending, when Tommy Lee Jones's character starts up a new shipbuilding company in the abandoned drydock where the original conglomerate started, criticized as "unrealistic," either because it's too "simple" and "pat" artistically, or because startups can't compete in a world of conglomerates.

Such critics don't know what realism is. For one thing, they start from the assumption that any kind of goodness or decency is unrealistic -- what a poor world they live in, and what bad art they're forced to admire. Second, and perhaps more important, they miss the business truth that almost everyone seems to miss:

Conglomerates are self-destructive by their nature. When a company is in business only to manipulate value for the sake of stock prices, dividends, and management bonuses and options, the people who are best at doing the actual work of the company's various divisions either quit, get lured away, or (as in this movie) get fired.

The result is that conglomerates become very bad that the work they're supposedly doing, and the opportunities for startup competitors vastly increase.

I saw it myself during a wave of mergers in the publishing industry in the early 1980s. Tom Doherty, seeing the opportunity, quit his job and started a new company, TOR, as an original paperback house, initially specializing in science fiction and fantasy. Everyone knew that you couldn't possibly start a paperback house in that era of publishing conglomerates. Everyone except Tom, who knew that publishing company mergers, contrary to received wisdom, actually get worse and less efficient than the original publishing houses were before their acquisition.

So what Tom created soon became the best publisher of science fiction in the business, and branched out into other genres as well. Tom Doherty was (and is) to publishing what Tommy Lee Jones's character was in The Company Men -- someone who had actually done most of the jobs at every level in the business, and who had the experience, the drive, and the integrity to manage other people and lead them to real achievement.

Here's part of the genius of The Company Men. Ostensibly a story about how people cope with losing their jobs (and it certainly covers that!), it is also a very detailed story of how conglomerates eat themselves alive and create opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs to cut them down through competition.

Every character deals with some level of despair, but what we learn (because it's true) is that every one of them is still required to make decisions -- mostly moral decisions -- that allow them to save their souls.

That's why Craig T. Nelson's character, the big boss of the company, is one of the most superbly written and acted characters of all. He is given every chance to make decisions that would have been right and fair and decent to his employees and which would have been good, in the long run, for his company's bottom line. Instead, he invariably chooses what's good for short-term stock gains and corporate warfare.

While in the real world, Nelson's character is as likely to "succeed" as fail -- it comes down to whether a takeover bid succeeds or not -- the fact is that he is exposed as being a man motivated by personal vanity, greed, and insecurity. He knows he doesn't deserve the power that he has, but instead of working to deserve it, he works only to preserve the appearance of authority.

It's hard to pity a man who is left with millions of dollars -- but he is, nevertheless, a pitiful figure, if only because he never grasps what most of the other characters learn (or, like Kevin Costner's character, already knew): that who you are depends, not on how other people treat you, but on how you treat them.

Or, as Jesus said in Matthew 15:11: "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." Morally, others don't pollute you; you pollute yourself by what you choose to do.

So wait a minute -- I'm quoting the New Testament in a review of a movie? Yes, I am -- not because I think the movie's creators had scripture in mind when they made it, but because I think it's telling when a movie makes a moral point that has already been tested by a couple of thousand years of people occasionally trying to actually live by what Jesus taught. (But then, I start from the theological position that God tells us things because they're true; they aren't made true because God said them.)

Despite the R rating -- earned by a moment of brief nudity and a profligate over-reliance on F-words -- this is a movie that is so truthful and well-made it approaches nobility.

But don't, I beg you, confuse it with the immature, misanthropic In the Company of Men, which is the opposite kind of movie -- one that purports to explore evil while really exploiting and perpetrating it.

The Company Men = great, wise movie.

In the Company of Men = small-minded trash.


American Idol without Simon Cowell: to my surprise, it's better. And here's why. The other judges relied on Simon to "tell the truth." But Cowell did it in such an unkind, uncompassionate way that it wasn't all that helpful, either.

Now, absent Simon, Randy is revealing that he deserves his long career as a record producer. He speaks realistically but kindly and the contestants who listen will get better.

Furthermore, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler are excellent. Experienced as singers and appreciative of good work outside the genres where they made their careers, both of them are charming in both their praise and criticism, but without a scrap of meanness in them.

The result is that would-be singers can learn from their comments, and the audience never has to feel demeaned or embarrassed by Simon's occasional cruelty.

I don't know whether the show will end up with as many viewers as in previous years -- after all, it's been running for years and nothing keeps the public's interest forever. But it's still the top-rated show on television, and this year there are some absolutely brilliant contestants -- Stefano Langone, who has great pipes and also knows how to sing the meaning of the words; Jacob Lusk, a soulful, wistful singer of enormous talent and likability; and above all Casey Abrams, probably the best pure musician this show has ever seen, with a range from raspy blues to soaring sweetness and a rich jazz sensibility. I especially love it when he accompanies himself on the bass.

There are also some wonderfully likable and talented performers who should probably not win but will end up with good careers no matter how they fare. My favorites are talented country bass singer Scotty McCreery, whose sweetness is so genuine that it shines through everything he does, and Haley Reinhart, who is still finding herself but is, in my opinion, the best of the women (in a fairly weak year for females).

I have no idea what anyone sees in Paul McDonald, a cross between Rod Stewart and the Cheshire Cat, or beauty pageant singer Pia Toscano; but that's why it's a contest.

Conclusion? American Idol is still a pleasure to watch. And if you want to handicap the races, check out http://americanidolnet.com, an unofficial site that runs a poll that does a fair job of showing how people are doing, though the margin of error means that they can't predict precisely which low-performer will achieve the absolute lowest ranking in any particular week.

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