Friday, May 13, 2011

Tragicomedy, And Jackass Auditions For Scarred Lives

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the title character in "Hesher", directed by Spencer Susser and written by Mr. Susser and David Michôd. 
Merrick Morton/Wrekin Hill Entertainment 

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, May 13, 2011

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a one-man wrecking crew in Spencer Susser's drama "Hesher" as the title squatter whose anti-social, misanthrophic ways influence a family in grief following loss.  The film opened today in numerous U.S. cities.

"Hesher" is written by Mr. Susser and "Animal Kingdom" director David Michôd and is at times hilarious due singularly to Mr. Gordon-Levitt's antics as Hesher, a Los Angeles homeless man who sets fires, does drugs and inhabits houses, including the home of the Forneys.  Paul Forney (Rainn Wilson) is a widower.  Paul's son T.J. (Devin Brochu) is bereft of his mother.  At school he's relentlessly bullied by the son of a user car dealer.  T.J. and Paul are static, helpless creatures deep in grief.  They barely flinch when Hesher, an often scary, unpredictable and dangerous figure, makes a "polite" home invasion (is there any other kind?????????) into their quaint but disorganized space. 

Essentially "Hesher" is a provocative, daring cousin of last year's L.A. slacker drama "Greenberg".  Unlike the latter film however, "Hesher" showcases its title character as a hippie metal-head "policeman" orchestrating menace.  He's not tentative.  Hesher has no rules or an apparent past or future.  He'd balk at singing about burning the whole world down the way Trent Reznor once sang. 

Hesher would dash the karaoke act, cut to the chase and burn the whole world down.   

Hesher's a grade-A nihilist, and proud of it.  Where Superman shows up in the nick of time to save the day, Hesher arises like an apparition from a 1970s flashback to wreck it.  He makes your life his business sans social graces, a Bad-Ass "Fuck You And The Horse You Rode In On" Samaritan.  Unemployed, tattoo-emblazoned and spouting crude, coarse language, it appears Hesher aspires to challenge Johnny Knoxville for a spot in the next "Jackass" movie with an array of ill-advised stunts, tricks and rude stories.

Mr. Susser's tragicomedy is best when it chronicles lives in isolation and extreme loneliness (none of the characters has any friends or serious companions), dramatizing the incompleteness and estrangement from the world that brings about inevitable depression, despair and perhaps violence.  "Hesher" exalts its biggest lonelyheart but even as the film stays true to the lead character its final third feels false.  You sense that the film deliberately blunts Hesher's full potential as a character in order to unleash him as an unruly, primordial human pit bull in the last act.  Hesher's one-note presence and the film sinks its savage hooks into you in its penultimate scene yet does so disingenuously.

Even so, "Hesher" (shown at last year's Sundance) is an entertaining hybrid of coming-of-age love story, rite-of-passage journey and family drama.  The film lulls for 30 minutes as it goes from caricatured comedy to solemn self-discovery.  The transition between -- and mix of these variables -- is uneasy.  There's subtle tension between Mr. Wilson and Mr. Gordon-Levitt as both vie for influence over the single-minded T.J., played well by Mr. Bochu. 

Natalie Portman may set a 21st century record for the most appearances on the big screen in a single year.  Her appearance in "Hesher" as Nicole, an awkward supermarket cashier, marks six so far in 2011: "Black Swan", "No Strings Attached", "The Other Woman", "Your Highness" and "Thor" are the others. 

Ms. Portman's Nicole -- as with every character in "Hesher" -- has a revelation or quiet desperation to share or express, and some of the reveals are less laughably incredulous than others.  Ms. Portman masters pathetic as much as she does sweetness as a tentative Angeleno living a "fake" life, barely keeping it together amidst economic hardship. 

Indeed, Mr. Susser has draped tough times all over his mischievous film.  Money is hard to come by but the emotional vacuum it seeks to fill may prove priceless.  Each of the film's women are tenacious and gentle, and however slightly they are portrayed or displayed, they clearly leave an imprint on the men of the film.  Sometimes you expect "Hesher" to throw you a curveball but it doesn't.  The suddenness of some scenes achieves a shock and unsettling state of affairs, and the jarring results are merely reflective of the tenor of its ragged central figure.

"Hesher" boasts fine work from Mr. Gordon-Levitt whose physicality, however slight, manages to be brooding as he lumbers around an earth-toned landscape devoid of richness and color, the environs a throwback to sunny but muted '70s California TV sitcom.  You wonder whether Mr. Gordon-Levitt's Hesher is telling the truth or lying his face off throughout -- as if his self-deception masks or tries to ameliorate his own sense of failure.  Hesher as a character may not be taken seriously by most moviegoers but some of the film's equally suspect supporting players take him at face value but with minimal skepticism. 

Mr. Wilson, whom I only recognized ten minutes from the end, is marvelous as a father who is virtually comatose as a result of the loss of his wife, is terrific as Paul, buried so deep within himself he can afford to raise his voice once in the entire film.

"Hesher" is about life derailed, untracked and on the edge.  The film has a group of enjoyable and fine performances which is the best thing about it, but even when "Hesher" loses its way and is unconvincing at the end, you are duty bound to suspend your disbelief -- and keep laughing.

With: Piper Laurie, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Collison, Monica Staggs, Brendan Hill.

"Hesher" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for disturbing violent behavior, sexual content including graphic dialogue, pervasive language, and drug content -- some in the presence of a child.  The film's running time is one hour and 44 minutes.

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