By Katey Rich
Remember how last weekend was so frantic, with visits to multiple family members and old friends and the challenge to fill your stomach with as much pie as possible? And how this weekend you're ready to take a break, finally unpack your suitcases from Thanksgiving (OK, maybe that's just me) and maybe wrap some early Christmas presents? Yeah, the box office feels your pain. Unlike last weekend's free-for-all of four wide releases, only one film is going into more than 2,000 theatres this weekend. Clearly Hollywood is giving you a chance to breathe for a second and get to that Hitman movie you've been hearing about. Or, if you're like me, maybe finally see American Gangster, because my God, there's been a lot to see this fall. In any case, if you're hell-bent on seeing a new movie this weekend, you've got two great acting teams to choose from: Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Jessica Alba and Hayden Chris--sorry, I couldn't even bring myself to finish that joke.
AWAKE. If the marketing mavens behind this one are right (and we all know they never lie or exaggerate), one in 700 people who go under anesthesia for surgery experience what is called "anesthetic awareness," in which they are completely paralyzed but also completely awake, and feeling everything. Hayden Christensen plays a young man who goes under the knife and experiences such a thing, but it's no accident: it's part of a conspiracy to kill him. Jessica Alba plays his new wife, who's scheming to get his inheritance, and Terrence Howard is part of a team of doctors that has joined Alba in her moneymaking plans.
When the one wide release of the weekend is also unscreened for critics and stars Jessica Alba and Hayden Christensen (sorry, I just can't leave them alone), you know you're in trouble. The only two reviews to have surfaced on the Internet are, predictably, negative. "This is the kind of movie that is actually a lot better if you don't try and think about it," writes Maxim. "Or better yet, wait until it hits basic cable, which is where this ludicrous drama probably belongs in the first place." ShockTilYouDrop.com is a little more amused, but still concludes, "With better actors in the two main roles, this movie would probably have been great, but with Christensen and Alba, it's just okay, something to see on a rainy day, but only if you don't have too far to drive." It's not like the potential audience for Awake was likely to see Enchanted to begin with, but it sounds like they'd be better off with a princess than with Darth Vader this time around.
THE SAVAGES. The next widest release of the weekend, I kid you not, is bowing on four screens (this is where the moviegoers not in L.A. or New York shake their fists with fury.) The Savages, from writer-director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) is a dark, dry comedy about an adult pair of siblings (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who have to take a break from their academic lives to pick up their ailing father (Philip Bosco) in California and bring him to a nursing home. Sounds hilarious, right? Jenkins received two Spirit Award nominations for writing and directing, and Hoffman got a nod as Lead Actor. Also someone should invent an award for the poster, which out-Wes Andersons Wes Anderson in clever style.
Critics are completely entranced with this one. "Jenkins walks this dramatic tightrope with breathtaking ease," writes The Hollywood Reporter. "The humor is never forced but always springs from the characters and situations naturally." Manohla Dargis at The New York Times raves, "There isn't a single moment of emotional guff or sentimentality in The Savages, a film that caused me to periodically wince, but also left me with a sense of acute pleasure, even joy." Salon.com, like virtually every other critic, is wowed by all three main performances: "Of course the acting is tremendous, and you'd expect nothing less." And Newsweek sticks up for the movie's combination of a dark subject and humor: "It sounds grimmer than it plays, thanks to Jenkins's sardonic, deadpan humor and the superb cast, who invest these damaged characters with rich, flawed, hilarious humanity."
THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. Opening on three screens is Julian Schnabel's equally-praised film, which earned him the Best Director award at Cannes and a slot at the New York Film Festival. It's based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), the editor of the French version of Elle who was felled by a stroke in his early 40s. It left him with a condition called "locked-in syndrome," in which he was completely paralyzed except for his left eye. Using that eye and a system developed by nurses, he blinked out, letter by letter, his memoir about being trapped within his own body.
"It's impossible to leave this movie without seeing more clearly, and appreciating the wonder of being alive," writes our Wendy R. Weinstein. Armond White at the New York Press is also impressed: "It takes Schnabel's unconventional imagination to restore intelligence to the biopic." Peter Travers at Rolling Stone puts it simply in his rave review: "The movie will wipe you out." And A.O. Scott at The New York Times finds the same uplift that Weinstein, and I, did, and most moviegoers should: "Curiously enough, a movie about deprivation becomes a celebration of the richness of experience, and a remarkably rich experience in its own right."