Octogenarian director shows off a few new tricks
December 14, 2007
Last year Peter O’Toole (age 75) earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in “Venus,” in which he played an aged actor whose involvement with a young woman forced him to confront his own infirmity. Frank Langella (69) has earned raves for his portrayal of a writer on the mental and physical decline in “Starting Out in the Evening.” On the page, Philip Roth (74) zeroed in on the issues (incontinence, impotence, memory loss) faced by old men in his new book, “Exit Ghost.”
Sidney Lumet is older by a good measure than all of the above; the Philadelphia native known for such tough-minded, morally focused films as “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Verdict,” and “Twelve Angry Men,” which was released exactly a half-century ago, is 83. His new movie, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” does indeed feature a gentleman close in years to the director himself. The crime-caper-gone-wrong has Albert Finney (71) as the gruff but ethically centered Charles Hanson, the owner of a mom-and-pop jewelry store in the suburbs of New York City. Finney has been apparently successful in business, and in marriage, too; he still has great tenderness for his wife, Nanette (Rosemary Harris).
For reasons that may have to do with his own failings, or with plain bad luck, Charles has come up short in the offspring department. He has two sons, neither of whom he is likely to brag about. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a reasonably well-to-do head of payroll for a big New York real estate firm. His professional success, however, has been achieved despite his many shortcomings; at one point, he reminds his sexy but fragile wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) that his climb up the corporate ladder started on the bottom rung. The ascension has come at a price: Andy regularly visits a high-rise Manhattan heroin den, has a nasty temper, and his financial improprieties have earned his firm the attention of the IRS. Little brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is less evil, but more hapless ” divorced and cash-strapped, with a weakness for booze.
Had Lumet focused on Charles, the tone would be one of regret, wondering where he went wrong as a parent, a survey of the past. But the director isn’t looking backward; his story is not so much about the father as it is of the sons.
Andy hatches an idea that will solve his and Hank’s money problems ” knocking off their parents’ store. The business is insured, they are well-acquainted with the layout, and if they execute the robbery on a Saturday morning, neither mom nor dad will be there. As any seasoned thief knows, robbery is best left to the pros, and when the novices get involved, the predictable result is a pile of bodies. Before that pile is topped off, however, Lumet drags us on a tour through the moral rot that would allow two grown brothers to burglarize their parents.
Using the perspective of the ever-bungling sons, Lumet injects “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” with an abundance of kinetic energy, moral passion, and observations on what the world is like right now. He even borrows the up-to-date gimmick of jumping the story around in time. It’s unnecessary. (But harmless; Lumet’s storytelling is sharp as a tack here.) Possibly the main purpose of the technique is, it allows the octogenarian director to show off a visual editing trick that would catch the attention of a filmmaker 60 years his junior.