To Live and Drive in LA

September 21, 2011

Multiple Pages
To Live and Drive in LA

Whatever happened to the femme fatale? From Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity to Kathleen Turner in Body Heat and Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, the silky seductress who lures some poor sap into her web of betrayal was the central element of the noir genre of moody urban crime films. But today, female characters tend to be either Butt-Kicking Babes or Passive Victims.

Noir is still around, though, as vividly demonstrated by Drive, an artsy, retro-1980s thriller fueled by a superlative Ryan Gosling performance as that traditional popcorn-movie favorite, the hard man with a heart of gold.

Gosling, who was robbed of a Best Actor nomination for last year’s indie standout Blue Valentine, is perhaps the most promising male movie star since Leonardo DiCaprio. Here he plays a tight-lipped auto mechanic who lives quietly in a Philip Marloweish apartment building downtown in gentrifying Echo Park. How can he afford that? Well, he’s also a Hollywood stunt driver and he moonlights as the best getaway driver on LA’s mean streets.

“Whatever happened to the femme fatale?”

Then this omni-competent loner falls hard for the adorable single mom next door. But she turns out to be not so single, as she announces that her Latino husband is coming home from prison. So Gosling will have to battle Mulligan’s gangbanger husband, right?

Not in Drive’s Los Angeles, where everybody is improbably classier than in the real one. The mechanic is Canadian, while the felon’s wife is played by the posh, fluttery English actress Carey Mulligan (who will portray Daisy opposite DiCaprio’s Gatsby in an upcoming Fitzgerald adaptation). And the hooker assigned to sprint off with the money in a pawn-shop robbery that goes brutally awry is Christina Hendricks, Mad Men’s redheaded office manageress (even though that top-heavy actress is famously built more for comfort than for speed).

And the gangsters—Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman—are Jewish. Brooks, who was the voice of the worried father fish in Finding Nemo (and whose original name was, honest to God, Albert Einstein), plays a crime lord who thinks himself a mensch. He’s depressed and a little resentful that people keep forcing him to kill them. (“Look what you made me do.”)

By the way, what’s the deal with Perlman’s head? Was it always so gigantic, or has the sexagenarian action-movie actor been hitting the human growth hormone like Barry Bonds?

The plot swerves when the ex-con arrives home and turns out to be a fine fellow: not a brute at all, but penitent, nervous, and elegant of diction. Oscar Isaac, who can play either Latin American or Middle Eastern, is Hollywood’s New Cliff Curtis (the Maori actor from New Zealand regularly cast as Colombian cartel bosses and Arab terrorists). Yet Isaac, the son of a Miami pulmonologist, brings a refinement to every role. If Orson Welles epitomized the “king actor,” Isaac, who played Prince John in 2010’s Robin Hood, is a prince actor.

You would expect the protagonist in an old noir film to wonder if the damsel in distress isn’t who she seems. Who pressured her husband into committing a crime that wasn’t in his nature? Instead, Gosling’s parfait gentil knight chivalrously offers to help her husband pull one last job to pay off his underworld debt.

While Drive is certainly not lacking in ensuing complications, the sole plot twist that would lift the film to classic status—a confrontation between the hero and his lady love—doesn’t happen. It never seems to occur to anyone that a beautiful woman femme fatale should be self-interested and manipulative.

Would Ms. Mulligan have put her foot down against adding ambiguity and interest to her role? Of course not. Actresses love playing femmes fatales. It’s modern audiences that find them unsettling and unwelcome. Is this feminism’s fault? Probably not. I suspect femmes fatales are too adult of a concept for today’s boyish moviegoers.

Stylistically, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has modeled Drive on his favorite 1980s thrillers such as To Live and Die in LA. But Drive appeals mostly to upscale audiences, because the masses can sense its aesthetic self-consciousness.

Oddly, the originals from the Miami Vice era were even more stylized visually. People make fun of the 1980s, but they looked cool. If this were a 1984 movie, every street would be hosed down to reflect the glow of the neon signs that were then coming back into fashion.

Isn’t it about time for another neon revival? Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe said:

I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it.…But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights.…There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.


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