Then Playing — Belushi; The Father; The Man Who Knew Too Much

Belushi (R.J. Cutler, 2020). This documentary about the short life of John Belushi makes a valiant effort at capturing his boisterous charisms and fiery comic genius. Director R.J. Cutler relies on audio of interviews Tanner Colby conducted for a biography he wrote with Belushi’s widow, and the material has an appealingly off-the-cuff feel that aligns well with the scrappiness of the early Saturday Night Live clips, where Belushi is at his brightest and more creatively daring. Belushi acknowledges the man’s self-destructive appetites, but it’s ultimately a tempered celebration of his career, keeping the whole film at basically surface level. It’s a solid survey of his career, even if it makes the mistake of treating everything as a highlight. As a portrait of a person, the film is lacking.

The Father (Florian Zeller, 2021). For his feature directorial debut, Florian Zeller adapts his own play about an elderly man struggling with dementia. Rather than settle for the maudlin, straightforward portrayal of an ailment that’s the norm for these sorts of film, Zeller develops structural methods to depict the frustration of losing one’s bearings, seeing the world around them constantly rearranged with no discernible logic. What could be gimmicky is incredible powerful, in large part because of the remarkable precision of Zeller’s visual storytelling and the sly, artful work of his many collaborators, especially the art and set directions teams. The cast is stacked with actors giving smart, empathetic performers, none more compelling than Anthony Hopkins as the man who is struggling as existence as he understands it erodes. Hopkins runs emotional marathons in single scenes, always without lapsing into pushy showboating, except, it should be noted, when pushy showboating is the character’s means of compensating for his confusion. It’s incredible, nuanced work from a master of his craft. The Father is searing and ingenious.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). Alfred Hitchcock remakes his own film from a little more than twenty years earlier, shifting locations to better accommodate the era’s craving for travelogues set in exotic locales. The premise is fundamentally the same, though, and very much in Hitchcock’s wheelhouse: an average citizen gets swooped up in dangerous intrigue. As skillfully assembled as the film is, The Man Who Knew Too Much is also a little dull, with Hitchcock elongating the slow-burn suspense to the point that it grows a little limp. James Stewart is in fine fettle as the lead, but he’s denied the latitude to add complexity to the portrayal that marked his turns in the early collaboration Rear Window and the later Vertigo. The mechanics of the narrative ultimately drown out other aspects of the film that would have deepened its impact.

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