The Parent Traps

Children shouldn't play with dead Canadian movies or leering comedians in ugly catsuits

The embrace and snarl of parent-child love-hate is one of humanity's deathless issues, and true to his record, Canadian auteur Denys Arcand shadow-boxes his way around it, reveling in his footwork but hitting nothing. As with Arcand's earlier big bites—sex, radicalism, generational angst, faith—the dramatic tangle of family in The Barbarian Invasions is reduced to a bizarre cartoon of name-dropping, smug banter, and straggling sex-rev nostalgia.

Few working filmmakers are as shallow while feigning sophistication, or as convinced of profundity they never demonstrate. A sequel to his 1986 succès d'estime The Decline of the American Empire, Invasions centers on Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), the grown investment-banker son of Rémy (Rémy Girard) and Louise (Dorothée Berryman), the troubled couple of the first film, now aged, predictably divorced, and faced with Rémy's inoperable cancer. Quebecois father and son share only short-necked animosity until Sébastien is shamed by his mother into a caretaker role, which for Arcand means bribing hospital personnel to furnish an unused ward as a private suite, buying pure heroin to alleviate pain Rémy never seems very bothered with, and calling up the gaggle of bawdy, post-academic friends from the first film to come and swap witticisms over the sickbed.

American Empire's glib veneer of cynicism is easily smudged away here in the face of the Big Sleep; rather, Arcand insists we tearily adore this self-congratulating tribe of amoral capitalists, child-ruining parents, bellicose idiots, and whining preeners, even as they laugh at their own jokes and brag about their cocksucking. (The sole object of sympathy is Marie-Josée Croze—a Cannes prize-winner—as a risibly robust yet haunted junkie enlisted to help with the scag ministrations.) At best, Arcand's screenplay (another winner at Cannes) is good for a few helpings of bitter liberalism (Rémy's mini-tirade about the decimation of Native Americans rips off a few scabs), only to descend to exploitive use of 9-11 footage and Rémy's objection about going south to an American hospital: "To be killed by Mohammedans?!" In fact, the eponymous invasions are briefly defined by this cantankerous patriarch as third-world immigration and political intervention, a sprig of bigotry Arcand apparently finds endearing.

Heroin and heroin(e): Girard and Croze
photo: Miramax
Heroin and heroin(e): Girard and Croze

Details

The Barbarian Invasions
Written and directed by Denys Arcand
Miramax, opens November 21

The Cat in the Hat
Directed by Bo Welch
Universal, opens November 21

French, Canadian, and otherwise, Arcand's fans seem to enjoy the shiver of ego that comes from understanding words like "Marxism" or "post-structuralism" when uttered in a movie, despite their utter lack of context or import. The Academy, like the Cannes jury, digs it; Arcand's screenplays have already netted him two Oscar nominations, and yet the dialogue often has the violet luster of teenage playwriting. Shear away the film's pretensions, and it's a soap opera of assholes.

Another kind of parent-kid warfare altogether, the new, obligatory post-Grinch movie version of The Cat in the Hat comes scarily close to being the most unendurable Hollywood creation of the last dozen years. Of course, the Seuss original was a compact treatise on prepubescent id run amok and the attending dread of parental wrath, but snake-oil-selling producer Brian Grazer hyper-extends it into a Gogurt splooge of competing plot motivations, the ugliest design work since, well, The Grinch, and a free-associating Mike Myers done up as a kind of Dr. Moreau bastard spawn of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion and Charles Nelson Reilly. The jokes, even the shit-dick-puke-balls bits aimed at titillating teens, are mortifyingly witless; the Things (1 and 2) look like face-lift-stretched actress heads on children's bodies; the story aches with preachifying (and distinctly un-Seussian) sanctimony.

The spectacle of Alec Baldwin's fully committed performance as a neighborhood sleazebag on the make for the protagonists' mom evokes only sympathy—although, it's probably he who should pity us. Someone should have to answer, at any rate, for the level of reeking innuendo (mom's portrait opening into a Playboy centerfold, erecting the Cat's penile hat, for instance) that converts an American childhood totem—one that initiated more reading habits than any other book of the 20th century—into a feebleminded leer.

You could read the film's two lonely moments of self-knowledge—when the Cat explicitly plugs Universal Studios' theme park and the film's own soundtrack—as salient irony, but amid this vomit they seem simply desperate. Thanks to Grazer's evil-genius demographic scheme, The Cat in the Hat isn't fit for preteens, and it isn't digestible to adults. Teens, it needn't be said, should have better things—drugs, humping, Matrix sequels—with which to squander their weekends.

 
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