Movies about teachers are flypaper for overblown armchair crusaderism, and this overbearingly cynical attempt gets my vote for worst offender yet. Director Tony Kaye, the flaky (or brilliant, depending on your perspective) Brit who scored a cult hit with 1998's American History X and then proceeded to trash-talk himself into an early retirement, attempts a resurrection with Detachment, but he hasn't tempered much with age. The film, written by former teacher Carl Lund and manhandled by Kaye, doesn't add to the stock narrative of a newbie educator learning the ropes at a hardscrabble school so much as slather it with icky personal vitriol. Adrien Brody stars as Henry Barthes (groan), a career substitute whose childhood trauma has left him flamboyantly unable to connect with other people or keep his shit together in general. The movie spans his month-long gig at a Queens high school, where the faculty and students share a similar, absurdly uniform collective malaise. Events range from the risible—our hero defuses a cartoonish thug with a few meaningful words about "getting" his pain—to the downright creepy, as when Barthes shacks up platonically with a teenage hooker (Sami Gayle) he meets on the bus. Kaye, who's also the cinematographer, establishes a drifting, narcotized visual tone that's apt and effective, but the reactionary script brings out the worst in its impressive cast, notably James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden, and Lucy Liu. (Brody, as ever, is all tics.) The movie's motives might be admirable, but its execution is so bogged down in impenetrable old-white-guy self-pity that the real problems facing public education and its practitioners get buried in the wallow.
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