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Review – The Old Man & The Gun


FILM REVIEWTHE OLD MAN & THE GUN. With Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits. Written and directed by David Lowery. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 93 minutes.

old_man_and_the_gun_xlgWhile peers like Gene Hackman and Sean Connery may have quietly hung it up after a couple of unmemorable duds (“Welcome to Mooseport” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” respectively) the recently retired Robert Redford’s final film is a more carefully considered and well-publicized affair. This makes sense, as Robert Redford thinks a lot about being Robert Redford. The 82-year-old icon has so carefully managed a career spanning more than five decades, it’s easy to see why he chose to go out with THE OLD MAN & THE GUN, a gentle caper comedy full of wistful, wrinkly smiles and a sweetly elegiac tone.

Based on what we’re told is a mostly true story, the film stars Redford as Forrest Tucker, who led a crew of senior citizen bank robbers on a spree across the Southwest back in the late 1970s and early 80s. Writer-director David Lowery winningly utilized the screen legend’s avuncular appeal in his terrific 2016 “Pete’s Dragon” remake, and here skips over any unpleasant particulars of Tucker’s real-life story in favor of a genial, slightly exaggerated folk tale.

Shot on richly textured 16mm film stock with old-timey title cards, “The Old Man & the Gun” is like a lot of Lowery’s films in that it feels like it was made forty years ago. Redford plays the world’s most polite armed robber, charming the tellers and flashing his pistol but never pointing it in their faces. Clad in a dapper blue suit with a hearing aid dangling from his ear (it’s actually a police scanner) he’s the last person you’d ever expect to be knocking over a bank — which is exactly how he keeps getting away with it.

Casey Affleck co-stars as a depressed Dallas detective humiliated when Tucker robs an establishment where he’s waiting in line. Seething with resentment, he begins tracking this crew he’s dubbed “The Over-The-Hill Gang” like a hangdog Javert. Putting these two at odds is an inspired pairing, with Affleck’s rumpled deadpan and miserable mustache consistently outshone by Redford’s mega-watt charisma. The younger actor seems to have prematurely Matthau-ed, displaying withered grimaces that are comedy gold.

Between heists, Tucker hangs with Sissy Spacek’s unassuming rancher. She can tell there’s something fishy about this guy, but he’s awfully fun to be around and it is a pleasure for us to bask in the chemistry of these two adorable old pros. The easygoing vibe also applies to Redford’s fellow felons, played by Danny Glover and Tom Waits, settling into their roles like comfy easy-chairs. There’s not exactly a lot of urgency in “The Old Man & the Gun,” which for a manhunt picture is paced more like an afternoon stroll. That’s part of the appeal.

I suppose a tougher movie could have gotten into the gulf between Tucker’s folksy demeanor and a life wasted on the run or in prisons, but besides a brief cameo by Elisabeth Moss as his estranged daughter, the picture doesn’t really seem to want to go there. A better actor than he’s often given credit for being, Redford in his finest films has dug into disenchanting undercurrents beneath the golden boy persona. (His near-silent performance in 2013’s “All is Lost” was a marvel of physicality and regret.) “The Old Man & the Gun” is content to stay on the surface while offering warmly valedictory flourishes, going to far as to incorporate footage of the young star in 1966’s “The Chase” and allowing Affleck to borrow that snubbed-nose salute from “The Sting.”

It’s a fond farewell to a legend who has earned himself this kind of affable victory lap, and I’ll take it over “Welcome to Mooseport” any day.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

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Review – The Sisters Brothers


FILM REVIEWTHE SISTERS BROTHERS. With John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rutger Hauer. Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain. Directed by Jacques Audiard. Rated R for violence including disturbing images, language, and some sexual content. 121 minutes.

sisters_brothers_ver3They wouldn’t be the heroes of any other western. Hell, they’re hardly even the stars of this one. Ne’er-do-well brothers Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli (John C. Reilly) Sisters are a couple of loutish, dim-bulb assassins shooting up Gold Rush country on behalf of a shadowy crime boss (Rutger Hauer in a sly, silent cameo) known only as “The Commodore.” In a more conventional movie these two hayseeds would be pistol fodder within the opening reels, but then there’s nothing conventional about THE SISTERS BROTHERS.

Directed by Jacques Audiard, the fine French filmmaker best known on these shores for his electrifying 2009 crime saga “A Prophet” and the 2012 killer whale amputation romance “Rust and Bone,” this is one of those wildly idiosyncratic westerns you get when a European director starts dismantling American genre archetypes. From the incomprehensible opening shootout lit only by muzzle flashes to an incongruously bouncy jazz score by Alexandre Desplat, Audiard instantly flips the toolbox upside down and starts shaking it around. He keeps you disoriented for damn near the entire running time, in ways both frustrating and productive.

Jake Gyllenhaal co-stars as finicky private detective John Norris, sent ahead by the Commodore to track down a thieving prospector (Riz Ahmed as the wonderfully named Hermann Kermit Warm) so the Sisters Brothers can shoot him. But there’s more to both hunter and prey than it first seems on the surface, and it’s easy to imagine a straighter version of this story being all about the emerging conscience of Norris, inspired by Hermann’s altruism to become an unlikely hero.

We do get a little of that, but mostly we’re riding way behind with the titular peckerwoods as they foul up, get drunk, and fall ill in a rambling collection of picaresque misadventures. At times it feels a bit like watching “The Wild Bunch” from the POV of Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, always a day or two in back of the real story. Admittedly it took me longer than it probably should have to grok where Audiard was going with all this — a sort of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Go West,” glimpsing a changing world through the eyes of two entirely inconsequential characters.

The actors are in fine form, with Phoenix bringing a brutishly amusing shallowness to the pickled, pragmatic Charlie. But it turns out to be Reilly’s show (he also produced the picture) as this hulking, gentle giant gradually develops a slow-dawning decency that becomes downright adorable by the film’s final stretch. A lot of movies don’t seem sure what to do with the big galoot – a performer of wide range and great depth just as comfortable clowning around with Will Ferrell as he was on Broadway doing “True West” with pal Philip Seymour Hoffman. (The two traded roles throughout the run. Gawd, what I would give to have seen that.) 

Reilly’s performance deepens as “The Sisters Brothers” goes along, quietly amassing emotional ballast as Audiard’s oddball cutting patterns and narrative ellipses keep tricking us into the sensation that there’s a more important movie going on somewhere just over yonder. Scenes and entire storylines tend to self-destruct in eruptions of left-field violence, the film constantly interrupting itself on the way to wherever you think it’s going. (Get ready for the most hilariously anti-climactic climax this side of a Coen Brothers movie.) That is, until the gorgeously unexpected ending, which sneaks up on you with a warmth one never imagined from a bloody picture like this.

I imagine “The Sisters Brothers” is one of those movies that will be more enjoyable on second viewing, once you’ve gotten the lay of the land. Luckily the first time around is entertaining enough to leave you looking forward to a return trip.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Bookshop


FILM REVIEWTHE BOOKSHOP. With Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance. Written and directed by Isabel Coixet. Rated PG for some thematic elements, language, and brief smoking. 113 minutes.

bookshop_ver3It might sound strange to complain that a movie set in a bookstore is too literary, and yet here we are. Despite the best efforts of a winning cast, writer-director Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s beloved 1978 novel is a chunky, undigested construct. The themes of THE BOOKSHOP are bluntly articulated, yet also too abstractly rendered to play out in a satisfying cinematic context — watching it feels like reading CliffsNotes. Stripped of Fitzgerald’s prose, the events as depicted don’t pack much dramatic punch. This is no slight on the source material, just a reminder that not every great book needs to be a movie. In fact, most of them probably shouldn’t.

Emily Mortimer stars as a kindly WWII widow attempting to open a bookstore in a quaint little Suffolk town, instantly and unknowingly arousing the ire of a local dowager (Patricia Clarkson) who had eyes on converting the musty old shop into a community arts center. Of course, any bookstore worth a damn automatically becomes a community arts center in its own right, but Coixet has curiously little interest in depicting the town’s relationship with the title establishment. We’re simply informed via voice-over when business is booming and when it’s slow — a dull, tell-don’t-show approach Coixet’s screenplay extends to most matters of plot.

The one thing in the movie that works is our shopkeeper’s tentative friendship with a bookish recluse played by the great Bill Nighy. The lovely, swan-necked Mortimer strikes some unexpected sparks with the rigid-faced character actor. Nighy’s natural expression of severe gastrointestinal distress is usually deployed for poker-faced comedy, but here he finds a more romantic and affecting meter, mining the minimalism of his movements for a deep pathos. You love watching them together, and when he abruptly exits the film it feels like the pilot light has been blown out.

There’s a brief scandal surrounding the store when Mortimer decides to stock a controversial new bestseller by some guy named Vladimir Nabakov, and it appears as if the stage is being set for a lively conflict over censorship and freedom of expression. But that, like so many other storylines just sort of fizzles out, film instead on Clarkson’s increasingly elaborate and cinematically inert plans to rid the town of Mortimer’s shop once and for all. (You’d figure “Lolita” would be an easy enough angle, but instead Coixet opts to drown us in old English real estate law.)

Plucky young Honor Kneafsey co-stars as a kid who helps Mortimer around the shop, despite a vociferously stated preference for math over literature. She’s one of those characters that’s more of a device than a person, complete with the voice of a Secret Special Guest Star narrating the film from her perspective in the present day. 

Coixet and cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu stick to a postcard palate, stressing the banal beauty of these surroundings even when at odds with the needs of the script. “The Bookshop” has some big ideas it wants to make about conformity, provincialism and the price of individuality. But both Mortimer and Nighy’s characters would presumably agree you’re better off reading the book.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The House With A Clock In Its Walls


FILM REVIEWTHE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS. With Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Sunny Suljic, Kyle MacLachlan. Written by Eric Kripke. Directed by Eli Roth. Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor, and language. 104 minutes.

house_with_a_clock_in_its_walls_ver2If I were to sit down and rank sentences I never thought I’d write, “That new children’s film directed by Eli Roth is really rather delightful,” would be pretty high up there. And yet it turns out the smirky torture-porn auteur behind the “Hostel” movies and this year’s odious, enervated “Death Wish” remake has a real knack for the old Amblin Entertainment house style of junior thrills and chills. Based on the beloved 1973 novel by John Bellairs, THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS is a kicky throwback to those mischievous, slightly sinister kids’ adventures Spielberg proteges uses to churn out on a fairly regular basis three decades ago. Funny how it took Eli Roth, of all people, to make the best Robert Zemeckis movie in ages.

Owen Vacarro stars as Lewis Barnacvelt, recently orphaned and sent to live with his estranged Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in a giant shambles of a house we quickly figure out is haunted. Lewis’ laissez-faire approach to parenthood includes pearls of wisdom like “Why go to the trouble of having cookies for dessert when you can just eat them for dinner instead?” but he’s a bit of a stickler about his magic.

See, Uncle Jonathan is a warlock (don’t call him a “boy-witch” because that makes him angry) and not a particularly accomplished one at that. Along with Lewis we soon discover that Uncle Jonathan’s far more gifted former partner (Kyle MacLachlan, having a grand old time) turned evil and stashed a doomsday clock somewhere in these walls before blowing himself up in a blood magic ritual. Now it’s up to Uncle Jonathan, his nephew and a retired witch living next door (Cate Blanchett, all clipped consonants and clad exclusively in violet) to find and stop the clock before a lunar eclipse brings about the end of us all.

Roth establishes his Amblin bona fides almost immediately, tossing out “Space Man From Pluto” and “Young Sherlock Holmes” references to warm the hearts of middle-aged geeks. The film is set in 1955, but feels more like that particular 1980s brand of ’50s nostalgia than the actual period, with scenes of Lewis at school only a Jean Shepherd voice-over away from “A Christmas Story” territory. There’s plenty of Ovaltine, along with a Captain Midnight secret decoder ring and if the school looks anachronistically integrated, then that’s just another reminder that this is all the stuff of charming fantasy.

I’ve never been a big Jack Black fan, but I do get a kick out of him in children’s movies, where his oversized mugging plays like a little kid’s idea of what an adult would act like. He’s got a surprisingly great rapport with Blanchett, the two affectionately rattling off insults at one another with a cozy, lived-in warmth that seems sincere. Of course, our trio forms a makeshift family while doing battle with flying jack o’lanterns that puke pumpkin seed paste and other assorted, just-scary-enough gross-outs. And while I personally could have done without the winged topiary lion pooping brown leaves I also realize that’s the scene my niece and nephew are gonna be talking about clear through Christmas dinner.

“The House With A Clock In Its Walls” neither overstays its welcome nor spends too much time setting up the presumably inevitable sequels. There’s a modesty to the film that’s becoming, and a nimbleness to the wit suggesting Roth could have a big future in children’s entertainment if he so desires. I guess in retrospect his skill with a PG-rated picture shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, as his R-rated films weren’t exactly “adult,” either.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Predator


FILM REVIEWTHE PREDATOR. With Boyd Holbrook, Olivia Munn, Trevante Rhodes, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes. Written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black. Directed by Shane Black. Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references. 107 minutes.

predatorI have no way of knowing what actually went down behind the scenes of THE PREDATOR, the latest attempt to reboot a floundering Fox franchise that began 31 years ago with Arnold Schwarzenegger fighting a giant dreadlocked lizard man in the jungle. But I can tell you that the end product of this notoriously troubled production feels like a patchwork quilt somebody finished stitching in an awful hurry. It’s got all the elements of a more ambitious, expansive epic that’s been scaled back and cut within an inch of its life into a surprisingly shoddy-looking, breakneck B-picture. This is an entertaining enough Friday night at the movies, but to say that the seams show is an understatement.

Co-written and directed by cheeky genre deconstructionist Shane Black, the movie is a hodgepodge of expansive, half-developed science fiction concepts, splattery set-pieces and Black’s specialty: tough guys talking a lot of shit. I really liked the shit-talking parts.

Bland Boyd Holbrook stars as McKenna, an Army sniper who witnesses one of our scaly foes ripping up some cartel baddies south of the border, so he swipes the creature’s helmet and mails it up north for proof that our government has been covering up the increasingly frequent visits from these extraterrestrial sportsmen. This isn’t exactly the brightest idea, because in addition to being treason it also puts dangerous alien technology in the hands of McKenna’s estranged, autistic son (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”) who accidentally activates an interstellar distress signal while wearing the predator’s hat as a Halloween costume.

McKenna is quickly locked up and headed for a military-ordered lobotomization along with a bus full of other PTSD wash-outs who call themselves The Loonies. Led by Travante Rhodes (“Moonlight”) – who makes a surprisingly credible and charismatic action hero – this hardscrabble dirty half-dozen also includes, among others, Thomas Jane and Jordan Peele’s own D.J. Jazzy Jeff, Keegan-Michael Key. The gang speaks almost exclusively in obscene put-downs, discussing in minute detail the great breadth and expanse of your mother’s vagina. But how much do you want to bet that when the chips are down — like say when we’re faced with a couple of angry giant aliens — these are gonna be the guys you want watching your back.

It’s all straight out of the Shane Black playbook, as from “Lethal Weapon” to “The Nice Guys” this singular writer has been both kidding and extolling the self-aware patter of sad, violent men who find redemption by living down to their reputations. There are all the ingredients of a terrific Shane Black movie in here, but they’re jostled around by a lot of obvious studio notes and what executives like to call “franchise world-building” when they really mean setting up sequels. (The film’s tacked-on final scene is by far the worst in this regard, so egregious it saps most of the goodwill earned up until then.)

The Loonies also have to compete for screen time with Olivia Munn’s deathly dull Dr. Casey Bracket, a molecular biologist who might be the unlikeliest movie scientist since Denise Richards was a nuclear physicist in that Bond picture. The role was clearly written at some point to goof on the character’s incongruous va-va-voominess — there’s even a cleverly juvenile set-piece geared around how quickly she can get naked to escape a quarantine zone that’s under attack — but Munn plays her as stiffly as Joan of Arc, the only humorless scold in a movie otherwise populated by class clowns.

“The Predator” has been breathlessly edited so that the picture is constantly stepping on its own punchlines. The scenes aren’t allowed room to breathe, which is a shame because we like hanging out with these guys. Rhodes, in particular, should be playing more leads, and there’s a terrific heel turn by Sterling K. Brown as a sinister scientist. He really savors the profane poetry of Black’s dialogue, though the character’s ignominious exit is given unforgivably short shrift in the cutting.

I suppose this is the best “Predator” film since the original, which sounds like a big deal but really isn’t all that much of a compliment. The movie ultimately gets by on attitude, with Black’s brash, wiseacre sensibility brightening up the mandatory franchise maintenance. (It’s very much at the “Iron Man 3” end of his filmography.) In the end, I’m just hoping it earns enough money so that Shane can make “The Nice Guys 2.”•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – A Simple Favor


FILM REVIEWA SIMPLE FAVOR. With Blake Lively, Anna Kendrick, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini. Written by Jessica Sharzer. Directed by Paul Feig. Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use, and violence. 117 mins.

simple_favor_ver2_xlgAbout halfway through A SIMPLE FAVOR, I started imagining how much I’d rather be watching a Lifetime TV movie of this same story, maybe something starring Tori Spelling and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. At least such an undertaking wouldn’t be so smug about the tawdry pleasures of this twisty tale, which was adapted by Jessica Sharzer from Darcey Bell’s novel and directed by Paul Feig – of “Bridesmaids” fame, as well as the bafflingly controversial “Ghostbusters” reboot that sent thousands of incels into paroxysms of rage.

Set in a chichi Connecticut suburb and scored to jaunty French music, the film stars Anna Kendrick as Stephanie Smothers, a hyper-attentive helicopter mom who keeps a chirpy video blog chronicling her efforts to become a miniaturized Martha Stewart. A single mother whose husband and brother were both killed in the same car accident, Stephanie’s overbearing affect leaves her with few friends around the schoolyard. A least until Emily comes along.

Played with a blowsy, throwback femme fatale magnetism by Blake Lively, she’s a negligent mother and charming, mid-afternoon drunk, bringing home the bacon at a powerful fashion P.R. gig while her onetime hotshot novelist husband (“Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding) finds excuses not to write. Emily introduces Stephanie to the pleasures of cocktail hour and does her best to make the girl stop apologizing all the damn time. She also takes advantage of her kindness by enlisting the chipper kid as an unpaid nanny.

It’s all good and well until Emily up and disappears, leaving the door wide open for Stephanie to “single white female who rocks the cradle” into her missing friend’s postcard house and perfect marriage, that is until we start seeing signs that our “gone girl” might still be around,

“A Simple Favor” is obviously, screamingly derivative, yet the story’s beach-read hooks might have found some traction if the filmmakers had any idea how to manage the tone. Not funny enough to pass as satire yet too snarky to provide any genuine chills, the movie exists in a half-kidding limbo, with none of the performers on the same page. Kendrick gives a brittle, exaggerated boost to her tiresome Kewpie doll persona while Lively’s game performance will make you wish they still made 1940s noirs. She’s miles better than the rest of the movie, which slows to a crawl during the long stretches she’s offscreen.

In his previous pictures, Feig’s primary skillset seems to have been staying out of the way while Melissa McCarthy improvises. Without her around this time he seems stumped by the rudimentary requirements of setting a scene. The garishly overlit cinematography excels at finding unflattering angles of these beautiful actresses, their inexplicably extravagant high-fashion getups more distracting than anything else.

(It’s almost impossible to pay attention to the plot while Lively is wearing some sort of sleeveless tuxedo and detachable white cuffs. I kept wondering why she went to work dressed as a Chippendale. There’s also an entire expository monologue that goes missing behind a large flowery thing Kendrick wears around her neck.)

The saucy Serge Gainsbourg songs on the soundtrack are supposedly meant to summon a spirit of insouciance, as the plot twists of “A Simple Favor” grow increasingly more absurd. The problem is there’s nothing for us to enjoy in its self-mockery, the flat staging and abject absence of visual style signal more contempt than amusement. Nobody’s taking this silly story very seriously, but Feig is too prudish and (let’s face it) incompetent to provide any compensating sensual pleasures, the way Brian De Palma or David Fincher have in the past with similarly chintzy material. At least Tori and Tiffani-Amber would have committed.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Wife


FILM REVIEWTHE WIFE. With Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Max Irons, Christian Slater, Elizabeth McGovern. Written by Jane Anderson. Directed by Björn Runge. Rated R for language and some sexual content. 100 minutes.

wife“I think his philandering is a cliché,” offers the unfortunately named Nathaniel Bone. A bookish biographer played by a miscast Christian Slater in reading glasses, Mr. Bone is sharing a drink and a secret cigarette with Glenn Close’s tight-lipped title character in THE WIFE.

It’s 1992 and the two are in Stockholm, where her husband Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is about to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Basically just along for the ride, Close’s long-suffering Joan tends to her husband’s blood pressure medication and brushes crumbs out of his beard, silently seething for reasons only gradually revealed.

Adapted by screenwriter Jane Anderson from Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, “The Wife” is a tangy little bit of literary score-settling, taking the piss out of mid-century macho myths of what a Great American Writer was supposed to be. Staged in a deceptively dry fashion by Swedish director Björn Runge, the movie lulls you into a false sense of decorous complacency before the claws come out. After hedging its way around a glaringly obvious plot twist for perhaps a bit too long, the melodramatic second hour is simply delicious.

Pryce plays Castleman as a happily married cousin to literary pugilists like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. He’s a man of appetites with a quick temper and a buried Brooklyn honk that occasionally creeps back into his more profane outbursts. (Pryce is an old pro at this by now, having brilliantly skewered a passive-aggressive Roth stand-in a few years ago in Alex Ross Perry’s great “Listen Up Philip.”) With all his swaggering and screwing, Joe Castleman couldn’t be a more stereotypical tormented genius if he were an actor hired to play the part.

And that’s where “The Wife” gets really interesting, asking pointed questions about who we deem worthy of attention in the arts, and the preferential treatment afforded to those who fit our preconceived notions of creative “types.” Close occupies the center of the film in a marvel of minimalism. She’s been doing this for so long she knows exactly what to give and when to withhold, so that slightest ripple of an eyebrow sends shockwaves through the theatre. She’s also an actress who knows when to go big, and boy does she get some chances here.

The story occasionally ventures back to the 1950s, in which flashback sequences unfurl the background behind the Castlemans’ mysterious marriage. I wasn’t sold on Harry Lloyd as Joe, as he’s way too British to pass for a Brooklynite. (If this kid wasn’t in “Dunkirk” then he should’ve been.) But Close’s real-life daughter Annie Starke gives a remarkable performance as the young Joan, matching her mom’s reserve while infusing the character’s reticence with an at times startling erotic charge.

There’s a darkly comic element to the film’s continual diminishment of Castleman’s legend on the stage of his highest honor. A splendid scene finds Pryce hitting on a young female photographer (Karin Franz Korlof) hired by his publishing house. There is the Great Man, eating dinner alone in an opulent ballroom, trotting out creaky old seduction tactics that barely worked on co-eds forty years ago, reciting the closing paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead” to someone who has no idea what he’s talking about.

His wife watches this all through a distant doorway and we at last see Castleman through Joan’s eyes, in a wide shot that makes this literary giant and his larger-than-life personality look so very, pitiably small.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.