Project Nim (A)
U.S.-U.K.: James Marsh, 2011, Lions Gate
Few films in recent years have moved and disturbed or impressed me as much as Project Nim, James Marsh's documentary about the chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky, of his life and hard times, of his rise and fall, of how he was taught to be almost human and then punished for being a chimpanzee.
It's a great movie, moving and sometimes funny and absorbing and profound and absolutely unforgettable, a classic-to-be, I'm sure -- though it's perhaps not the kind of film that's going to attract large audiences looking for conventional feel-good entertainment and automatic uplift. There's no standard uplift here, except for that quickening of our deepest sympathies that accompanies all great, sad, true works of art. And, after the amazing beginning, after our realization that a Columbia Univeristy educator is actually going to try to talk with a chimpanzee, and after seeing student Nim's first triumphs, there's little to feel really good about. Project Nim is a kind of tragedy, pulsing with sorrow and warm with compassion, and it reflects very badly, not on Nim, but on some of the people around him.
Director Marsh made another great, riveting documentary: the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, the tale of French high-wire walker Philippe Petit, who, without official permission, walked a wire between the Twin Towers of the newly built World Trade Center, at the top, with no net, and is still alive to tell us all what happened. It's an incredible work, one that arouses your worst fears (mine anyway), but also shows how genius and near-insane recklessness and great pioneering spirit can sometimes get all mixed together and produce something extarordinary.
Project Nim is the story of another daring leap into the unknown, but one in which almost everybody involved somehow stumbled and fell. In it, Marsh does something that critics of documentaries often violently oppose: He mixes interviews and archive footage of the Nim story with dramatic creations of other scenes, witnessed, but not filmed at the time. There's an animatronic Nim somewhere in the film, and actors play some of the interviewees or principals in younger, unfilmed years -- but all of this is so beautifully and seamlessly done that, while watching the movie, I never thought about what was real and what was staged.
The first humans Nim the chimpanzee violently encountered were the team of researchers, in November 1973, who opened the cage at the Oklahoma primate center where Nim's mother was cradling him in her ams, shot a tranquilizer dart into her, and pulled him screaming with fear from her embrace. (Nim and his mother would never meet again). He was carried off to New York City, where he would become part of an incredibly ambitious experiment led by professor Herbert Terrace (one of the film's main interviewees), a behavioral psychologist from Columbia University.
Terrace believed that, if he could bring up a young chimpanzee away from other chimps and especially away from his mother (chimp mothers being unusually affectionate and protective), if he gave Nim a human "mother" and treated him as a human child, the chimpanzee could be taught sign language, and eventually taught to form complete sentences, use language as we do, and communicate and "talk" with humans.
So professor Terrace found a volunteer to take Nim into her home and treat him as if he were her child: Stephanie Lafargue, an ex-psychology student of the professor's (and, not unimportantly, a former lover) who lived with her children and writer husband. Stephanie threw herself enthusiastically into the project.
Nim's first foster home, at the LaFargue's, proved less than ideal. Most of the family liked him and accepted him, but Nim himself grew possessive about Stephanie and even began to try, with chimp-like cunning, to sabotage her marriage. Worse, Nim had begun to bite people.
Terrace decided to try something different. He cut a deal with the Columbia University owners of a large suburban mansion in Riverdale, the Delafield Estate, to house Nim and his teachers and housekeepers rent-free, where his education could proceed in a more orderly fashion. Nim's first teacher there, Laura-Ann Petitto, proved a godsend: tirelessly teaching Nim sign language until eventually he built up a vocabulary of 125 words.
The indefatigable Laura -- who became a world famous and much awarded cognitive neuroscientist and an expert in language and its structures -- left, to be replaced by students Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan. They both got along well with Nim (a very personable chimp, it seems) and they also helped give their charge a taste for a beer and an occasional joint. Also helping out Joyce and Bill was a professional interpreter for the deaf and sign language expert named Renee Falitz. It was an incident with Renee that suddenly brought the experiment to a screeching halt, closed the gates of Nim's paradise, and sent him packing back to the primate center in Oklahoma. One morning Renee was preparing Nim for the day when he suddenly leaped at her, grabbed her tightly and bit her face so savagely he cut through to the bone. Dr. Terrace closed down the experiment, dissolved the staff and send Nim off to Oklahoma to learn to live with his own kind.
Back in Oklahoma, Nim had to learn to live penned up in a cage with many others, screeching and jabbering, and to socialize with these chimpanzees, a strange (to him) species whom he had never really seen, except briefly in mirrors.
Yet even though Nim now seemed deserted by everyone he had known, he now gained another human companion, a lifelong supporter and, as it happens, his very best friend: Bob Ingersoll. Bob was a psychology graduate and he was also a huge fan of the Grateful Dead and therefore sympathetic to the taste for weed Nim had acquired at Delafield. The two of them would sit together out in the sun outside the cages and share a beer and talk together with sign language, and pass a joint and just... play.
Nim finally wound up at Black Beauty Ranch for abused animals. That should have been the happy ending for Nim, but wasn't quite, since the Black Beauty Ranch was, it seems, ill-equipped to deal with chimpanzees. They locked Nim in a cage by himself and wouldn't let his best pal Bob come and visit him. It took a new management, ten years later, to loosen up the rules, and get Nim two chimp companions in his cage, and let Bob come and visit him, which he did, and so did Stephanie, who got a rude hostile greeting from the chimp she had once mothered. (But she apparently understood and forgave.)
Nim never became the world's most famous chimpanzee. Maybe he never learned any more words. Eventually in 2000, after living most of his life in cages, at the age of about 27, Nim died. I don't remember a fuss being made about it in the media; in fact, I don't remember anything about him in the media at all.
I wonder if, when professor Terrace left Nim forever at the Oklahoma primate center, he had the decency and gratitude to say to him the simple words "Goodbye," and "Thank you, Nim."
The Rum Diary (B)
U.S.: Bruce Robinson, 2011, Sony
The Rum Diary is based -- loosely, but that's all right -- on the novel that Hunter S. Thompson wrote when he was 22, a young guy, before Hell's Angels, before Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, before The Great Shark Hunt. Back then, he was just another writer-shmo, kicking around Puerto Rico, trying to get a reporter's job on the San Juan Star, swigging a lot of hootch, chasing orgasms, raising a lot of hell, and laying down at least some of the pieces of his eventual legend as American journalism's Doctor of Gonzo -- a madman/genius/fireball of super-literary indecent exposure fueled by booze, cons and those bad (or good) intentions with which the road to hell, or maybe heaven, is paved.
This movie was written and directed by Bruce Robinson -- the sometimes inspired British actor/writer/filmmaker who also wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical 1987 boozy-Brits-on-the-loose masterpiece Withnail and I, and then floundered or was pistol-whipped through two other dubious movies and has been basically silent for the last 19 years (including the two years that The Rum Diary has been on the shelf with alleged problems). And, as I was saying, it's an homage to the Good (or Bad) Doctor, a.k.a. Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, a.k.a. Raoul Duke from his number one Hollywood admirer, star-producer Johnny Depp.
Depp is the Thompson acolyte/buddy who persuaded Thompson to publish the long-unpublished manuscript of The Rum Diary, and godfathered this movie of it, and plays the Thompson-derived character in it. Earlier, Depp played the movie role of Thompson with uncanny cool dedication, kick-ass fervor, lotsa chutzpah and just the right deadpan monotone voice and inner nervy throb in Terry Gilliam's underappreciated semi-classic 1998 movie of Thompson's 1971 gonzo masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." (That movie is on Criterion, if you want a wicked cinematic treat. If you want a literary treat, and don't already have that great book, with those wicked Ralph Steadman illustrations, your library is deficient. It's the Great American Un-novel.)
Here Depp plays, and none could do it better, Paul Kemp, Thompson's alter-ego, a reporter/hell-raiser set loose in Puerto Rico in the early '60s. Paul goes to San Juan to work on the Star, winning a reporter's job on a paper full of drunks because he was the only applicant. (In real life, Thompson didn't get the job.) He then gets tossed out of a local hotel the paper has rented for him, for trying to break into the mini-bar and other antics, and is forced to room in the squalid digs of The Star's irreverent photographer Sala, played (funnily and open-heartedly) by Michael Rispoli, with Sala's bizarre roommate Moburg, played (madly) by Giovanni Ribisi, as a lunatic writer who likes to dress up as a fascist and listen to Hitler's speeches.
Soon, Paul is leading a life of sunlight and sin. He falls into the clutches of the corrupt PR genius Sanderson, played (dead on) by Aaron Eckhart. Sanderson is a criminally handsome huckster/con artist who mediates and facilitates for the kind of well-dressed, greed-crazed money-glommers Republicans like to call, reverently, "job creators": big-time hustlers who are master-minding the kind of hotel complex that might have been designed by Albert Speer, if he'd been hired by Conrad Hilton, instead of Hitler.
A warning. This movie will not teach you to be a better person. Or a richer person. Or a more famous person. Basically, this movie will teach you how to be a drunk and a sloppy housekeeper and a venturesome oddball ducking jobs and driving red Chevy Corvettes with your weirdo chums from party to party in San Juan, until suddenly you decide to be the celebrator of the great American orgy, and the scourge of the corrupt straight ruling class. (Extras: featurettes).
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (B-)
U.S.: Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2011, Warner Bros.
Comedy sometimes thrives on taboos transgressed and sacred cows slaughtered, and very few cows are left standing after the irreverent and cheerfully offensive bad taste orgy that is A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. The movie, a comedy that made me laugh (or at least didn't keep serving up clunkers, like many comedies these days) marks the return of those hapless stoner White Castle-loving cut-ups, Korean-American good-guy Harold (John Cho) and Indian-American weed-head Kumar (Kal Penn), putting them through another night of comic hell, fueled by mishaps, mayhem and massive ingestion of various controlled substances, especially (but not exclusively) marijuana.
This is the kind of Christmas Eve that might have tested the mettle of even Jimmy Stewart's guardian angel Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life. As Harold and Kumar try to survive, Christmas trees are burned down, Santa Claus is shot down from the skies, vehicles overturn (with our heroes inside), Ukrainian gangsters and drug dealers run wild, virgins are deflowered and Neil Patrick Harris shows up again, this time singing and dancing with Harold and Kumar in a sizzling Busby Berkeley-style Yuletide number, with Harris once again pretending to be "Harris," a sex maniac and publicity-whoring ham.
Harold and Kumar have drifted apart as best buds -- Harold to become a yuppified Wall Street wuss and Kumar to continue trying to stay perpetually stoned. But they meet again, and things start going wrong immediately. A Christmas gift to Harold of a huge joint accidentally burns down the beloved 12-foot-tall Douglas fir Christmas tree, brought over to the home of Harold and his wife Maria (Paula Garces) by Harold's mean, picky father-in-law Mr. Perez (Danny Trejo, in his "mean as hell" key), who doesn't like Maria's choice. Our guys then start an epic race around town trying to find a replacement.
While our guys chase the spirit of Christmas through one catastrophe after another, a blizzard of scatological gags and ethnic jokes about Jewish and African-Americans, Asians, Caucasians, Ukrainians, gays and innumerable others spew out at us with the regularity -- since the movie is in 3D -- of the objects being hurled at the camera and us in all three dimensions, including claymation penises, fake jism, fake cocaine and fake ganja smoke. If you've been wondering about the right way to use 3D, this movie has what seems an inspired suggestion: Kid the hell out of it.
You may laugh. (You may not.) I did. But will you be offended? Perhaps. The movie tries very hard to trample on the sensibilities of everyone possible.
Kal Penn and John Cho are one of the more unusual comedy teams around; they don't fill the classic roles of the smoothie and the hysteric or dummy. Or at least they don't here. Instead they're a couple of innocents puffing away, hurled into the comic inferno of big-city chaos. They're screw-ups, but endearing ones.
The movie was directed by new-to-the-series Todd Strauss-Schulson and written by old hands Ron Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who've scripted all three Harold & Kumars. (Hurwitz directed the second.) Laughter is sometimes subversive but A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas cheerfully suggests that sex and drugs are fit subjects for comedy (not exactly a radical concept in today's Hollywood), and also that marriage and pregnancy have their charms, even in a stoned bromance.