Damn, this is embarrassing. As much as I hate to admit it, this is the third week in a row I've actually liked a movie I have to review. And not just some elitist French film where everybody sits around talking about their affairs and listening to classical music and arguing about each other's existential dilemmas. No, the three films I've been touting have all been made in America and there isn't a De Niro, a Pacino, a Hoffman, or any other neurotic, intense, critically acclaimed New York actor among them. Two weeks ago it was Short Cuts, Robert Altman's scathing attack on suburban dysfunction. Last week it was The Nightmare Before Christmas, Tim Burton's stop-motion masterpiece. This week it's Fearless, directed by Australian Peter Weir (The Last Wave, Gallipoli, Witness). If I'm not careful the Bureau of Movie Critic Regulation is going to yank my Snotty Reviewer's license and bust me down to Fawning Flack with the Leonard Maltins and Jeffrey Lyonses and Joel Siegels, forever condemned to cranking out "Crackling good entertainment!" and "I laughed out loud!"-style commentary.
In anticipation of my impending demotion, let me just say this about Fearless: I Cried Out Loud! That's right -- real tears, not misty-eyed, minor-league whimpering. This movie really got to me. The Joy Luck Club, the year's best Kleenex-tugger to date, didn't even begin to tighten my throat and pump the lachrymal glands like Fearless did. I'm so ashamed.
Unlike Joy Luck, which was a mawkish, unrepentant assault on the tear ducts in which the actors often primed the audience for a deluge by excreting a little saline fluid themselves, Fearless gets the job done without benefit of on-screen reinforcement. Sometimes you cry out of grief, sometimes you cry out of relief, but you never cry just because someone up there on the silver screen is blubbering. Fearless has too much class to go for the cheap weep.
Fearless grabs you the old-fashioned way, through well-written, flawlessly performed, brilliantly directed characterization. Jeff Bridges, who seems to glide through roles so effortlessly that it's impossible to describe his technique without using the word "natural," stars as Max Klein, a mild-mannered San Francisco yuppie architect whose boring, comfortable existence is forever altered when he survives a plane crash. Fear of flying has always been Max's big phobia; ironically, when he realizes the plane he is on is going down, his initial paralyzing terror gives way to a feeling of unnatural calm and complete serenity. For the first time in his life, he confronts one of his deepest anxieties and accepts his fate. "This is it. This is the moment of your death," he tells himself, shocked at his own calm. "I'm not afraid. I have no fear." He rises from his seat, comforts other passengers and, after the plane hits the ground, leads many of the survivors out of the burning fuselage to safety.
That's how the movie opens -- with a shot of Max (whom the press will later dub "the Good Samaritan" for his heroism) cradling a baby in one arm and holding another young boy's hand, shepherding a shell-shocked group through an eerie, smoke-enshrouded cornfield into the waiting arms of firemen and paramedics. The crash itself, as well as most of the tense moments leading up to it, is interspersed throughout the film and relayed, via flashbacks, from Jack's perspective. It's the flip side of Weir's The Last Wave, whose unforgettable images of Sydney, Australia underwater after being submerged by a tidal wave were actually the protagonist's flash forward. Weir stages the crash in such a harrowing fashion that no one with any fear of flying whatsoever should even think about seeing this film. He does for the airline industry what Jaws did for tourism in seaside resorts.
Max's longtime friend and business partner, Jeff, is killed instantly. One of the film's many overwhelming moments occurs when Jeff's wife, who thought that if Max survived her husband must have as well, falls apart in Max's arms. He does his best to soothe her by reassuring her that Jeff loved her, but the woman is inconsolable. The scene hurts like vice grips clamped onto an exposed nerve.
Isabella Rossellini is Max's wife, Laura. She has one of those pleasant "movie" jobs -- ballet teacher for pubescent girls. Her initial elation when she sees her husband for the first time after the catastrophe gives way to consternation at his sudden aloofness and feelings of invincibility. Max takes to scarfing strawberries -- to which he used to have a potentially lethal allergic reaction -- with impunity, balancing himself on the ledges of tall buildings, and driving down the freeway at 90 mph or so with his head out the car window and his eyes closed. He is thrilled by the fact that he cheated death and he keeps trying to re-create that thrill by putting his life in danger. After haphazardly strolling across a busy freeway at rush hour without so much as a scratch, the formerly mild-mannered architect screams "You can't do it!" to the heavens. Laura, needless to say, is not pleased.
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She's even less thrilled when Max meets Carla Rodrigo, a devoutly religious young mother who survived the crash, but whose baby was ripped from her arms and killed by the force of the wreck. Carla's response to the trauma is the opposite of Max's. She is emotionally deadened by guilt and pain; he feels more alive than he's ever been. They are the only two crash victims that Dr. Perlman, the psychiatrist hired by the airline, cannot reach in therapy. If the film has a shortcoming it's that the doctor gets a lot of screen time early on, then disappears after he brings Max and Carla together in hopes that they can help ease each other back into the real world.
It seems like a good plan at first, until Max matter-of-factly announces to his wife, "I have a feeling of overwhelming love for her [Carla]. I've never felt anything like it."
The rest of the story is pretty predictable, but exceptionally well-acted. Tom Hulce is delightfully sleazy as Brillstein, a supremely cynical small-time wrongful-death attorney hired by Jeff's widow, Carla's husband, and Max to sue the airline. John Turturro brings to the part of Dr. Perlman more weight than it deserves, which makes his absence from the final fifteen minutes that much more noticeable. And Rosie Perez as Carla gets to sink her teeth into one of those juicy, anti-glamorous, gritty survivor roles that actresses love because it means they will be taken seriously. Her agent should be thrilled.
But no one fares better than Jeff Bridges. Mr. Insouciant turns in another in his long series of fine performances. Unlike his high-strung New York method-acting brethren, Bridges never lets you see him break a sweat. His Max Klein is exactly the kind of off-kilter anti-hero we've come to expect to see Lloyd Bridge's little boy playing, and the mellow thespian doesn't disappoint. He's a relaxed throwback to the old remember-your-lines-and-hit-your-marks school of acting. Spencer Tracy would be proud.