Monday, May 26, 2014


The Angriest Man in Brooklyn is an example of a movie that probably sounded good on paper but wasn't worth the effort.  This is a shame, because Robin Williams and Mila Kunis act their proverbial asses off.

It's directed by Phil Alden Robinson, who has worked only sporadically since he scored a surprise hit many years ago with Field of Dreams. I'm not sure why this particular project dragged him out of what was probably a cozy retirement, unless he felt it was "important" or "meaningful." It's neither. It's one of those "stop and smell the roses" movies, where a dying man tries to mend some old relationships. The gimmick is that this particular dying man has only 90 minutes left. Again, it probably sounded great at pitch meetings.

Williams plays Henry Altmann, a Brooklynite who spends his days in a state of perpetual road rage. When he complains of headaches, his doctor (Mila Kunis) informs him that he's suffered a brain aneurysm. It's a serious situation, but she's in a mood because her life isn't going well, and Altmann keeps yelling at her, demanding to know how much time he has left. She can't take his yelling so she blurts out that he has only 90 minutes. In a panic, Altmann starts racing around Brooklyn, trying to sew up some old problems before he suffers a final seizure. In a short time, he stops at the law firm where he works and has a cryptic conversation with his brother (Peter Dinklage); he speeds home and  learns that his wife is having an affair; he invites 25 old friends to meet him at a local deli for a farewell lunch (only one person shows up); and after making a video for his estranged son, he wanders out to the Brooklyn bridge from where he plans to jump. Meanwhile, Kunis races after him, to apologize, or get him to a hospital, or something.

What I want to know is this: Why, during one of the board meetings where movie ideas are discussed, didn't someone stop and ask, "He does all of this in Brooklyn?" No one gets around quickly in Brooklyn. In this movie, people hail cabs with ease, where in the Brooklyn that I know, it can sometimes take 90 minutes just to hail a cab. The Brooklyn of this movie is also shockingly clean, as if it had been vacuumed before filming began. It's a Brooklyn of opulence, where middle class people live in over-sized sprawling apartments that no one could afford. Even when Altmann stumbles across a group of homeless people, they seem pretty well organized, and not too unhappy. They're even handy with video equipment. And how Kunis' character could make such an irresponsible gesture as to tell a man he has only 90 minutes to live boggles the mind.

Still, the actors try to elevate this movie with shear brio. Williams has always been excellent in serious roles, and he's excellent here. That is, when the script allows him to be excellent. The script occasionally indulges in poor taste, such as when Altmann, pressed for time, runs into a camera store to buy a recorder. James Earl Jones is the proprietor, and in one of the cheapest jokes of the year, Jones stutters, meaning Altmann has to wait a few seconds longer than he wants. The stuttering gag goes on and on  until Altmann starts mocking Jones. Jones, in turn, stutters his way into saying "Fuck you." It's not funny. (Jones, incidentally, is a real life stutterer who has told many touching stories about overcoming his affliction.)

Williams is a whirlwind of profanity as Altmann, but after a half hour the cursing begins to feel empty. Williams is more effective when he reaches the point where words cannot express his feelings, and he can only close his eyes and turn red.  Also, since Williams is playing man of intelligence and wit, the cursing feels forced. Excessive swearing and street talk is for the ignorant and impotent. I can understand Altmann feeling helpless in the face of impending death, but the swearing feels too much like the work of a screenwriter who can think of no other way to express anger.

Even Kunis gets into the act, at one point kicking a cab driver in the stomach and using a common vulgarity. Perhaps actors feel liberated when they receive a script full of cursing, or perhaps they know they'll get a few cheap, unearned laughs. ("Look at little Mila Kunis, swearing up a storm!") There's also a ridiculous scene where Louis C.K., as another doctor, humps Kunis in a hospital storage room. Since Kunis served as one of the movie's executive producers, she must have thought that all the swearing and humping would be a nice break for her. She tries, though, and even though Kunis occasionally turns shrill, she's reasonably successful in her serious scenes.

I wonder how the movie would have played if it had been filmed in a seedier section of town, with the cheap laughs excised. There are also unneeded voice over narrations by Williams and Kunis, describing how their characters felt. Cut those, too. Cut anything that is not in service to the story. Then again, I'm not sure that the makers of this movie knew exactly what they wanted to say. It's allegedly based on another screenplay, something called 'The 92 Minutes of Mr. Baum" by Assi Dayan, an actor/writer/director from Israel. It was Americanized by Daniel Taplitz, who has worked almost exclusively in television, which might explain the rampant cursing in the film. Tell a man he's writing for the big screen, and the vulgarities come spewing out. In fact, the last two words of the screenplay are "Fuck you," which I would like to say to Taplitz and Robinson.

The scene that could have been a movie in itself takes place at the deli. Altmann has invited 25 old friends to meet him, but only one arrives, an oafish character played by Richard Kind. The two men sit awkwardly and engage in some small talk. Kind eventually brings up an old hurt from the past, something about Altmann stealing one of is girlfriends in high school. Altmann doesn't even remember it. I could have used 90 minutes of this scene. It played like something from Edward Albee, full of tension and weirdness. Instead, Williams and Kind start swearing at each other, and Williams storms out. Kind stays behind, stuffing his face. Robinson and Taplitz may have wanted to make a movie that said something about life and death, but they think so little of the modern movie audience that they peppered it with vulgar language and fat guys chewing with their mouths open. What a shame.

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