December 31, 2014

The Imitation Game and The Gambler

If you’re homophobic, or you have homophobic friends, please take them to see The Imitation Game. It may be the best defense of gay people ever made, in that it depicts the closeted British mathematician, Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), essentially saving the entire free world from the Nazis. In return, because he’s a homosexual, his government charges him with indecency and forces him to undergo hormone “therapy” that chemically castrates him—to try and curb his homosexual desires. It’s amazing how little the movie has to deviate from the truth and still be both an astonishing tale of human achievement in the face of grave circumstances and a heartbreaking, infuriating look at the ways supposedly civilized creatures treat each other.

The story of Alan Turing is more compelling than this film adaptation of his turbulent life, set specifically during the Second World War when he and several other geniuses began trying to crack Germany’s Enigma machine. The group soon realizes that deciphering Germany’s messages—the codes of which are constantly changing—will take a human millions of years. However, Turing theorizes that a machine could be made to do the work much more quickly. What Turing invents—as the movie very obviously points out in the end—is one of the first computers.

The Imitation Game is an amazingly conventional film considering the unconventional person it portrays. It’s polished in every way, lavishly laying on an Englishness that feels somehow very Hollywoodized, very calculated to fit an American’s idea of England. The screenwriter, Graham Moore, and the director, Morten Tyldum, are working with a lot of big, emotional themes and situations, such as war and human sexuality and, more simply, human understanding. But the most complex emotional themes they touch on are never fully fleshed out. Those being Turing’s secret sexual proclivities and the fact that once the code-breakers finally do crack Enigma, they’re forced to keep it a secret, using their information to help the Allies without letting anyone know that they’ve accomplished their task. (Germany would simply change their codes and all the work would be wasted, the war prolonged, and more lives lost.)

The film doesn’t seem to know how to handle these themes that well. One of the code-breakers, Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) realizes that his brother is on a ship that’s about to be attacked by German U-Boats, but the others insist that saving the ship would be disastrous, alerting the Germans of their success at cracking the Enigma machine. There’s a fleeting moment where everyone tears up and Peter is later pissed off at Turing, but the movie never mentions this specifically again. It forgets—the way conventional Hollywood movies do—this very complex, rich emotional problem.

Turing’s homosexuality, which is made sympathetic by all means, is also left unexplored. It’s used mainly as a device for the film, which is split into three stretches of time that are woven together intermittently: the late 1920s, when Alan was a teenager at a boys school, the main period of the film, World War II, and then 1951, when Turing, whose work was still classified, was being investigated by the police who thought he might be a Soviet spy and who then accidentally discovered he was gay. Anyone who knows the story of Alan Turing knows that his life takes an exceedingly dark turn after the war, and that so much of this has to do with English purity laws that, frankly, probably made criminals out of a lot of married heterosexual people too. But somehow, as much as the film tries to humanize Alan Turing, it never examines this subject with any freshness or depth. The biggest emotional beats of The Imitation Game feel the shallowest in terms of their realization.

Turing is portrayed as a typical genius, unable to relate to most people and hampered by his lack of social grace. Keira Knightley, as fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke, makes it her mission to humanize Turing to the other men with whom he’s working. Knightley is quite good, a real trooper and a smart, scientific-minded woman making her way in what is still very much a man’s world. Cumberbatch is fine, but his frequent blubbering feels like a sympathy grab for an Oscar. His Alan Turing doesn’t number among his most interesting performances. I have no idea how successfully (or not) he emulates the real Alan Turing, but the performance feels gimmicky, like a textbook portrait of a man with Asperger’s. (Or maybe it’s just a reiteration of his turn as Sherlock Holmes.) He’s like Hollywood’s British version of one of those guys on The Big Bang Theory.

But, the movie is still effective. It has funny moments, powerful moments, a race-against-time plot, and, as I said before, it may soften viewer’s hearts toward the plight of an entire group of people. With Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allan Leech, and Rory Kinnear.

The Gambler—Mark Wahlberg’s latest vehicle—isn’t nearly as put together. It’s a slick study of addiction, but it’s also a complete and utter mess, confusing and weird, rambling and hard to follow. Wahlberg plays an English professor who’s secretly addicted to gambling. He gets in some pretty deep debt and then turns to his mother, played by Jessica Lange, as a rich bitch with genuine softness under her toughened-by-the-men-in-her-life exterior. Lange’s brief moments on screen are the brightest, and the movie quickly descends into a land without logical plot points. I did occasionally drift off to sleep, but I think it was still confusing, even if I’d been completely lucid. And there are times when Wahlberg’s dialogue is absolutely incoherent. He talks faster than he’s ever talked, and the stuff he says doesn’t sound all that important anyway. He uses his lecture class to berate his students for being conventional, and then he uses one of them—the star basketball player—to throw a game. (And he gets romantically involved with another student, a girl who works at one of his favorite casinos.) If this had been made by gambling addicts who put the film together in under 48 hours, it might explain some of its labyrinthine confusion. If you see it, let me know if I’m right or if I was just too sleepy to follow it.

Directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by William Monohan (an adaptation of the 1974 film starring James Caan). With John Goodman, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, Anthony Kelley, and George Kennedy, in a cameo as Wahlberg’s dying grandfather.

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