Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog)

I recently read an interview with Elliott Gould in which he described himself as a “jazz actor,” and watching Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, I realized that the same label could be applied to Nicolas Cage. In his signature roles, Cage doesn’t adopt a straightforward approach to characterization, but rather treats the script as the theme and proceeds to riff on the material he’s given. In many ways, Lt. Terence McDonagh is the ultimate Cage performance, full of unorthodox acting choices that work beautifully. Cage goes over the top all right, but it never feels like he’s simply hamming it up for the hell of it. Everything works in the context of the character, from his repeated dialogue quirks (dig his disbelieving chuckle whenever he mentions the henchman “G”) to the character’s outlandish behavior. It would be sort of unbearable if Cage appeared to be breaking a sweat, but he inhabits the character so fully that he seems completely in control even in the character's craziest moments.

Take the already legendary bit in which McDonagh turns up to interrogate an old woman, delivering a half-crazed monologue while shaving with an electric razor. On the one hand, it’s an almost surreal touch. But unlike, say, Marlon Brando offering George C. Scott a Milk Dud in The Formula, it makes a certain amount of sense- McDonagh’s been going nonstop for three days, and he’s become so blinkered by the case (and so strung-out on drugs) that he no longer has time to shave at home. And if it disorients the woman, so much the better.

Similarly, BL: PoCNO can be seen as a spiritual cousin to The Long Goodbye. Like Altman’s film (which- whaddya know- stars Gould), Herzog’s is a genre offering that’s not content to color inside the lines, inside using the framework to explore the confines of the formula. And if Herzog’s film isn’t the masterpiece that Altman’s is, it’s less because his material isn’t as good- although it’s hard to beat Chandler’s best novel for source material- but because the filmmakers’ approaches to genre exploration are difference. Altman exploded the detective mystery by transplanting a 1940s story to the alien world of 1970s Los Angeles, thereby exploring the contrasts of the genre conventions to the morality of the later period.

By contrast, Herzog couldn’t care less about the genre in which he works, treating the script as almost an excuse to chase after the things that really interest him- New Orleans post-Katrina, the implacability of nature (those iguanas!), and a hero so rotten that he poisons damn near everyone he encounters. Even psychoanalysis gets thrown out the window here- none of the Catholic guilt of the first film. Instead, Herzog and Cage make McDonagh a guy who has so much fun being bad that it becomes infectious. It’s this sense of fun that makes BL: PoCNO something of a tough nut to crack- it’s rare to find a movie that invites us to enjoy a character this irredeemable, after all. But in the hands of Herzog and Cage (two great surrealist tastes that taste great together), it’s more than a guilty pleasure- it’s one of the year’s most irresistible entertainments.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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