Director Tony Kaye’s temperament is, even by Hollywood standards, legendarily dark. Watching his latest film, “Detachment,” it appears that the anger is very much still present and not entirely under control.
The film stars Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who’s taken a month-long job in a Queens high school, where he bears witness to a crumbling educational system that is breaking the spirit of teachers, students, administrators and councilors alike. He spends his days visiting his aging grandfather who is quickly descending into dementia, as evidenced by his frequent conversations with Henry’s long dead mother, while holed up in an assisted living home. It goes without saying that Henry’s is a bleak and solitary life—even is home is a sparsely decorated studio with no TV or stereo and few books in sight.
Brody is remarkable, conveying more pain with his eyebrows than most actors can muster with the whole of their being, and his readings of screenwriter Carl Lund’s dialogue are brimming with the pain and rage that come with experience and wisdom.
Though the film is set in a high school and is clearly the focus of Kaye and Lund’s despair, the cancer they see eating at society pervades most every corner: the nuclear family, the government, the medical industry and the “marketing Holocaust” we live in that is teaching this generation’s young women that they need to be pretty to be happy, while also teaching the young men that women are little more than commodities.
“You’ve been f***** and thrown away so many times you’ve gotten used to it,” Henry tells one teenage girl.
But Lund’s story spreads itself too thin as almost every teacher—an all-star cast including Christina Hendricks, Marcia Gay Harden, Tim Blake Nelson, Blythe Danner, James Caan and Lucy Liu—gets a moment or a backstory, usually one that is pointedly polemical. When you’ve got a lot of people who want to say things, you get pressed for time and your art suffers.
Not only does Kaye fail to rein in Lund’s plot, he allows himself to thrash about as well. He nails some moments, investing them with heartfelt eloquence at times, but the swings and misses come almost as ferociously. It’s maddeningly uneven and undisciplined.
“Detachment” achieves some moments of great power thanks to Brody’s expressiveness and passion, but Kaye’s isn’t quite equal to the task.
"Detachment" is showing April 27, 29 & 30 as part of the Tribeca Film Festival