Inseparable (2011)

2014 #68
Dayyan Eng | 97 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | China / English & Mandarin | 15 / PG-13

InseparableI’m a great advocate of tonally-mismatched films. When others are moaning that there’s too much darkness mixed in with their light fluffy film, I’m the one saying, “um, guys, have you ever lived in, y’know, real life?” Which probably explains why most of the internet reacts with anything between ambivalence and hatred towards Inseparable, whereas I really enjoyed it.

The film opens with office drone Li (Daniel Wu) trying to hang himself, when he’s interrupted by his new American neighbour (Kevin Spacey). From there the pair form a strange friendship, with Spacey encouraging his conservative new friend to open up and be a bit freer — which, eventually, leads them to don funny outfits and set out to fight crime.

Yep, this is a “real-life superhero” movie… but only a little bit. If you’re searching for a comparison, it’s more Super than Kick-Ass; but even then it’s only a small part of the movie, just an element that sells well, hence its prominence on posters. At the risk of spoilers, a closer comparison would be A Beautiful Mind. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unfair to summarise the tone and content as “A Beautiful Mind meets Super”.

Pre-superClearly this will not be to everyone’s taste. Even at just over an hour-and-a-half it’s sometimes a little draggy, and the mishmash of kooky comedy with serious themes — not only suicide, but Li’s faltering marriage and the reasons for that — will turn some off. Anyone who likes their superhero entertainments to be more po-faced won’t be best pleased, either.

All those things actively work for me, though. Inseparable may be imperfect, and has possibly only got Western attention as the first Chinese film to count an American star among its leads, but I’m glad it made that transition. It’s entertaining, perhaps thought-provoking, and if not a noteworthy entry into the “real-life superhero” subgenre (due to the minimising of that element), it is a worthwhile presence in a subgenre that can’t be named because it gives away the twist that’s a defining feature of that subgenre. It’s certainly less glum than A Beautiful Mind, anyway.

4 out of 5

A Beautiful Mind (2001)

2014 #39
Ron Howard | 135 mins | Blu-ray + download (HD)* | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

A Beautiful MindThe big winner at the 2002 Oscars (four gongs from eight nominations), A Beautiful Mind adapts the true story of John Nash (Russell Crowe), a Cold War-era mathematics student at Princeton who hit upon a groundbreaking theory and ended up working covertly for the government…

Reviewing A Beautiful Mind is initially a choice between spoiling or not. There’s a Big Twist that they skilfully kept out of the advertising, and which many people have done a fair job of keeping quiet for the past 13 years; but, unlike most Big Twists, this one isn’t at the end of the film — in fact, it’s pretty early on, and the bulk of the movie is spent dealing with its fall-out. As with any movie that’s based on a true story, there has to be something that makes the tale remarkable and worth adapting into fiction. Here, it’s actually the post-twist portion that’s the draw; so it was a clever feat of marketing to have found another “this is why it was made” element to sell to the public. That’s not an instance of the much- (and justly-) criticised bait-and-switch style of marketing, but instead an effective rug-pull. So I’ll try to maintain that.

Both sides of the reveal lean on the central performance, and Russell Crowe is up to the task. His initially twitchy, uncomfortable representation gives way to a fragile, broken, confused shell of a man, and both sides of the character are convincingly depicted. They’re also both a world away from the grandstanding military leaders of Gladiator, Master and Commander, Robin Hood, Les Misérables, et al, Crowe’s best-known and most-frequented screen persona. He didn’t win Best Actor — losing to an equally atypical turn from Denzel Washington in Training DayJennifer Connelly is in this picturebut the display of range probably merited it; perhaps more so, in retrospect, than his win for Gladiator the year before.

As Nash’s wife, Jennifer Connelly did take home the Supporting Actress trophy. It’s a less (for want of a better word) showy role, but like so many secondary leads in films with large central performances, her well-judged support props up the more obvious Acting of the lead.

Ron Howard is a safe pair of hands in the director’s chair. Early on the visuals occasionally display the easy familiarity of Heritage cinema, and if the rest doesn’t exactly transcend that then it at least stops being too distracting. The same isn’t always true of James Horner’s plinky-plonky music, which chooses to do things like score a car chase as if it’s a romantic scene. Different, at least, but feels more like a “look how changing only the music affects the mood” demonstration rather than a solid artistic choice. In fairness, in many other places the score is perfectly effective or, at worst, unobtrusive; but those action beats… It doesn’t need to be Hans Zimmer, especially as this really isn’t an action movie; but it distracted me, and that means it didn’t work.

Highly suspiciousA Beautiful Mind won Best Picture in spite of being up against the incredibly more innovative, entertaining, and game-changing double-bill of Moulin Rouge and The Fellowship of the Ring, which certainly says more about the predilections of the American Academy than the quality of films released in 2001 (innovation, entertainment and game-changing-ness aren’t among their favourite attributes). Still, it’s an interesting tale, well told, and excellently performed.

4 out of 5

* Another one. ^