Movie Review of REALITY and THE WE AND THE I by Howard Casner

Reality, the new movie written by Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Braucci, Matteo Garrone, and Massimo Gaudioso (God, I’m exhausted just from typing all the names) and directed by Garrone (all of whom also gave us the incredible true mafia movie Gomorrah) opens ironically with a God’s eye view of a fancy gold colored carriage with plush, red seats drawn by white horses gaily prancing down a road in Naples, the hooves almost perfectly timed to the delightful music composed by Alexandre Desplat (who else), music that almost sounds as if it could be found in any animated fairy tale. Then the carriage pulls through some gates and continues until it stops outside a gazebo. A footman opens the door and a bride and groom step out, walking to two boxes and releasing a covey of doves, proceeding on to join throngs of people in way too fancy outfits who are waiting for them at a reception. It’s a wonderful and mesmerizing scene. Exciting. Thrilling.

But after the reception is over, the people go home. They take off their spangly clothes, their false eyelashes, their nice suits, their make up and they get ready for bed, the women wearing old lady half stockings, the men in underwear and black socks, their aging bodies full of flab falling over their waistlines, until we are back to reality.

The basic story of Reality revolves around Luciano, a hard working fishmonger and petty crook (he has some odd con job going on that has people order pasta making robots and then reselling them). He’s just that kind of guy that everybody loves. He’s a great father, generous, gregarious. At weddings he dresses in drag and does a bit that always brings down the house no matter how many times the audience has seen it. A bit pompous, perhaps, and an attention junky, but, hey, no one’s perfect. And his world, his reality, is just right…until his children beg him to audition for Big Brother, the ultimate reality show.

In many ways, one shouldn’t empathize with Luciano. I mean, he wants to be on Big Brother, for god’s sakes. Who can feel for someone who wants to do something so petty and egocentric? But one does empathize with him. Partly because he’s so reluctant to do it at first and only goes through with the audition to please his family. But a great deal of the success of this movie has to be due to the incredible performance of Aniello Arena (in his movie debut of all things), who has eyes and a face that with a slight change of thought can tell you everything he’s thinking. And as he begins to buy into it, into the possibility of being on the show and the fame and fortune that can come from it, you see him slowly losing it, you see the paranoia grow, you see his psychological underpinnings crumbling. There’s something in his eyes that goes from bright to wistful and then dull in a split second that makes you want to cry for him.

However, before continuing on, no review of this film can be complete without talking about Arena’s story. He is not new to acting, just new to movies. He was once a member of the Italian mafia, a hit man who is in jail for killing three people. While incarcerated, he became involved in theater acting, ultimately traveling with a troupe where, whenever they reached a town, the non-prisoners would check into a hotel while he and his fellow inmates would register at the local prison. To act, he has been granted a sort of work-study release—he can only leave during certain times. Garrone wanted to use him as a hit man in Gomorrah, but the authorities thought that was just a tad too close to home. But now Garrone and the other writers have found a most amazing fit for this actor and the last sort a character you would think a former hit man could portray.

The movie grows gradually darker as another of the story’s irony grows: as Luciano watches Big Brother, becoming so obsessed he is glued to the set almost 24 hours a day, you come not only to realize how vulgar a show it is and how that, in certain ways, Luciano dodged a bullet by not appearing on it—it’s a show that’s insultingly far beneath him—you also realize, more and more, just how unrealistic the show is in comparison to Lucian’s life, or to anyone’s life, for that matter. In a way, Luciano gets his wish, another irony perhaps, in a sad, tragi-comedy of a finale.

A heartbreaking and surprisingly moving film.

The Way and the I is the new movie directed by Michel Gondry (the filmmaker trying to live down The Green Hornet and who has a penchant for using surrealism in his films—The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and written by Gondry, Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch (the last two being newcomers to the art of writing for the screen). The basic story follows a group of New York high school students as they take the last bus home on the final day of school before summer vacation starts.

At first, the movie is both fascinating and difficult and off-putting to watch. The vast majority of the characters are bullies, cruel pranksters, sociopaths in the making, if not there already. There is a reality to these characters, but they’re not pleasant to watch, especially since Gondry in many ways, doesn’t pass judgment or interpret them, but just lets them speak for themselves. And as many artists do, Gondry seems to find man’s inhumanity to man far more interesting and entertaining than the more optimistic and positive aspects of humankind—he tends to see this long bus ride, this very long bus ride, this extremely, incredibly long bus ride, as a remake of The Lord of the Flies (and who knows, maybe he’s right).

But in the end, the movie stopped going anywhere for me after awhile. One reason is the acting. Gondry employs an Italian neo-realistic approach here, using real teens in the roles (even the names of the characters are the names of the actors playing them). This has all the plusses and minuses of that aesthetic approach—sometimes a feeling of intense reality appears, at other times (a bit too often) the lines feel clunky and the characterizations come across as flat and bland. Another reason is that after awhile, the various stories don’t seem to really go anywhere and quickly feel repetitive and all on the same level. It becomes a bit tedious and even boring. In the end, the authors resolve various through lines and relationships, but more often than not, in rather familiar and formulaic ways, until what’s left is a movie that feels as if it is trying to be something new and original, but is ultimately just a bit too conventional with nothing that new or insightful to say.