Seeking Justice

The new Nicolas Cage movie—wait, don’t bolt!—is kind of fun, actually. It’s a cartoon vigilante film with a nice line in gaudy villains, and while it doesn’t make, shall we say, complete sense, it’s worth a look. Maybe a Netflix kind of look, as opposed to a 10-bucks-plus-parking-and-popcorn kind, but that would depend on the extent of your face-palming obsession with the wayward Cage oeuvre.

This time out our man is a sparsely goateed New Orleans high school teacher named Will Gerard. Will is married to a knockout blonde named Laura (January Jones), who is—why not, since it has no bearing on the plot—a cellist. One night, on a dark street, Laura is raped, robbed, and beaten. Will rushes to the hospital, where he’s approached by a strange bony man in a black suit and a severe buzzcut. His name is Simon (Guy Pearce), and he not only knows Laura’s name, he also knows who raped her. “We can take care of this,” he says. And there’ll be no charge—although Will may have to do Simon an unspecified “favor” at some time in the future.

Will could just say yes or no to this proposal, but, this being a Nicolas Cage movie, pointless convolution is to be preferred. Simon tells Will to indicate his decision by going to the vending machine in a nearby hospital snack room and purchasing either one or two candy bars. This scene goes on rather longer than you might think absolutely necessary, but in the end Will opts for two candy bars. That would be a yes.

So Laura’s rapist is anonymously dispatched, his executioner calling in the hit by phone with the words “The hungry rabbit jumps”—a mysterious code phrase that goes on being mysterious for the rest of the movie. Will moves along with his life, but some months later Simon reappears to call in that favor, ordering Will to carry out a hit of his own, on a vicious child-molester.

Things get complicated, and intermittently laughable, very quickly. The child-molester turns out to be a source of several surprises. There’s a frame-up, a wild chase through traffic, a letter to Santa Claus, that sort of thing. At one very odd point, a copy of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry also comes into play. In addition, we are reminded yet again that whenever an insane killer has a gun pointed at your face and is steadily tightening his finger on the trigger, the best thing to do is tell him he’s insane, which will cause him to lower his weapon and waste useful time debating the point with you.

Cage paddles through this chowder of lurid confusion with his usual straight face and dauntless commitment—he doesn’t phone it in. And director Roger Donaldson keeps his foot planted so firmly on the action pedal that you might not notice some of the sillier plot details winging by (although they’ll surely occur to you later). The movie’s not a classic, as you’ve no doubt gathered, but it’s an enjoyably loopy genre exercise. Connoisseurs of the Nic will need no further recommendation.         

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jeff (Jason Segel) is a man in search of signs. Unmoored by the death of his father 15 years ago, he’s now 30 years old, unemployed, and still living at home with his mom, Sharon (Susan Sarandon). Jeff is waiting for fate -- for his destiny—to find him. He has watched Signs, the M. Night Shyamalan movie, many times, and has taken to heart its message that there are no coincidences in life, only beacons of meaning. Doing bong hits in the basement one day, he receives a wrong-number phone call seeking someone named Kevin. Jeff doesn’t know any Kevins, but now, sensing yet another sign, he sets out to find one. “What if there are no wrong numbers?” he wonders.

In Jeff, Who Lives at Home, the writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass, onetime mumblecore kings, have fashioned a sweet parable about a man’s search for purpose in a world of drifting indifference. The picture has some inventively constructed scenes that stay with you, and some agreeably modulated comic performances, especially by Segel, whose good-natured shlub with something unexpectedly serious on his mind warms the whole movie.

Jeff’s younger brother Pat (Ed Helms) appears to be less of a mess than his muddled sibling. He’s married and has a pretty good job. But it’s Pat who has never really grown up. He sneaks off for midday “business meetings” at the local Hooters, and treats his wife Linda (Judy Greer) as little more than a requisite accessory in his life. She wants them to save up for a house and have kids. He wants to buy a Porsche they can’t afford. He never really listens to her, and it’s driving her nuts. In fact, it may be driving her toward a more sympathetic man. “I need to find out what’s going on,” Pat tells Jeff suspiciously, “so I’ll have the upper hand later.”

The plot is cleverly woven. In the midst of his search for a Kevin, Jeff suddenly finds himself caught up with Pat in tailing Linda, to see what she’s up to. Meanwhile, at the office where their mother works, Sharon, who has never remarried, is receiving mysterious IMs on her computer from a “secret admirer.” Her coworker Carole (Rae Dawn Chong) sees this as an excellent thing—a sign, maybe. “You need to get your pipes cleaned,” she tells her too-long-single colleague.

As the characters are steadily drawn toward the movie’s elaborate conclusion, the directors engineer some radiant moments. In one scene, when a fire alarm triggers the sprinkler system at Sharon’s office and her coworkers scurry for the exits, she stays behind, raising her eyes ecstatically toward the ceiling as water sprinkles down like a tropical shower on the parched life she had once hoped never to have. And when Sharon finally meets her secret admirer, and they kiss, Sarandon—even though confined in a profile shot—manages to convey both resistant hesitation and grateful surrender with the tiniest of facial shifts. After more than 40 years of making movies, she’s still a reliable wonder—this time in a little movie that’s quietly worthy of her work.

Delicacy

Delicacy tells the story of a princess who kisses a frog, notes that he doesn’t turn into a prince, then decides she kind of likes the frog the way he is. The movie is very French in the way that it illuminates a simple story with precise comic detail. It’s a little too long and deliberately paced, but its star, Audrey Tautou—whose elfin face will be familiar from such past films as Amélie and the regrettable Da Vinci Code—carries you through the slow spots; and there’s a wonderfully galumphing performance by François Damiens, playing a frog that any woman—after some thought—might well love.

Tautou is Nathalie, a young executive in the Paris branch of a Swedish company of obscure undertakings. Widowed for three years after her husband died in a tragic jogging accident, Nathalie has been devoting her life entirely to her job, with occasional time-outs to fend off the silky come-ons of her handsome boss, Charles (Bruno Todeschini). In denial about her loneliness, Nathalie slowly becomes aware of a fellow worker named Markus (Damiens), a tall, balding Swede with a goofy smile and an unfortunate taste for sagging khakis and hopeless beige sweaters. Markus is already smitten, but he has no gift for come-ons. When she drops by his office, he plays her lame Scandinavian music (“Contemporaries of ABBA!”). Eventually, he stirs her serious interest with a gift of a Pez dispenser.

Charles is baffled by Nathalie’s attraction to this big lug, and calls him in for closer inspection. “A sense of humor,” he muses. “You’re funny is that it?”

Well, partly. As Markus and Nathalie bond further, through a disastrous party thrown by some of her sleek friends (he naturally knocks over a bottle of pricey wine) and a trip out to the country to visit her grandmother, we come to see that Markus—a man as plain as a plate of pickled herring—has a previously unappreciated romantic heart.

The movie is based on a hugely popular French novel by David Foenkinos, who co-directed the film with his brother, Stéphane. It’s a picture with no surprises—the story is entirely schematic. But it has considerable charm, and some gentle laughs, and a large romantic heart of its own.

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.