December 5, 2012

EJO Review: Caught

Caught is the greatest movie ever, if only because there's a distinct possibility that Tommy Wiseau saw it and thought, "I can do that!" Carl Eusebius's dream evening is to watch this film and then The Room to see how little it takes to make a decent movie like this and then how badly a terrible filmmaker can cock it up. Oh who am I kidding, any evening that involves watching The Room is a dream evening.

Caught is a remake of the 429 BC Greek film Oedipus the King. It opens with fish struggling to escape a fisherman's net (oh, I get it--caught!) while the soundtrack reminds us the Director's Cut of Blade Runner came out four years earlier. Joe (Edward James Olmos) and Betty (Maria Conchita Alonso) are a married couple who run a fish shop. That not one but both of the leads are Hispanic immediately marks the film as an independent production, so lavish spectacle will not be the order of the day. The couple take in homeless drifter Nick (Irish actor Irie Verveen, in his feature debut) to live in their home and work at the store. If you've ever seen a movie before (or if you read the title of this one), I think you can see where this is going.

So Caught is hardly original, and it's about 25 minutes too long, with the extra space filled by suddenly having a character do something we've had no indication is part of that character's behavior. (Okay, it also to tries to garner some sympathy for Nick after he betrays his adoptive father-figure, and it doesn't work since the scene is so contrived.) With a story like this, it's not about seeing something new but about seeing it done well. Once again, strong acting overcomes a pedestrian script so that we get a nice little movie. The best thing to be said about the script is that it doesn't cast any character as fully to blame or wholly innocent. Everyone behaves more or less like a real person (at least real in the context of a lurid erotic drama), and the ending is tragic yet attains a kind of satisfaction. It's hardly an achievement of cinema, but if your thing is tragedy, you could do a lot worse.

Since the picture stands or falls on the its performances, let's talk a bit about the acting, beginning with Olmos's Joe. It's a challenging role to play. We have to sympathize with why Betty would be dissatisfied with the marriage, but Joe can't be such a loser that we wonder why she hasn't just left this bum already. Betty tells Nick that Joe only really cares about fishing, and indeed, the character comes alive only when he's around fish, while at home, he's withdrawn and inattentive. So you can see why Betty might stay with him so long, as he's jolly and likeable when they're working together in the fish shop, and then be tremendously disappointed that all of that goes away when they're together at home, without the fish.

If anything, Alonso has an even tougher job, since she has to pretend to be a woman sexually dissatisfied with Edward James Olmos. She is definitely the aggressor when it comes to the relationship with Nick, but she brings it across not as a Desperate Housewife(tm) but as a woman reaching out for some passion and excitement. There's a wonderful scene in which, after her first tryst with Nick, Betty makes rice pudding for the two men. Joe, oblivious to what's happening, remarks that it's been 20 years since she last made him rice pudding. They then snuggle and embrace in a way they haven't to this point, presumably just as Betty has wanted for, oh, the last 20 years. In this simple scene, we realize that Joe is withdrawn, which makes Betty lash out, which makes Joe more withdrawn, which makes Betty lash out all the more, and on and on ad nauseum. All it took was for one of them to decide to break the cycle and make a kind gesture, which is then reciprocated. The tragedy is that it took an outsider to make it happen, and by then it's too late.

Which brings us to Nick, the biggest problem in the movie. Frankly, Verveen isn't very good in the role. I was astonished to learn that he won some shit award and critical praise for this performance. He's not awful, but he's significantly below the other three principle actors, and that nearly tanks the movie because his is the central performance. He has to be so smitten with Betty that he can't leave the situation, even though his utterly unnecessary voiceover continually assures us that he's about to. (Note to aspiring filmmakers: If you aren't making either a film noir or Clockwork Orange, no voiceover. Just, just don't.) He also has to be so captivating that Betty is willing to risk everything to continue their affair in her own house while her husband is in the next room. Indeed, in every one of their scenes, Alonso looks utterly captivated (though more by what she's doing than by Nick specifically) while Verveen just stares off into space with this look of either serenity or dopiness, I can't tell which. Even after this man has been told their relationship has been discovered by a third party, he does nothing, and Verveen doesn't remotely succeed in portraying a man so taken with his mistress that he wouldn't just walk away at this point. (He's a drifter, after all, who "likes to move around".) There's an exception, in the penultimate scene, with Verveen alone on camera forced to confront his betrayal of his adoptive father-figure. He's fine here (again, not great or anything), but whenever he's on the screen with the other three principles, he can't hold his own with them.

I said there were four principle actors, and that third party is the couple's son Danny (Steven Schub), a failed comedian living in Hollywood who, to absolutely no one's surprise, eventually returns home unexpected, and the lovers are caught. (Whoops! Sorry to blow that for you.) Schub's work is quite good here, as he's totally believable as a comic trying to make it despite the fact he doesn't have it, right down to the not-very-funny jokes and the trying too hard. Danny doesn't catch his mother directly, but the evidence is there, and the movie toys with us for a long time about whether Danny has actually figured it out. He continually drops lines that could mean he knows, if you read them right, yet on the surface are plausibly deniable. Schub is so good selling this ambiguity that I suspect it was his favorite part of the role. After all, Danny's hostility may just stem from his anger at essentially being replaced by Nick as Joe's son: Nick stays in his room, wears his clothes, and cuts fish in the shop the way Joe always hoped Danny would. There's an effective bit of foreshadowing setting this up: Danny doesn't call his parents from Hollywood but periodically sends them videotapes of his act, how he's doing, what he has in the works. His parents watch these with rapt attention, until the scene in which they talk to Nick while Danny's latest video plays in the background, ignored.

I don't know if director Robert M. Young just didn't have control over the actors or if he specifically didn't present them with a single vision of what the film was to be about, but either way it actually works to the film's benefit. Because there's no one way to understand the characters, each actor is on her own page as far as her character and the other characters go. Which is just how it is with real people.

There are some rough bits. As I noted at the beginning, Danny commits an act that isn't set up at all; it seems to come out of nowhere just to pad out the running time. I recall checking the time code and wondering how there could be a half hour left since the story was pretty clearly wrapping up. The very next scene is Danny's out-of-the-blue moment, so we can add twenty minutes of filler. And it's a shame, because the film had been pretty even-handed dealing with its characters up to that point.

A real estate developer who wants to buy Joe's fish shop is named Donald Crump. (Come on, really?) When Nick appears shirtless in front of Betty, only a few days after he's been in the house, the actor's ripped bod doesn't look anything like a man who's been living on the street for as long as the film implies. Near the end of the film Betty declares that she loves Nick, even though the characters have shared virtually no romantic interaction outside of their illicit sex. Betty should know better than to think this is love. Indeed, Alonso seems to know better, playing the character as if she has real love for no one but Joe throughout the film, and this declaration of love is the only time her performance rings false.

As noted, the movie isn't ground-breaking. In fact, it's so predictable I felt like I'd written the script myself (at least until Danny's out-of-the-blue moment, because I immediately thought of a better way to bring about the climax given the situation the film presented). But the acting is strong, the characters behave in believable ways in the context of the story and world they inhabit, a character makes a choice in the age-old conflict between loyalty to the state and piety to one's father (the right choice, in fact), and the final scenes are a satisfying conclusion, particularly the very last scene. Everyone in the tragedy suffers and the ending can in no way be called "happy", but the most despicable of the characters gets what's coming to him, which is more than I hoped for. If you prefer your erotic thrillers grounded and not tawdry, contemplative and not flippant, Caught might be your cup of tea.

1 comment:

  1. How could anyone cheat on Joe? I mean, the guy looks great for his age and he has a nice voice. To me, I haven't seen him in a bad role. I'd probably dislike Betty for ditching him! Yes, every homeless man is a "10".