James Gray’s 1920’s-set period piece is an admirable drama that falls just short of being a truly compelling tale. Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix give it their all as frightened immigrant Ewa and her eventual friend/captor/love interest Bruno, a manipulative peepshow manager whose true profession goes by the name of “pimp.” Darius Khondji’s cinematography and Happy Massee’s production design are impeccable and lend a hand in evoking a time and place that’s quickly disappearing in America’s rear-view mirror. The first half of the film expertly tracks Cotillard’s character from a skittish, frightened immigrant to a woman who’s been hardened by the fist she’s been dealt, a woman whose desperation has wrought an edge that will not go down quietly. It’s the second half of the film where Gray’s handle on the material becomes shaky, as Jeremy Renner’s Orlando the Magician takes a shining to Ewa, much to the chagrin of his rival Bruno, thus leading to all sorts of convoluted shenanigans. Ewa likes Orlando. Orlando likes Ewa. But see, Bruno LOVES Ewa. Or does he? All of this leads to the requisite death of a character, one whom shortly before dying had revealed his true colors, a stark transformation that kinda-sorta comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. Regardless of its flaws, “The Immigrant” largely succeeds on the shoulders of the radiant Cotillard and the brooding Phoenix, their last scene together conjuring a brand of old-timey dramatic sparks that is rarely seen these days. And that closing shot is a doozy.
This film is Michael Bay at his most sordid, which is usually a good thing. I don’t care what anyone says…Bad Boys 2 is a blast. “Pain and Gain,” following the true story of Daniel Lugo and his fellow compatriots who committed kidnapping, extortion, torture, and murder in the name of their own perverted idea of the American dream, well…it’s not a good thing. It’s a hodge-podge of characters who are seemingly intended to be likable, but consistently commit such ridiculous and vile acts that even the most dissensitized among us (yours truly) can’t help but squirm in our seat of choice as we watch the admittedly fascinating events unfold on screen. It’s apparent about halfway through that it might’ve been a futile enterprise attempting to craft a story around these men, at least in terms of using them as protagonists. Granted, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is his usual charismatic self as an ex-con turned religious pit bull of a puppy dog, a guy trying to turn his life around but who’s too dumb to say no to the only guys offering him friendship. Mark Wahlberg is operating in the realm of his typical tough-guy screen persona, only with a dash (more than a dash actually) of stupidity, and Anthony Mackie’s “Adrian” is quickly lost amongst the cocaine, strippers, and severed thumbs. By the time the carpet in his new house is soaked with blood, the icky factor overwhelms any entertainment that might be had.