Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Like To Think That You're Immune to the Stuff

This is not a review of Beautiful Boy - I already reviewed Beautiful Boy. Right here. But now that I've seen Ben is Back, the other "my son is a drug addict" movie from this year's ongoing Oscar Season starring a young Oscar nominee from last year (replacing Timothee Chalamet here with Lucas Hedges), well now I have to say I wish I could go back and put a little more passion, a little more oomph, into my Beautiful Boy review. Because I spent a lot of Ben is Back thinking about how that earlier movie got so much of this right, so much that Ben is Back was mucking up at every turn. Ben is Back made me appreciate Beautiful Boy more.

The first half an hour or so it didn't seem like it would be that way. Ben is Back starts out well, although funny enough it does so by mirroring a scene from Beautiful Boy, with the addict son showing up to his parents house while they're out to maybe rob them in order to get drugs. But Ben is Back swivels onto its own firm footing once Ben's mother, played with ever increasing determination by Julia Roberts, shows up - the tension recedes as that smile of her expands, and we sigh. Nothing can be that bad if Julia's smiling!

The next few scenes chip chip chip away at that longtime trustworthy trope, though - everybody is working their tails off to make Julia stop smiling! It's terrorism, I tell ya. In all seriousness these first scenes are the strongest of the film - they situate all the family and their just under-the-surface tensions with a lot of grace, and Julia and Lucas has a lovely, natural chemistry opposite each other. They feel firm and believable, and that emotional base between them locks us in longer than it should as the movie goes out of its way, time and again, to be anything but firm and believable from there on.

Where Beautiful Boy got criticized for leaning hard into realism, for taking its time to slog through the repetitive cycle of relapse, Ben is Back decides, wrongly I should add, that a better course of action would be instead to become in its latter half an undercooked action-thriller involving a kidnapped dog. It's a small chase movie, people get things strapped to their undercarriages, cars are stolen, Julia barfs in the street. She screams in a cemetery and she starts snapping off cuss-laced Erin-Brockovitch-esque zingers at everybody she meets.

I suppose the film's intention is to show the disruption, the chaos, that addiction brings into normal people's lives, but its hard turn into strange caper territory just ends up reading as facile, and unbecoming toward the emotional truths it starts straining for. And when things get serious it's not really possible to take this unserious movie seriously any longer. 

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