Mike Nichols: The '00s
What Planet Are You From?
Wit (October 9/01)
Had Wit premiered in theaters rather than on HBO, there's no doubt that Emma Thompson would've received (at the very least) an Oscar nomination for her performance. But the subject matter of Wit evidently precluded its ability to be made for theatrical release (in this day and age, where teen comedies are all the rage, which studio is going to bankroll an edgy film about a woman's struggle with a fatal disease?), so it went straight-to-cable (in actuality, it was made specifically for HBO). Thompson stars as Vivian Bearing, an emotionally-distant professor who's forced to confront her various choices after she's diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Wit alternates between harshly realistic scenes of Vivian suffering the effects of her treatment, and more intimate, character-revealing sequences in which she expresses her regrets to a sympathetic nurse. The film is based on a play and the theatrical origins still remain far too evident - most clearly in the monologues delivered directly to the camera. Such antics prove to be entirely superfluous and serve only to obliterate any forward momentum the film may have been building up. Thompson admittedly performs these scenes well and it's easy to see why it may have been tempting to leave them in (ie it allows us to easily understand what the Thompson character is feeling), but it just doesn't work. Despite that, however, Wit is incredibly moving and features what is perhaps Thompson's finest performance. The dour subject matter and director Mike Nichols' unflinching approach may make this a difficult viewing, but it is rewarding.
Angels in America
Closer (December 2/04)
It'd be easy to over-praise Closer, simply because it's the sort of film that doesn't get made all that often. There's not much in the way of expository dialogue or diverting subplots to be found here; the film essentially consists solely of four characters talking and talking (and talking). Director Mike Nichols is, of course, no stranger to this sort of thing, having explored similar territory in 1966 with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like that film, Closer is concerned with the way men and women behave around each other - and the occasionally disastrous results. The film's cast - consisting of Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman - fills their respective roles perfectly, with Owen and Portman clear standouts. The latter, in particular, does a superb job and cements her status as a superb performer (a process she started earlier this year with Garden State). The film is based on the stage play by Patrick Marber, and like any film that's dependant on dialogue to propel the story forward, some sequences are more effective than others. Still, it's hard to resist the genuinely adult nature of the film - an increasingly rare thing these days.
Charlie Wilson's War
While there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of the various performances - Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, has never been better - Charlie Wilson's War ultimately succumbs to an overly and relentlessly talky vibe that prevents the viewer from connecting to the film's story or characters. Tom Hanks stars as Charlie Wilson, an easy-going congressman who strives to make a difference after learning of the brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Director Mike Nichols has infused the proceedings with a light-hearted sensibility that often seems at odds with the material's distinctly dark overtones, though this proves to be far less problematic than the oppressive degree to which screenwriter Aaron Sorkin emphasizes the political aspects of this true-life story. Sorkin's passion for the subject matter is palpable, to be sure, but the scripter proves unable to elicit even a fraction of that interest among viewers - something that stems directly from the surprising lack of depth within the various characters (ie these people are essentially just mouthpieces for Sorkin's increasingly heavy-handed views). The scant exceptions to this - ie Charlie's story about his childhood dog - are few and far between instances of speechifying that'd surely be more at home on C-SPAN, and it consequently seems clear that the movie will have a more positive impact on those viewers with a previously-existing affinity for the exceedingly dry subject matter.