All in the Work-Family 

Tavernier's act of grace, Newell's comedy of manners

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
Photo by Joe LedererBERTRAND TAVERNIER IS FOREVER FIGHTING WARS on behalf of Everyman. Even on his most dramatic canvas (world war in his masterpieces Life and Nothing But and 1996's Captain Conan, drug wars in L.627), God is in the details of people working together under pressure. The French director is uninterested in the work we commonly see in les French films (especially those beamed at American francophiles), which give the impression that half the country's labor force is in publishing, while the other half has nothing better to do than hang in Rive Gauche cafés, breathing extramarital anguish through their Gauloises. Like Victor Nunez's Ulee's Gold, Tavernier's new movie, It All Starts Today, digs deep into an ordinary life, and makes of it something sexy and romantic. With the stubby, careworn face of the miner's son that he is, Daniel Lefebvre (played with introverted intensity by Tavernier regular Philippe Torreton) would pass unnoticed in any crowd. But when the kindergarten teacher is in the classroom, his face comes alive with enjoyment of his own competence and the children's well-being. Their happiness begins and ends at school, for most of the parents in this poverty-stricken region of northern France are chronically unemployed, and their despair sometimes spills over into abuse or neglect of their kids. Daniel is passionately on the families' side and willing to fudge regulations for their sake. But like most passionate types he's a lousy diplomat, and frequently finds himself at war with hidebound bureaucrats who can't, or won't, respond to their clients' plight.

Caught between parents and the authorities, Daniel impulsively flouts the rules to protect two children at risk, and his action indirectly leads to tragedy. Chastened, he plays by the rules in a second crisis. That, too, gets him into hot water. Tavernier has the novelist's love of the particular and the everyday. It All Starts Today relies heavily on a hand-held camera, the preferred tool of directors for whom improvisation is the lifeblood of performance. Actors mingle unobtrusively with nonprofessionals (the children are taken from a real-life kindergarten class), and the testy camaraderie of Daniel and his staff, as well as Daniel and the caseworker (Nadia Kaci) who supports him in his battles, has the feel of a vibrant documentary. Yet the frankly lyrical voice-over of the teacher's journal, and the camera lingering over the lowering twilit sky that covers this desolate former mining town, wrings poetry from the pedestrian.

Even Tavernier, however, is unable to resist a small glamour attack. He has Daniel improbably shacked up with a sculptor and part-time barmaid played by Maria Pitarresi, a skinny beauty who'd look more in place stalking the fashion runways of Paris than serving beer in a one-horse provincial town. And Tavernier is not above a little creative deck-stacking. The school inspector is not just a representative of an indifferent bureaucracy, he's also a pompous, theory-spouting buffoon, while the local mayor weighs every policy decision for its vote-catching potential. It's no stretch to imagine that such people exist, but their treachery, measured against the shining nobility of Daniel and his fellow partisans, smacks of setup, and, worse, implies that the education apparatus is burdened not with a surfeit of regulations that alienate the school system from its goals, but with a surfeit of heartless jerks.

That's a common error of the committed, and a small one in the larger scheme of Tavernier's full-heartedly engaged filmmaking. Co-written by Tavernier, his daughter Tiffany and Dominique Sampiero, a teacher and writer, It All Starts Today is a potent smack in the eye for a social-service system so mired in politics and red tape that the right hand has no idea what the left is doing, and both hands are hopelessly detached from the constituency they are supposed to serve. If Tavernier is the Ken Loach of French agitprop -- like Loach, he's also an unrepentant moralist -- he's also the Mike Leigh of French storytelling, building rich histories for his characters, pulling back with a dispassionate gaze to allow his characters to live for themselves and for each other, rather than for us. The novelist's life, Nadine Gordimer once wrote, simultaneously requires an excessive involvement in the lives of others and what she calls a "monstrous detachment." I can think of no better description for the grand tension that transforms even a flawed Tavernier movie into an act of grace.

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THE CLEVEREST THING ABOUT BRITISH DIRECTOR Mike Newell's frisky movie about air-traffic controllers is that it's not a thriller. Pushing Tin does its action duty with some mildly nail-biting bits of business involving colliding computer blips, but the film is really a character comedy of mad manners, more M*A*S*H (not Altman's) than Airplane! Adapted by TV-sitcom veterans Glen and Les Charles (who wrote for M*A*S*H, as well as for Taxi and Cheers) from a New York Times article by Darcy Frey, Pushing Tin is a dapper little number with just enough soulfulness to avoid being glib. Newell can do glib (Four Weddings and a Funeral) with the best of them, but his most bracing work plays on the border between gallows humor and noir: An Awfully Big Adventure is his best comedy, while Dance With a Stranger and Donnie Brasco came laced with genuinely poetic, elegiac tones. Though Pushing Tin is finally too eager to please to say anything serious about the world it describes, there's more than enough genial malice in it to pep up your Saturday night.

Like cops or firefighters or any occupational group that works closely together under stress, air-traffic controllers are a tightly knit gang with near-Masonic codes of brotherhood. Yet if Pushing Tin is to be believed, they have more in common with addicts than with the police. The red-eyed crew of New York's hair-raisingly overloaded Terminal Radar Approach Control center are as wired a bunch of obsessives as you'd find this side of a computer hacker. They're overgrown schoolboys wedded to their work (which they regard as a computer game with high stakes), their locker-room masculinity (the obligatory woman on the job, played by comedian Vicki Lewis, is bulked up like some nightmarish Schwarzenegger parody) and the competitive solidarity that's intrinsic to heavily male jobs. So when Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) -- a monosyllabic loner equipped with a Harley, an Indian feather, a ludicrously young wife and a reputation for playing chicken with the safety rules -- joins the crew, hackles are raised. Especially those of the reigning tin-pusher, Nick Falzone (John Cusack), a caffeine-stoked rooster who's incapable of saying no to a dare even when no one's daring him.

Newell has cannily reversed the natural tendencies of his two leads. In the unevenly matched battle of brain and brawn that ensues between Nick and Russell, Cusack, an instinctive underplayer, is amped up into a frantic nutball, while Thornton, who given half a chance will chew all available scenery, delivers his lines with the grave composure of an undertaker. Russell, who knows exactly how (and with whom) to wind up his jittery rival, wages a war by suggestion that reduces Nick's work and his private life to rubble. Bolstered by fine supporting performances from Cate Blanchett, doing a creditable Ellen Barkin as Nick's wife, and Angelina Jolie, all lips and leopard skin as Russell's sullen better half, their symbiosis is so funny and, in the end, so endearing that you forgive Pushing Tin its shamelessly prime-time ending. Well, almost.

IT ALL STARTS TODAY (ÇA COMMENCE AUJOURD'HUI) | Directed by BERTRAND TAVERNIER | Written by DOMINIQUE SAMPIERO, TIFFANY TAVERNIER and BERTRAND TAVERNIER | Produced by ALAIN SARDE and FRÉDÉRIC BOURBOULON | At City of Lights, City of Angels: A Week of New French Films; see Film Calendar Special Events for further information.

PUSHING TIN | Directed by MIKE NEWELL Written by GLEN CHARLES and LES CHARLES Based on the article "Something's Got To Give" by DARCY FREY | Produced by ART LINSON Released by 20th Century Fox | Citywide

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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