The closing night of the Chicago Film Festival (Wednesday, October 29th) featured a tribute to Viggo Mortensen, whose film “Good” was screened after highlight clips of movies from Mortensen’s career were shown. The clips were great. I wish they had gone on forever. The love scene from 2005’s “A History of Violence” with Maria Bello on the staircase. (Hot! Hot! Hot!) The scene in “Hidalgo” with Mortensen turning his horse loose to join the herd. A memorable scene acting opposite Al Pacino in “Carlito’s Way.” A scene opposite Patricia Arquette in 1991’s “The Indian Runner” as Frankie. A death scene from “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”, where Mortensen played Aragon.
Mention was made of Mortensen’s upcoming role in “The Road,” the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel, and of his role in “Appaloosa” with Ed Harris. I longed for scenes from “Eastern Promises,” (remember the nude shower scene with the Russian Mafia?) which garnered him an Academy Award nomination. That was an extremely strong performance with the characteristic cool swagger that we know Mortensen can deliver so convincingly. His role this night in “Good” was not.
Mortensen, himself, took the podium (see picture) to accept his Hugo Award and commented, “I’m relieved to hear that this is not a life-time achievement award. I had some trepidation at first. I didn’t think I’d be put out to pasture just yet. I’m very grateful to still be around and employable.” Mortensen has just turned 50, yet looks and acts 10 years younger.
At the point that the film was to start, Mortensen welcomed co-star Jason Isaacs to the podium. Isaacs called Mortensen “a remarkable star” telling the audience how Mortensen brought him a stone from Auschwitz and visited Isaacs’ family to bond with him before they appeared onscreen as best friends John Halder and Maurice, his Jewish colleague. The Brazilian director Vicente Amorim also spoke, calling the film “a film very much like the choices we make every day in our everyday lives.” Previously, co-star Isaacs had said, “I felt it to be completely contemporary. Very, very beautifully subtle. (*I‘d say a little TOO subtle.) What is the right thing to do and how will I explain my actions to my children?”
Kidding around with the crowd before introducing Isaacs, Mortensen said, “He may sing a song or tell a joke. I’m not sure what he’ll do. He recently received a steroid injection for some undisclosed infection.” This seemed to amuse Viggo as he shared the odd anecdote. The guy’s an original and a little odd, from what I’ve read, and it came through onstage.
The program for the film festival showing of “Good” summarizes its plot this way: “Viggo Mortensen, in an extraordinary change-of-pace role as Professor John Halder. He plays a good, decent individual with family problems, a German literature professor in the 1930s. Halder explores his personal circumstances in a novel advocating compassionate euthanasia. When the book is unexpectedly enlisted by powerful political figures in support of government propaganda, Halder finds his career rising in an optimistic current of nationalism and prosperity. Yet, with Halder’s change in fortune, seemingly inconsequential decisions potentially jeopardize the people in his life with devastating effects.” The program further noted that the movie is based on the acclaimed play by C.P. Taylor.
It’s easy to understand that if the Nazis got hold of a book advocating euthanasia, they’d run with it to the limit and start offing half of those deemed less than perfect Aryan types. In fact, they did exactly this during World War II, as I remember from my trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., sweeping into hospitals and taking babies from their incubators, murdering the mentally defective, etc.
What is not easy to see is how Viggo’s somewhat wishy-washy character is as “good” as advertised in the title. He leaves his wife and two children to have an affair (and ultimately marry) a former student. This is “good?” Since when?
He is wishy-washy again when his best friend, Maurice, begs him for help in fleeing the country as the Nazis become increasingly violent towards those German Jews who have remained. Ultimately, John Halder does, in fact, attempt to get a ticket for Maurice to flee to Paris, but his new wife ann turns Maurice in to the authorities when he comes to the house to pick it up (at a time when John is off doing Nazi things like burning cars and beating up residents. True, he seems characteristically baffled that he is in the midst of a rioting crowd scene, but that just reinforced my impression of this Viggo role as a Thurber character, a sort of neo-Nazi Walter Mitty, if you will. (And I’d like the Viggo back who was screwing on the staircase, thank you very much.)
The movie moves slowly and somewhat turgidly through the build-up to Halder’s ultimate realization that he has contributed to a great wrong being perpetrated upon the Jewish populace. There are unexplained bits, such as John’s suddenly hearing music at various points, which was both odd and puzzling. We expect the sub-plot involving his mother to have John forced to put her in a home where she will then face potential euthanisation by the Nazi hordes, but that doesn’t happen. What we don’t anticipate happening is for Viggo Mortensen, the epitome of cool, forceful performances, to give one where he seems to be emulating Mr. Rogers (of “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” fame). If that comparison seems “off”, perhaps one of Jimmy Stewart’s old roles with Viggo oozing befuddlement and seeming somewhat bewildered by everything that is happening to him and around him. Not the Viggo Mortensen audiences have come to know and love. Give me the Viggo of “Eastern Promises,” please. And hold the “Good.”
There are some exchanges that spell out the predicament facing Maurice, his Jewish friend. John (Viggo) tells his new wife Ann, “I never thought it would come to this,” and she (Jodie Whittaker) responds, “It’s not your fault. Any Jew with any sense left long ago.”
Personally, I enjoyed the exchange on a park bench between Maurice and John, where John explains that his elderly mother, who is failing mentally and physically, tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. Explains John, “Her memory is gone. Her dignity is gone. She can hardly breathe.” Maurice responds, “At least she isn’t Jewish.” [An amusing line in an otherwise dour and overly somber film.] It started with Maurice throwing a pound of cheesecake to the ground in a violent frenzy, so that was peculiar, too.
The John Wrathall screenplay, with location shooting in Budapest, Hungary, just does not gel in this adaptation. Everything that happens to John seems random. It’s as though he has stumbled into his own life and is bewildered by it, including his rise to prominence in the Reich. The scenes with his family, including a first wife who obsessively plays the piano at all times like a possessed weasel need more explanation. You want Viggo to say, “For God’s sake, quit pounding on the damned piano and come out here in the kitchen and help with dinner. Or, failing that, go see what my mother wants upstairs.” (Or, better yet, “Hey, honey, come here and join me on the staircase and I’ll savagely screw the living daylights out of you.”)
Halder’s ailing mother is constantly calling for him from the upstairs bedroom as the poor man is also attempting to chop vegetables for dinner, mind the kids and answer the doorbell. It almost comes off as a comic variation of Three Stooges material, as he is seen racing to answer the door, chopping the veggies foru goulash and taking care of his dotty Mom, while the first wife pounds away like some obsessive/compulsive nut job. All-in-all, the domestic scene looked a bit disheveled, true, but, if, as the dialogue has suggested in the movie up to this point, “You’ll do the right thing. You always do,” (his mother speaking), then why does John up and take a mistress and dump his loving family unit so suddenly? Seemed out-of-character and not what someone who “always does the right thing” would do.
Even more puzzling, why is the wife he leaves so compliant when she is dumped? The emotions the woman expresses are unlike any scorned wife I’ve ever met, and I don’t think it’s a 1930’s thing. Wife Number One and the two kids are abandoned for the younger fraulein and piano-woman is left to fend for herself after doing almost none of the housework or cooking or other domestic chores normally associated with the female of the species. Does she complain? Au contraire, mon frere.
In almost the very next scene, Wife Number One tells her philandering husband as they stroll through what may have been his mother’s funeral scene (it was unclear) how proud she and the abandoned children are of him. Hmmmmmm. Did not wash for me. Real life does not work that way, in my experience. More realistic if Wife Number One was calling Dr. John Halder a “schweinhund” and swearing a blue streak, methinks, but that’s in the world I live in.
John Halder, on the other hand, seems to inhabit his own version of reality, complete with an ostrich-like inability to see what is happening right before his very eyes, a very wishy-washy constitution, and a problem with spinelessness.
The end of the film also comes rather abruptly, as John attempts to find his now-deported friend Maurice in a concentration camp. A single tear runs down his cheek as he realizes what his book hath wrought. Then it ends. The screen goes black.
We filed out silently, wishing we could have another replay of those clips from Mortensen’s early films, which were very entertaining, absorbing and true-to-life. Unfortunately, the clumsily-titled “Good” may have had the intention of making a statement about how we all must stand up against injustice wherever we find it, but it did not translate well as directed by the Brazilian director shooting in Hungary, and even an actor as competent as Viggo Mortensen is only as good as his material.