How Ben Stiller and James Gray Fall Short at the New York Film Festival

10/08/2013 2:51 PM |

The Immigrant movie James Gray Joaquin Pheonix Marion Cotillard

The Immigrant
Directed by James Gray

I confess: I don’t entirely get writer-director James Gray. But I like the way he’s entered into a Scorsese/De Niro-style relationship with Joaquin Phoenix, and I like the way he looks at New York City from different vantage points: the NYPD of We Own the Night or the Brighton Beach depressives of Two Lovers. It makes total sense, then, that his new film The Immigrant would play NYFF. Set in 1920s New York, it follows Ewa (Marion Cotillard), a Polish immigrant who arrives in America with her sister, who is soon quarantined on Ellis Island for tuberculosis.

Penniless and alone, Ewa meets Bruno (Phoenix), who offers her shelter and work, slowly revealing his domineering nature as a manager of sorts to a troupe of dancer-prostitutes. It becomes clear at this point that Gray is trying his hand at full-on melodrama, even more so when Ewa encounters a charming magician (Jeremy Renner; nice to see him smile), also Bruno’s cousin, forming a sketchy love triangle. The movie certainly looks beautiful, with its browns, blacks and yellows lensed in muted, foggy tones. Gray often reflects his characters’ faces in warped mirror images, presumably illustrating their distorted sense of self, and his closing shot is beautifully framed.

But the actual mechanics of the movie don’t do the visuals any favors. Some of Gray’s dialogue has a weird tone that falls somewhere between anachronistic and alien (Phoenix, taking Cotillard on a tour of his neighborhood: “I speak Yiddish. People here don’t mess with me”). The characters’ collective ability to repeatedly find and lose each other keeps a lot of stuff that seems like it should be important (starting with Ewa’s relationship with her sister, continuing to her relationship with just about everyone else) offscreen. Though it obviously has loftier ambitions than awards-baiting, The Immigrant is largely a showcase for Cotillard’s ability to suffer beautifully. She reveals the toughness underneath Ewa’s sadness and panic, but underneath Gray’s movie is mostly just more suffering.

This film screens for the final time at the festival tomorrow.