RememberReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/08/16 16:15:50
If you were to have asked me towards the end of the 1990s who I thought were going to emerge as the most significant filmmakers of the next couple of decades, I am almost certain that my list would have included Atom Egoyan’s name on it on the basis that his output to date at that point contained no significant stumbles to speak of and, in his haunting and oddly erotic “Exotica” (1994) and “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), one of the most powerful cinematic meditations on the nature of grief and how it is processed (or not) by different people, he already had two flat-out masterpieces to his name. Unfortunately, with the shift into the new millennium, something must have happened because the director who once seemed as if he could do no wrong now seemed incapable of doing anything but wrong. One could excuse films like “Ararat” (2002), in which he grappled with the long-term effects of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks in 1914, and “Adoration” (2008), which explored the ways in which reality and fiction can overlap and affect each other, as noble failures, I suppose. On the other hand, what to make of films like “Where the Truth Lies” (2005), which asked viewers to speculate on the sexual depravations of a comedy duo not unlike Martin & Lewis, “Chloe” (2009), which was little more than an especially idiotic Lifetime movie that appealed only to the Mr. Skin set thanks to the sex scenes involving Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried (still not worth it, if you are wondering) and “Devil’s Knot” (2013), an idiotic take on the West Memphis Three case that featured Colin Firth delivering a Southern accent of such awfulness that he should have been forced to return his Oscar? To make one movie this bad would be cause for concern—to have not made a single movie that could be wholeheartedly recommended since 1999’s “Felicia’s Journey” is utterly mystifying.I have rehashed all of this not simply to take a shot at Egoyan—indeed, not even his failed efforts of the last decade or so can fully dampen my admiration for “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter”—but to provide a bit of context before plunging into his latest film, “Remember.” Sadly, it is another terrible effort that tries to weave a narrative that involves both the Holocaust and Alzheimer’s and does it so ineptly that the chief saving grace it displays is that it is ultimately too stupid to be as offensive as it sounds on paper. And yet, it says a lot for the depths that Egoyan’s career has plummeted to of late when I say that even though it would have been considered the low-water mark in the filmographies of most directors working today not named Zack Snyder, it isn’t close to being his worst, though this is almost entirely due to the herculean efforts of the great Christopher Plummer to try to make something of value out of this nonsense.
Plummer plays Zev Guttman, a man who managed to survive the horrors of Auschwitz and went on to forge a happy and loving life for himself and his family, largely by suppressing the memories of what he endured as a young man. Now recently widowed and suffering from dementia that is having an ever-increasing effect on his memory, he finds himself adrift and without purpose and whining away his days in a New York nursing hime while receiving the occasional dutiful visit from his son (Henry Czerny). Things changes when Zev makes the acquaintance of fellow resident Max (Martin Landau), a fellow Auschwitz survivor who claims to have uncovered the identity of the still-living Nazi commandant who tortured them and killed their families back in the day and has tracked him down to one of four locations—Ohio, Idaho, Cana and California.
This cannot stand but to their eyes, calling the authorities on the man now known as Rudy Kurlander would hardly seem like justice to them—this is something personal. With Max confined to a wheelchair, it is Zev who sneaks out of the nursing home, armed with a detailed list of written instructions prepared by Max and (quickly enough) a gun, and begins his cross-country pursuit. As he goes from locale to locale, Zev must continually come to grips with his memory slips, which not even Max’s instructions can fully assist with—and the resurgent memories of a time that he has gone to great lengths to try to forget. Meanwhile, he hits the stops on his list and has a series of increasingly unexpected encounters that conclude with a series of revelations that forces Zev to finally come to terms with his past via one of the more deranged finales that you will ever see.
Although the movie is pretty bad up until that point, it is the ending that sends “Remember” from the annals of ordinary awfulness to where all you can do is say “What were they thinking?” In fact, there is not a single level on which it works. On paper, it is absolutely idiotic—the kind of thing that M Night Shyamalan would watch and say “Really?”—and to make matters worse, it is pretty evident that screenwriter Benjamin August a.) thought that he was being oh so clever and b.) clearly came up with the ending first and then tried to construct his screenplay to support it, regardless of the eventual lapses of logic required to make that work. Perhaps it might have worked if it had been treated as the exploitation film nonsense that it is at heart but Egoyan handles it the way he does the rest of the movie—in a plodding manner that accentuates the sheer tackiness of the material while neglecting to include any of the lurid excitement that might have given the increasingly ludicrous material enough juice to make it at least somewhat palatable. To top things off, the acting in this crucial scene, with the exception of Plummer, is so downright terrible that it seems impossible that the director who got those stunning performances out of Ian Holm and Sarah Polley in “The Sweet Hereafter” was responsible for them—a couple of the actors are so terrible here that it seems as if everything that they learned about the craft came from intense study of the Tommy Wiseau oeuvre.
Although the ending is by far the worst aspect of “Remember,” pretty much everything leading up to it is a mess as well. August’s screenplay tries to fuse together the twin horrors of Alzheimers and the Holocaust—presumably to give a new spin on the phrase “Never Forget!”—but has nothing of interest to say about them. Instead, the screenplay makes a couple of cheap points about how easy it is to acquire a gun in America even when it is patently obvious that the purchaser has no business owning such an item while trying to see how close it can come to ripping off ‘Memento” without inspiring a lawsuit. The various encounters that Zev has along the way are hampered by poor writing and dreadful old age makeup (Bruno Ganz and Jurgen Prochnow are practically suffocating under the latex that has been unconvincingly deployed to make them two of the possible Kurlanders) while a confrontation with an initially friendly Dean Norris is so unlikely and goes on for so long that it eventually becomes laughable. And while I realize that road movies, at least those without the word “Cannonball” in the title, tend to have a certain relaxed pace, Egoyan cannot bring any sort of energy to the material and the result is a cross-country journey that barely seems capable of making it into first gear.“Remember” is a spectacularly awful film but the only thing keeping it from being even worse, if such a thing is possible, is Christopher Plummer’s performance in the role of Zev. The part is pretty much unplayable—little more than a collection of cliches that the film milks whenever possible—but there are moments when he manages to make something of it. Even when he can’t improve the material, he at least manages to keep it from flying off the rails completely until that utterly insane finale, of course. It almost makes you wish that you could somehow remove his performance from the film entirely and put it in something a little more deserving. I have spent most of my existence under the impression that I would never see a worse film involving Christopher Plummer and Nazis than “The Sound of Music.” Now that I have seen “Remember, “ I am no longer sure of that.
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