Knight at the Movies Archives
Robert Redford's liberal plea is bound to fall on deaf ears, a holiday misfire that a big budget can't save
Lions for Lambs is the latest movie to examine conflict in the Mideast. Directed by Robert Redford, the movie tells three
separate stories that eventually converge. Redford has big marquee names – himself, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep – to star in his
movie but though the film espouses a liberal point of view that I heartily agree with and makes a lot of salient points that audiences
certainly need to hear, the picture’s so heavy handed, so weighted down with its good intentions it practically drowns. The arguments
put forth would make for an interesting discussion – at a social gathering, say, or as part of a lecture series. But instead of
entertaining, illuminating or firing up the audience, these arguments translate as a heavy dose of movie cough syrup.
Cruise plays a smug, conservative senator who tells top journalist Streep during a closed door meeting that as the two are sitting
there talking a surefire, can’t miss mini invasion/take back of the mountains in Afghanistan, a cross over point for terrorists, is
occurring. This, Cruise assures Streep, is the new strategy that’s going to win the war on terrorism and restore peace to the Mideast.
Meanwhile, Redford, an idealistic college English professor who has urged his students to “Do Something Dammit!” is lecturing Todd,
a valued student who has let girls and partying get in the way of a good grade, that he expects more from him. Though he
generalizes, the professor makes some valid points about today’s youth (and much of the rest of America, actually) when he refers
to conservative politicians saying, “They bank on your apathy and your willful ignorance.”
Redford, a one time war protester, exhorts Todd, who he recognizes has leadership gifts, to get involved in the anti-war movement
(if he can find it). The third story focuses on two young soldiers who have through a hard to buy accident, been stranded in the
mountains of Afghanistan at the mercy of awaiting terrorists. Eventually we learn that these two idealists were the professor’s
students who were so inspired by his teachings that they have joined the armed forces, apparently with the intent of following the old
hippie maxim, “to change the system from within.” Guilt, apparently, is also part of the Prof's psychological makeup.
Cruise’s Senator is the politician and architect of the army’s daring attempt to infiltrate Afghanistan terrorist infested territory and the
character has the insufferable assurance of several key political figures that have been darkening our horizon these past seven
years (and staged photos of Cruise with Bush & Company make sure that even the dumbbells in the audience get that). It’s a
perfect role for Cruise and the chance to speechify at length with such intensity must have proved irresistible. After all, Cruise loves
nothing more than the chance to Act! With! Exclamation! Points! And speechify he does. But to say that he does a nice job with the
cardboard role isn’t much of a compliment – it’s just that it’s a part as perfectly sculpted to his puny, questionable talents as his
neatly trimmed coif.
Streep as the cowed reporter who pretty much has to sit there and listen to Cruise intoning has the thankless role and is wasted (and
she’s given a headscratcher of a wrap up at the picture’s fade). But then, none of the characters – nor the audience – gets off easily
in this long winded movie (the trailer promised an action flick – oh boy, was that screening audience fidgety when they figured out
they'd been conned). With good reason – this is the kind of movie that offers view points making speeches in place of characters.
At best, this is material that might work on the stage – where the heightened, phony dialogue might sound natural – but I doubt it.
Is that because I am actively resistant to any movie that is determined to force a lesson down my throat?
Lions for Lambs, for all its flaws, however, is still an effort worth applauding on some level – if only because Redford has used his
clout to make a movie that tries to address the apathy so prevalent in a time of war. He did what his character urges Todd to do –
he did something – he offers his movie as a war protest. It’s a call to arms for pacifists, aging hippies, and disengaged youth but in
an age of cynicism and vapidity, who will hear and who will listen with the outrage and attention required to make a difference?
The infantile, petulant, cynical behavior of male adults that has become the accepted practice in American film comedies has had no
better poster boy than Vince Vaughn. This fast talking, shyster character has been Vaughn's stock in trade since his break through
role in Swingers and it's not hard to see why audiences love it. When he's bullshitting, no one is smoother, more deliciously
outrageous than Vaughn on-screen. When Vaughn has strayed from time to time from this stock character he's done some
interesting work but movie-goers like their movie stars to stay within their strict character confines and it's where Vaughn shines
brightest. And throughout the opening sequences of Fred Claus, a holiday comedy that is being touted as Wedding Crashers,
Christmas style, Vaughn delivers exactly what the audience craves and he does best. He's irresistible as the fast talking, failed older
brother of Santa (Paul Giamatti who as a friend noted must have needed to pay the mortgage or a debt by taking this thanksless
role) - trying to cobble together money to open an OTB in downtown Chicago and once again lying to his patient, meter maid
girlfriend (Rachel Weisz - thoroughly wasted), or conning passersby with a phony Salvation Army ploy.
But once Santa shows up and guilts Fred into visiting the North Pole the picture turns as cold as its frosty location. The sets are
dazzling and John Michael Higgins as a lovelorn elf has some sweet moments but the rest is nothing more than a series of stale
gags that don't draw so much as a candy cane's worth of laughs. The dysfunctional family scenes (with Kathy Bates as the
disapproving mother, a distracted father and a sneering sister-in-law played by Miranda Richardson), the scenes with Vaughn
disrupting the toy making, the evil bean counter (Kevin Spacey) being thawed by Vaughn's frat boy mentality, etc., etc. - these and
all the other expected set pieces are here and trotted out one after the other in rather desultory fashion. The tone of the movie
switches on and off like a kid with A.D.D. and never really settles down. And memo to the writers: midgets are NOT funny anymore.
That window of comedic opportunity has passed. Notice that it's closed. The audience has.
When the plot returns Vaughn to Chicago for the windup the movie picks up again and at that point includes the film's one truly
hilarious scene (it involves a therapy group of siblings of famous brothers). At the fade, naturally (but at odds with the grown up,
cynical kid stuff), everything is wrapped and tied neatly with a Christmas bow. If the script had come up with something fresh for
Vaughn's character to do once ensconced in the North Pole (something more in keeping with the funny, tongue in cheek opening
flashback) Fred Claus might have joined Elf as a yearly holiday must watch - instead of a might watch.
Lions for Lambs-Fred Claus
Expanded Edition of 11-7-07 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.
*My review of Fred Claus was inadvertently left off my weekly print edition of Windy City Times so here it is.