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Thread: THE ARTIST'S WIFE (Tom Dolby 2019)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE ARTIST'S WIFE (Tom Dolby 2019)



    Some things you can't get away from

    Tom Dolby, the son of he late noise reduction system czar who does a lot of writing and producing, is back as a director for a sophomore effort starring Bruce Dern and Lena Olin, written by Dolby, Nicole Brending, and Abdi Nazemian. His first, Last Weekend (2014), co-directed with Tom Williams, was a richly textured piece about a wealthy family's final moments at a splendid vacation mansion that's about to go on the market. This was an extremely polished and genteel effort, with the suave - overly suave and modulated Patricia Clarkson front and center. It was hard to tell if anything was really going on. No such problem this time, not with Bruce Dern in the lead. He is the bull in any china shop, and that's his role. He plays an aging artist (Dern himself is now 84) who's showing some explosive signs of Alzheimer's disease. His much younger but also aging Swedish wife (Lena Olin is now 65, and her Swedishness is a part, if a small one, of the story) - she has to deal with this. Dern is always fun to watch, but the special treat is the glamorously, beautifully aging Olin, who gets more screen time, as the title promises.

    The artist is Richard Smythson, a famous abstract painter. An odd choice for a name, since Robert Smithhson is one of the most famous and influential artists of the late twentieth century, though not as a painter, and he died at 35. Claire (Olin) used to be an artist, but gave it up. Richard's words about this vary, her style was passÚ, or it was classic; she was no good; or she was great and should never have stopped. The press of events cause Claire to regroup, and she starts painting again. From what was said, I imagined realistic work, but her large canvases, from jars of Golden acrylic, are abstract and rather like Richard's, only perhaps better.

    How do you write an artist with Alzheimer's? Richard was already provocative, eccentric man. He must have made a lot of money, judging by the house they live in, somewhere a not-too-long train ride from New York City amid New England style houses, but itself an impressive modern manse, a row of different shaped large black rectangles? Or is this just another example of Dolby's irresistible fascination with real estate? The camera regularly comes back to this row of elegant, angular shapes. Clear signs are given. Richard teaches a small class of students (shot at Stony Brook Southampton). They work on thin, ready made canvasses. (Strangely, so does Richard.) He is more and more provocative, finally grabbing one student's finished painting and destroying it in a stream of expletives. Later, Claire returns from one of her frequent trips to New York (she's trying to get Richard's estranged daughter Angela (Juliet Rylance, step-daughter of Mark) to come, and revive art connections) - to discover her husband has torn out the stuffing of all the living room furniture. But by then they've already been to a doctor and gotten a diagnosis of his condition.

    Can Richard go on painting, or can't he? Demand is still great. A show is coming up and new paintings are expected. One remembers the leading abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), who drank a lot and died of Alzheimer's bu kept on painting, though the style changed. Is this East Hampton, where de Kooning lived? (The action was definitely shot in the Hamptons, and Dolby was aware of their "incredible legacy of artists.") At a big event in Richard Smythson's honor, when called to speak, his words were an embarrassing, irrelevant ramble. But sometimes he's pleasant and loving, or just an old man, like when he wants to have sex with Claire but can't get it up.

    Much as with Last Weekend, this is mainly an interesting ramble, but the tension is heightened considerably, not only about the upcoming exhibition and public appearances, but simply Richard's unmooring spurring Claire's struggle to stay afloat. There's still a plethora of characters, if we include Claire's artist friends and managers, but they're kept peripheral, off in New York. Angela turns out to be gay, but she has a very attractive young man around all the time, Danny (Avan Jogia, who has read some very sexual "thirst tweets" on YouTube, mainly inspired by his role as "Beck" in the TV series "Victorious"). He is taking care of Angela's outspoken 6-year-old Gogo ( Ravi Cabot-Conyers, a typical cute child actor type), but this seems suspicious, and Claire soon talks him into quitting to pursue his "art," which is music. (In the video Avan Jogia mentions he and his brother have a band, and an album based on a book he wrote.)

    These are not of course the kind of things we'd be talking about in a review of Fanny and Alexander, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or Enemies: A Love Story, three movies Lena Olin starred in in the past. Dolby has a tendency to take on big themes and then drift away from them. These big themes, however, are harder to escape than last time. The living room is a wreck, and Richard has been let go from the art school due to complaints. And this is good: something's happening, and Dern and Olin are both convincing at it. But while I'm not an expert on high end real estate or rich people having their last weekend gathering, I have some familiarity with artists, and this is tricky ground. Did the same artist do the paintings attributed to Claire as those attributed to Richard? Ah, there's the rub. The final two scenes provide a gimmicky reveal (has Dolby seen Bj÷rn Runge's The Wife (2017)? No, there are some good scenes at the beginning, but the finale's too treacly. And Strand's poster slogan: "The greatest art is learning how to love." Yuck.

    The Artist's Wife, 94 mins., debuted at the Hamptons Oct. 2019, playing at Mill Valley also in Oct., then at Palm Springs in Jan. 2020; also at Sonoma, Sarasota, and Whistler (Canada). Bought for US by Strand, it was to have a theatrical release in NYC in Apr., but that has been postponed to September 25, virtual/online - and just two Landmark theatres, Hillcrest in San Diego, Calofirnia and Frontenac in St. Louis, Missouri.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-25-2020 at 03:19 PM.


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