Thursday, April 20, 2006

CRAZY is what would happen if That 70s Show had emotional heft, visual style and a guy singing Charles Azanvour songs

CRAZY is a wonderful, if somewhat structurally incoherent, movie. It tells the tale of a French-Canadian family of five sons growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The first strand of the story is based on the child-hood experiences of director, Jean-Marc Vallee. Vallee grew up in the kind of intensely spiritual family that we see portrayed in CRAZY, with a mother whose fondest desire is to go to Jerusalem and who believes that her son has a gift for healing people. So as the family are eating “ironed toast”, or spaghetti with dad’s “special sauce”, you get random telephone calls with relative calling up to say, “Unky Herb just cut himself on a knife: pray for him, Zac!” I loved all this stuff. No-where have I empathised with a character more in recent cinema as when young Zac sits in church and imagines the priest telling everyone that “midnight mass is already too long. Why don’t you all just go home and open up your presents?!”

The second strand of the story is based on reminiscences of one of the director’s friends, Francois Boulay. Boulay apparently also grew up with four brothers, and had a tortured relationship with his father on account of his bisexuality. Zac is all over the place with his sexuality – in denial, experimenting, being brutally homophobic, and finally self-accepting. What I love about this film is that we see clearly that Zac’s mother and father love him deeply, and while the father cannot understand or condone his sexual leanings, he is only trying to protect Zac from what he perceives to be an unliveable life.

CRAZY works in part because of its wonderful observation of the small but funny incidental things that make up normal life. And let me be very clear, I laughed my way through this movie. Sure, a lot of the comedy here is specific to the fact that this is a Catholic French-Canadian family, but we can all recognise the trademarks in our own families. Here, the father sings the same old hackneyed Charles Aznavour songs every Christmas. We all have a dad or an uncle who does the same. CRAZY also works because it creates that intimate, authentic feel of watching old home-movies. I love the fact that whenever there is a big family argument, you always having your kid brother sucking a Popsicle nonchalantly in the corner. The director explained that he consciously strove for this effect. Despite shooting with one camera, he was aiming for a “second camera feel”. What he means by that is that he wanted the footage not to look properly staged and framed and lit, but as though someone had just left a camera running in the corner of the room – a camera that was picking up reactions and odd details rather than providing the perfect Hollywood close-up of the melo-dramatic family reconciliation. CRAZY also works because the cast are great to a man. Special shout outs have to go the actors playing the parents, and the two kids who play Zac. The younger Zac may be the director’s son, but this is not a case of simple nepotism –he’s absolutely fantastic. And finally, this movie has an AWESOME sound-track and uses it to the max. The tour de force is a long sequence set to the Stones’ “Sympathy for the devil”. Outstanding.

The only flaw with CRAZY is that once the excitement at seeing something so visually inventive and tragi-comic wears off you realise just how incoherent the structure of the movie is. After the first hour, the movie seems likes a random assortment of comic interludes from the life of Zac and I lost confidence that the film-maker knew exactly where he was going with it all. I came out of the screening thinking that the 127 minute movie could have been a good 45 minutes shorter and lost none of its emotional punch. My only other slight criticism is a scene near the end when Zac goes travelling and ends up in the middle of the desert. This was the one scene that felt contrived to me (apologies to Francois Boulay if it really happened) and just a little too “cute”.

At any rate, despite its tendency to feel like a funny yet over-indulgent scrap-book, CRAZY is a delightful, original, and desperately funny movie. If you are lucky enough to have it playing near you, you should definitely check it out.

CRAZY played at Toronto 2005 and opens in the UK tomorrow. It opens in France oon May 21st 2006 and in Germany on May 25th. Despite being sold to 50 countries, it has not found a US distributor. However, I think you can get hold of it on DVD.

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