First time feature directors for both of these, and actually I score more pluses than minuses for the two—they are energetic, earnest productions. The pair of them eventually get snagged in the trap of time-worn platitudes—but I’m feeling charitable. I enjoyed both of these movies much more than expected. Engaging performers, interesting stories, simple but not insipid plotlines. In particular, I can envision Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” becoming a cult, cable/DVD hit in years to come. And as for Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage”, it boasts one of Richard Gere’s best roles in years. It’s the kind of thing that Michael Douglas used to do in his sleep, but Gere brings it a more subtle, familial vulnerability than Kirk’s kid ever exhibited in say…”Fatal Attraction”. And unlike Michael, the eternally handsome Gere has little trouble convincing that he could snare a mistress 30 years his junior. Also, if the high schoolers of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” are a bit too wise beyond their years for me—so be it. It’s not the first time a filmmaker will enact that device…and there will probably never be a “last”.
Charlie(a soulful Logan Lerman)is a “wallflower” starting his freshman year of high school. Luckily for him a couple of the coolest outsiders ever await him(as happens only in teenage angst films). Both seniors, one is an “obvious from the get-go” flamboyant homosexual(the androgynous looking Ezra Miller…so much more effective here, than as the young psycho in 2011’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), and the other is a beguiling girl who I promise to stop calling “that chick from Harry Potter” because she’s starting to make an impression on me(Emma Watson…two for two with this writer now after last year’s “My Week with Marilyn”). As Patrick and Sam, respectively, take young Charlie under their wing, they expose him to a teenage world that should open a nostalgia wave for many. “Pot” brownies, David Bowie’s “Heroes” blasting while driving(and standing in the open air of the back of a pickup truck)…and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. It certainly felt something like my high school life of 1979 through 1983, but apparently it’s supposed to be taking place in the early 1990’s. Go figure. Other members of the group embrace Charlie as well, and before long there are tentative couplings, break-ups, Secret Santa, “truth or dare” and painful reveals. And part of Charlie’s past is not what at first it seems. Big, fat lessons to be learned folks. But it’s never treacly…and it does go down smooth.
A different kind of angst awaits Robert Miller(the impossibly dapper Richard Gere). The billionaire hedge fund manager from “Arbitrage” is decades past the feeling-out years of the youngsters from “Perks”, but his immaturity and insecurity still bring him to a fork on the road of his existence. The film opens on the occasion of Miller’s 60th birthday party, and briefly introduces us to his loving wife(a thankfully subdued Susan Sarandon—an actress I love—after a string of overbearing performances), and his beautiful twenty-something daughter(the stunning Brit Marling from last year’s “Another Earth”)who works for his company. It certainly looks like he’s got it all. But there’s always the stealth life with these guys, isn’t there? Robert’s affair with a struggling French artist (who’s less than half his age), takes a sudden tragic turn that leads to police investigations and alleged financial cover-ups. I could’ve done without Tim Roth’s Columbo-like Detective Bryer(Roth is a superb actor, but for some reason chose to go the stereotypical “frump” route). And the ending gets itself boxed into a corner, so—well, you’ll see. I’m all right with it overall, but I bet it causes some disgruntled customers. It’s a solid, if hardly earth-shattering thriller. Memorable, but not unforgettable.
Hey, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is an obvious labor of love from a director who lived close to this plot, I would hazard to guess(Chbosky wrote the young adult novel the film is based on, too). If he’s occasionally full of crap, so what. It’s a charming ride. And “Arbitrage” is a tautly-written corker that actually has you rooting for the wayward Gere, despite yourself. So, it’s an above-average first time out for both directors. Neither one is a spring chicken, btw(Chbosky is 42, while Jarecki is 33). But I’ll be curious as to the reception of their sophomore efforts in the coming years. Grades: The Perks of Being a Wallflower: B Arbitrage: B+