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BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

It isn’t easy to make a first-rate tearjerker, but it can be done: one need think only of David Lean’s classic “Brief Encounter” (1945), and more recently Clint Eastwood’s surprisingly effective “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995) as examples. Ang Lee’s remarkable “Brokeback Mountain” joins the select group.

In its basic outline the story couldn’t be much simpler–or more familiar. Two people have a short, spontaneous and hopeless sexual encounter and then separate, each marrying someone else and building a family. Yet their attraction to one another is irresistible, and they meet periodically over the years for brief, intense moments together. Ultimately, though, tragedy intervenes.

The twist in this telling of the tale, adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from what’s become a famous short story by Annie Proulx, of course, is that the doomed lovers are both male. Not that such a circumstance is totally unheard of on film. This is, however, the first time it’s been done in a major picture by an A-list director and with well-known stars; it doesn’t come from one of the major studios, but isn’t far from one. And the fact that the men are young cowboys–iconic figures of virility and strength–adds to the sense of provocation some will feel about it.

But ultimately this story of suppressed passion is, irrespective of gender considerations, a deeply moving, indeed lacerating, film. Though many commentators, and more importantly, viewers, may concentrate on the fact that the lovers are both men, that’s really a secondary consideration in a narrative that succeeds beautifully merely because it’s deeply human and profoundly real– and, of course, because in this incarnation it’s also insightfully written, sensitively (some would say too sensitively) directed, and superbly acted. Within the “gay” genre, “Brokeback Mountain” is a triumph; but the fact that it extends that genre’s boundaries only adds to its power.

The picture begins in 1963 Wyoming, where two dissimilar cowpokes–tough, laconic Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), and garrulous, sinewy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) are hired by rough rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) to tend a herd of sheep high in the mountains over the summer months. Over their weeks of isolation from the rest of the world, they develop a general camaraderie, but one cold night, when they share a small tent for the sake of warmth, they almost accidentally engage in much more, and continue to do so, each denying that he’s “queer,” though both feels a passionate longing for the other. At summer’s end, they go off separately, and each marries–Ennis a girl named Alma (Michelle Williams), with whom he builds a hardscrabble life with two daughters, and Jack a rodeo rider named Laureen (Anne Hathaway), with whom he has a son and for whose father he goes to work. After years apart Jack contacts Ennis saying he’s stopping by for a visit, and Del Mar’s reaction, like a youngster overcome with anticipation, and his inability to control himself when Jack finally appears, testify to the fact that if anything the desire has only increased over the years. That first renewed contact leads to “fishing trips” periodically from that point on–and inevitably to the unraveling of their marriages. And while Jack pleads that they could make a life together, Ennis insists that it’s an impossibility. Finally the long, always incomplete relationship comes to an end that should touch the hardest heart, provided that prejudice is set aside.

Proulx’s modest but riveting story has been expertly expanded to feature length by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, whose literary talents are surely well-known, and Ang Lee has treated their script lovingly, with a quiet serenity that some may dismiss as lethargic but actually gives the tale–and the performances–the time and space to blossom. The film’s anchor is Ledger, whose career rejuvenation this year reaches a pinnacle here with a painfully moving turn as the withdrawn, taciturn man who finds release only in the presence of his secret lover. Gyllenhaal, as the more talkative and extroverted of the pair, can’t match Ledger, but his boyish exuberance serves as a proper foil to him. Though this is primarily a two-character piece, both Hathaway, and especially Williams, have their moments as the men’s wives, as do Randy Quaid as the boss who barely tolerates the duo even before he finds out what they’ve been up to while on the job, Linda Cardellini as a woman Ennis takes up with and Anna Faris as the bubbleheaded wife of one of Twist’s acquaintances. And Roberta Maxwell and Peter McRobbie cut to the quick in the film’s wrenching final scenes.

“Brokeback Mountain” is elegantly shot by Rodrigo Prieto, particularly in the gorgeous outdoor sequences but in the interiors as well, and Judy Becker’s production design reflects the passage of time without undue exaggeration. Gustavo Santaolalia’a score is unhurried and expressive, much like the film as a whole. The subject alone will make some viewers resist, but that will be their loss.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR

Every once in a while a picture comes along that’s so unexpectedly good that it renews your faith in the wisdom of going to the movies. And when such a film pops up in the cinematic dog days of August, it’s a double blessing. “American Splendor” is such a flick–an inventive, spiky yet touching portrait of comic-book curmudgeon Harvey Pekar. Part dramatized autobiography and part stream-of-consciousness recollection by Pekar himself, with some “documentary” footage and animation added for good measure, the picture blends reality and recreation with a startling degree of imagination and charm, making for a post-modernist experience that’s sharply witty, curiously warm and wonderfully entertaining.

Paul Giamatti gives an amazing performance as Pekar, to whom we’re introduced as he prowls the streets of his native Cleveland and interacts with his co-workers at a V.A. hospital, most notably self-proclaimed nerd Toby Radloff (the glorious Judah Friedlander) and opinionated Mr. Boats (Earl Billings). His fondness for collecting old jazz 78s at garage sales leads to a chance encounter with artist Robert Crumb (the hilariously otherworldly James Urbaniak), and the two become oddball pals; after Crumb strikes it rich in underground comics, Pekar persuades his friend to illustrate his rants on the small humiliations of everyday life. The result is American Splendor magazine, a sort of stand-up routine on the printed page, in which Pekar becomes an idiosyncratic exponent of lower-class observations, complaints and dashed hopes. Its success earns him a degree of celebrity as a repeated guest–a raspy voice of the enraged common man–on David Letterman’s Late Night show, and attracts the attention of a fan named Joyce (Hope Davis), a neurotically health-obsessed free spirit who comes to visit him from the East Coast and eventually becomes his wife (by picture’s end the couple has even adopted a child). Yet a serious illness intervenes as well.

Even had Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who co-wrote and co-directed the movie (Pulcini was also the editor), approached this material in an entirely conventional fashion, it would–given the spectacularly grumpy, disheveled work by Giamatti and an equally brilliant if more subdued turn by an almost unrecognizable Davis, who plays Joyce like a hypochondriacal version of Charles Addams’ Morticia–probably have been a delight. But they tweak things to turn it into a textured, multi-layered piece, melding the “straight” narrative with periodic observations by the real Harvey (who often comments on the film itself), recollections by Joyce, and bits of animated footage featuring Pekar as he looked in the comics. But that’s not all. We’re introduced to the authentic Toby and Mr. Boats as well as their beautifully-realized impersonators, and confronted with actual footage of Harvey’s Letterman appearances along with recreations featuring Giamatti. (At one point toward the close, the Letterman scenes conflate TV tape with newly-filmed material, so that Pekar suddenly turns into Giamatti; and amazingly the identity has merged so completely by then that the shift seems utterly natural rather than an affectation.) Elsewhere, another level is added to the mix when Harvey and Joyce visit a California production of a play based on his life (the precursor to this picture, in a way); in the scene, Giamatti and Davis, playing Harvey and Joyce, watch Harvey and Joyce being played by Donal Logue and Molly Shannon, while the real Harvey and Joyce comment on the original experience for us.

You might think that this complicated technique would render “American Splendor” the same sort of tiresome trick that Charlie Kaufman’s juvenile joking made “Adaptation” last year, or at least reduce it to the level of an elaborate but sterile joke. But it doesn’t at all: the approach actually enriches and deepens Pekar’s story, giving it greater edge and poignancy. Unlike most documentaries, which allow one to observe their subjects in an almost detached way however well they’re made, and virtually all fictionalized autobiographies, which have a strong element of phoniness to them, this picture, despite (or because of) its narrative complexity and surrealistic touches, gets the viewer incredibly close to the people it’s about, engendering empathy for them in an extraordinarily powerful way. You wind up being amused by these characters–who are, after all, fringe-dwellers of a sort pretty much ignored in American films nowadays–but also genuinely moved by them, because, as it turns out, their tale is actually one of the most peculiar fulfillments of the American dream ever committed to celluloid.

What’s ultimately most satisfying about “American Splendor” is that it so obstinately refuses any easy pigeon-holing. As a comedy it’s hilarious: the episode recounting Harvey and Joyce’s first date is absurdist farce at the highest level. As a drama it’s wrenching: a bout with cancer is presented with remarkable effect. As cultural commentary it’s invigorating: Pekar’s rants are wickedly sharp. As social observation it’s quietly profound: its depiction of Harvey’s work environment and portraits of his friends are amazingly acute and sympathetic. As a character study it captures the essence of its subject brilliantly. And as a piece of technical virtuosity it’s a marvel: its multi-perspective approach is flawlessly accomplished. But the most astonishing thing is that the sum proves more than the individually superb parts. Miraculously, the picture succeeds as a coherent whole rather than a jumble of clever effects. It’s a weird and wonderful little masterpiece, an oddball classic and one of the year’s best movies.