Separated by 35 years, two films showcase directors (both named Nicolas) applying a stylish gloss to B-movie genres: a sci-fi yarn and a heist-action flick, respectively. The results are mixed.
The title and premise are the best things about “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” in an anniversary rerelease at Landmark Midtown Art (opening September 23). Director Nicolas Roeg’s ambitious, underbaked, sex-filled but unsexy time capsule from 1976 has become a cult movie. That’s probably because, from a distance, it seems impossible that it could be anything but trippingly awesome, at least when you look at the people involved.
Consider: David Bowie, during his Ziggy Stardust/Major Tom glory, playing Thomas Jerome Newton, an earth-visiting alien with orange-gold hair as vivid as the sea’s flashiest anemone. Then there’s director Roeg, king of hip-mystic art films such as “Performance,” “Walkabout” and “Don’t Look Now.” John “Papa” Phillips composed the soundtrack. And supporting work came from Buck Henry, that mild-mannered everyman, as the alien’s terrestrial Man Friday. Unfortunately, Henry — who had a hand in the screenplays for “The Graduate,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and other films — didn’t write this script. At times it feels as if no one did, as Bowie’s Newton drifts through the vales of New York and the tumbleweed West in search of . . . well, that takes a while to come clear.
Arriving from an unnamed desert planet, Newton becomes a gazillionaire by joining forces with Henry’s lawyer and filing patents for high-tech inventions from his world. His goal is to use the money to build a link between earth and his own planet, providing water for his wife and two children, who wait for him back home. (The film’s flashes of wackadoodle psychedelia include glimpses of Newton’s family, dying of thirst while wearing plastic stillsuits borrowed from the “Dune” novels.)
Unfortunately, Newton gets waylaid by the ditzy charms of a hotel chambermaid named Mary-Lou (Candy Clark, engaging when she isn’t toe-curlingly awful in her big, emotional meltdown scenes). Mary-Lou shows him that earth girls are easy. But the bigger seduction for Newton is gin, sweet gin. He’s too distracted by drink to realize that industrial sharks, represented by Bernie Casey, are intent on taking over his empire. Or that his best scientist, Bryce (Rip Torn), may not be his best friend.
In summary, this may sound clear enough. But the movie is a big fat ADHD mess. At times, it feels like you’re watching the dailies from the shoot, with stand-alone scenes that haven’t been connected by narrative tissue. At other times, this plays like a Ken Russell movie at its most disjointed. Bowie is game, stripping off for some of the awkward sex scenes that pad the movie’s running time. He looks great — like Tilda Swinton’s male doppelganger, though unfortunately without her acting chops. His Newton, alternately mute or speaking with plummy British vowels, never makes dramatic sense. The movie plays like a weird variant on “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” transposed from the black-and-white, buttoned-up 1950s to the full-color, substance-abusing me-decade. Instead of the citizens of earth learning a cosmic lesson from a noble, WMD-packing alien, here the alien gets schooled by the earth’s arsenal of babes and booze. It feels like an interplanetary shaggy-dog story, with a woefully passive cipher at its center.
The nameless hero of “Drive,” played by Ryan Gosling, can be as passive as Newton. Except when he isn’t, and then he’s terrifying. (Fair warning: Cliff Martinez’s original score includes truth-in-advertising cuts like “They Broke His Pelvis,” “Kick Your Teeth” and “Skull Crushing.”) Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn infuses what could have been a straightforward heist movie with a 1980s-style glamour. He’s much more successful than Roeg at turning a scrap of pulp fiction into something close to art. Other examples of this sort of fusion are Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “Diva,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and the many ways Pedro Almodóvar pushes the silliest melodramatic plots to the verge of profundity.
“Drive” isn’t in those movies’ league, but it’s well worth a look. The spiritual grandson of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Gosling’s character is defined by function: he drives. When he’s not performing stunt work and crashes in Hollywood films, he hires himself out as a no-strings-attached wheelman for anyone who needs his skills for exactly five minutes. Those clients largely comprise scumbags making a quick buck with masks on their faces and duffel bags in their hands.
The driver gets quietly involved with a neighbor down the hall (Carey Mulligan, in sweet-saintly mode), her little boy, and then, unhappily, with the woman’s fresh-from-prison husband (Oscar Isaac). Hubby’s plan to pull one final heist, with the driver’s help, powers the movie’s bare-bones second half. Tersely scripted by Hossein Amini, the movie (like “Man Who Fell to Earth”) has narrative gaps, but the ones in “Drive” are easily filled. The film gets dynamite energy from a supporting cast that includes Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks (!) as vicious scumbags, Bryan Cranston as the driver’s best pal, and Christina Hendricks from “Mad Men” as a tottering pile of pulchritude.
Some young, movie-loving friends of mine are falling over each other to praise this film. It’s not all that. In fact, its chic hauteur — a cool minimalism that provides perfect contrast to the gushing gouts of blood — is likely to bore or annoy viewers who buy a ticket expecting a straightforward action flick but get this bait-and-switch instead. But the movie’s appeal to young, film-savvy guys is clear enough. Gosling plays the sort of icon they’d like to be themselves: chivalrous, lethal, and somehow studly looking even while wearing a quilted satin jacket with a gold scorpion emblazoned on the back.
“The Man Who Fell to Earth.” With David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn, Buck Henry. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Unrated, but contains a lot of simulated sex and frontal nudity of both genders. 139 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
“Drive.” With Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. 100 minutes. At metro theaters.