In case men elsewhere in the media haven't been sufficiently entertaining lately, the movies have provided some real characters to fill in the blanks. Watching Richard Gere in "Arbitrage," Clint Eastwood in "Trouble with the Curve" and Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master," you're reminded that after a long summer of comic book superheroes, we're on the eve of award season again.
The performances showcase artists at the top of their respective games, veterans in the business of acting larger than life as they bring updates from the testosterone front at the intersection of real and reel.
Golden Globe winner and one-time People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive, Gere said that he based his portrayal of a cunning billionaire hedge fund manager in "Arbitrage" on a composite of Bernie Madoff, Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
Audiences might quibble with that ratio of likability to sleaze, but it's the tension between the two that propels his performance as an ultra-powerful but desperate power broker trying to stay one step ahead of the auditors and the law long enough to dump his company before anyone notices he has cooked the books among his other crimes.
With Susan Sarandon co-starring and Nicholas Jerecki writing and directing, the glossy portrait extends beyond the charismatic con artist to the always fashionable corridors where he conducts his business and private lives. Following the path of last year's better "Margin Call," the movie's lessons in economics are instructive, but not nearly as fascinating as the twisted mindsets of the ultra-glamorous souls living in the realm of greed, who have it all, but never have enough.
In contrast to the cynicism guiding "Arbitrage," Clint Eastwood's newest film offers happier, less complicated sentiments, like Frank Capra updated for a new millennium. With Eastwood portraying a crotchety, aging major league baseball scout with fading eyesight, "Trouble with the Curve" plays out like a cross between his last cranky performance in "Gran Torino" and the inside-baseball fun of "Moneyball."
Eastwood changed his mind about stepping in front of the camera, probably as a favor to his longtime assistant director Robert Lorenz, who makes an assured director debut. While Eastwood is entertainingly ornery, the film's real star is the effervescent Amy Adams as his ambitious lawyer daughter still wondering why he abandoned her long ago. Likable Justin Timberlake is also along to turn the whole thing into a romantic comedy, even though the real love story is about fathers and daughters.
I have yet to find anyone who agrees with my theory that Clint torpedoed the Republican National Convention on purpose, but the guy's instincts for making good movies are still intact, as is his courage for acting his age at this stage in his career.
The real curve ball among current film releases comes with Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." With recent top awards from the Venice Film Festival, this is one of those cinematic achievements that are easier to praise than to actually understand.
Any similarity between the cult it depicts and Scientology is purely intentional, although writer-director Anderson is more interested in the essence of charismatic cult leaders and their followers than in debunking Hollywood's favorite sect.
Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd - self described as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher and a hopelessly inquisitive man" - is one of the most compelling performances in his stellar career, especially at the times he is most transparently making up the con as he goes along.
Even more intriguing - and repulsive - is Phoenix's troubled World War II Navy veteran Freddie Quell, who inexplicably becomes a key member of the entourage. The alcoholic, unpredictable Freddie is a volatile product of demons and poisons; what the debonaire Dodd sees in him is the mystery at the core of this elusive epic.
The performance is surrounded with rich '50s details in dress and decor; the film's "action" often unfolds in the dreamy haze of the subconscious. While "The Master" sometimes pulls back the curtains to reveal the psychological engineering, vicious political infighting and pure flimflam behind Dodd's facade, the haunting part is realizing the movie is not just about one movement offering peace, tranquility, harmony and happiness - it's about all of them.
"The Master" co-stars Amy Adams, as chilling in this role as she was beguiling in the "Curve." Hey, when it comes to great acting, all those legendary guys have nothing on her.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org