Reviews: "Family Law"; "Amazing Grace"

Michael Fox February 20, 2007

An actor to watch in “Family Law”

The Argentinean writer-director Daniel Burman is an exceedingly clever young filmmaker, and the smartest move he ever made was casting Daniel Hendler as his onscreen alter ego. Their previous outing, “Lost Embrace,” won the Silver Bear and Hendler the best actor award at the Berlin Film Festival three years ago, propelling both men into the international spotlight. “Family Law” marks their fourth collaboration and confirms beyond question that Hendler is the most natural and unaffected actor in movies today. Let’s put it this way: If you were charmed by mannish boy Zach Braff’s achin’-to-please performances in “Garden State” and “The Last Kiss,” you owe it to yourself to see the real deal.

“Family Law” starts out as a zippy comedy, narrated by its likable lead character, and imperceptibly deepens into a study of his creeping alienation and self-doubt. Perelman, Jr. (Hendler) is a lawyer who’s chosen to teach rather than practice, partly because he’d rather debate ethics in the classroom than dirty his hands in the workaday world. But he’s also resistant to following the road of Perelman, Sr., an attorney whose success owes much to finely honed rituals (gifting courthouse clerks with knickknacks on their birthday) and questionable tactics (paying the same guy to testify as an eyewitness in multiple personal-injury cases).

Perelman, Jr. is a bright, charming guy who knows how to get what he wants, including the woman he decides to win and marry, and these early scenes have a fine bubbly rhythm. But once he has the family he thought he desired, Perelman, Jr. find himself growing vaguely detached from them and strangely out of touch with himself. Burman seems to be setting us up for a major plot turn — an affair, perhaps, or some contrivance that compels Perelman, Jr. to join his father’s practice-but it’s a long time coming. The director prefers the gradual accretion of small incidents to soundtrack-swelling drama, and yet “Family Law” isn’t exactly an intimate character study,

That leaves Hendler with the high-wire act of holding our interest and our empathy while his character thumb-wrestles with the kind of yuppie malaise that all too often in contemporary movies reeks of narcissism and privilege. He does it effortlessly, without frills or gimmicks or breaking a sweat. In fact, Hendler is such an unflagging pleasure to watch that he convinces us, even after the lights come up, that this deceptively slight movie is a work of poignancy and weight.

“Family Law,” which was Argentina’s official submission for the Academy Award for best foreign language film, opens Friday, Feb. 23 at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

“Amazing Grace”‘s rambunctious profile in courage

In revisiting the 20-year crusade to abolish the British import and trade of Africans that one William Wilberforce waged in the House of Commons a long, long time ago, Michael Apted’s worthy and energetic “Amazing Grace” serves as a reminder that period pieces often make the most effective message movies. The historical distance may seem like a hurdle but, on the contrary, our absolution from the events in question allows us to fall under the grip of the story without feeling preached to or admonished. Depending on the deftness and nuance of the screenplay, we are free to reflect on the contemporary parallels — which, in this case, are numerous.

The passionately intelligent (and marvelously cast) script by Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”) proffers a profile in courage in the form of one man standing against the prevailing “wisdom.” William Wilberforce (played with brio by Ioan Gruffudd), a wealthy lad of just 23 when he was elected to Parliament in 1782, was an Evangelical Christian with humanitarian goals who wavered between religion and politics. But confronted with the cruelty of the slave trade, and encouraged by his good friend William Pitt, the equally youthful prime minister, Wilberforce stayed in Parliament and made abolition his raison d’etre.

Wilberforce, in this telling, is a resolute individual of lofty principles but the filmmakers go to great lengths not to make him a hero. That is to say that “Amazing Grace” avoids the pitfall of most white-man-helps-the-persecuted movies. Wilberforce is presented as a man of flesh and blood (he’s plagued by illness from the opening scene) and a bit of an eccentric (he lets a veritable menagerie inhabit his house), who is reliant on two disparate mentors for inspiration. Oloudah Equiano (world music star Youssou N’Dour), a former slave who bought his freedom, represents the humanity and aspirations of black Africans. The crucial figure, though, is John Newton (a powerful Albert Finney), a former slave-ship captain who seeks a measure of atonement for his participation in the genocide.

“Amazing Grace” aspires to inspire by reminding moviegoers that one committed individual can change the world. It’s a timeless theme, in that there’s always a widely accepted folly that needs challenging. But given its release now, when the invasion and occupation of Iraq has come to be widely viewed in Britain and the U.S. as folly, “Amazing Grace” can be read as a call to Parliament (and, by extension, Congress) to belatedly correct a grievous mistake. (Replace “slavery” with “oil” and the movie’s scenes of conservatives in the House of Commons opposing abolition on economic grounds have a shocking familiarity.)

Also worth noting is the degree to which the religious men Wilberforce and Newton (who wrote the titular hymn) recognize that spiritual faith is of dubious value without compassion, social responsibility and action. The film’s weighty themes, to be sure, are matched by an equally serious concern with entertainment. Michael Apted, recently in theaters with “49 Up,” the latest installment of his long-running, one-of-a-kind documentary series, brings plenty of verve and vitality to the proceedings. “Amazing Grace” plays like a Merchant-Ivory movie injected with espresso, or “Blood Diamond” with a college education.

“Amazing Grace” opens Friday, Feb. 23 at Bay Area theaters.