Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Armageddon Time is a weaker, but often interesting, directorial effort from James Gray


Growing up isn't easy. It's always an awkward experience full of stumbles, misunderstandings, and anxiety. It's an especially bad process when you realize at some point in your life that it doesn't end when you turn 18. Just because you're old enough to enlist in the U.S. military or about to start college doesn't mean you've finished evolving as a human being. We're all always growing and being exposed to further complexities of reality, which is simultaneously a comforting and terrifying thought. Armageddon Time, a quasi-autobiographical period piece from writer/director James Gray, captures a small portion of growing up in the life of Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a sixth-grader growing up in Queens, New York in 1980.

Graff has a cushy life in some respects, living with PTA mom Esther (Anne Hathaway) and reliable mechanic Irving (Jeremy Strong) in a nice home. He's also got a close bond with his kindly grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). But even if he doesn't have to worry about going to bed hungry, Graff's life still has its share of challenges. For one thing, his friendship with Jonny (Jaylin Webb), a young Black kid with a fixation on NASA whose living with his mentally-deteriorating grandmother, has brought Graff a lot of joy. However, their shared rebellious nature means that trouble is never far behind the duo. Eventually, they get into enough trouble to inspire Esther and Irving to send Graff to a fancy prep school. Here, Armageddon Time's lead character becomes even more conscious of all the systemic intolerance around him while constant problems plague Jonny.

Though Gray is gazing back into his past with Armageddon Time, don't expect an easy dive into warm nostalgia from the director of The Immigrant. If nothing else, Armageddon Time is the needle that pokes the balloon that is rampant joyful 1980s nostalgia in American pop culture. 1980 is often depicted as a place where joy is an anomaly, not the norm. Meanwhile, the recurring mentions of Ronald Reagan's impending Presidential election and the presence of two notable famous faces at Paul's prep school hauntingly convey that the problems of this era will only be exacerbated in the future. Just as none of us are ever done growing up, so too does Armageddon Time suggests that America was far from finished with systemic intolerance after 1980.

Gray's morose tone makes this a slightly abnormal autobiographical coming-of-age yarn, with this screenwriter/director accentuating the grimness through depictions of hypocritical behavior in its characters. Paul's grandmother, for instance, will talk at the family dinner table about her experiences with anti-Semitism while also prattling on about how desegregating schools has opened the door to nothing but trouble. Similarly, Irving notes at one point that nobody in Esther's family except for Aaron ever supported him being a mechanic, everybody else among her relatives just wrote Irving off. Simultaneously, Irving also brutally insists that his son give up on his ambitions of being an artist and pursue "a real job." The characters of Armageddon Time can be simultaneously oppressed by societal norms while engaging in dehumanizing acts against other people themselves. This doesn't erase the horrors of antisemitism or the rudeness of dismissing people based on labor-based jobs, it just shows that people can be complicated. Committing to this quality makes the gloomy atmosphere of Armageddon Time feel earned rather than forced.

Other aspects of Armageddon Time's screenplay, though, left me yearning for that kind of depth. Esther, for one, fades into the foreground in the second half of the story after being such a prominent character up to that point. There's an in-universe reason for her being so distant, but putting the pedal to the metal by just sidelining her makes her presence in the entire film feel underdeveloped. Similarly, Jonny's presence in Armageddon Time is erratic. Too often it feels like his role in the story is solely being determined by what Paul needs, rather than making him feel like a kid with his own separate life. A brief glimpse of Paul talking to his grandmother had me wishing we could get more scenes of this character alone, and see what his day-to-day life feels like. The characters in Armageddon Time that feel alive are rich with layers, but unfortunately, it also leaves some players in its story out in the cold.

This is a byproduct of the movie eventually attempting to do just too much, a strange shortcoming since Gray was able to make all the various challenges of Ewa (Marion Cotillard) in his 2014 film The Immigrant feel cohesive and like they belonged to the same movie. It's not a problem to have a protagonist go through multiple types of struggles, it's just that Gray doesn't pull it off quite as well here. Part of the problem is Paul Graff himself, a kid whose often overshadowed by other characters in Armageddon Time like Aaron or Jonny. Whereas Ewa was always the most compelling character on-screen in The Immigrant and could carry your attention through all that movie's twists and turns, Paul is a bit more generically rendered as a character and, as a result, can get lost in the various subplots of Armageddon Time. It's not a good sign about the status of your protagonist when our one in-depth view into Paul's mind, taking place during a museum field trip, results in a segment that feels lifted from a live-action Disney movie from the 1990s more than anything else.

Key pieces of Armageddon Time, namely big swings at pathos in the third act or the score by Christopher Spelman, often feel like the writing of Paul Graff; not bad, just not very distinctive or memorable. Still, though it can't measure up to earlier works by James Gray, Armageddon Time is far from a waste of time. It's still got interesting pieces of insight to offer on American society circa. 1980 while Darius Khondji's cinematography is rife with striking images. There are also plenty of good performances to go around, with Anthony Hopkins standing out most of all as a cuddly and wide grandpa. Leave it to Hopkins to lend the same level of conviction and believability to a guy who buys toy rocketships for his grandson as he did to a cannibal. What range he has!

Growing up isn't easy to do, no matter how old or young you are. There are tons of movies throughout history that have grappled with the difficulties of this process, with several of them turning out to be masterpieces. Armageddon Time falls well short of that distinction, but there are some flashes of brilliance and standout elements here amidst a busy plot and a thinly-defined protagonist. Certainly, you could do worse than watch a movie where Hopkins monologues about the importance of always standing up to racist bullies.

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