Though I thought The Lost City of Z was a worthy tour de force, it’s good to see director James Gray return to his native New York City (the less said about his previous film, the sci-fi melodrama Ad Astra, the better). Except for Scorsese, Gray is probably the only living filmmaker who conveys the mood of the city in such an effortlessly direct way. The added bonus here is that he appears to be channeling his own childhood growing up in Queens, so the verisimilitude, even at a remove of forty years, feels doubly sharp. Nevertheless, the movie operates within the mechanics of a memoir, which means it tends to peak and dip depending on the emotional current it’s riding.
If there’s a through plot-line it’s 12-year-old Paul Graff’s (Banks Repeta) friendship with classmate Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), which is forged in 1980 when both get on the wrong side of their home room teacher during the first day of class. Johnny is already on the teacher’s shit list, since he’s repeating sixth grade, while Paul, a budding artist, pisses off Mr. Turkelaub (Andrew Polk) with a clandestinely sketched caricature. Since their bond has been sealed by mischief, it is special and inviolable, even if Paul is white and Johnny is Black. Still, their times together are only intermittently depicted. Most of the movie involves Paul’s home life, where his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), dreams of better material things for her and her sons, and his father, the stoical plumber Irving (Jeremy Strong), doesn’t mutter a word that isn’t meant to be practical in effect. Since Paul’s older brother couldn’t care less about any fraternal ties, the only family member whom Paul can turn to for life advice is his grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), a Holocaust survivor who understands that you have to take whatever happiness you can from this awful existence, so when Paul’s parents try to discourage him from following his artistic urges, Aaron buys the boy a paint set. This setup is overly familiar, but what Gray does with it is interesting. Even if Esther and Irving are typical in their parenting attitudes, it’s clear from how things turn out that they really don’t get Paul at all. After the boy is caught smoking pot in the boys room, Esther decides to enroll him in the same private school his brother attends. The fact that the Trump family is a major patron of the school—Donald’s sister, Maryanne (Jessica Chastain, having a grand old time), gives the opening speech for the new school year—just goes to show the kind of goals the Graffs value. Unfortunately, the institute’s select vibe gets the better of their son, and he despairs over his ability to fit in. Meanwhile, Johnny has dropped out of public school entirely, but the two keep in touch for the occasional misadventure. Johnny even secretly camps out in Paul’s backyard shed when his own family situation renders him homeless.
Though the trajectory of Paul’s sentimental education is predictable, Gray scatters moments of incredible depth of feeling that discourages whatever potential the movie holds for sticky nostalgia. The scene where Paul is banished to his room early for a faux pas to await the wrath of his father is one of the scariest I’ve ever sat through in a major motion picture, in no small part due to how Strong, one of our most mercurial film actors, can turn on a dime into a fire-breathing monster. Despite what you may have heard, Armageddon Time—the title is taken from a remark made by new president Ronald Reagan—is not particularly distinctive as a capsule reenactment of its historical moment, but it works very well as an insightful look at the process of becoming an adult human being.
Opens May 12 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).
Armageddon Time home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2022 Focus Features, LLC