If nothing else, Alan Ball’s Nothing Is Private has shed some light on how people recoil with hostility from Lars Von Trier’s ‘America Trilogy’ films (Manderlay and Dogville). In its smug button-pushing and clumsy provocation it quickly becomes apparent that this is a film that makes a car running over of a virgin white kitten or a pregnant lady falling on her own stomach funny in its own sort of way. Funny not for well realized satire or pitch-black farce, but rather the lengths resorted to jolt a reaction from the same audience that skips along from one Oscar-bait feel-bad movie to the next. Better that the film (in all of its digitally shot cinematic flatness) is completely ignored by folks rather than coming into any type of cultural conversation, although I have my doubts, as the shrillness (often pointed to in Paul Haggis' Crash) cannot help but create some sort of emotional response first go around.
There may be some smaller revelations scene to scene and a more dispassionate second viewing may help to separate this from the initial reaction. After being bullied around by the picture, the initial reaction is that in and of itself there is nothing on offer here in the way of enlightenment on either the human condition or prejudice or family dynamics or sexual awakening/confusion. Nothing is Private crams in as much social commentary, political allegory, body fluids and misguided schadenfreude (this thing is supposed to be entertaining right?) to make for three (or more) films. American Beauty (written by Ball) at least had a glossy middle-brow sheen and a few cinematic flourishes to entertain while it waltzed along (some of these are even attempted here, but the result is diminishing returns) . Nothing is Private comes off as the excited little puppy excitedly dancing around the bigger dog in those old Merry Melodies. As far as 'learn by bad behavior' satire goes, maestros Todd Solondz or Alexander Payne are the confident larger dog that swats this little yipper casually aside.
Set around and after Christmas 1990 (at the point where the stalemate in the Gulf broke into a shooting war) in a Texas suburb cul-de-sac clearly acting as a microcosm of America for writer/director Alan Ball and novelist Alicia Erian. Her book “Towelhead” provided the basis for the film, but in my mind the screenplay was actually David Grant's novel being crafted within Nick Hornby's "How to Be Good", or the product of the vitriolic mindset of Ignatius J. Reilly). The central focus (if that term can apply to something this scattershot) is the sexual awakening of young half Lebanese, half American girl, Jasira (Summer Bishil). Her actions (or, often as is the case, inactions) drive the slow-motion multiple car-crash of a narrative by providing the necessary sexual, familial and cry-of-distress raison d'êtres typically used in Iranian or Northern European cinema (ahem. Lilja 4-Ever). When considering the lengths the film is willing to go with menstrual blood, semen, pubic hair and bruises, it is important to remember that this girls is supposedly 13 (FYI, Bishil is 18). The opening scenes introduce her with her crotch covered in shaving cream, about to have her pubic hair shaved off by her step-dad. Mom (Maria Bello), self-absorbed and shrill, shunts off her daughter along with a cartload of emotional luggage from Syracuse to Texas to live with her even more self-absorbed (and now add verbally and physically abusive) Lebanese Father. Rifat is the model of American immigrant in public, he holds down a NASA job, speaks multiple languages fluently, is a single parent and spends as much time keeping up with the Joneses (in this case army reservist Aaron Eckhart’s clueless clan) as he does complaining about the US pussyfooting around Saddam Hussein. Before his daughter comes back into his life, the most painful thing for him is answering the front door (an particular action which is driven home again and again with not only Rifat, but all the characters). Perhaps the fear of his private racism (intellectually rationalized as “that’s the way the world works, I have to adjust and account for it") and otherwise lack of any good human qualities may waft out on the air, like that purple chemical parents say is in the pool to unmask pissing swimmers, and expose him for what he is. To say that the performance by Peter Macdissi is fearless is an understatement. He is clearly the stand-out of the film in terms of both having the most novel character (a more fully realized version of the angry Laotian neighbor from Mike Judge’s King of the Hill) and giving the most consistent performance (yet still enslaved in the screeching hysterical tone of the film – would that this character was dropped into something more accomplished, say Spielberg’s Munich). Toni Colette and TV stalwart Matt Letcher play the well-adjusted liberal family (he speaks Arabic, she hands out books on sexual awakening and provides a safe-harbour to confused 13 year old girls) next door. Of course the liberals are the biggest snoops in the neighborhood, sticking their noses into other peoples business with the same earnestness of the US bolstering Kuwait. That Colette’s character does this while nine months pregnant is as much a handy dramatic device (imminent violence always being in the background of every action here, much like the Gulf War climate – the allegory is as over-ripe as her gestating fetus). Lastly there is the shrill conservative family of Aaron Eckhart. The easy targets of the film, particularly when Eckhart (so good in a diverse range of things from featherweight satire Thank-You for Smoking or those two vicious Neil LaBute films) is just embarrassingly bad. When he initially sexually assaults Jasira, it is one of those left-field, completely baffling moments that is sure to drive away any HBO or Oscar earned goodwill. Like a train-wreck derailing one car at a time in slow motion the movie compels continued viewing even as the bile oozed out of this cinematic zit . When Ekhart's character comes on screen, the movie never rings more false (it was more a compelling exercise to contemplate if his army reservist is going to age into Chris Cooper's confused army dude in American Beauty – the actors faces are strangely similar.) Lastly, as if there was not already enough matches and dry tinder lying around, there is the confused, horny (yet mostly harmless) black teenager to use (and abuse?) Jasira for casual sexual exploration. Somehow this character, in a relative sense anyway, ends up serving as one of the better examples of humanity on display in the ticky-tacky diorama culminating in the big living-room showdown. Eugene Jones brings a natural screen presence to the role, but is neutered time and time again by the screenplay which has him flip flop character-wise to the point where the character is shunted aside in the same derogatory manner of the unnecessary black dude in a horror film.
And so it goes. With everything going with the dial set to 11, while lingering on nothing for any length of time, a 12 hour HBO styled show may have been the way to do justice to all the menstrual-blood-in-apple-pie and flag folding festishiztion Ball wants to smother the audience in here. It is clearly the product of TV debating, where volume and showmanship trump any desire to get at the heart of things. If it debuts on the small screen as a new show, I'll be the guy watching re-runs of The Wire (the antithesis of Nothing is Private) during that time slot.
A movie that wants to make you feel bad, learn little, empathize less and feel smugly superior in the manner of a Jerry Springer episode (where the guests here are thin, have all their teeth and wear Tommy Hilfiger) is the best we get. Ultimately Nothing is Private is an easy (too easy) film to process (literally and figuratively) but a difficult one in terms of elucidating intentions. The tone never really finds any sort of sure footing. The execution of the material aims for satire or drama or maybe a new hybrid of the two (points for trying and failing, I guess). The over-the-top performances suggest farce, yet the shooting style suggests earnestness. An optimist may take the unevenness as part of the point – some sort of thematic playfulness or more strenuous workout for a discriminating audience. I have my doubts. There is little playfulness in terms of the effect on the viewer while watching things however, as things are simply loud, Loud, LOUD in the all-directions-at-once bombast. Besides, there is already a vital source of bile-energy-drink in the form of that crazy Dane whose screeds are all the more interesting since he hasn’t set foot on US soil.