CIFF 2012: Mr. Sophistication (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Danny Green

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Harry Lennix is an actor who can be easy to take for granted. He’s worked in numerous films and television shows, always adding his solid presence to round and deepen even the most by-the-numbers script, though I hasten to add that most of the projects he has chosen are anything but ordinary. I was particularly impressed with his work in the lost and lamented Joss Whedon series “Dollhouse.”

Mr. Sophistication has a title that applies more to Lennix than Ron Waters, the character he plays. Ron is a stand-up comedian who threw a blazing-hot career and first wife (Gina Torres) away with his rampant drug use and subsequent erratic behavior. At the beginning of the film, he is doing his “ripped from my life” routine to a packed house at the Chicago nightclub his wife Kim (Tatum O’Neal) owns and runs. After the show, his former agent Sterling French (Robert Patrick) comes backstage to tell him that people in Los Angeles have been asking for him and that he can make a comeback—but only if there are no repeats of his drug-induced theatrics. Ron, dissatisfied with a wife who is a businesswoman with no time to meet his emotional and physical needs and enticed by the chance to be on top again, accepts French’s offer.

He is given VIP treatment when he gets to L.A., with each of his guests commenting on the plush digs he has at an upscale hotel. His first set at one of L.A.’s elite comedy clubs garners him plaudits from old and new fans alike, as well as an evening seduction from 24-year-old beauty Rosa (Paloma Gúzman) that develops into an affair. Rosa falls in love with Ron, and he is very indiscreet about being seen with her anywhere and everywhere. Word of his affair gets back to Kim, and she hops on the next plane to try to save her marriage. On the brink of a major break as warm-up comedian for pop singer Niki J. Crawford (herself), he finds himself at the edge of an emotional cliff, torn between Rosa and Kim.

It’s clear from this synopsis that there’s nothing new or different about this story, and aside from the absence of designer drugs, all the things you’d expect to see in such a tale—the surface love inadequately hiding the cutthroat, elitist attitudes of show people, lots of drinking and smoking, self-justifying characters—are on display. Yet, I am recommending this film without reservation on the strength of some very powerful performances by actors who have been given excellent dialog to work with and the steady hand of director Danny Green.

Green seems to have a particular facility with actresses, encouraging them to reach for their strength and their sexuality in equal measure. Both Tatum O’Neal and Paloma Gúzman play smart, strong women who are formidable competitors for Ron’s affection. O’Neal gets to portray not only an older and wiser woman who is persistent and confident in her own abilities, but also a sexy woman who understands Ron’s need for emotional support; she doesn’t use only sex to entice him back, but also the kind of intimate honesty and open dialog that is more important to Ron than physical fulfillment. Gúzman may be smoking hot—her intense concentration on Ron when she first sees him perform is a laser beam of admiration and desire—but she also speaks with youthful intelligence, offering Ron a chance to be all the things he wants to be because she can show him and teach him about the joy of love and life, something she accurately diagnoses as his one gaping lack up to now. In a single, memorable scene, Gina Torres tantalizes Ron as she shows with a look of complete love for her second husband, multimillionare ex-basketball player Rick Fox playing himself, that she is happier without him.

It is, however, Harry Lennix who stops the show with his complete realization of his complex character. Lennix dexterously handles the emotionally raw comedy scenes like he has been doing stand-up all his life, a Hemingway who takes what has happened to him during the day and turns it into comedic genius by the evening. So, we believe Ron was a superstar comic with a rare gift that he feels compelled to fulfill outside the safe confines of Kim’s club. We also see how his emotional vulnerability, both real and calculated, draws women irresistibly into his orbit. Ron is capable of lying through his teeth with complete conviction, and still feel very ashamed of himself. His justification that he is an artist who needs to be free sounds like bullshit even to him, but that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it. When he almost blows his big chance, it is because he is so emotionally messed up about his feelings for both Rosa and Kim that he takes his unfunny talking therapy out on his audience.

I loved the look cinematographer Keith L. Smith created, setting us down in dark, smoke-filled nightclubs and swank parties like we belong there—I really felt comfortable in rarefied circumstances I’d normally never get a chance to experience rather than like a tourist watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” a comfort that is very hard to pull off. Green allows for some Southern California sunshine, but after the obligatory drive down Rodeo Drive, he mainly abandons the glitz for more lived-in areas of Los Angeles, such as the mixed area of the boutique where Rosa works.

Watching Niki Crawford move in and out of rooms with her entourage in tow actually made me laugh, but Crawford herself never came off as a caricature. The final credits roll over her performance at the Cavalcade that represents Ron’s revival in both career and spirit. It also is a lovely grace note for a wonderful showcase of talent that Danny Green has given us in Mr. Sophistication.

Mr. Sophistication screens Saturday, October 20, at 7:15 pm. and Sunday, October 21, at 12:15 p.m. Danny Green, Harry Lennix, and producers Albena Dodeva and Jon E. Edwards are scheduled to attend the screenings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.

Previous coverage

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)

Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)

The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)

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