Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
Now a character-driven, California-set TV show, the shadow of David Michôd's 2010 film "Animal Kingdom" is huge: it gave Joel Edgerton a breakout role, put Ben Mendelsohn on the map of creepy supporting actors and earned Jacki Weaver an Oscar nomination. And it did it all with a tough, tight, original screenplay. Even six years later, it's hard to forget the sensation of claustrophobia that Michôd created with pure filmmaking in his directorial debut.
The success of "Animal Kingdom" was in large part from its fantastic character construction, a mission that this remake fails to elaborate on within its first two episodes, as it expands the story of a crime family but doesn't fill its wider scope with many inspired traits. The show (premiering June 14 at 9/8c on TNT) starts like a direct remake, down to many of the characters' names. 17-year-old J. (Finn Cole) is taken in by his estranged grandmother Smurf Cody (Ellen Barkin) after his drug-addicted mother Julia dies, the first shot showing him on a couch next to her overdosed body, watching “Whammy!” with his own lifeless expression. Under the roof of Smurf's lively beach home, he gets closer with his brutish surfer uncles Craig (Ben Robson) and Deran (Jake Weary) and their friend Baz (Scott Speedman), who welcome him as both family and fresh meat. J’s shady uncle Pope (Shawn Hatosy) has been in prison for a long time, and soon emerges back into the picture to stir the pot.
Numb and malleable, J enters into his family's life of committing armed robbery and engaging in other extreme behavior, like surfing, jumping off the roof into the family pool, or using the threat of violence as power. The story follows J as his new figures influence him through timeless values of family: No secrets, family above all else, and most importantly, mother is always right. After one robbery job blows up in their faces, "Animal Kingdom" follows the contrasting, hidden dynamics between each member of the group, as there become more secrets at play than anyone knows.
As the Codys become divided, the intricacies of this family story rarely make for gripping, surprising television. Part of this can be blamed on the rough draft performances, who often fail to inject their own life into Michôd’s templates that have been carried over. Even when men like Deran or Craig are shown to have their blind spots, the revelations don’t create magnetism so much as motion to keep the story headed towards a shrugging end. The uncles especially become too synonymous with the tacky beach blonde atmosphere this movie has used in place of Michod’s distinct Melbourne summer, their vital presentations of masculinity draining its curiosity in each stone-faced close-up. Some rough line-readings of expository dialogue further show how the series' vision isn’t as developed, or smoothed out, as this ambitious project needs it to be.
Although the first two episodes were directed by John Wells (no stranger to the villainy of family with his 2013 film, “August: Osage County”), “Animal Kingdom” has a hard time finding its own charisma. It inserts some adrenaline rushes a la "Point Break," but proves that idea of machismo was tired even when Kathryn Bigelow tackled it in the 1991 original. Wells’ camera can sporadically have a nice touch with the dramatic material, covering a lot of characters’ clashing gazes in one frame, but the total package is too bland. To confirm its identity crisis, “Animal Kingdom” treats its beach bum crime saga with a wannabe David Fincher opening credit sequence of quick graphic cuts, distorted visuals and trash compactor guitars from Atticus Ross (who scores Fincher’s films). For a series about a family that lives on many edges, "Animal Kingdom" would rather be recognizable in any form than challenging.
In the unique case of pitting an original film against a TV series remake, there’s never a strong case made by "Animal Kingdom" for investment in its 45-minute episodes when a two-hour, more mindful version of this saga awaits. Its strongest takeaway, though, is the excellent casting of Ellen Barkin as the manipulative Smurf. Her scheming scenes of buddying up with her different boys, commanding them over a busy kitchen table with a glint of Oedipal psychology, make for the show's best moments. She takes on Jacki Weaver's Oscar-nominated sheet music, but Barkin's low, raspy, vocal tone proves to have its own finesse. As opposed to much of the series’ elements, compared to the original film or anything that wants to be it, Barkin holds her own.
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