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The Curious Appeal of Griffin Dunne

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by Max Winter
May 21, 2014 2:19 PM
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Dunne

I don’t like hubris in any form; when I see it on screen, my dislike is amplified. Hence, I tend not to be a huge fan of Lead Actors. Joaquin Phoenix is a Method-fueled blur, Cate Blanchett a scenery chewer, Leonardo DiCaprio too young, even at his age. I tend to be drawn towards character actors, or at least those who have built their careers on secondary roles: the Brad Dourifs, the Tom Noonans, the Marcia Gay Hardens, the non-mega-stars. I tend, also, to be a fan of Griffin Dunne, wherever he appears. Dunne is an interesting case: he gave early star turns in An American Werewolf in London and After Hours, but has since then been primarily a supporting player, albeit a consistent one. He formed a standard Griffin Dunne expression in the early films, one which combines three stages of rage: the initial outburst, the growing anger, and the acknowledgment that there is nothing to be done, settling into a fixed glower that never entirely leaves his face. This vulnerability, and his frustration with it, is too ingrained in him for him to ever be a leading man—he seems to feel his pains the way the rest of us feel them. He wants to hide them, but he can’t. Insecurities, fears, and anxieties in the Lead Actor, by contrast, must occur like the psychological equivalents of exploding cars; they must be huge, expansive, intimidating, screen-filling. Dunne doesn’t fill the screen, and yet he does occupy it. In his current film, The Discoverers, he occupies the screen much like a human grounding plug—his presence never allows other characters' histrionics to go too far. Any rage of his own is, likewise, contained.

Granted, The Discoverers had stiff competition, given that it opened on the same day as Godzilla; if faced with the choice of seeing a film about the career struggles of a poorly shaven history professor or a movie about a gigantic lizard from the bottom of the ocean, the decision might, for many viewers, be fairly simple. This is regrettable, because any flaws the film contains (and there are a few) are small in contrast with the strength of its different elements. The story has a shaggy-dog quality to it, one part road movie, one part self-realization saga: divorced history professor Lewis Birch (Dunne) is traveling to Portland for a professional conference with his two children, here beautifully deadpanned by Madeleine Martin and Devon Graye; he has also just sent his 6,000-plus-page history text on a minor figure in the Lewis and Clark Expedition to a diminutive, obscure academic publisher. Neither of these attempts are destined to be successful; Birch broadcasts their impending failure with his entire bearing: the stubble on his chin, his poor posture, his messy apartment, even his dirty car, suggest things won’t work out so well for him. The fact that he moonlights as a security guard indicates, in tandem with all of the other clues, that the trip is a bit of a Hail Mary pass. What distinguishes Dunne’s performance from those of other actors who have “gone sloppy” for the sake of a role (see Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, for a famous example) is that it hurts more. In a swerve that shapes the story, Birch is forced to make a detour en route to the conference to see his estranged parents, one receding into dementia, the other fatally ill. The lack of love communicated between Birch and his father, played beautifully by Stuart Margolin, is palpable; what radiates here is less alienation than profound dislike. It comes out in small ways, such as their inability to look fully at each other for long, or the vaguely deadened, aggravated sound in Dunne’s voice when he speaks to his father. The two are left alone because Birch’s mother dies suddenly, before she speaks a line of dialogue; her absence hangs over the rest of the film as if it might be the only thing that would cement their relationship.

In After Hours and American Werewolf, as with subsequent roles, Dunne seemed more rational than any of the players surrounding him. After Hours found his modest office worker wandering through the streets of Soho at night, being toyed with and pursued by a host of brilliantly portrayed characters, including a be-beehived Teri Garr, a sad, brooding, obsessive John Heard, and a vengeful Catherine O’Hara. In American Werewolf, he still offered the voice of reason, even from beyond death, as his soon-to-be-lupine friend couldn’t control the changes occurring in his body and mind and Dunne’s gorily maimed corpse had to explain things to him, in a sarcastic, do-I-really-have-to-explain-this tone. Here, similarly, Dunne’s grounding-plug instincts are put to the test as he must follow his father into the woods, where he has gone with a group of re-enactors of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Predictably, the re-enactors all speak in period language, eschew modern convenience, act somewhat freakishly—and predictably, hijinks ensue. But these hijinks don’t reach nearly the pitch they could have—the film’s strength lies in the fact that neither their absurdity nor Dunne’s sad state are entirely laughable. The director chooses, instead, to come close to embracing them—we learn a lot about the expedition through Birch and through his father’s band of cohorts, as the film looks openly at the re-enactors, considering why they might have arrived at this point. Perhaps the most touching of these performances comes from Cara Buono, playing a potentially damaged soul-seeker, a million miles from her more strident recent role as Faye on Mad Men. Similarly, we come to see Birch as less a middle-aged, down-at-heels academic than a confused son of confused parents, striving to be more than marginally better at parenting himself.

Dunne is the leading man of this film, and yet he is not the leading man. The film offers too much competition, in every way, even beyond the strengths of its other actors. The script, while it has its moments of pat indie-com humor, is admirably restrained and intimate; even Birch’s daughter's indication of a stray pube on a bathroom floor, as she and Birch are both sitting there, turns into a moment of closeness. The film’s visuals, as well, rise beyond the story: the blue of a mountain range or the immensity of a fog-filled morning write their own kind of script here, across the film’s plot, and they operate in a gorgeous counterpoint with it. Dunne can’t compete with these elements, nor does he try to. The strength of actors like this, those who operate on a fainter register than others, is that they remind us of what we are like, rather than what we are told we might be like, if we tried. The strength of Dunne’s performance here is that, despite the fact that he’s arguably the center of the film, you’d never know it to look at him.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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