I have quit drinking for a month—in the short term, this has meant headaches and insomnia (“Sounds like withdrawal,” a colleague said last week when I declined a drink and then had to explain myself; “You said it,” I replied, “not me.” I ended up with a Shirley Temple); in the long term I am hoping for better sleep, more energy, more money—which has made many social situations even more taxing than usual. So last night, instead of going to a birthday party, I had dinner with friends and then went home to my bed for an evening of chocolate and Netflix.
I’m indecisive by nature, and so it took some clicking around before I settled on “Nobody Walks,” a movie I’d heard about vaguely, from a director, Ry Russo-Young, whose work I’ve been meaning to see. (Okay, and the fact that it starred John Krasinski, who I continue to find bashfully appealing—he looks bashful about being so appealing; also I feel bashful about finding him appealing—probably helped.)
The movie—it turned out to be co-written by Lena Dunham, which fact I’d known but forgotten until her name popped up in the title sequence—was pretty and well-acted and full of sharp little scenes that maybe didn’t add up to all that much but were affecting and enjoyable to watch. It was the movie equivalent of an artfully crafted short story (gem-like sentences and all that), and so slightly underwhelming in its chosen medium.
Since I love to second guess myself, I decided, this morning, to read some reviews of the movie, to see whether my basic interpretation of the film matched up with critical consensus. What I found was an unsurprising—if disappointing—hostility towards the central character, Martine. Martine is twenty-three year-old filmmaker played by Olivia Thirlby, who is staying in Silverlake with a sound engineer, Peter, (John Krasinksi), his wife, Julie, (Rosemarie DeWitt), two kids (the oldest, a girl named Kolt, is the product of Julie’s previous marriage to a musician played, briefly, by Dylan McDermott, better known to me and my mother as extra-sincere Catholic lawyer Bobby Donnell from The Practice; that jaw will always make me think of witness boxes and the confessional), and Peter’s assistant David. Peter is helping Martine with the sound design on her experimental film, which consists of close-up shots of bugs over which they’re dubbing sounds and dialogue. Martine, who wears cropped shirts and high-waisted jeans and is gorgeous in a very casual way, eventually hooks up with both David and Peter, before a suspicious Julie tells Peter to kick her out of the house.
And, okay, sure, she’s not the most sympathetic character, especially because she seems unburdened by guilt. She’s also twenty-three and unattached, while Peter, who at one point actually says something along the lines of “Marriage is very complicated,” and almost gets away with it because he’s being played by Jim from The Office—this is just before he pulls Martine onto his lap, then throws her onto a table and fucks her—is married with two kids. Still, very little ill will towards Peter, and lots towards Martine.
Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader characterizes her as “young, horny, and talentless” (true, redundant, his opinion I guess). Stephen Holden, in a positive review in The New York Times, accuses her of being a “careless sexual adventurer” (um, young woman?) who initiates “treacherous sexual power games … mostly out of boredom.” Roger Ebert, usually a generous critic, calls Martine “The real villain,” someone, “who is young enough to know the power of her sexuality and old enough to employ it more wisely.” And yes, Martine does initiate her first kiss with Peter, but she later tells him that they should try to pretend it never happened. When David kisses her, she briefly tries to dissuade him, telling him that it doesn’t seem like a good idea to hook up with her host’s assistant. She seems less like a woman calculatingly employing her sexuality and old enough to know better, than one old enough to enjoy her own sexuality but not old enough to say no. (Or maybe she just doesn’t see the point.) In any case, it seems less her responsibility to keep her sexuality in check than it is married Peter’s responsibility to keep his in his pants.
More surprising is that these reviews were littered with factual inaccuracies. I know that daily movie critics have to see a lot of films and write a lot of reviews and that of course it must get hard to keep all the details straight. And some of the mistakes were fairly harmless—Holden, for example, claims that both of the children are from Julie’s previous marriage, though the clear implication is that Peter is the father of the couple’s younger son. But most of the errors are so blatant that they point towards readings hampered by a bias verging on hatred for the woman at the center of the film.
From Betsy Sharkey’s review in The LA Times: “Her kiss-off of the boy she leaves behind in New York as she heads to Los Angeles starts to sketch in the way Martine uses people.” She’s referring to a scene in which Martine makes out with a guy in an airport parking lot; when he starts to unbutton her jeans, she stops him, saying “Listen: I had a great time sitting next to you on the plane.” He then drives her to Peter and Julie’s house and disappears from the film. So, no, not “the boy she leaves behind in New York.” Holden’s review characterizes Kolt as “a spoiled 16-year-old who flirts recklessly with her much older Italian teacher,” which makes no sense; she’s spoiled, maybe, and she certainly isn’t much interested in learning Italian, but it’s her middle-aged tutor who asks her, in Italian, while on a walk, how she can be tired “with those legs.” Later, in her bedroom, he tells her to pick her underwear up from the floor, before mocking her modest slip as “sexy, for my grandmother.” Even Ebert slips up: “Kolt,” he writes, “sees Martine and Peter snogging in the car in the driveway and is perhaps inspired to flirt with her Italian teacher … along with Peter’s assistant, David.” Only it’s Martine and David she sees “snogging”—which fact makes her jealous, as it’s already been made very clear Kolt has a crush on David.
Perhaps most egregious is Holden’s characterization of the scene in which Peter, in a jealous rage, confronts Martine after he’s seen her kissing David. “Although Peter is besotted, Martine, without thinking twice, also hooks up with David,” he writes, getting the sequence of events wrong (she hooks up with David first). “In a frenzy of jealousy,” Holden continues, “Peter confronts Martine, who sneers, ‘Dude, you’re married,’ then disingenuously accuses him of forcing himself on her while she was only trying to do her work.” This is factually accurate but misleading. Martine’s accusation may be slightly disingenuous, but after one ill-considered kiss, it is Peter who is “all over” Martine (as she rightly says in the same scene). Right before Peter initiates sex in the editing room (and by initiates I mean he literally pulls her onto her lap and kisses her with a kind of terrifying urgency; I mean, it’s really hot but it’s also all his doing) she’s the one suggesting they forget the kiss and get back to work.
I’m not sure what I meant to say when I started writing this—what larger point I was trying to make. I suspect not many people have seen “Nobody Walks,” and, furthermore, that the Venn Diagram of those who have and those who read this Tumblr is probably two circles that don’t touch. Still: it seemed important to note these discrepancies, between the movie I saw and the flawed woman it depicted, and the film these critics reviewed, and the hard-hearted “sexual adventurer” they skewered.