Tense neo-noir ‘Gone Girl’ is the go-to movie this weekend

Gone Girl posterIn the poster for “Gone Girl,” star Ben Affleck stands near a body of water – not a sandy white beach burnished by the sun, but a murky strip of gray bounded by non-descript industrial buildings. A dump, in other words, and just the kind of place that could drive you crazy, especially if the rest of your life isn’t going so great and if your relationship is, well, a bit frayed.

Director David Fincher conveys that strong, vivid sense of place (North Carthage, Missouri) as well as a mood of dour frustration (Affleck’s Nick Dunne is in a strained marriage) within the first few minutes of “Gone Girl,” the much-anticipated neo-noir movie based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel. (Flynn also wrote the script.)

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head,” Nick tells us. Literally, as he touches her sleek blonde hair, and figuratively: “What are you thinking, Amy? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?”

It seems that Nick’s fate is to ponder these questions and consistently come up short on answers. That’s because elegant and efficient Amy (Rosamund Pike), a trust-fund only child from an upper-crust East Coast family, is always several steps ahead of Nick, a good-looking, polite Midwestern guy who fancies that he might one day write the great American novel. They meet in Manhattan, where they both work as magazine writers but, when they lose their jobs, they move back to Nick’s hometown, which has been decimated by the recession.

On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears and Nick becomes the No. 1 suspect. As the drama unfolds, we discover that the answers to the questions about Nick and Amy are far more devastating than we could have imagined.

Flynn’s smart, multi-layered script (which closely follows her book) is just right for Fincher’s capable hands. The film is tense, gripping and darkly funny, and Fincher draws stellar performances from Affleck and Pike as well as Kim Dickens  as the low-key but tenacious lead detective on the case, Tyler Perry as Nick’s slick, smooth-talking defense attorney and Carrie Coon as Margo, Nick’s straight-shooting and sarcastic twin sister.

Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn

The plot of both the book and movie eventually becomes fantastic, even absurd. Sticklers for plausibility likely will grumble by the end.

But that didn’t bother me much because I think Flynn’s aim, as outlined on page one, was to raise thorny questions about the façades we present when dating, the fronts we gain from our jobs (or lack thereof), the compromises of intimacy and the unconscious crafting of a joint identity, the waning and waxing distance between two people over time, and the creeping self-denial and even outright lies that sometimes prop up a relationship, not to mention the current state of sexual power and politics. (The “cool-girl” soliloquy, particularly in the book, is downright searing.)

It’s a lot to think about and Flynn makes it entertaining to boot. That said, there is one central flaw to both the movie and the book, and that’s a deep connection, an undeniable, goose-pimply intensity, between Nick and Amy. That needs to be there for the story to work completely and it’s missing – there isn’t much chemistry, let alone a combustible, powerful passion. In establishing Amy as the alpha girl, Nick’s character remains a bit dull and two-dimensional.

Granted, she’s drawn to the good-looking, affable Milquetoast because she can boss him around, but a Type A like Amy would tire of mere arm candy and look for more of a challenge – someone to push back a bit and stand up to her. After all, she appears to be the golden girl with the world as her oyster.

And there are still a few stand-up, take-charge guys out there, right?

“Gone Girl” opens today in theaters.

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Good buzz over ‘The World’s End’ is well deserved

The World’s End/2013/Focus Features/109 min.

A comedy with an apocalyptic slant is required viewing here at FNB and, given that this one is made by Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, “The World’s End” is a must-see for anyone who likes a good laugh and a glass of beer with a twist of Brit.

Following their hits “Shaun of the Dead” (2004) and “Hot Fuzz (2007), I had high hopes for their latest collaboration (Wright directed and co-wrote with Pegg). And, despite Pegg and Frost’s misfire with “Paul” (2011), the trio delivers nicely here.

It’s a simple premise: Five boyhood friends reluctantly reunite in their hometown for a pub crawl at the same spots they frequented 20 years before – the final stop is the aptly named The World’s End. Pegg plays Gary King, the cocky party-hardy dude, short on cash and long on looking back because his best days are behind him.

His friends, on the other hand, have moved on with their lives and assumed the usual responsibilities, i.e. jobs and families. Gary manages to get Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) on board with the binge quest fairly quickly. It’s more work to convince Andy (Frost), now a well dressed, teetotalling lawyer as serious as he is successful.

Pints are poured and tension between the estranged friends bubbles up, just as a creamy head tops a draft of Guinness. But bigger trouble appears when “the five musketeers” discover that their sleepy small town has been overrun by a breed of mutants, a la “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and that the future of humanity now rests on their soused shoulders.

As was the case with “Shaun of the Dead,” a smart script and strong characterizations allow the leads to deftly balance comedy and drama. And it’s a refreshing treat to see Frost playing a stuffy sourpuss to Pegg’s puerile doofus. Also spot on: Rosamund Pike as Samantha, Steven’s smart and sexy unrequited love.

“The World’s End” skillfully mixes broad, knockabout humor with sharp observation (playing with and puncturing British stereotypes) and quick wit. “I haven’t had a drink in 15 years,” says Andy, to which Gary replies, “You must be thirsty!”

“The World’s End” opens nationwide today.

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