Detachment (2012)

Badly flawed

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on April 1, 2012 on tonymacklin.net.

Education is under attack. It always has been.

If the essence of education is independent thinking, it's in free fall these days.

Most homeschooling offers just a single, limited, often anti-social view; corporations don't exactly invite skeptical or whistle-blowing individuals; most universities lead with their Business Schools and little else.

The Liberal Arts are more irrelevant than ever in "the real world"; ethics classes don't draw, and athletics are the pampered, arrogant face of universities without classrooms. One and done. "Tutors" prevail. Schools babysit instead of educate. Committees are omnipresent.

Society pays lip service to teaching, but the lips are either pursed with disdain or flabby with self-indulgence.

Everybody thinks they could be a teacher - if it paid at all.

Into this nether world, filmmakers often come clomping.

Tony Kaye's Detachment is the latest installment of angst and chalk figures. Detachment basically is inauthentic and pretentious. Like most education, it blows its opportunity.

"Written" by former teacher Carl Lund, it's full of blatant sequences with little development. They may have their basis in actuality, but they come across as overzealous fakery.

Detachment is the story of Henry Barthes - Roland, anyone? - (Adrien Brody), a substitute teacher, who comes to a failed inner-city school in Queens, New York.

Henry is detachment incarnate. He is suffering from something that happened in his youth, which haunts him. So he has become "detached." But not really. He does care about his ailing grandfather, a nubile teenage hooker (Sami Gayle), and some students. What happened to his "detachment"? His detachment is detached.

In his first class, Henry is menaced by fierce, foul-mouthed students - one of whom seems possibly rabid. It's an uncontrollable crisis. But Henry dismisses one malcontent, throws his briefcase out with the bath water, says a few words, and gets one of the most hostile adversaries to retire back to his seat with pen and paper. Huh?

We later see the students sitting attentively and listening to Henry expound. Did Julia Roberts drop by?

Are unruly students like tornadoes - they strike and disappear? The Blackboard Jungle has become a petting zoo.

But it's not a happy petting zoo.

In Detachment, most of the teachers are depressed, sad clowns, the parents don't care - only one is reported to attend Parents' Night at the school - and the system is beyond deterioration. It's in the educational toilet.

It's obvious that several of the scenes and dialogue are improvised. But for every Robert Altman who used improvisation effectively, there are classrooms of Tony Kayes, who are hit-or-miss-miss-miss.

Director Kaye, who did his own cinematography, is able at that, but he's a clumsy director. He's also pretentious. In the end credits he lists thanks to a legion of names, including Bob and Jesse Dylan and John and Julian Lennon, which is a further sign of his self-indulgence.

Kaye indulges himself in relentless music. You can imagine Henry saying, "Stop that damn music. I'm trying to think."

The one redeeming factor in Detachment is some of the acting, led by a thoughtful performance by Brody. He takes a stilted role and makes it human. Sort of.

Sami Gayle (tv's Blue Bloods) has appeal as the vulnerable young hooker, whom Henry befriends and tries to protect. James Caan gives a tour de force performance as a cagy veteran of the high school wars, who still has warped spirit.

Director Kaye's daughter Betty gives a little substance to the role of an ill-fated, unpopular student.

The rest of the name cast is wasted in stick, stock roles - Christina Hendricks, Tim Blake Nelson, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner, and Marcia Gay Harden who seems to give up and finally just lies on the floor. Improvisional surrender?

William Petersen is just a blip on the screen (I guess Grissom can't improvise).

After the doom and gloom, Kaye tacks on a happy ending. Hug or ugh?

One of the morals that can be taken from Detachment is - cupcakes can be bad for you.

So are half-baked films about education.


You might be interested in reading my most recent reviews, all of my reviews from this year, or all of my reviews from last year.

For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).


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