I am attempting to catch up on last year's second-tier Oscar bait and my response is often ho-hum. Take for instance Charlie Wilson's War. I had high hopes, mainly because of Aaron Sorkin's involvement. Sorkin has some unimpeachable writing credits to his name including the early seasons of The West Wing. Alas CWW is a real bore, unaware of whether it wants to be a political intrigue yarn, a screwball comedy, or a morality tale.
Usually Sorkin's work displays his knack for combining those three genres. Know what? The combination works better when there's an easily definable hero. In The West Wing, that hero was Martin Sheen's left-leaning President Bartlet, whose flaws (sneaking a cigarette once in a while, having a big old academic ego, orchestrating the illegal assassination of a foriegn leader...no big whoop) were few. CWW has too much moral ambiguity and not enough Sorkin-style pomp.
The title character--based on a real guy--is an aw shucks womanizer, drunk, slacker, and congressman. That's fine. In fact, despite the cliche factor (every film that takes place in the 70s or early 80s has the obligatory coke and hedonism), those traits present the potential for some pretty interesting character development. But even work that revels in ambiguity needs to establish some kind of STANCE toward the character, and CWW does not. Should we look at Charlie as a paranoid anti-communista? As someone resonsible for writing the artists-not-yet-known-as-the-Taliban a blank check? As a hero who took care of business? I still don't know.
On the other hand, one of Philip Seymor Hoffman's other films from last year, The Savages is wickedly funny and wickedly sad. Hoffman and Laura Linney play siblings whose mean father, from they are estranged, develops dementia and needs their care. Their Peter Pan-esque names are John and Wendy. The siblings both aspire to get prestigious fellowships in drama and theatre. John is an academic married to the book project he's been working on for too many years ("Well, Brecht was a complex guy") but unable to connect with human beings. Wendy aspires to write a masterpiece and can't figure out why she's having an affair with a shlub ("I have an MFA!!").
The film's central "joke" works well. These two know much about theater but have no ability to handle the drama of their own lives. Heavy handed? Maybe, but the film knows enough to provide uncomfortable humor not so much as relief but rather as the logical conclusion of having nothing else to hang onto. What can two people this dysfunctional do but speak one-liners that would make brilliant dialogue in the kinds of absurdist theater they worship? Extra points for the great sequence where Wendy blows off an assignment at her temp job so she can finish writing a fellowship grant and then steals boatloads of office supplies.