Neo Ned is a mess. A charming mess, but a mess nonetheless. Featuring two standout performances by Jeremy Renner (fresh off the heels of his breakout performance as Jeffrey Dahmer – my review here) and Gabrielle Union (she of eternal Bring It On fame, I will love her forever for that alone), Neo Ned doesn’t know what it wants to be. Or, to be more accurate, it does know what it wants to be, and I suppose that that is my problem with it. It wants to be (and is) a sweet and moving love story. The two leads have real charm together, they make a very believable couple. So many romantic movies, with giant movie star leads, don’t capture this very simple component, having to do with chemistry.
But I found myself playing Script Doctor repeatedly, as I watched it, and then I kept trying to tell myself to take it for what it is, Sheila, and to some degree, that is part of the battle. A realization of what a movie is, and that it’s not about what you, the viewer, want it to be. However, if something doesn’t work, then I do ask myself: “Why?” It becomes a puzzle. If THIS were in place, maybe it would work better … if you took away this awkward flashback and got rid of the voiceover it might feel less clunky … This is a constant inner-conversation that goes on with movies that aren’t, you know, gripping from end to end (in other words: most films). “Hmmm, he’s mis-cast … that would be better with someone like John C. Reilly in the part …” “Not wacky about that dissolve- seems like they’re hiding something …” “I think the end should be the beginning – that might solve this continuity problems…”
All of this makes me think of what the moderator at the Actors Studio says after two actors have presented a scene to the group. The moderator does not immediately launch into a critique when the scene is finished. Instead, he or she always asks: “So what were you working on?” If the actor says, “I was working on the drunkenness”, then ideally all the comments should be about that. Did the actor succeed or fail in believably creating drunkenness? When critiques like that are handled well, it helps keep the session from devolving into people raising their hands and saying moronic things like, “If I were playing the scene …” Yeah, but you’re not. That’s not helpful. Everyone’s a genius when they’re sitting in the seats. I like to think of this, from time to time, when I am watching a film, to try to align myself with what “they were working on”, and then I can make my assessment on whether or not they succeeded. It’s no use wishing a movie were other than what it was. If you wish Sophie’s Choice were more like Annie Hall, then that is your problem. However, if you feel that a certain movie is not quite successful in being what it wants to be, then you have something to talk about.
To bring a perhaps ridiculous example into it: Blue Crush is (to my mind) a VERY successful movie, because it knows what it is, it doesn’t pretend it’s something else, and every single element in the film pours into the ultimate theme, story, feel, mood. I don’t want Blue Crush to be anything other than what it gloriously proclaims itself to be, and so successfully. There are other more weighty films that also are successful in what they are trying to do, but I figured I’d throw Blue Crush in there to show that the theory works in ALL films, not just the great or serious ones.
While watching Neo Ned (and, admittedly, I was in it for Renner), I found myself asking the question: “What does this movie want to be?” It’s difficult to come up with the right answer at first (and yes, there is a right answer), due to the title, and the fact that it is a love story between a NeoNazi skinhead and a black girl who thinks she is Adolf Hitler. How does one “get past” these elements to see the love story? Eventually, if you just focus in on Renner and Union, you’ll get it, you’ll get what the movie wants to be, but due to the awkwardness of the early scenes, the uncertainty of tone, and the vagueness at the heart of the script, the essential story is sometimes lost because the trappings are so distracting.
There are also some awkwardly-handled flashbacks, and an overuse of self-help terminology (“Ned just wanted attention because he didn’t get it at home”), which threatened to tune me out entirely. Thankfully, I stayed with it, because Renner and Union are so good together, so solid, and while it may have seemed, from the start, that Neo Ned was going to tell another kind of story, it’s actually a conventional little love story, about a young couple trying to deal with adversity, and stick together even though no one else understands. Pretty cliched stuff (but hey, it worked for Shakespeare, so let’s not knock cliches).
The story is this, and this has to be the Meet-Cute to end all Meet-Cutes: Ned is in a mental hospital. He had been charged with second-degree murder of a black man, but his defense lawyer got him declared insane. He stalks around the mental institution, a twitchy bundle of nerves, with impulsive behavior, sudden Sieg Heils, and a stream of profanity and racial epithets, that he says with almost a sweet blunted innocence. Into the hospital comes Rachel, (Gabrielle Union) who suffers from post-partum psychosis and is also under the delusion that she is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. When we first see her, she is being dragged down a hall by two orderlies, and she is screaming at them in German. Ned, naturally, is drawn to her. He is a man with the SS symbol tattooed on his wrist, after all. Who is this chick? Only, naturally, he refers to her as a “nigger woman”, sometimes to her face. That language runs rampant through the first half of the film, and Rachel somehow seems not to mind. She treats Ned with a sort of bemused condescension, knowing that she (as Adolf Hitler) has the upper hand.
This is all extremely bizarre and goes back to what I was saying early about trying to take a film for what it is. The image of Renner, hard body like a pit bull, shaved head, covered in tattooes, reminded me so much of Russell Crowe’s electrifying performance in Romper Stomper.
But there the similarity ends. Hando (Crowe’s character) is a true believer. A fanatic and a brute. It is a chilling and ruthless portrayal of a man whose mind has been taken over by the fantasies that stalk his night, until there is no person left in there. Ned in Neo Ned is a follower. A truly malleable and blank personality, which does make him scary in a way, but also makes him equally susceptible to kindness and encouragement. He reminds me a bit of some of the skinhead kids at my high school, I’m sure we all remember boys like him: misfits who just want to be noticed. Wearing a T shirt with a swastika on it is sure to get you noticed. It also gives you instant cache with a strong group, which is also most desired by a lonely person. It may be despicable, the group, but there are certainly definite levels. There are leaders and there are followers. It becomes clear, maybe 20 minutes into the film, that Ned, despite his vile language, isn’t a racist at all, and he actually has a crush on this pretty black girl, who is just as messed up as he is.
A tricky balance, right? In general, the film is able to walk that balance, but that was true for me only after I stopped expecting to see Romper Stomper.
Another movie that came to mind as I watched Neo Ned was the haunting Australian film Angel Baby, about two schizophrenics who are in love, and who decide to go off their medication together when they discover the woman is pregnant. John Lynch (marvelous actor, he who was “Cal”) plays the man in the couple and Jacqueline McKenzie (who was also unforgettable in Romper Stomper) plays the woman. It is a beautiful film, harrowing, I remember I saw it with my friend Rebecca in a little theatre in the Village, and we both were weeping into our popcorn. A realistic portrayal of mental illness, and the damage that these drugs can do (of course they are also life-savers, but it’s a tremendously difficult choice), Angel Baby has stayed with me for years. There were elements in Neo Ned that reminded me of Angel Baby: the mental hospital setting, the falling-in-love-while-incarcerated plotline, the sense that it is these two against a hostile world who want to keep them apart.
But Angel Baby was a dead-end road for me as well, in terms of getting in sync with Neo Ned, because Neo Ned is not really interested in the reality of mental illness. Neither of these characters are truly mentally ill. Ned has been diagnosed with ADHD, sure, and Rachel seems to believe she is Hitler – but nobody really buys her act. It is not clear that she is truly in a delusion. It seems to be something she is “putting on”, maybe to extend her time in the institution? In my fantasy, a romance between an unrepentant racist and a black girl who believes she is Hitler could, if it had the courage of its convictions, knock it out of the park. Neo Ned is a conventional movie, wrapped up in the trappings of gritty independent film, and that was a bit of a disappointment to me. It completely skirted the issue of racism (hard to believe, with Renner in a swastika-Tshirt the entire time), and seemed to treat it all with humor and carelessness.
Some of these moments work. They get out of the institution and go live in a trailer on Renner’s mother’s trailer park (Renner’s mother is played by a delightfully ditzy Sally Kirkland – but perhaps that is redundant). Ned gets a job as a short-order cook. There’s a scene where Ned and Rachel (only he calls her “Adolf” throughout the film) go to a grocery store. Rachel pushes the cart along, and Ned lies along on the top of it, being pushed by her. All dolled up in his jackboots, and Nazi regalia, rings on every finger, leather bracelets, and he’s just chatting with her casually about how nice it will be to make some money and buy some groceries. He’s a simple soul. But you can see the other customers of the supermarket glance at this oddball couple curiously, and one black woman, as she walks by, murmurs to Rachel, “Stay with your own, girl.” It’s a funny and specific moment, one of the only times that the inter-racial nature of their relationship really comes up, as surprising as that may seem.
Gabrielle Union plays Rachel as a damaged girl, almost damaged beyond repair, by the abuse she has suffered in her life, and becoming a mother was too much for her, and she cracked. Her insanity, however, does not mean she takes Ned for what he is. It’s rather startling, at moments, how she sees through his surface to what is going on. They take shelter from the rain in an abandoned gas station. This is before anything romantic has gone down between them. They are soaking wet (a movie cliche that I wish would be put to rest), and laughing, and they suddenly realize how close they are standing to each other, and etc. and etc. Something is about to happen. Ned stares at her and says, in a whisper, “It’s wrong to mix the races.” Rachel looks at him for a long time and replies, calmly, “So what you’re trying to say is you’re attracted to me.”
Tough stuff to play, obviously, but Union does a great job in keeping her character on track. She senses his tenderness towards her from the beginning. He’s like a little kid with a schoolboy crush. He wants to sit next to her in the cafeteria. He makes her a drawing in his art therapy. He asks her questions about Hitler, lolling about the couch, staring at her. Union does not make her character a self-righteous person at all, which would obviously not have worked. She is not the “Angry Black Woman(TM)”. She has been beaten down by life, and this strange restless man takes a shine to her, and even though he says the word “nigger” repeatedly (she sighs at one point and says, grinning at him, “Can’t you wait till I leave the room before you say that word, like Good White People do?”), she senses he likes her. She’s got a tough part to play here, and I know that Union met with Fischer (the director) quite a bit before filming, to be sure what his point was with all this, that it wouldn’t be used against her, that the film wouldn’t be getting OFF on its free use of that explosive word.
She gives a very smart performance.
In one of the awkward flashbacks, we see Ned’s fellow skinheads shaving his head in a ritual, and pouring beer over it, and he seems happy and flushed with belonging. His language is violent and disgusting, and sometimes he throws tantrums, but really that’s more because of his ADHD than any racist anger. He’s an interesting character, mainly because he is played by Jeremy Renner, which I will get to in a second. Ned went through foster care as a kid, including being placed in a house where the parents tried to kill the whole family by carmon monoxide from the car. He’s had it rough. His crazy mother capitalizes on her son’s problems by going on any talk show that will take her, talk shows of the Montel/Maury Povich variety. Ned brings Rachel home to meet his mother, and 2 seconds later we see his mother on the phone saying, “Yes, my son is a skinhead convicted of second degree murder, and he is now dating a black girl … Yes, the producers should have my number, thank you.”
Jeremy Renner is an extraordinary actor. What he does here is take his particular brand of narcissistic anti-social personality (which could very well become his stock in trade, putting him in a continuum with Peter Lorre and Robert Mitchum), and soften it, muddy it up, make Ned a mush ball hiding under the muscle and the clothing. He resists sentiment, which is a Godsend, because there are times when the script wants to force him into it. He has a moment where he says to Rachel, during an argument, “You’re my home”, and it could be a nauseating treacly moment in the hands of a lesser actor. He sort of squinches up one side of his face when he says it, almost wincing as the words come out, and a less observant girlfriend than Rachel would not believe him. I look for moments like that. How actors survive a script that is not really worthy of them. Because that is the mark of a true talent. As I said in my big piece on Dean Stockwell, when I was discussing his work in the hilariously campy Werewolf in Washington:
One of the reasons I really love this performance is because of where Stockwell was at in his life when he filmed it. He was struggling, he had become anonymous again, he had lost his cache as a star. He was job to job to job; it’s easy to be wonderful when you have the plum parts offered to you, when every decision in Hollywood somehow includes YOU. But when you are outside that charmed circle, when the material offered to you is not quite up to the level of your gifts, how do you survive then? How do you, to quote Tim Gunn, “make it work”?
Jeremy Renner had already done Dahmer by this point, so his name was already known. He was one of the up-and-coming actors (not young, though, he was mid-30s, which is relatively old to start getting important parts), but he obviously wasn’t A list yet. He’s A list now, so it will be interesting to see how he handles what comes next. I’m a little bit nervous for him. He’s so good. But here, in Neo Ned, which was a really fun part for him, he had a couple of things he had to deal with which generally isn’t a huge issue in giant plum projects directed by masters of the craft. Here he had stilted dialogue, forcing the actors into poses of sentimentality, some awkward transitions that he had to make sense of all on his own – he handles it all beautifully. An actor’s talent helps him choose well, even in the midst of syrupy moments like “You’re my home”, and therein you can see the survivor of Jeremy Renner, the integrity of his talent that will not be forced into something that will embarrass him. He either plays under it, or skips around it, with expressions flitting across his face of embarrassment, grief, fear, which makes it seem as though the stilted dialogue comes from the character’s inability to find the right words (as opposed to the screenwriter being too on the nose). Hard to do.
One of the things that I am getting to know about him (and there are a couple of notable exceptions) is that he has a way of making his eyelids heavy and flat, which is probably instinctual, but I’ve seen him in roles where he does NOT do this, which tells me that he is somehow in charge of it. He’s choosing it, when appropriate. What happens with his eyes is that he begins to take on the visage of a psychopath (mental health care professionals and social workers, people used to working with psychopaths, all talk about their eyes – and the “flat affect” of their faces – I really must stop reading books about serial killers) – and Renner nails this, from the inside out. You could see it in Dahmer, of course, and you could see it in Hurt Locker too, although that came through a different filter: an essentially anti-social man who found work that was appropriate for him (a rare thing, indeed). Sgt. James was a star in his specialized field. He fit in nowhere else. He is not a savage warmonger, none of those cliches – he has not been “ruined” by war in the same way that, oh, Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now has been ruined – but he is a man who is able to focus very very narrowly on one task, under extremely dangerous conditions, and people who are able to do that are, shall we say, different from most other people.
Renner can play an un-self-aware man like nobody’s business, that very few actors can pull off, since so many of them are overly self-aware and analyze everything. He can play a man uninterested in introspection – or, it’s not that he’s uninterested – it’s just that he doesn’t even know what people are TALKING about when they talk about their feelings. He’d make a hell of a Stanley Kowalski. He plays men you kind of worry about, actually. You hope he finds his place in the world. Because it’s not a done deal, with someone like Renner. He’s an outsider. He glances around him, with flat-lidded eyes, that can go quite dead from time to time, which makes him rather frightening, unpredictable. It’s not a trick. To mention one of the exceptions, he doesn’t use this quality at all in The Unusuals, which was a short-lived television series, where he plays a detective in the Lower East side of Manhattan. He’s the lead. In that, he is very funny, sharp, good at what he does, short-tempered sometimes, and a good cop, a good team-player, a good boyfriend … basically, a civilized man. If you only saw Dahmer, Neo Ned and Hurt Locker, you would think of him as specializing in UN-civilized men. And by “uncivilized” I don’t mean bad table manners. I mean men who cannot fit in in society as it is set up.
Renner has said (he’s a very insightful actor) that he knew, right off the bat, that Ned didn’t really believe all that skinhead garbage. He was just desperate to belong. Renner did some research on skinheads (which is where he came up with the SS tattoo on his arm), but his main research was in people who have ADHD, and what it’s like for them. And this is where his performance tilts off into something that is genius. I’ve seen his work before. I am getting to know his ticks. In no other film does he move or walk or talk or behave the way he does in Neo Ned. He races out of rooms when he’s done with a conversation. He lies on a couch and can’t keep still. He is suddenly tender and quiet when his meds kick in. None of this is attention-getting or seems belabored or actor-y. You get the sense of how hard it is for people who have this disability. His eyes always seem to float, in a disconnected way, above every conversation, because he is always flitting on to the next thing. He is nothing short of riveting in every single frame.
The psychological aspect of the film is a bit juvenile, in that it doesn’t seem interested in what it would be like to really be a racist, or what it would be like to really believe you had Adolf Hitler inside of you. Dropping the Adolf plot was a big mistake. You can’t introduce something as powerful and weird as that and then dodge the implications of it. It’s like having a gun in the first act that doesn’t go off in the third. It felt like a cop-out, because that potentially could have been so juicy, and very very disturbing.
But Neo Ned, in the end, doesn’t want to disturb. It wants to please. And it does, but not without losing something in the transfer.
And here is where what I want the film to be and what it actually is cannot be reconciled. Rachel is set up as a woman who speaks German, shouts orders at people, and believes she is Hitler. To quote my acting teacher in college: “What does more for you?” Meaning, what does more for the film: that she’s just ACTING that all of this is true? Or that it is REALLY true? In my opinion, it is the second that does more for you, and Neo Ned does not go that route, to the film’s detriment. The Hitler persona is dropped pretty much once the relationship heats up, and that’s a shame, because then Neo Ned becomes about the regular every-day business of romances: “where were you last night?” “we need to get jobs, we need to get money” “tell me about your past” – which both actors play very well, but it’s something I’ve seen 100 times before. However: a skinhead making love to a black woman who speaks German because she thinks she’s Hitler? That’s something I want to see.
I guess I miss the film that wasn’t made.