Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Resistance (Photo: IFC Films); Vivarium (Photo: Saban Films)
Resistance (Photo: IFC Films); Vivarium (Photo: Saban Films)

Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the classic Hollywood leading man. Yet in his own lanky, squirmy way, the actor is a lot like an old-school movie star: He doesn’t so much disappear into each new role as offer precise variations on a type, creating a kind of spectrum of millennial eggheads—from nebbishes to geek tyrants, fumbling romantics to a slicker breed of brainy. (Sometimes, we even get two for the price of one, as in The Double, which pits the alpha and beta sides of his persona against each other.) What these performances have in common is a discernible turning of wheels behind the eyes; whether playing a seething tech genius or a pizza boy strapped to a bomb, Eisenberg always makes us privy to the scramble of his mind. To sit down for one of his movies is to witness someone feverishly process every situation, the private internal mechanics laid bear, like a race car with its engine exposed.

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By presumed coincidence, this week offers two opportunities to watch Eisenberg think on screen, in two very different movies headed for streaming platforms and cable VOD on Friday. (They were both bound for theaters before the pandemic scuttled those plans.) Neither film offers the best showcase of his quicksilver intelligence—he’s miscast in one, his talents underutilized in the other. But for those who have been following Eisenberg’s career since his big-screen debut as a nervous teen virgin in Rodger Dodger, there’s still some interest in seeing him locate new shades on his color wheel of neurosis.

Illustration for article titled Two new movies fail to exploit Jesse Eisenberg’s brainy talent and star power
Illustration for article titled Two new movies fail to exploit Jesse Eisenberg’s brainy talent and star power

“Whimsy” is one of them. In Resistance, Eisenberg inches a little out of his wheelhouse to play stage legend Marcel Marceau. If it’s a little perverse, casting such an intensely verbal actor as maybe the most famous silent performer in showbiz history, maybe that’s in keeping with a biopic that makes the unintuitive choice to focus only on the pre-fame years of the French mime’s life. Granted, they were eventful years: Framed by scenes of General Patton (Ed Harris) addressing a crowd of soldiers in the aftermath of World War II, the film dramatizes Marceau’s involvement in the French Jewish Resistance, helping smuggle children out of his occupied country. Perhaps fearful that these real-life exploits don’t have much to do with the groundbreaking career they preceded, writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz (Hands Of Stone) devises numerous opportunities for the character to deploy his budding gifts in a life-or-death context—blowing fire into the face of a guard like a weaponized circus performer, or teaching the kids “the art of silence” as a survival technique.

Resistance is like a maudlin Robin Williams vehicle inorganically fused with a by-the-numbers wartime thriller. In place of showbiz clichés, there are tacky WWII-movie tropes. The Nazi threat is personified in a single dastardly figure: a flamboyantly evil officer (Matthias Schweighöfer) introduced killing one of his comrades (classic tactic for establishing villainous bona fides, that) and prone to his own theatrical gestures, like playing a few notes of piano before gunning down prisoners. His opposite number isn’t Marceau but a Jewish orphan (Bella Ramsey of Game Of Thrones) who the film treats like a symbolic beacon of resilience, broadcasting her innocence by singing choir songs during a crosscutting execution sequence and delivering Jakubowicz’s most heavy-handed platitudes, like “People always feel sorry for those who die. They should feel worse for those who live.” As if angling for a spot in the Holocaust-movie canon, Resistance fills its supporting cast with veterans of the genre, including the stars of The Counterfeiters and Son Of Saul.

It’s the kind of movie where all the Germans speak in subtitled German, while the French speak English in French accents. Speaking of which, Eisenberg never gets a handle on his own—it’s faint and hesitant, though one might say that’s preferable to the exaggerated Inspector Clouseau approach. He’s not particularly convincing, either, as a man animated by an indomitable spirit of mirth and magic. At best, the performance benefits from the film’s semblance of a dramatic arc, in which Marceau altruistically learns to look past his own selfish artistic aspirations; the earlier scenes, before Resistance has gone full hero-worship, provide Eisenberg some less flattering traits to embody: irritation towards a family that doesn’t appreciate his craft, a little Zuckerbergian arrogance about his forging abilities. We first see him on stage in full Tramp getup (the Chaplin/Hitler mustache will become a plot point later, of course), and for as much as the actor commits to the physicality of playing a master of movement, he seems a natural fit for the role only at the end of the pantomime, when Marcel spots his father in the crowd and flinches. That’s vintage Eisenberg.

Vivarium
Vivarium
Photo: Saban Films

He looks much more at home in the grim Vivarium, not that the role he’s been handed here is especially multi-dimensional. His character, Tom, is a thirtysomething wiseacre who, along with schoolteacher girlfriend Gemma (Imogen Poots), becomes trapped inside a nightmare simulation of middle-class life. Wandering on a whim into the office of a new planned community called Yonder (ominous slogan: “You’re Home. Forever.”), the two drive out to view one of the properties, arranged in lines of identical houses, and can’t find themselves out of the cosmically looping subdivision, with its flavorless food and ceiling of equally “perfect” and uniform cloud formations. Soon, some unseen stork (or more intimidating creature) delivers them a baby in a cardboard box; it grows with uncanny speed into an unconvincingly human charge, their burden to bear in lime-green residential prison.

A marvel, at least, of economical production design, Tom and Gemma’s infinite void of blandness makes the neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands look architecturally varied. In other words, yes, this is the umpteenth depiction of the suburbs as a soul-sucking nowhere zone, this time with an extra dose of anxiety and despair about the thankless task of child-rearing. If you can look past the gallingly obvious and derivative metaphor, Vivarium has its moments of effective Twilight Zone creepiness. The kid, for example, is a sociopathic parody of a normal child, screaming at random intervals and parroting its new parents in an unsettlingly adult voice. And Poots locates some genuine stakes in the war between her empathy for the thing and her revulsion toward it—a dark distortion, perhaps, of the emotional rollercoaster of parenthood.

Trouble is, we barely get to know Gemma or Tom before they’re swallowed up by this deranged social experiment; defined perhaps solely by an implied opposition to “settling down,” the two are as archetypal and undistinguished as the faux suburbia. And this proves a special hindrance for Eisenberg, who creates a light impression of a character in the early scenes—good-natured, until the absurdity of their predicament gives way to testiness—before Tom hardens into a lump of inexpressive resentment, digging a figurative and perhaps literal grave in his front yard. Eventually, you look into his eyes and see only defeat, which feels like a waste of the nervy personality Eisenberg tends to bring to even forgettable films. That, of course, could be the dispiriting point: Domesticity sucks the life out of everyone. But it’s thin thematic reward for seeing the wheels behind this performer’s eyes grind to a halt.

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