Cotillard Fuels Calculated Labor Drama 'Two Days, One Night'

Directed by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: B

The value of human life sounds like a rather broad, obvious theme, but rarely do films tackle the literal and morally complex facets of it, the rational and emotional sacrifices ordinary people are willing to make -- and not -- for the benefit of another person. Two Days, One Night, the latest film from The Kid with a Bike directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, approaches that concept in an incredibly direct fashion, focused on a depressed woman coping with her own self-worth who must convince co-workers she's valuable enough to stay employed at their job in lieu of much-needed pay increases. Driven by a phenomenal performance from Marion Cotillard, the Dardenne Brothers' frank voyeuristic perspective follows her character, Sandra, as she bravely pursues support over the course of a weekend, highlighting the personal turmoil involved in asking others to care for her needs more than they care for their own dire situations. While powerful in premise and raw execution, the film's rash usage of mental instability complicates its commentary on adversity and morale, for better and for worse.

Having recently overcome a bout with depression that kept her away from her job at a solar-panel construction factory, wife and mother Sandra (Cotillard) has finally reached a point where she's ready to abandon her medication and return to work. All that changes at the beginning of her weekend, though, when she's informed by one of her closest co-workers that the company has taken a vote, electing to accept bonuses to their salaries in exchange for letting her go and upping their hours. She's also notified that a second, secret vote on the matter will be held on the following Monday morning in response to some charges of manipulation against the company's higher-ups, giving Sandra the weekend to track down the voters and plead her case for keeping her necessary job. With the support of her already patient husband (Fabrizio Rongione) and armed with water and medication, she embarks on what's sure to be a draining endeavor, considering the circumstances.

Unassuming yet smartly-composed dramatic suspense gets Two Days, One Night face-to-face with its heavy thematic potential, exploring different levels of desperation through Sandra's systematic pleas to her co-workers as the time ticks down to the second vote. Sandra losing her job is obviously a significant blow to her family, but her journeys across town quickly point out that everyone's struggling to make ends meet, whether it's refurbishing goods to pay for the needs of children or rebounding from a divorce. What starts with the headlong motivation to win influence from the people who voted against Sandra evolves into a distressing portrayal of what's to be lost, the working-class people who will continue to suffer, if the new vote overturns the decision. Each individual story is handled unpretentiously and enriched by little details before Sandra instigates her real-talk conversations, whether it's in the type of home she's visiting or the person who initially answers the door and points Sandra to her next target. The fluctuation of emotion between each one, the victories and defeats following those diverse exchanges, shapes the experience into a tense expressive rollercoaster ... intentionally repetitive and far-fetched in design as it may be.

Marion Cotillard's nuanced performance takes great strides towards shaping the deliberate tempo of Two Days, One Night, given how the film focuses on Sandra's wavering resolve from location to location. The weight of the situation can be seen in subtle changes of her body language during her lengthy walks between stops, plainly visible in her shifts from depressive fatalism to desperate anxiety and back again upon arriving at each doorstep. Sandra doesn't have much of a defense to their decision given her leave of absence, having only her potential hardship and hearsay of bias against her as a bargaining chip, so observing how she responds to the co-workers' explanations becomes the heart and soul of the experience. Cotillard's understated depiction of anxiety and depression becomes absorbing to watch as she repeatedly contemplates a full retreat back to her bed, the burden of cornering people into a moral dilemma dragging her down each time. Authentic performances from the actors playing her co-workers are vital, but this is all about embodying a reflection of Sandra's various states, realized brilliantly by Cotillard.

Since she's traveling around pleading for others to make a different judgment call on her, Two Days, One Night instinctively puts us in the uncomfortable position of also evaluating Sandra on her merits and readiness, constantly asking whether she's really ready to return to the workforce and justify a reversal of the decision. A coarse but invigorating portrayal of inner strength emerges as she struggles to keep her composure amid her issues, where the synergy between Sandra and her diverse co-workers would've expressed plenty about the complexity of deciding a person's fate had the film simply continued on that course. Developments later on alter that perspective, though, proving the concerns about her stability might be merited and changing the conversation that The Dardennes are having about this wife/mother. Elevated dramatics hinged on Sandra's worsening condition undermine the strengths of their restrained storytelling methods and how they're approaching certain themes, replaced with doubt over both the likelihood of the turn of events and towards her capacity to cope, ringing a bell that cannot be unrung.

Unsurprisingly, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne don't provide a clear-cut outlook on the tough questions they raise with this added context in their emotionally involved last act, instead letting the outcome of Sandra's exhaustive campaigning and the second ballot speak for themselves. A stern, balanced portrayal of human sympathy and pragmatism takes shape at the end of Two Days, One Night that ultimately puts her on the spot, hanging on her decision of what to do next after being armed with several days of exploring the attitudes of her co-workers. Sandra's arrival in this position of agency becomes one of the film's thought-provoking high points, opening the door for it to posit a clear, unencumbered final impression on the value of other people, one that feels cohesive based on her traumatic internal experiences and appropriately hopeful about the virtues of determination and strength of will. The paths she walks to get there are rocky, at times needlessly self-inflicted and harmful to her progress, but ultimately rewarding once The Dardennes reveal where she's headed now.

Troubled Post-Teens Take Insipid Detour In 'The Road Within'

Directed by: Gren Wells; Runtime: 100 minutes
Grade: C

Depictions of mental and neurological disorders in cinema can be difficult to critique, especially when filmmakers take great strides to explore the tumultuous reality of what it's like to live under those conditions. Sometimes, however, the dedication poured into getting the details right can detract from telling a credible story built about that hardship. Such is the case for The Road Within, Gren Wells' portrayal of a trio of patients with different disorders -- Tourette syndrome, OCD, and anorexia -- who escape from their hospital environment and embark on a roadtrip towards freedom and self-growth. Talented, courageous actors dedicated to doing justice to the material bring these burdened kids to vivid life, but the contrived happenings along their journey and its wearisome balance of deprecating humor and serious dramatic reflections keep the film's meaningful potential locked down, making it difficult to relish these characters who are so clearly the cornerstone of the film's intentions.

While The Road Within spreads its energy out between the three disorders, the point-of-view mostly falls on Vincent and his acute Tourette syndrome, whose condition really comes to the surface following the death of his terminally-ill mother. His father (Robert Patrick), a remarried politician about to enter into an election, decides it's time to put Vincent in a secluded behavioral facility, one overseen by Dr. Mia Rose (Kyra Sedgwick) that caters to numerous kinds of disorders. There, he's paired off with a roommate, an obsessive-compulsive Brit named Alex (Dev Patel), in hopes that they'll be good for one another, and is shown around the facility by Marie (Zoe Kravitz), a moody anorexic with a dangerous side. Powered by a desire to get away and see the ocean, Marie and Vincent use a window of opportunity to flee the facility, but not without having to drag along Alex in the process. So begins their road-trip escape into freedom, one where they'll hopefully reach their destination before the authorities -- and Vincent's father -- track them down.

A faithful remake of the German film Vincent Wants to Sea, The Road Within attempts to have its cake and eat it too by elevating the reality of the situation for comedic purposes and exploring the realism of the focal conditions. The idea of combining volatile and vulgar Tourette symptoms with delicate obsessive-compulsive and germophobic behavior in a roommate situation -- let alone on the first day that Vincent arrives at the facility -- immediately raises a red flag about the film's awareness, the first of many head-scratcher moments encountered while getting the trio on the road for their inspirational trip. Director Wells tries to make other idiosyncrasies like easily-stolen car keys and kidnapped patients work within the practical space of the facility, but the soberness of fleshing out their debilitating traits in the beginning shines a light on how far-fetched these developments really are in a practical environment. The tone, as a result, confuses with its fickle shifts from taking itself seriously to letting things slide for the sake of happy-go-lucky humor and character insight.

These flawed misfits are the saving grace to The Road Within, largely because of the research and personal experience folded into their characters. A lot of energy was expended on trying to stay faithful and respectful to their individual disorders, especially Vincent's acute Tourette syndrome, hallmarked by violent body flailing and bursts of crass, oftentimes nonsensical dialogue. The sincerity of Robert Sheehan's glances in between Vincent's unpredictable tics shapes into a compelling portrayal of the condition, driven by the provocative nature of how he takes normal human interactions and sabotages them in his mind. Zoe Kravitz' lithe frame and the drowsy, bitter disposition she gives Marie becomes the only constant among the group, though the actress' careful embodiment of her eating disorder encroaches on that, too. Alex's frantic mannerisms aren't something that we haven't seen before in an OCD-addled character, but the rigidity of Dev Patel's body language and his bloodshot eyes bring an authentic intensity to him. There's bravery in these performances, especially when the barriers come down in their camaraderie and they trade barbs about their personal afflictions.

Sadly, the transformative voyage of The Road Within travels down the well-tread, predictable paths of cliche motivational drama focused on coming-of-age and conquering adversity. Romantic dances in the moonlight, hikes up mountaintops to see the world, and resolved arguments and fistfights built around their underlying issues feel like a pastiche of obligations instead of an earnest portrayal of how they might grow during their penniless roadtrip, which isn't helped by the caliber of dialogue between Robert Patrick's conflicted father and Kyra Sedgwick's tolerant doctor as they trail behind them. Perhaps the most frustrating thing comes in how obedient the disorders feel to the story's expressive stratagems, only interrupting their travels at opportune times and never intruding on dramatic moments unless it's by calculation. The Road Within's honest ambitions towards representing these complex conditions surrender to the requisite mechanics of life-affirming conviction to the end, ultimately watering down the diligence of Gren Wells's portrayals with a perfunctory journey that never doesn't feel mapped-out.

Say 'Aloha' to Crowe's Most Unconvincing, Mawkish Film Yet

Directed by: Camerone Crowe; Runtime: 105 minutes
Grade: D-

Being an enthusiast of Cameron Crowe's work hasn't been an easy thing over the past, oh, ten-plus years, where the likes of Elizabethtown and We Bought a Zoo received marginal praise and firm criticism. Sure, the kitschy soft-heartedness and blase, buoyant pace of those flicks reveal some flaws in the filmmaker's perspective, flaws which have clearly intensified with time, but there's still something worthwhile to be found there in the intimacy of his characterization and audiovisual lyricism. Boasting a darling cast and the gorgeous Hawaiian setting, the latest film from the writer/director, Aloha, touches on familiar themes -- inopportune love, breaking from the corporate machine, fish-outta-water adjustment -- that surround a tidy romance between a defeated antihero and a chirpy girl who's gonna pull him out of his slump, stuff well within his wheelhouse. Alas, even this supporter of Crowe's imperfect but pleasant-enough output over the last decade can't defend this awkward, disjointed nosedive.

Traditionally, this is where the review will go into further detail about the story, but it's tough to figure out whether more time should be dedicated to explaining what's going on in the plot to help potential viewers out ... or quickly get through the messiness of the script and move on. There are a lot of things going on in Aloha, far more than Crowe can keep coherent within an hour and forty-five minutes: rocket launches and corporate politics, old flames and marriage drama, native Hawaiian patriotism and mythology, and a healthy dose of standoffishness from our mentally and physically wounded rogue. In one way or another, it all involves unforthcoming military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), who's arrived in Hawaii -- the scene of his more significant professional accomplishments and his big missed shot at true love -- to facilitate a joint military-corporate venture that's putting a satellite in the air and breaking ground at a new facility. A lively and persistent local fighter pilot, Allison Ng (Emma Stone), has been assigned to accompany Gilcrest during his stay.

While the verdant tropical landscape, the vibrant tunes of Sigur Ros' Jonsi and Alex, and the attractive faces of these talented stars might be beautiful distractions, they're not distracting enough to a point where folks simply aren't capable of following the nuances of the story, a problem that Aloha runs into shortly after departure. Lacking coherent details behind the situation with this rocket launch, writer/director Crowe abruptly drops Gilrest into the middle of the bustle and constantly forces us to play catch-up with what exactly goes on across the span of an overactive five days, relying on a secondhand pastiche of exposition and vague conversations to piece together the remnants of a plot. Ignoring the particulars of Gilcrest's mission and reducing them to the broadest of strokes -- corporate agendas are duplicitous; United States control stifles native culture; Gilcrest knows things about the launch that others don't -- becomes the only way to embrace what the film wants to be. That surely wasn't intentional in this "love letter" to Hawaii, one with big-hearted ideas about the islands' citizens and their sacred attachment to the land.

Cameron Crowe's work has always been more about emotion resonance than clear dramatic plotting anyway, but even the director's sentimental streak gets lost in static interference here. Frankly, everything in Aloha seems to exist as background noise or story fuel for the unsurprising, complacent romance between Gilcrest and the quarter-Hawaiian Allison, built around resuscitating Gilcrest's positive merits through the energetic musings of yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a moniker coined about Crowe's character in Elizabethtown that serves many of the same functions. Therein lies the problem: this potentially endearing, indomitable female character -- a jet fighter pilot! -- ends up serving functions for the astray male lead without deepening her own character, unhelped by Stone's overclocked performance that plays like she's powered more by too many Red Bulls than Hawaiian "mana", the antithesis to her delightfully subtle effervescence in last year's Magic in the Moonlight. As Alec Baldwin's General Dixon asserts later in the movie, she deserves better.

Somewhere in Aloha looms another of Crowe's signature journeys of reflection and resurrection for a dishonored man of importance, a la Jerry Maguire and Drew Baylor, driven by the triumphs and mistakes of Brian Gilcrest over the past fifteen years that give him just enough clout in Hawaii to accomplish things and just enough personal conflict to complicate matters. The script's cluttered structure and on-the-nose stiffness of dialogue bears most of the blame for the film's problems, but Bradley Cooper essentially playing himself doesn't take any strides to elevate the material, rendering a stilted renegade type of character whose murky despondence and general purpose for returning to Hawaii produce a frustratingly hollow character examination. The personal drama involving Gilcrest's ex-girlfriend from decades ago, Tracy -- along with her stoic military husband, Woody (a strapping John Krasinski) and their two children -- suffocates underneath him as a result, despite the budding catharsis involved and the bittersweet charm of Rachel McAdams' performance as "the one that got away".

Thing is, despite all this, small moments of intimacy and substance still manage to strike chords in Aloha, ones that thrive without investment in the overarching plot. A dance between the idealistic military pilot and the conniving corporate tycoon at a Christmas party, a reunion of sorts for Zombieland cast members Emma Stone and Bill Murray as Carson Welch. The lingering experience in watching familiar characters hula dance, interacting with Hawaii's energy through hand gestures. A silent conversation between Gilcrest and Tracy's husband, built purely out of body language and subtitled for our convenience. These little things offer glimmers of the emotional tempo intended by Crowe, funneling into a brassy, unyieldingly sentimental conclusion built on moral obligation and family duty that's unmistakably of the director's design. In the end, writer/director Crowe makes someone wish that they cared more about these characters instead of actually caring about them, that his feel-good maneuverings had welcomed viewers into the embrace of the islands' magic instead of waving goodbye to the film's meager potential.