Sunday, May 26, 2024

Allison Janney Is All Out of Bubblegum in ‘Lou’

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Lou is a fun and exciting action movie until it gets lost trying to navigate its plot, which is much more complicated than it needs to be. But when it’s not getting tripped up by its melodramatics, it’s a cool little thriller with a more than capable cast. To put it another way, I liked it more than I didn’t.

Anna Foerster is a cinematographer turned director, which means Lou looks really good compared to other Netflix movies. She and her cameraman Micahel McDonough largely avoid the Netflix curse of lousy lighting and blandness that its lower-budgeted fare has become infamous for. What few moments of blandness there are, are more than set off by how they capture a rugged rain-soaked Allison Janney scowling off into the cloudy distance.

Lou (Allison Janney) and her trusty dog Jax

Janney is an actor so good she could play Columbo. She plays Lou with brutal efficiency, telling us so much about the character merely by how she walks and sits. I’ve seen a rash of films lately of movie stars trying to jerks but fumbling the ball because they are too concerned with being likable. Janney not only doesn’t try to curry our favor, but she also doesn’t try to make us hate her. Instead, Janney plays her with brash independence, allowing our feelings towards her to be largely ambivalent.

Set on Orcas Island, an island off the coast of Washington state, Lou looks at how Janney’s character attempts to atone for the sins of her past and tries not to commit new ones in the present. Foerster introduces Lou to us as she prepares to kill herself.

In the beginning, what makes Lou so interesting is how unconcerned the film is with explaining Lou. As a result, what we know of Lous is very little. She’s an older woman struggling with arthritis who has a dark past and may or may not have something to do with the U.S. Government’s involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup.

Janney’s co-star, Jurney Smollett, is just as capable as Janney, if not as experienced. She plays Hannah, a widow who lives on Lou’s property with her daughter Vee (Ridley Bateman). Unfortunately, Lou is not a forgiving landlord. She pulls up to Hannah and curtly reminds her that rent is due the next day, despite a storm coming that has the entire island battening down the hatches.

Junee balances the tricky hat-trick of being emotionally vulnerable and playing a battered wife without reducing her to tropes. She’s not weak, but unlike Lou, she’s not afraid to express herself. In her way, she’s a fighter, and despite Lou’s attitude towards her, we can see a grudging spark of respect behind Lou’s scrutinizing gaze.

As Lou pulls away, she almost runs over Vee, who darts out in front of her truck. Visibly shaken, Lou quickly hides it and lectures Hannah instead. “World’s not a playground. Teach your kid to look out for herself.”

Lou is best when it is a low-rent version of Jack Reacher or Taken. Janney’s Lou has a particular skill set that comes in handy when Hannah’s not-so-dead husband Philip (Logan-Marshall Green) shows up and kidnaps Vee. Hannah and Lou team up as they trek through the woods, tracking Hannah’s abusive ex while the storm rages on. Janney and Smollett are so good together that they could each play the other’s character easily.

Lou (Janney) and Hannah (Junrey Smollett)

Granted, it wouldn’t make much sense for the story, but since the story slowly begins to feel like something out of a bad soap opera, I don’t much care. Unfortunately, the duo, or the studio, feels compelled to toss in complications dragging the movie down. Still, Cohn and Stanely’s script is fun and tense when it’s about two women trying to find a kidnapped child. 

I like the dialogue, or at the very least, how Janney and Smollet delivered their lines. In a world where movies are more and more becoming more pop-culture reference and self-aware, films that have the gall to be quotable on their own are a dying breed. The dialogue has a nice rhythm, especially Lou’s terse and straightforward explanations. “How did you know it was going to blow up?” “Bombs tend to.” 

Foerster does an excellent job giving Janney a vehicle to show her action chops and providing an actor of Janney’s caliber a role she can play with relish. Lou is a fascinating character, if only because we don’t often get a chance to see characters like Lou played by women over the age of forty, much less fifty. She’s not an unstoppable machine; she’s showing her age, and her arthritis is acting up, hence the suicide attempt. Lou is not as spry as she once was. But she’s comfortable with violence that Hannah, a survivor of abuse from her marriage to Philip, is not.

Strangely, most of the film’s fight scenes are scenes that suffer from bad lighting, making them hard to see. What little we can see is good choreography, tight and clean, but with too many cuts. On the other hand, Foerster gives us a sense of Lou’s ability and willingness to take a kill shot. 

Lou (Janney) and Hannah (Smollett) attempt to cross a bridge that has seen better dyas

However, then there’s the final fight scene between Lou and Philip. The final fight scene is unlike anything else in the movie. Lou and Phillip trade punches and kicks on the beach, the waves of the Pacific crashing around them. 

Foerster and McDonough blend imagery and narrative beautifully, along with Matt Evans and Paul Tothill’s editing, mixed with Nima Fakhrara’s score. Foerster creates an evocative piece of storytelling and filmmaking in this one scene that is so stunning cinematic that it’s a shame it feels like it’s from a different film.

But even when Lou is groaning under the weight of its narrative obsession, with a twist I saw coming a mile away and hoped wasn’t the case, Janney and Smollet keep Lou entertaining. Foerster nails the moments between Lou and Hannah and gives Lou its solid ground. 

Moments like when Lou sees the scars of Philip’s abuse and mutters, “And yet you stayed.” Hannah snaps and tells Lou what it was like to live with Philip. Smollett’s monologue smartly sidesteps cliches while also ringing emotionally true. Her performance in this scene is the type that could easily be overplayed, but she instead keeps the performance restrained, on the verge of exploding. She doesn’t want to appear weak in front of Lou, even though she already knows Lou will think so regardless.

Foerster and McDonough capture the performance well and, considering what we eventually learn about Lou, show a remarkable amount of restraint in not making the moment needlessly bigger. Though Lou’s abuse came from being a spy, the scars remain. “I guess we’ve all been through things that other people will never understand.” 

Lou is a fun movie with a moment or two of sublime cinematic craftmanship that has the added bonus of letting Allison Janney kick ass. However, the ending leaves me conflicted. The producers are clearly hoping to spin Lou off into a franchise. While I would love nothing more than a series of Janney-style spy-thrillers, I’m not sure it wouldn’t be a monkey’s paw scenario, either. 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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