Men behaving emotionally

Meet Freddy and John, two tough guys with a deal of sadness in their lives and a share in a one-way ticket to Snifflesville. By Adam Mars-Jones: THE CROSSING GUARD Sean Penn (15)

If your gerbil died today, or if your favourite goldfish is lying ominously still at the bottom of the tank, do not attempt to see The Crossing Guard, Sean Penn's second film as writer-director. You need time to grieve, to absorb your losses, before Sean Penn starts his all-out assault on your tear ducts.

The Crossing Guard is a tough guy's weepie - a genre that can't be graded, as women's weepies can, by the number of tissues required, since tough guys wipe their eyes on their coat sleeves. If Sean Penn gets his way with you, your sleeves will be wet to the elbows. It's a trademark of the tough guys' weepie, incidentally, that it takes emotion seriously, but only among people who fight against it, ie men. Women get paradoxically short shrift, because they're meant to be good at that stuff.

Freddy (Jack Nicholson) lost his daughter Emily six years ago. In his grief, he let his marriage to Mary (Anjelica Huston) collapse. And now the drunk-driver who ruined his life is getting out of jail.

When we first see Mary she is at some sort of bereavement support group, listening to testimony, her eyes filling up when a comment wakes a memory. When we first see Freddy he is grieving in his own way, which means getting drunk in strip joints and sleeping with exotic dancers. Presumably he's trying to degrade himself, but unfortunately one of the exotic dancers is in love with him. So to get properly degraded he has to leave her waiting for him and go off to buy sex somewhere else. And even when he does start to get the rejection he deserves, blow me down if another exotic dancer doesn't put the moves on him.

You can imagine the pitch for the movie: "Downside is it's about grief coming to terms, getting on with your life whatever the pain. Upside is ... lots of exotic dancers". Sometimes the exotic dancers are even filmed in slow motion, though to be fair, that's partly to convey that Freddy is living his whole life in slow motion. By being stuck in the past, he makes only flickering contact with the present. Perhaps I'm being more than fair.

The drunk-driver, meanwhile, John (David Morse) is as fluent in his guilt and grief as Freddy is blocked. He thanks his parents for standing by him with so much love, and he doesn't hold back emotionally from his friends. In Sean Penn's world, women are turned on by men's grief, whether admitted or denied, and John hasn't been out of jail for more than a day before a beautiful young artist (Robin Wright) starts taking a romantic interest in him.

It's as if Sean Penn had bought a few books on loss and grieving, and then stirred them up into a screenplay. At some stage, he realises that for satisfactory plot development, John needs an arbitrary setback and Freddy needs an arbitrary breakthrough. So JoJo the lovely artist asks John if he saw Emily die, there on the Tarmac after the accident, and when he answers her question, she says: "I think your guilt is a little too much competition for me. Let me know when you want life."

At this point, John isn't sufficiently in touch with his feelings to point out that she asked the bloody question in the first place.

Then Freddy, after six long years, phones Mary to tell her about this nightmare he's had, in which he's driving a car outside Emily's elementary school. The real life drunk-driver, John, is working as a crossing guard in the dream, but he doesn't stop Freddy from mowing the kids down. For the first time, Freddy shows Mary his vulnerability and his guilt.

On paper, Freddy looks like a juicy role for Nicholson, but he interacts much less with other people than John does due to being mostly fuddled or hateful. In his first scene with Mary and her new husband, he speaks very quietly and reasonably, but he has lull-before-the-storm- written all over him, and soon he is slapping his hands together in angry contempt and GIVING! every OTHER! word ABSURD! emphasis. His rage has become a mannerism.

His smile, too, has for so long masked anger that the anger is now permanently implied. When Mary responds to his new vulnerability, and agrees to have a coffee with him, they talk about how great their marriage was, how they loved each other, were hot for each other. There was no hidden agenda between them, isn't that right? She agrees, but he's smiling the smile, the smile with the hidden agenda, and the scene can only end with an outburst of bitter hatred.

The most Nicholsonesque scene is an earlier one, and it is just that, Nicholsonesque. Freddy runs a little jewellery store and has to deal with a dissatisfied customer, who says the ring she ordered is too small. Freddy measures the ring to prove her wrong, then leans forward for an unexpected moment to suck the woman's ring finger, then he slips it smoothly on to the wet finger, saying, you're quite right, you're a perfect size 7. Sean Penn must have written this scene in homage to the stroppy-with-a-waitress sequence from Five Easy Pieces, except that now Nicholson's rage is coarser and the charm not so much latent as absent.

The first half of The Crossing Guard goes all out for restraint, but towards the end, the cliches start snowballing. Freddy gets stopped for drunk-driving on his way to carry out his promise to kill John. He runs. He hides in a little girl's bedroom. She doesn't give him away. He mouths thank-you, then kisses her goodnight. Don't they teach kids about stranger- danger in LA?

Freddy and John have an absurd stand off, then a chase. Whenever it would be possible to shoot, Freddy doesn't. Whenever it gets to be impossible, he takes aim. They get on a bus, they ride a few stops, they get off. If I told you the film ends with the two men holding hands, both in floods of tears, in the shadow of a stone sculpture with the inscription To Our Little Lambs, next to little Emily's grave, which Freddy has never seen before but which John has visited with remorse and flowers, and that where their tears fall bluebells magically spring up, you wouldn't believe me, would you? All right, so I made up the bit about the bluebells.

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