Will Ferrell is a genuinely funny guy for about ten minutes or so, twelve if he’s on a roll, and fifteen if you give him a rubber chicken. If you put a clever well-written script in front of him, like Step Brothers for example, he can stretch it to over an hour. If you choose not to, believing that his innate funniness will carry your film then you’ll end up with something like Casa De Mi Padre (Madman)- which is probably Spanish for close but no cigar. A homage to Mexican soaps it’s as faux cheap, clunky and as knowingly kitsch as you would expect. They have a lot of fun with fake background scenery that doesn’t quite match up, manikins inexplicably cut into passionate sex scenes, even a terrifying close up of a bad guy’s aviator sunglasses to reveal, well, the camera crew and a bored kid eating an apple in the reflection. Halfway through the film it’s paused due to, according to the narration, a stunt coyote getting into the cocaine and tearing a mountain lion apart. The performances are deliberately stilted, raised eyebrows abound, as do continuity errors and disjointed jump cuts. This is Ferrell ‘s first Spanish language role, implausibly playing a Mexican rancher struggling to keep his family together against the ruthless drug cartels encroaching on their land.
The biggest surprise is the presence of the dynamic duo of Mexican art house cinema, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna in their fourth film together. You may remember them from that infamous three way in Y tu mama también. Here they play rival drug barons, and Bernal in particular, in a white suit, cowboy boots and smoking cigars has a great time hamming it up. We’re inches away from Naked Gun territory here with some great, truly absurd moments, like Diego snorting cocaine lined up to spell Raul, his character’s name. But moments don’t make a whole, and Casa De Mi Padre is a reminder that there’s only so much mileage you can generate from what is ostensibly a one-joke film. No matter how good that joke is.
It’s strange to think that Stanley Kubrick, the eccentric exacting genius behind The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey could have a missing film. Yet oddly enough his one-hour feature debut has been remarkably elusive since it first screened in the early 50’s. It shouldn’t be so surprising as Kubrick, always the obsessive over the top control freak, has been known to exert undue influence over every aspect of the filmmaking process – to the point where he withdrew A Clockwork Orange from theatres in the UK in the wake of copycat violence. You’d have to assume that it’s only his passing in 1999 that has finally allowed Fear and Desire (Via Vision) to see the light of day.
It’s a peculiar experience watching it for the first time some 60 years after it was conceived – particularly in light of his legacy. In 1953 this kind of existential war movie was really quite a novel concept. A couple of decades later, post Vietnam, the desire to delve into the subconscious trauma of war kicked up a notch, spearheaded by the likes of Apocalypse Now, though more recently its evolved into impossibly beautiful philosophical tone poems from Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line). So between Malick’s more nuanced approach to tangential interior monologues from multiple characters, and Kubrick’s own formidable reputation for exacting greatness, the precocious 24 year old who began this rough and ready film with $10,000 from his pharmacist uncle, doesn’t really stand a chance.
It starts out like a boys own adventure, with a squad of archetypal soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. We’ve got an earnest assertive lieutenant, a rough as guts sergeant alongside two traumatised privates attempting to get back to the front after their plane has crashed. It appears the stage is set for some good old fashioned patriotic battles against the odds, demonstrating the bonds and ingenuity of the unit as they give Jerry what for. But Kubrick has other ideas. He never names this war, or the enemy and the violence is horrific and confronting for all involved. He also introduces themes that would continue to fascinate him over the course of his career, notably the trauma of war and the slaughter of innocents. The way they’re addressed in Fear and Desire, whilst less assured, is still quite reminiscent of his later approaches, with Kirk Douglas in 1957’s Paths of Glory and Matthew Modine in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket.
One scene in particular stands out. When a pretty young peasant girl stumbles across the squad they tie her to a tree, getting the youngest, least stable private to guard her. The private, played by Paul Mazursky (later to direct Down and Out In Beverly Hills), really begins to unravel; the despair at their predicament combined with his own sexual desire for the attractive mute girl sends him over the edge. Kubrick expertly builds tension here but there’s something else, a certain uncontrolled menacing weirdness that he would later touch upon with Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance in The Shining, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s mental disintegration in Full Metal Jacket. Here it’s hard to say whether the discomfort is elicited from Mazursky’s creepy unhinged performance, or Kubrick’s claustrophobic cutting, but it’s a scene that will stay with you.
Admittedly at times some of the monologues are pretentious, self indulgent and kind’ve cringe inducing, and you wouldn’t be out of line to suggest the script is a little clumsy. Yet there’s also a lot to like -particularly Kubrick’s photography. Rarely has a first feature been shot so well, with such an innate understanding of how to get the most out of natural light.
Initial poor reaction to the film reportedly reduced Kubrick to tears, and later in life he dismissed it as amateurish, buying up all the prints he could find and ultimately destroying the negative. Yet his reaction against Fear and Desire shouldn’t be read as anything more than a control freak unable to cope with the one moment he wasn’t able to exert his total control over the cinematic form. But perfection in cinema is boring. Barry Lyndon taught us that. And whilst Kubrick might have been embarrassed about wearing his youth, hunger and inexperience on his sleeve, for the rest of us Fear and Desire is a unique insight into one of the giants of modern cinema.