Reality bites

If you go to the movies today, you are usually looking to have to
endure 150 minutes of flashy, overbudget, effects-heavy gimmicks
produced by the Hollywood machine. This unpleasant experience extends
even to “groundbreaking” movies, like those made by the Mexican
new-wavers Inarritu, Cuaron and Del Toro, all vying for 2006 Oscars.
Yes, they all have interesting stories to tell, leave you with things
to think about, and moments that take your breath away, but after a
while you really start longing for the simple tale told well that
perfectly describes something about a human condition without beating
you over the head.

So it was that I was recently knocked out by two very different
fables made in 2003, one from each side of the Atlantic: Ricky Gervais’
“The Office” and David Gordon Green’s “All the Real Girls”. As Robert
Altman proved in his most compelling works, the effect of an ensemble
cast is so much greater than that of an individual or couple, and both
these stories (even though they are made to appeal to completely
different audiences, and use different techniques) explore what happens
when you observe the give and take of a group of strangers (in the case
of “The Office”) or long-time friends (”Real Girls”) as life goes on.
Meantime the viewer is inexorably drawn in, reflecting on one’s own

For once, listening to the “extra features” on the DVDs of these two
pieces does reveal something about why they are both so effective. They
are labors of love, not made to make box office records (surprisingly,
“The Office” did become a huge success), but because the film-makers
were smart enough to stay small.

Gervais and his co-creator Stephen Merchant (mentalist!) found a way
to channel Gervais’ obsessive need to entertain and place it within the
drab, low-cost setting of our everyday work lives. With brilliant
casting and exquisite art direction (probably the most striking aspect
of the show to me was the perfect framing of the office location
shots–made to look haphazard, there is always a dead plant in the
corner or a monkey on the coat-rack just out of focus), Gervais and
Merchant wear us down so that we must emphasize even with the boss from

Green’s ensemble is composed of film school friends from the North
Carolina School of the Arts, and as he and lead actor Paul Schneider
explain on the commentary, they approach every scene in “All the Real
Girls” with an open mind. You can believe from the gentle way that the
film unwinds that comments and ideas from the guy holding the mic boom
were accepted by the cast and director, and that just as in Gervais’
case, they were not going to settle for anything other than the best
they could do. Zooey Deschanel rises to the occasion (when she wants
to, she can give us incredibly powerful performances–see also “The Good
Girl”) and the other actors win us over.