Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Armageddon Time (2022) dir. James Gray

Some memory pieces are best left forgotten


There is a peculiar subgenre, which has become increasingly pervasive as Boomer filmmakers age into retirement and Generation X comes to fully inhabit middle age, which I have come to dub “Amarcore.” Like the Fellini film which lends the genre its name, these films find their aging directors attempting to recapture their lost youth by projecting it across a widescreen, often slightly whimsical canvas. This trend kicked off in earnest in 2018 with Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-winning Roma, which found the director reflecting on his childhood in 1970s Mexico City. The roster of directors who have visited this well since is vast and growing: Paul Thomas Anderson in Licorice Pizza, Kenneth Branagh in Belfast, Richard Linklater in Apollo 10 ½, Paolo Sorrentino in The Hand of God (one might liberally also include Hugo, even though the childhood in that film is clearly not Martin Scorsese’s, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, even though it does not contain a youthful stand-in for Quentin Tarantino). The 2022 Oscar season promises an Amarcore bumper crop, with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light on the horizon. First, however, comes Armageddon Time, in which James Gray (Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z) revisits his upbringing in early ‘80s New York City. The resulting film, while visually gorgeous and clearly very personal, is oddly airless, and can’t quite seem to grapple with the story it sets out to tell.

Gray’s avatar in Armageddon Time (which is strangely not quite named after “Armagideon Time” by the Clash, which plays periodically on the soundtrack) is young Paul Graff (Banks Repeta), a middle-class Jewish fifth-grader at the beginning of the 1980 school year. Paul dreams of being a famous artist, but finds himself butting heads with his stern father (Jeremy Strong) and ambitious mother (Anne Hathaway); his only sympathetic ear in the house (which is often crowded with extended family) is his kindly grandfather, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins). Paul strikes up a friendship with Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the only Black student in his grade, and the two are soon inseparable, skipping class to play pinball and hang out at the record store. But when the pair get themselves into one scrape too many, Paul’s parents pull him from class and send him to a stuffy private school designed to mold students into cutthroat yuppies. Stifled by his new environment and missing his friend, Paul lashes out further– with disastrous results.

I don’t know enough about James Gray to say how closely the events of Armageddon Time hew to his actual childhood, but it certainly feels autobiographical. The film feels very much lived-in– one gets the sense that Gray knows every inch of the Graffs’ cramped apartment, even though it is almost certainly constructed on a soundstage. Gray’s reconstruction of early ‘80s Manhattan is lush and vivid; one can almost smell the asphalt and exhaust as Paul and Johnny make their way across the city (its period-accuracy extends to the movie poster, which may just be the most handsome of the year). And there are many touches– in the characters, in the circumstances, in a truly baffling real-life cameo which I shan’t spoil here– which are so odd that they can only come from the filmmaker’s personal experience. Half of the goal of these memory-piece films is for the director to recreate the time and place of their childhood, and in that respect, Gray succeeds.

But the other half is to sweep the audience up in the whirlwind of youth, and in this regard I found myself sharing the muted reaction of the Hassle’s Nick Perry when he caught the film at NYFF. There is an oddly perfunctory quality to Armageddon Time, as if Gray jotted down bullet points from his youth but failed to flesh them out into something more meaningful. Apart from two whimsical fantasy sequences– one in the film’s first act, the other toward the end– the film forgoes the childlike wonder that often characterizes the genre in favor of something more muted and downbeat (in this respect, I suppose it’s less an example of Amarcore than 400 Blo-fi). One gets the feeling that Gray believes that retelling events from his childhood is enough; if only he’d opted to embellish a little, the resulting film may have been more interesting.

What is particularly surprising in a film like this is that even the performances seem strangely off the mark. The child actors are fine, but rarely pop off the screen (particularly in comparison to such engaging recent performances as Woody Norman in C’Mon C’Mon or Alan Kim in Minari). Strong seems to be playing into the brooding caricature presented by his infamous New Yorker profile, and even Hopkins, who should be the scene-stealer of the ensemble, comes off as oddly tentative, as if he’s giving the character a dry run before committing on the day. (There is also a big-name surprise actor who appears for one scene halfway through, and I promise you would not believe me if I told you who they play). The only performer who truly won me over is Hathaway, who is excellent with her tight mom-smile and Lawn-Guyland accent; I could have watched an entire film centered on her character, and was perplexed when Gray apparently decided to sideline her right at her emotional turning point.

Armageddon Time isn’t a bad film, necessarily; it just seems like it should be a whole lot better. Gray presents a fully realized time and place, but never quite gives us the “so what?” to make us truly care about his characters. Perhaps because he is so close to the material, Gray occasionally pulls his punches, particularly in regard to the film’s central racial dynamic (which ultimately lets the protagonist off probably easier than it should). Even in its recreation of the early ‘80s, some of the period details feel off (I’m sorry, but there is simply no way that the older brother presented in this film is cool enough to listen to the Raincoats in 1980). As more and more filmmakers delve into their pasts, they’re going to need to turn out something truly special to stand out from the crowd. Armageddon Time is simply too self-satisfied to make much of an impression.

Armageddon Time
dir. James Gray
114 min.

Now playing @ Kendall Square Cinema

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