The Guys is a simple movie about an overwhelming thing: grief suffered in the shadow of September 11. It has a small cast, but the camera stares only at two people: Nick, a fire captain who must speak at eight memorial services for men who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center, and Joan, a freelance journalist who volunteers to help write his eulogies. The movie feels like a play, and with good reason: Journalist Anne Nelson wrote it hours after the terror attacks at the behest of Jim Simpson, who runs the Flea Theater in Manhattan, where it debuted on December 4, 2001, with Sigourney Weaver, Simpson's wife, as Joan and her Ghostbusters cast mate Bill Murray in the role of Nick. By the time the play ran in New York and Los Angeles, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and copious other movie stars had played Nick and Joan; they were the most coveted of roles, no doubt because big names felt compelled to do their small part by taking such ordinary roles bereft of flash and dazzle.
Weaver remains in the film adaptation, while Nick now belongs to Anthony LaPaglia, the most average of all movie stars, and that is meant as a deep-felt compliment. For the better part of 90 minutes, they sit around a breakfast table--Nick reminiscing about fallen colleagues, old friends and men he barely knew, and Joan scribbling notes she will type into tributes. The apartment in which they hunker down is bright at film's beginning, but slowly recedes into the shadows during what becomes a long therapy session for both, as he unburdens himself and she absorbs some of the grief and guilt he carries with him on broad, sagging shoulders. Theirs becomes a relationship of reciprocity: Nick can, at last, move forward, while Joan can feel like she contributed something at a time when so many felt so helpless.
If The Guys sounds like a huge downer--especially when the ripples of September 11 have turned into the explosions of today in Iraq and beyond--it is, no doubt about it. After a recent screening attended only by firefighters and rescue workers, the audience sat in silence long after the end credits had finished rolling; weary veterans of so many funerals could be heard sniffling, unabashedly. Still, The Guys is less a tearing open of old wounds than a balm to be applied over them. It doesn't wallow. It doesn't weep.
It mourns the dead, yes, but also celebrates the living; it demands we look back and shed a tear (or buckets full of them), but also helps us to march forward with a small smile worn in honor of those who leave behind happy memories. It's a movie about the crafting and writing of eulogies that functions as one itself; LaPaglia's speech at film's end, delivered during a church memorial service, could be about any loved one vanished without warning, not only a firefighter lost in the collapse of a skyscraper.
And it's not entirely bogged down in the sentimental. Nick talks about his love of dancing, and Joan imagines a scene in which she and the fireman waltz across the apartment. It is a tender and lovely and perfect and even funny moment, even if it takes place only in the imagination of a writer who craves connection and normalcy. And Weaver and LaPaglia are perfect in the roles. She has always been the superhero (Alien-killer Ripley) more comfortable in her secret identity (in such films as Tadpole and The Year of Living Dangerously), and he will forever appear even on the big screen like an average man capable of big things.
You almost want to hug The Guys for even existing, for saying something about September 11 without feeling the need to shout or preach, but whisper just loud enough so we can hear. After all, the movies have been slow to respond to the terror attacks, because the lumbering, dull-witted beast can't keep pace with real-world events. And when films do try to address it, they're dumped by distributors: Look only at Spike Lee's wrenching and magnificent 25th Hour, which Touchstone Pictures essentially let fade into cineplex oblivion. Lee aimed the camera at still-fresh wounds (Ground Zero, in the midst of cleanup) and lingered over hastily erected memorials and wandered through the real-life watering holes of firefighters who mourn their fallen friends, but Touchstone released it as though it wanted the movie kept a secret.
Another September 11 film, 11'09"01, will likely never see release in the United States, despite featuring segments directed by Sean Penn, Danis Tanovic, Mira Nair, Ken Loach and other international filmmakers; that it's a French production with occasional hints of anti-Americanism surely dooms it now. Besides, audiences, duct-taped into their bathrooms while living under code-orange clouds of doom, do not want their jittery nerves rubbed raw by movies. In life during wartime, perhaps, the movies are there to offer relief from horror, not to make us relive it. The Guys strikes an exquisite, touching and rare balance between the two.
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