Adrien Brody’s character in “Detachment” is a great teacher, the kind you’re lucky to meet just once during your school days.
The teacher’s personal side is another matter.
As long as “Detachment,” out on DVD today, stays focused on the teacher’s birfurcated life, the film evokes a power beyond its visual histrionics.
Director Tony Kaye of “American History X” fame won’t let Brody’s story stand alone. Kaye has too many famous faces to stuff into his film, from an embarrassingly over the top Lucy Liu to James Caan doing a rat-a-tat series of accents in his extended cameo.
The film’s signature sin is packing so much venom into an already bloated storyline. We see every hard luck educational story stuffed into the frame. Physically aggressive students. Parents from hell. Administrators unwilling to accept blame for their actions.
It’s a greatest hits collection of school horror stories interrupted by the always superb Brody.
Henry Barthes (Brody) flits from one school district to the next, the ultimate substitute teacher always able to find a paying gig. He’s clearly good enough to land a full-time position – just watch him handle a pair of crisis within the first five minutes of his latest class. Henry simply can’t commit to one school, one class or even one student. He’s grappling with too many emotional wounds left untreated, which we see in minute flashbacks involving his inebriated ma.
Two young women manage to touch Henry’s damaged soul all the same. A heavyset student with artistic talent to burn (Betty Kaye, the director’s daughter) connects with him on a deeper level, as does a local prostitute (Sami Gayle) who keeps appearing on Henry’s block.
Kaye presents “Detachment” like it’s the first – and final – statement on modern education. We see chalkboard-style animations, watch Brody give faux confessional interviews and confirm every fear parents have about the modern classroom. These aren’t tonal or style choices. They’re an armada of negative emotions which keep our interest but prevent us from caring too much about what happens on screen.
Among the co-stars tortured for our entertainment are a teacher in miles over his head (Tim Blake Nelson), an administrator (Marcia Gay Harden) shown curled up in the fetal position as the latest crisis overwhelms her and “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks who gets a face full of phlegm for dealing with a troubled teen.
The exception to this manufactured ugliness is Henry’s attempts to help the young prostitute. Their relationship grows slowly, evolving in realistic snippets until the healing process begins to take hold.
It’s like finding a flower straining for sunlight on a cloud-covered field.
The sole DVD extra is an extended chat with both Kaye and Brody. The Oscar-winning actor says he was grateful for such a complicated role, one that even those who toil in the indie film trenches aren’t always lucky enough to find.
He’s right. Too bad there’s so much static surrounding Henry’s redemptive arc.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies