The things that Judge Bill Gibron does for love are beyond good and evil.
The things we do for love are beyond good and evil.
Paul is a New Yorker in his mid-20s, bouncing between jobs as a temp and a documentary production assistant. He wants to get a job in advertising, if only to escape the daily grind of uncertain employment and avoid the Holocaust horror stories he has to witness as part of the filmmaking process. His girlfriend, Dunja, is a Yugoslavian student who has just returned from China where she was studying the language. A jealous and protective woman, Dunja fears Paul is straying from their relationship. Indeed, Paul is fascinated with all the other women around him—a strange, seductive singer named Wendy from downstairs; an overtly friendly co-worker at his new job.
As the distant couple fight and fall in and out of love, one element remains constant between them: Paul's religion. As a Jew, Paul is conflicted. On one hand, he understands that his parents expect him to embrace his faith and marry within it. But on the other, Paul has been bombarded with feelings of anger and dismay. He hates the victimization mentality of the Jewish community, and he holds some strange beliefs about the Nazis' complicity in the Holocaust. For Paul, life has always been about following orders and listening to your superiors. But he is sick of being held to a legacy that he had no direct part in. In a world full of people looking to exploit their persecution and history, Paul rejects such labels, and in so doing, is destroying his relationships. Just like his sister's pending lawsuit over an accident involving her ex-husband, Paul is in a Liability Crisis: he knows whom to blame, but confrontation and conclusion may be painful and unpredictable.
Lumbering between a philosophical diatribe and a drama of mismatched lovers, Liability Crisis is a movie that dares you to like it, on many roguish levels. First, there is the near-incoherent nature of its narrative—an amalgamation of speeches, propaganda pitches, half-overheard heartfelt conversations, and out-and-out callous confrontations that seem to add up to one miserable confusion of emotions. But the layers of illogic continue to mount and amass, as the message becomes the medium and vice versa. The acting is also a study in stasis. While perfectly appropriate for the tone and tenor of this film, the majority of the performances barely register (even our lead actor whispers most of the time). Feelings are kept in check to make room for gentler grandstanding.
But perhaps the most confrontational aspect of the movie is its subject matter, which can best be described as a self-hating Jew's gradual acceptance of the Nazi notion of Hebrew horribleness. From the belittling statements about the Holocaust to the tendency to constantly apologize for the actions of the Third Reich, Liability Crisis is a tainted tone poem to an affinity for reconfiguring history to make it more suitable to one's self-image. The title, a twisted take on the notion of blame and responsibility (and referencing an ongoing legal battle between Paul's sister Susie and her ex-husband), is the setup for the difficult proposition made within the movie. Who is really at fault here? The German people? An extremist subset of same? The modern Jews who want to remove themselves from such painful memories? Or is it the survivors of the concentration camps? Is their mantra-like repetition of "Never Forget" allowing progress for their people, or leaving them mired in a tired testament to man's insane evil against man?
Liability Crisis doesn't have any straight answers, and that's not usual for this film. Director Richard Brody has truncated a two-hours-plus meandering tale down to 70 some minutes of assertions and anger, leaving subtlety and story by the wayside. The best sequences in the film deal directly with Paul's family and their inability to accept Dunja, his Yugoslavian girlfriend, because she is not Jewish. In conversations about religion and bias not usually heard in modern movies, the strange ideological racism of a religion-based upbringing is thoughtfully addressed. Dunja holds her own throughout, challenging Paul's mother to defend her position while providing common sense examples of why such small-mindedness is so very wrong. This matriarch claims the Holocaust and the treatment of Jews by the Nazis was the ultimate act of intolerance, then turns and treats this foreign "gentile" with somewhat similar (if not necessarily as bilious) sentiments. For the ten or so minutes this debate plays out over coffee and cigarettes, Liability Crisis is alive with potential and passion. But no sooner are we engaged than Brody throws the tantrum switch and we are back to Paul's pedantic pontificating, mixing Kafka with Mein Kampf to obliterate the bias he feels he was born with. Indeed, most of this young man's struggle seems to be about disengaging himself from indoctrination at the hand of his parents. He merely wants to relate to the world without the burden of Jewishness and all that insinuates (for both good and bad). Had the movie stayed in the interpersonal and not moved on to the internationally political, it could have worked as a solid, stern statement about intolerance. But it's too interested in the party line to tow anything else.
Liability Crisis is not really concerned about this personal journey. It doesn't want to dwell in the relationship turmoil between Paul and Dunja. It is more interesting in quotes and argumentative support. It is fascinated with its own theoretical viewpoint and can't get enough of its own preaching. It's hard to feel sympathy for or develop an association with people who are constantly beating you over the head with their idealism and insensitivity. Dunja fears Paul since he comes across as so amorally committed to his dogma. And we as an audience feel the same way about both him and the film. We watch the vacant eyes as the redolent rants come pouring out of his mouth, and we wonder in amazement about how someone supposedly well educated can sound so hateful. Then we realize that we are not watching a documentary and that these sentiments were scripted. And then it's time to wonder about the man behind the masquerade, so to speak.
Brody bandies about many misfortunate ideas in this film, using Hitler and his henchmen (perhaps the single most recognizable symbol of evil ever) to underline relationships in decline, family dynamics in flux, and a whole lot of social commentary and conflict. But the advocacy never adds up to a coherent message. All we get are buzzwords and well-researched tirades. Plot elements wither and die from lack of cultivation, but then the director wants us to buy into (and maybe even laugh at) his deus ex machina ending. Sure, Brody may have been meant it to be satirical and karmic, but without any friendly foundation in the parties involved, giggling at the grim reaper comes across as crass and cruel. As does most of Liability Crisis. There is nothing wrong with channeling challenging material for a mainstream story. But when all your narrative is concerned about is lecturing the historically illiterate or zealously Zionistic, there is not much entertainment-wise to cling to.
It must have been difficult for Pathfinder to manage a means of making this movie saleable. The subject matter alone is worth a thousand marketing worries. Liability Crisis is hardly a feel-good romance or searing, serious drama. Instead, it is agenda as art, notebooks and journals of jingoism reduced to screenplay form. And it's hardly a visual feast. Shot mostly in close-up, and presented here in a dirty, dull 1.33:1 full screen flub of a transfer, the movie meanders between too dark and horribly haloed. Sonically, the aural elements move from a literal whisper to a scream (or in this case, the banging out of Beethoven's classic riffs on an overloud piano) as silences are abruptly broken for shocking sounds. This does not mean, however, that the Dolby Digital Stereo provides a speaker-shifting soundscape. Indeed, you can usually hear the camera whirring in the background.
As for bonuses, Pathfinder again has a difficult time, but for a clearly usual reason. Brody's broadsword is bandied about and is evident everywhere in the extras. First, we get a 20-plus-minute interview with the strange cinematic artist. Sitting on a park bench in New York and hardly ever addressing the camera directly, he waxes on about Godard and the lack of an American equivalent to the French New Wave movement. With Brody occasionally sounding intelligent but almost always acting above the questioning, this is intriguing, but ultimately uninvolving, material. A Filmmaker's Statement is also included on the disc, and this Unabomber-style treatise is enough to give several FBI profilers a run for their routine. Brody has a lot to say and is not afraid to spill it out over several page-through screens.
The biographies of Brody and his two leads are interesting, providing some background and insight into the performers involved. But then we get nearly an hour of missing footage, material excised from the original film to make it more "commercial" or better yet "less confrontational." It is easy to see why this footage was removed. Paul's principles and how they came into being are explored in more detail, as is his relationship with Wendy. But for a film that is already incredibly talky, the deleted material ups the verbal ante. With this bonus footage included, the movie would have been unbearable. With it gone, it's more enigmatic, but still stifling.
Many people involved in moviemaking would argue that politics and entertainment should never mix. Richard Brody would disagree. For him, social opinions are the very skeleton of a cinematic story. But art is in the eye of the beholder, and after witnessing Liability Crisis, you'll be incredibly confused. It's a film that will either make you cringe in disbelief, or nod your head in ideological agreement. Either way, it's a tough time at the movies.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Director Richard Brody
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