Judge Brendan Babish hates on Sorry, Haters.
Has the dust really settled?
Sorry, Haters is a 9/11-inspired independent movie that was shot on video over 15 days. It is also the first full-length feature from writer-director Jeff Stanzler (Jumpin' at the Boneyard) in 13 years.
Facts of the Case
Ashade (Abdel Kechiche), a New York City cab driver of Arab descent, picks up Phyllis (Robin Wright Penn, Forrest Gump), a clearly distraught businesswoman, and drives her to the Jersey Suburbs where she vandalizes a stranger's car. Relaxed after the deed, Phyllis begins taking an interest in the stoic cabbie and his extended family in America. After learning that his brother-in-law has been sent to Guantanamo Prison on false charges, she vows to use her high-powered connections to have him released. However, not everything is as it seems, and Ashade quickly learns that he may have imperiled his family by trusting this temperamental stranger.
Sorry, Haters starts off with plenty of promise. Phyllis is introduced standing teary-eyed in front of an ATM machine, and from that moment on Penn mesmerizes in every scene she's in. On the cab ride to the Jersey suburbs, she makes conversation with the deferent Ashade, though she has no interest in exchanging pleasantries. Still holding back tears, she expresses politically incorrect views on 9/11 and soon afterward shows no shame in vandalizing the SUV of an apparent stranger. By the time Phyllis is guzzling wine and opining on modern society's ills with Ashade and his sister-in-law, we are on the edge of our seats, knowing this woman is unbalanced and portends trouble.
And soon enough there is. I will refrain from giving too much away, because after the first act, the plot of Sorry, Haters doesn't so much unfold as it is sprung on the audience. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but as we delve further into Phyllis's sordid machinations, the movie spirals from a highly interesting character and cultural study into a sensationalistic screed that lacks any overarching message. Sure, there is plenty of tension and intrigue, but so much of it is defused by the ham-handed way it is introduced. What is particularly upsetting about this is that the nascent tension between Americans and Middle Eastern immigrants in America is such fecund territory for drama, and Sorry, Haters only begins to mine it before shifting into a lackluster story that essentially boils down to an obsessive relationship between two women.
Yet throughout the movie's descent into ill-advised melodrama, Robin Wright Penn not only manages to maintain a straight face but somehow summons the authenticity to command our attention and almost make us believe the character—even when her actions and dialogue are increasingly ridiculous. Ultimately, Penn delivers a performance that is so raw and emotional and spellbinding that it single-handedly saves the picture. After watching Sorry, Haters you and your friends could banter for hours about all the varied ways the movie spirals out of control, but the first comment has to be praise for a woman who bares herself completely for a script that she must have had concerns over. It's unfortunate that low budget pictures so rarely receive Oscar consideration, because Penn delivers the best performance, from a man or woman, of 2005.
Sorry, Haters was shot on video, seemingly using natural light, and it almost seems to be particularly grainy by choice. Much of the film takes place in a series of grim locations in New York City, and the poor picture quality does add to the dark ambiance of the movie. Still, it would be hard to imagine a film that takes less advantage of a superior home theater than Sorry, Haters. However, there are some worthwhile extras, including commentary with the film's writer/director Jeff Stanzler and Robin Wright Penn. Say what you will about the movie's content, but this was clearly a labor of love shot on a shoestring, and it's usually interesting to hear the stories of thrift entailed in getting the film made. Unfortunately, Stanzler comes off a little too optimistic and upbeat to really entertain. Far more interesting is the too brief (13 minute) roundtable discussion moderated by Tim Robbins (Mystic River). This is a novel extra to include on a DVD, and something that I hope will be included on future IFC releases. With Robbins are fellow artists (most prominently Mary Louise-Parker) who had no prior involvement with the film, sipping coffee and discussing Sorry, Haters. In essence this is like being a fly in the wall of a café as a group of intelligent audience members discuss the movie they have just seen. Thankfully, the participants do not merely praise the film but offer criticism while discussing the picture's subtext and subtleties in depth.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sorry, Haters joins the exclusive club of movies that are mediocre on the whole, but still highly recommended solely due to the performance of the lead actor. A very partial list of this club's members, and the leads that single-handedly elevate the material, include: Two Girls and a Guy (Robert Downey, Jr.); She's So Lovely (Sean Penn); Swimming With Sharks (Kevin Spacey); and American History X (Edward Norton).
Sorry, Haters exemplifies the best and worst of independent cinema. The plot is bold and uncompromising in a way one would never see in studio feature. However, the film also takes incomprehensible turns that frustrate and ultimately alienate the viewer. Test screenings would certainly have alerted the filmmakers to some problems in the plot, but if further tinkering would rob this movie of its gritty authenticity, maybe it's worth taking the good with bad. Maybe.
Guilty of abruptly sensationalizing a story that had the potential for real power and insight into modern culture. However, Robin Wright Penn's brilliant performance will keep Sorry, Haters from doing any serious time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Commentary by Director Jeff Stanzler and Robin Wright Penn
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