Film review: Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic

Directed by Matt Ross

Exalted literary icon Mary McCarthy had a years-long feud with literary avatar and non-capitalist Lillian Hellman.  Said McCarthy of Hellman's oeuvre: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

While Captain Fantastic is not wholly meretricious, it is filled with so many pretentious assumptions and memes that McCarthy could have had a field day.

Viggo Mortensen, for instance, usually a sexy, serious portrayer of classic males in some distress, future or past, in one genre or another, plays the strict, affect-deprived father of six lively children.  Early in the film, their mother, stricken with bipolar or some other mental disorder, dies, a suicide.

The father is living the Walden Pond life, homeschooling his active troupe of kids in the woods, raising them with what used to be a classical education in science, philosophy, medicine (sort of), literature, and languages.  Esperanto is apparently one of the latter, a tongue for some reason taboo on one of the family's rides on the rickety converted school bus they ride when they need groceries or city contact.

But though the sprach is all Trotskist (as opposed to the verboten Trotskyite) sloganeering, and the father wears a faded T-shirt reading Jesse Jackson 1969 or something, and he is too young to have even worn such a T when Jackson rode the racialist bandwagon, the kids do not – contrary to what they sprout and the father hectors anyone who asks – wear homespun, but store bought'n clothes, trendy if dowdy city folks' notions of what hicks in the woods might wear.  They don't know what Nikes or Adidas are, but they make stealing food from grocery emporia a fun regular event, after staging faux heart attacks.  Though they make a thing of organic food, and Mortensen rejects a greasy spoon diner because "they don't serve any real food here, kids, so let's go," the truth is, minutes later, he's celebrating the odious Noam Chomsky's birthday (instead of Christmas) with a sprinkle-covered store-made cake and – here's the thing – Redi-Whip, which is completely artificial and damaging, one figures, to the chromosomes of all concerned.  He spritzes it joyously into his mouth, as if it were nectar of the gods.  Fake, fake, fake.

The kids sport nice clothing and rough-hewn haircuts, or none, but they know how to shoot game for supper and get knives for fun gifts and are unacquainted with normal politesse.  They visit cousins and drink wine and shock the cousins with the same four-letter words that are so hot and trendy among city-dwellers.  They curse often, in fact, which somehow cuts against the idyllic life they are supposedly leading.  They climb pitches far too tough for some of the younger kids, but their father keeps at it, whatever injuries obtain.  They are being led to toughness, and they sleep outdoors, even when given guest room privileges.  They don't complain when they have to sit with dad in the pouring rain, soaked to the skin for no particular reason.

Though the frequent invocation is "Stick it to The Man" and suchlike rubbishy left-wing slogans, they love the benefits of comfort, play videogames whenever they can find them, and paste a dollar bill atop the driver's seat in the claptrap bus.  This is a Maoist crowd that feigns disgust for capitalism but takes in all the goodies it can when available.  They lie at a whim.  They connect Dr. Spock with the child care professional, of course, not Star Trek, the TV series or movie franchise.

Filmed in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, New Mexico and Lake Stevens, Washington, there is a fair amount of lovely scenery and road-crunching of country miles.

There's some unnecessary frontal nudity, male, for shock value against city folk, but it could just as easily be excised – still leaving the excessive four-letter vocabulary of distress or annoyance.

The plot demands they come face to face with both Steve Zahn, playing a subdued conservative, lowercase "c," and his two loutish (of course) sons, who are far more ignorant but likely representative of the average teens today (alas), and the representative psychologically advanced mother, who thinks Mortensen slightly cruel and out of his head in the way his kids are being manipulated out of the culture (yet really, far in).  The family is faced with the film's truest and most believable character, played by the marvelous Frank Langella, who seems a cherishable True North in this film of crazy contrasts that are more bad scripting and seething anger by writers than actual Thoreau-esque country living.  Langella dislikes what Mortensen has done to Langella's (now dead) daughter and reviles his son-in-law's outlaw childishness.  Their conflict seems reasonable, given the provocations sustained.

Kathryn Hahn does a good job of being the worried wife and mother.  Zahn is so subdued, I kept waiting for him to break out into some sort of DMSV malady, but he kept a tight rein on his acting.  The children, aged about 7 to about 18, are not annoying or cutesy.

There is a depressingly stupid scene in which the kids dig up their buried mother so they can burn her on a pyre (yes) and then obey her other loony tunes last will and testament.  What the unstable mother has asked for is too grotesque and down-concept to characterize, but though we are given to understand that the kids loved their mentally unstable mother, they seem to revel in disposing of her ashes in the unholy way demanded.  Even these feral-ish kids could not have gone along with the writers' fond nonsense, however.

Aside from Langella, again, there is nary a true scene or narrative in the two hours.  Alas.  Even the movie's title is arch and assumes too much and is not tongue in cheek.  Somebody at a Hollywood meeting came up with the title, and no one thought, Hey, that is a bit of a reach, and it will set the viewers up for far more than they get.

It is a film that had promise.  Unfortunately, it was waylaid by writers too keenly set on spouting their socialist rants than being accurate to a fair dichotomy of city-bred life and community versus homeschooled bucolic upbringing.