Boys do cry

Two movies this week touch on the, er, touchy issue of masculinity. The first, Stop-Loss, deals with a standard area in which men have traditionally been given leading roles: warfare. This invokes a complex set of resonances to do with patriotism, family, responsibility, comradeship and the opposition of courage and cowardice. The second movie, Pineapple Express, takes an altogether less serious view of masculinity (and everything else, really), but its send-up of bumbling stoners also has something to say on the topic.

Stop-Loss is directed by Kimberly Pierce, who made the powerful Boys Don’t Cry (1999), based on the true story of Brandon Teena, who was born female but passed as a man for some time in a small Nebraskan town. Clearly, Pierce is interested in gender and masculinity as issues. In that film she showed how dangerous it can be to transgress the traditional boundaries between male and female.

Her new movie is an equally powerful take on another emotive subject in the United States today: the treatment of soldiers fighting in the Iraq war. This is not a film about the war itself, and (like those Vietnam movies of yore) it worries more about how traumatised American soldiers are by the war rather than wondering how the Iraqis might be dealing with what is surely, for them, a greater social and personal trauma.

But, on its own terms, Stop-Loss is a strong and engrossing film. It deals less with war itself than how government and army policy makes it all so much worse for the foot soldiers. In that respect, it’s courageous and up-to-the-minute. A group of soldiers return to their home town after a stint in occupied Iraq, are treated like heroes, and then get “stop-lossed”: that is, although their tours of duty are officially over, the US government invokes the small print to send them back to the war zone once more.

The group’s leader is a dedicated, caring man who takes his being “stop-lossed” hard and finds what patriotic feelings he still has after Iraq now being finally destroyed by the army itself. He is played by Ryan Philippe, who is building a very solid portfolio of serious roles, done with concentration and depth; he did well in Flags of Our Fathers, and he extends such work here.

Philippe is given able support by Channing Tatum, who was seen not so long ago in the dance movie Step Up and its sequel, but since then appears to have been taking steroids by the fistful—he’s now double the size. Still, that’s okay for the role he plays: he’s the big brute who is, in a way, the ideal solider, except now he’s finding it hard to be anything else.

It is Joseph Gordon-Levitt who delivers the really punchy performance, though—perhaps that could have been expected, given his previous beautiful work in Mysterious Skin and The Lookout. Good though the likes of Philippe and Tatum are in Stop-Loss, Gordon-Levitt is the one who sucks your heart dry without appearing to be doing very much at all.

But there are, in fact, no dud performances in this movie, and it’s put together in a non-flashy way that lets the characters in it register as people. All feel entirely natural and real; this is a work of important social comment, reflecting parts of the American psyche back to itself. But it’s not important just because the issue is important, and it’s not a self-important movie; it’s a gripping, moving human drama that takes us into these people’s worlds and lives.

The ending is cause for controversy, but that’s good too; there is room in Stop-Loss for conflicting views, which makes it even richer. Few American movies (among those we get to see, at any rate) even try for this kind of honest, dramatic, meaningful movie-making.

By comparison, Pineapple Express is flimflam, but it’s rather funny flimflam. It’s about two stoners who stumble into a dangerous situation and find themselves being hunted by merciless killers. The title makes the film sound uncomfortably like a Wes Anderson picture, but, thank heavens, it isn’t; it refers not to some mode of ordinary conveyance, like The Silver Streak did, but to a particularly potent strain of dagga.

The stoners sold on this wild weed, and now in deep doo-doo, are the alliterative Dale Denton and Saul Silver, played by Seth Rogen and James Franco respectively. Rogen (who also scripted) isn’t doing much more than he did in Knocked Up, entertaining though that is; Franco is the real revelation as the hilariously dof dealer, Saul. This after playing such staunchly striving masculine roles as (I’ll stop with the alliteration now) the fighter pilot in Flyboys and the military cadet boxer in Annapolis, traditional heroic male figures that the square-jawed Franco carried off well without really being able to put much new spin on them.

Pineapple Express has the action thrills of an extended chase, as well as plenty of laughs. It seems like a comedy thriller, but it’s really a “bromance”—a romantic comedy for two straight men. It follows the usual romcom format of meet-cute, hit obstacles, bond in adversity, fight, break up, get back together, et cetera. These two bumblers are even called “bromosexuals” at one point, and it’s the perfect term. Here Pineapple Express is dealing with issues of friendship and masculine comradeship, as does Stop-Loss, but of course in a much lighter way. Dale and Saul are a Cheech and Chong for the 21st century, and long may they inhale.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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