LITTLE ROCK A Richard Shepard movie is the cinematic equivalent of a loud and goofy garage band that hasn't quite mastered the art of staying in tune but sometimes hits you right in the happy zone.
I'm willing to overlook the messiness and near incoherence of his movies - others I have in mind are 2005's The Matador and 1999's Oxygen, but I bet I'd also enjoy his (widely maligned in some quarters and by Shepard himself) 1991 film The Linguini Incident - because of the small moments of ecstatic glee they provide.
Which means a lot of people - who have good taste and care about movies - aren't going to get him. Which means that just about any exuberance could be taken for irrational. But even as my brain is forming objections to Shepard's clumsy plotting, over-the-top characters and absurdist flourishes, my heart is breaking from the visuals of the Sarajevo Olympic Village in ruins.
So I'm not going to talk about what's wrong with The Hunting Party, but about what's right, starting with the casting of Richard Gere as the gone-to-seed TV journalist Simon West, an apparent amalgam of war-zone correspondent Peter Arnett and charming con man Clifford Irving, who Gere portrayed in The Hoax.
As he has gotten older, Gere has slid, perhaps a little too comfortably, into shabby, desperate characters looking for redemption. You can feel his con right through the role; you never forget that this is what has become of People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive 1999. He doesn't even have to wink to evince a kind of conspiratorial solidarity with the audience, he doesn't expect you to buy what he's doing - to believe you're watching some down-onhis luck reporter on the comeback trail. All he expects - all he knows - is that you're comingalong on the ride with him.
The Hunting Party is very loosely based on Scott Anderson's article "What I Did on My Summer Vacation," which describes how five journalists went to Bosnia and nearly found Dr. Radovan Karadzic, one of the principal authors of the Bosnian genocide and allegedly the world's most-wanted war criminal. While at the outset of the film we're told that "only the most ridiculous parts of this story are true," the true parts aren't the only ones that strain credulity.
Shepard takes the bones ofthis absurd and hilarious story - Anderson and company go looking for Karadzic on a lark - and melodramatizes it into a serious expedition, with West hoping to collect a $5 million reward and report a career-restoring story by capturing a Bosnian war criminal called The Fox. Why others accompany him on what's obviously a half-baked mission comes under the rubric of those things I've said I'm notgoing to talk about, except to say slivovitz, ambition and a kind of crack-brained loyalty are involved.
Jesse Eisenberg is very good here as (shades of The Graduate) Benjamin, a TV network VP's son who needs to prove himself to himself. Terrence Howard isDuck (as in "don't forget to"), West's former cameraman/caddy/drinking buddy, a guy who abandoned the adrenaline and testosterone rush of the battlefield for a cushy Manhattan studio gig and is the only real adult in this group.
However implausible events seem, the good will engendered by the core cast - all of whom seem to have taken on Shepard's movie in the same spirit as the real journalists who went after Karadzic - is sufficient to hold our interest. And the political point - that perhaps the West isn't all that interested in bringing some war criminals to justice - is salient.
Irreverent, untidy and unabashedly sentimental, The Hunting Party is as smart about the masculine dynamic of bluff and dare as it is indifferent to questions of logic and plausibility. But Shepard is a director whose work always finds something like a signature tone. Maybe he hasn't got the greatest technique, but there's something like soul in his playing.
MovieStyle, Pages 43 on 10/12/2007