Goodbye Solo and X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Goodbye Solo, 2009. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, written by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi. Starring Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West, Diana Franco Galindo, Mamadou Lam, and Carmen Leyva.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2009. Directed by Oscar-winning hack Gavin Hood, and written by David Benioff and Skip Woods (both of whom have written such trite garbage that you wonder how it can be called writing). Starring Hugh Jackman, Danny Huston (please stop wasting your career), Liev Schrieber (ditto), a non-entity named Will i Am, Lynn Collins, Kevin Durand, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, Daniel Henney, and Scott Adkins. Very few of these people will go on to do anything of value, ever.

You might ask yourself: what in the hell could Ramin Bahrani’s modest Goodbye Solo have to do with the mighty, mighty extravaganza that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Aside from the fact that on this bright and sunny May Day, the start of when Hollywood shifts in its cave like a bear emerging from its winter slumber and unleashes its blockbusters, both Solo and Wolverine open here in Minneapolis. But aside from their debuts, it is apparent from watching both that they’re about superheroes, fighting and struggling to maintain order, and bring peace and harmony to the world.

Goodbye Solo, may not seem like the stuff of DC and Marvel flights of fancy, but it features a man who does such heroic acts of kindness that you might find yourself wondering if you, too, can fly in the world of human suffering as he does. While Wolverine which gives us plenty of CGI flights, makes you only wonder why you waste your time at these things, and aren’t out connecting with fellow human beings.

Goodbye Solo opens abruptly. Without any lead-up, we are thrust into a taxi, where the splenetic William (Red West, who gives a rich, assured performance) is arguing with his driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane, also spot-on). William is trying to shove a hundred bucks into Solo’s hand as a down-payment for a future fare: in two weeks’ time, he wants Solo to drive him the couple hundred miles from his apartment there in Winston-Salem to North Carolina’s Blowing Rock National Park.

The rock is an incredible place, a geological and meteorological anomaly where, at the summit, you can throw things off and because of the rushing wind, they blow right back up. William is not meeting anyone there, and is not planning on coming back. For a grand, Solo needs to be his driver. “God damnit,” William barks as Solo peppers him with questions, “Do we have a deal or not?”

They have a deal, all right. But Solo won’t simply take the money, carry out William’s wishes, and then carry on with his life. He cares, and right away. For Solo, William is a man, a fellow human being, part of his community, and someone worth saving. No matter how long he’s known the man.

This is all the more remarkable because Solo is in not in the best of shape himself. Mr. Souleymane is trying desperately to move up in the world, to become a flight attendant, simply to have a bit more money and more opportunity for his soon-to-be-newborn child, and his stepdaughter and girlfriend. In fact, at the end of the movie you realize that Solo has quite a few more troubles than William.

Solo is the embodiment of the American dream: a Senegalese immigrant, he is untiring in seeking out opportunity, but he’s not a jerk about it–he’s just unjudgmental, driving drug dealers if the need arises. And caring along the way.

That Solo sets aside his troubles for a stranger is what makes him a remarkable man. William, for his part, is a very real man, not some sad sack for whom Solo, and by extension the audience, learns a Valuable Life Lesson. No, William is a determined man, and one who often comes to find Solo a real pest.

Director Ramin Bahrani directs Goodbye Solo with considerable restraint–more so, unfortunately, than the company responsible for the trailer, which is treacly and utterly misses the point. Goodbye Solo is a movie about hope, hope for people, hope for America. Here we see a land that is not only enriched financially and culturally by immigrants, but one that perhaps needs the likes of Solo to recharge its optimistic kindness, its concern for community.

I dare say that in a country that is so excitable about its Christianity, it is this man, Solo, who truly embodies the spirit of Christian living, embracing this stranger as if he were his own brother. Nothing is easily solved in Goodbye Solo, and this gives the movie considerable impact, following you for days after viewing. William’s plight is not a simple plot device, but comes across as the secret plan of a desperate man, one that he has been cultivating and pondering for quite a long time, and one that a man like Solo, a stranger, will not easily undo.

Solo and William are different people with different agendas, whose paths cross and who will offer up large and small kindnesses (and some cruelties) in their time together. This is not a movie where life’s lessons are hammered into your skull: in the end, the men learn from one another, but the lessons are slight, yet resonant. Bahrani and screenwriter Bahareh Azimi seem to be telling us that caring for a fellow human being is its own reward, even if your concern doesn’t amount to much. It is this genuine goodwill that makes life, even a hard life like Solo’s, worth living.

Goodbye Solo disturbed me. It disturbs me as life often does, with its messy endings, its inability to go where I want it, its melancholy, wonder, and moments of startling, and unexpected beauty. It helps that it was made by someone as caring as Ramin Bahrani, and cast with such wonderful actors.

Which leads us, unfortunately, to the mess that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Much has been made about the rising star that is Goodbye Solo’s director Ramin Bahrani, but thus far he has yet to get the opportunities of the apish Gavin Hood, director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Hood won an Oscar directing the lamentable Tsotsi, and followed that with the over-earnest Rendition, two movies that no one needs to see, ever.

Well, now this goof gets to round out this franchise, which once had some potential, oh so long ago. I’m not going to bore you with the details of this sorry plot, except to say that it is as the title promises, a tale that explains the origin of the metal knives that come springing out of Wolverine’s hands when his dander is up.

Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine, and he helped produce this movie and seems, from press accounts, to have a lot invested in it, financially and emotionally. Having watched the movie, my first strong reaction to Jackman’s concern is to wonder if he is not literally an idiot. A second, more charitable notion is that he has observed and compared the box-office take of the X-Men movies and the rest of his oeuvre, and he and his accountant came to an agreement that its OK to make such garbage with checks as big as these.

Whatever. But I ask you to harken back to last summer’s Iron Man, a silly, ridiculous, and utterly entertaining product that showed a modicum of imagination and a desire to genuinely entertain a jaded audience. It would take pages and pages of text to dive deep into Wolverine’s many laughable plot twists, its horrible acting, its redundancies (there must be three different instances of Wolverine and Sabretooth, his brother, growling and running at one another to fight, and it’s boring the first time), but just know that I do enjoy a good popcorn-y blockbuster like Iron Man because I feel like someone actually tried.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is about Hugh Jackman making enough money to keep his other sorry projects afloat. It’s a TARP program for his sorry career. I’m not entirely certain how you’d characterize the X-Men, if they’re heroes, or just a plot device that allows writers to shove busty women into tight clothes, give shallow characters fun tricks that really don’t do much than blow things up. The first two, considered the best, put our heroes in positions where they really were protecting themselves, and the human world only came into focus in the pursuit of mutant harmony, and after much handwringing.

Much was made of the idea that the X-Men were a metaphor for racism. The problem is, you can take virtually any movie that is truly about racism in real life and it has about a thousand times more impact. At least the first X-Men had decent actors and a coherent narrative arc.

So ignore X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Shy away from the blockbuster this weekend, wait until the summer rolls in and there’s better, more original choices. Goodbye Solo is, in fact, a superhero movie, about trying to save the life of a man, a man you and I probably see every day of our lives, in every town in America. That is, a lonely, sad, depressed old man (or woman, or young person) who feels as if they’ve been let down by life and have in turn let down others. Their pain exceeds Wolverine’s by miles and miles and miles.

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