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Movie review: Detachment

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Our urban schools are screwed up; our teachers are under siege and burnt out; and the parents of the children who cause the most problems are the least involved.

So what else is new?

If all this seems obvious to you, it apparently comes as a shock to filmmaker Tony Kaye, who has made an angry, pained movie about the subject called Detachment, which opens in limited release on Friday (3/16/12). He and screenwriter Carl Lund obviously are worked up about the subject, but don't have much to say that you haven't heard before.

His way into this little slice of hell on Earth is a substitute teacher, Henry Barthes, played with soulful restraint by Adrien Brody. Barthes is apparently the top sub in the system, but he relishes the impermanence, because he has few real connections in his life.

His new school has an all-star faculty, including Marcia Gay Harden as the principal (under siege by the school board because of her school's poor test scores), Lucy Liu and James Caan as guidance counselors, and Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson, William S. Petersen and Christina Hendricks as teachers. But, while Kaye occasionally lets us see the problems that each of these ancillary characters faces, they're icing on Brody's cake.

Barthes is - no surprise - a loner, who lives in a spartan studio apartment and whose only connection to the world seems to be his relationship with his grandfather (Louis Zorich), who he visits regularly in an assisted-living facility. In fragmented flashbacks, we learn that Barthes' mother commited suicide (in the nude, no less) when he was a child.

He also connects with an artistic outcast in his class and an underage hooker he meets on a bus one night. He takes the hooker in, but remains hands-off with her.

Indeed, he's hands-off with every one. In front of the classroom, he's actually an inspired and inventive teacher who seems to reach his kids. Otherwise, he's remote and closed-off, apparently in an effort to stave off the bad feelings that threaten to overwhelm him.

Kaye seems alternately to want to make an impressionist film and an expressionistic one. He litters the film with obvious animated chalkboard drawings and, when dealing with flashbacks, shifts to what looks like color-saturated home-movie film stock.

But his stylistic flourishes can't redeem Lund's preachy writing. He's outraged at the parents, he's outraged at the foul-mouthed and abusive teens - he's just plain outraged.

But there's little that's outrageous or involving about Detachment, beyond Brody's melancholy performance. It's more like a lecture about the failures of public education - at a time when it's being made worse by austerity-obsessed politicians. Make a movie about that, why don't you?

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