Daily Archives: May 2, 2011



When the end credits began to scroll for the new documentary Project Nim, I rose from my seat to leave but found the aisle blocked by a young boy and his family.  I tapped the kid on his shoulder, made a slitting gesture across my throat, and said a single word to him:  “Dirty.”  The kid smiled, stood up to let me pass, and asked his parents to do likewise.

The kid and I had communicated like Nim Chimpsky, the “star” of Project Nim.  Nim, a chimpanzee born in captivity, was the subject of a famous – or infamous – scientific experiment that began in 1973 when a Columbia University behavioral psychologist and his students began a sort of English immersion project for Nim.  The idea was to place the chimp with a New York City family – husband, wife, kids and pets – and to raise the little fella exactly like a human infant.  The goal was to determine whether chimpanzees can learn language – not just symbols and memorization, but real grammatical communication.

Depending on whom you believe, the experiment did or did not go well.  After years living with the LaFarge family, Nim was transferred to a string of unpleasant new homes, including an animal medical research lab.

Project Nim is a remarkable movie.  It tells the sad story of Nim, certainly, but it also reveals a lot about the people in his world, including project leader Herbert Terrace, a man seemingly more interested in bedding female undergrads than in making good science and who, probably to his regret, allowed director James Marsh to interview him for this film.  There is very little humor in Project Nim, but the audience broke out in derisive laughter whenever the unctuous, clueless Terrace attempted to justify his self-centered behavior.

Some people love animals, and some do not.  I’d call myself a “dog person.”  I’m not all that crazy about other creatures, including cats, birds … and chimpanzees.  Face it:  Chimps grow monstrously strong, frighteningly aggressive and, as demonstrated in the movie, disturbingly horny.  Nim was no exception – he was no Old Yeller, and he wasn’t Bambi, either.

But when Nim is torn from his human environment and consigned to a lifetime of caged isolation, you have to be pretty cold-blooded not to feel for him.  One episode near the end of the film, when a former “family” member comes to visit Nim in his pen after years of absence, took me completely by surprise with its emotional power.

Oh, yeah.  You might be wondering about that business between the kid and me at the end of the movie; the boy who let me pass after I gestured at him and said, “Dirty.”  What was that about?  I could tell you, but I don’t want to.  You’ll have to see Project Nim to find out for yourself.        Grade:  A-




Director:  James Marsh  Release:  2011

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I’m guessing Hesher will look great in its promotional spots:  See zany Hesher, the long-haired, tattooed stoner, teach granny how to smoke a bong!  See Hesher freak out and hurl furniture, grills, and people into a swimming pool!  Watch as Hesher teaches dirty words to a little kid!

But here’s the problem:  People who buy tickets hoping to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the title character doing all of those wild-and-crazy things will get their wish, but they’ll probably be mildly disappointed, as well, because this movie wants nothing so much as to tug at the heartstrings, and as a mixture of comedy and drama, Hesher is a mess.  It’s an admirable, interesting misfire, but a misfire nonetheless.

The film has a cute premise.  Party animal Hesher meets 13-year-old TJ (Devin Brochu), invites himself into TJ’s home and life … and then refuses to leave.  This new arrangement does not bother TJ’s father (Rainn Wilson), a man so lost in grief over the car-accident death of his wife that everything escapes his notice, including the fact that he’s been staring glassy-eyed at Wild Kingdom on the TV screen for weeks.  TJ’s sweet-natured grandmother, played by Piper Laurie, takes an instant liking to her grandson’s new “best friend.”

Hesher turns out to be the anti-Mary Poppins for this family of three still reeling from the loss of the mother.  Rather than offer a spoonful of sugar, Hesher prescribes a bongful of weed for granny, and a crash course in arson for TJ.  That might sound amusing, but Hesher also tackles somber issues, like grief and schoolyard bullies, with clumsy shifts in tone.  It doesn’t help that 20-something Hesher’s “bond” with young TJ is less than convincing.  (Natalie Portman, cast against type as a bespectacled, accident-prone cashier, is surprisingly good.)

This mix of madcap stoner and mopey mourners might have looked good on paper (and in trailers), but Hesher is too often a kegger with flat beer.       Grade:  C+




Director:  Spencer Susser  Cast:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie, Devin Brochu, John Carroll Lynch, Brendan Hill  Release:  2011


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