Tony Kaye’s “Detachment” is a scathing, in-your-face indictment of the public school system — a sweeping condemnation that encompasses teachers, parents, students and humanity in general. The pic, set in a high-school on its last legs, with a staff of administrators and educators near meltdown, features Adrien Brody as a gifted substitute teacher struggling to maintain the detachment that keeps him from slipping over the edge. The A-list cast and Kaye’s visceral, shock-tactic stylings won’t be able to overcome the relentless negativity; crossover appeal is nil in a pic likely to play only to an upscale urban demo.
The angst that Kaye and scripter Carl Lund pile on their hapless characters isn’t limited to work alone: Teacher Mr. Wiatt (Tim Blake Nelson) is not only ignored by his unruly class, but opens his own front door to become invisible to his television-fixated wife and computer-absorbed son. The abuse that principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) suffers at the hands of school officials more concerned with property values is compounded by her hubby’s Bryan Cranston) mocking support. And an overweight student (Betty Kaye, the helmer’s daughter), is subjected to an overwrought stream of vituperative put-downs by her pointedly off-screen father.
Still, no one in the pic suffers like Henry Barthes (Brody). His aged grandfather (Louis Zorich) is dying in a nursing home, and Barthes is plagued by flashbacks of his alcoholic mother — driven to suicide by grandpa’s dark secret.
To save 15-year-old prostitute Erica (Sami Gayle) from beatings, the empathetic Barthes gives her safe haven in his cramped apartment, where she swings from street-savvy suspicion to childish adoration in a heartbeat, with only Gayle’s fierce self-awareness saving the character from cliche.
Though set in the confrontational, urban guerrilla style of “Blackboard Jungle,” the film’s existential tropes (Barthes opens his class with a quote from Camus’ “The Stranger”) blunts the pic’s message, despite scattered sardonic potshots at Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy.
The passionate sincerity of cast and crew is unquestionable, as is their concern over the failure of education to prepare society-stunted kids to cope with a messed-up world. But scripter Lund, himself an ex-teacher, delivers a story that lacks nuance, and mixes badly with Kaye’s impatient edits, Dutch angles and extreme close-ups.
Brody is brilliant, but can’t save the Book of Job proceedings from tilting over into the ludicrous. The stellar supporting cast includes Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner and William Peterson. But James Caan plays the only character who escapes the miasmic pall, thanks to a wicked sense of humor.
An introductory verite barrage of snippets of black-and-white interviews reveals the hopelessness of real-life teachers, while a heartfelt diatribe in which an unshaven Brody directly addresses the camera, is interspersed at intervals throughout. Murderous animated blackboard doodlings of nooses, guillotines and the like pop up along the way.