Far too many adults, in far too many rooms, have far too many repetitive conversations about the arcane ins-and-outs of EU policymaking in Costa-Gavras’ maddeningly unfocused “Adults in the Room.” Amounting as much to a hagiography of erstwhile Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (solidly played by Christos Loulis) as a very long-exposure snapshot of the closed-door 2015 negotiations when Greece attempted to revisit the disastrous terms of its EU debt repayment program, the film is worthily intended, meticulously researched and very dull. “I know you’re tired of this Greek drama — so are we Greeks!” quips Yanis at one point and if the play on “Greek drama” is as close as the movie gets to a bona fide joke, it is also a wild overstatement. Events here barely feel dramatized at all, let alone to the point that anyone kills his father or sleeps with his mother.
Apart from Yanis, whose thinly sketched wife is played in a handful of scenes by the ubiquitous Valeria Golino, do any of these gray men in beige conference rooms even have mothers or fathers or lives external to these interminable meetings? As far as Costa-Gavras’ screenplay is concerned, they do not. Instead these characters, whose basis on real people provides only an initial glimmer of interest, and then only for the more dedicated EU governance groupie, mostly act as repositories for intricate, stonewalling arguments of escalating callousness, to which Varoufakis can respond with correspondingly escalating integrity (the script was based on his book, and on time the veteran Greek-French director spent discussing the project at his house).
The span of time covered in the film, though it feels like eons, is only a few months. It runs from the January 2015 election that put the left-wing Syriza party in charge of an awkward coalition with the right-wing populist Independent Greeks, and installed Alexis Tsipras (Alexandros Bourdoumis) as prime minister, up to the July referendum. This was held to determine the will of the people in relation to defaulting on Greece’s debt and risking expulsion from the EU, or agreeing to the terms of the ruinous MoU (memorandum of understanding). It corresponds to the period of Yanis’ being minister for finance and one of the most high-profile member’s of Tsipras’ inner circle, traveling from Athens to Brussels to Paris to London to Frankfurt to Berlin to Riga to meet with the same group of international adversaries, none of whom will readily support his alternate proposals to rescue Greece from its precipitous economic decline into debt slavery, no matter what they may say to the lurking press outside.
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His chief antagonist, it emerges, is the wheelchair-bound Wolfgang Schäuble (Ulrich Tukur), Germany’s finance minister under Angela Merkel. Schäuble refuses to budge an inch on the MoU, and though Yanis’ articulacy and acumen seem to win him brief support from other big players, such as Christine Lagarde (Josiane Pinson), head of the International Monetary Fund, when it comes to decisions, they end up falling in line with Schäuble, time and again. And again. And again.
Of course, the frustrating, unfair circularity of this whole process is very much the point that Costa-Gavras wants to make, but dramaturgically it traps us, along with Yanis, in a never-ending series of arguments about whether the word “adjustment” is better than “amendment” and the passing of phones and pieces of paper, all staged in two-shot conversations or round-table discussions whose visual potential is quickly exhausted by DP Yorgos Arvanitis. In terms of filmmaking flourishes, the closest we get is an inexplicable semi-dissolve montage when Alexis mentions feeling like “a swordfish being reeled in and let out, reeled in and let out” and a truly bizarre finale in which Tsipras’ thought processes leading him to disregard the results of the referendum and sign the MoU are told through the medium of a dance number with look-alikes of the European heads of state. Elsewhere, the film looks indifferent to the point of banal, and even Alexandre Desplat’s initially pleasant score starts to grate, with its Greek folk-music motif insistently reminding us of a Greekness we are in no danger of forgetting.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity, though, is that “Adults in the Room” should be such a claustrophobic view of as politically and socially turbulent a few months as Greece has seen in the modern era. The chilling advance resonances of the threatened “Grexit” go untapped. The psychology of the major players goes unexamined. And for all the talk of “the people,” those driven to starvation, unemployment and destitution by the austerity measures forced on the nation are scarcely even glimpsed. The adults can stay where they are, but the film needs badly to get out of the room.