Movie Review: A Filmmaker Remembers a Childhood Troubled by his own hand — “Armageddon Time”

You can hand it to director James Gray, who gave us “The Immigrant,” “Ad Astra” and “The Yards,” for presenting a portrait of a childhood which he himself seemed to make “troubled.”

His autobiographical “Armageddon Time” will prove to be an interesting contrast to Steven Spielberg’s more star-crossed “Fabelmans” childhood. Mainly because the hero is a self-absorbed, distracted jerk who has to go through some things to have a prayer of being a better person.

But it’s an oddly unaffecting odyssey, and that’s only partly due to its obnoxious sixth grade aspiring artist/protagonist Paul Graff, played by Michael Banks Repeta.

There’s messaging about the discrimination and escape-from-death his family faced in Europe — convoluted, disorganized recollections delivered with warmth or vehemence by Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as the kid’s doting grandpa. But the overall feel of the film is disconnection and distance.

Set in 1980, Gray goes out of his way to show these New York Jews mocking Reagan and shaking their heads over the direction the country takes in electing him. Members of the Trump family are involved in the private school young Paul is shipped off to when his disinterest, attempts at public classroom comedy and carrying on with his “held back” Black classmate James (Jaylin Webb, quite good) cause him to fail.

“Armageddon” plays like a semi-organized collection of anecdotes, not really pointing towards an epiphany. It’s a little “Basketball Diaries,” a smidge of “The Graduate” and a heaping helping of Barry Levinson’s far more sentimentalized childhood reverie “Avalon,” which was also built around lots of extended family dinners. Here, those are full of bickering, joking and acting out.

Paul is picked on by his older brother (Ryan Sell), indulged by the mother (Anne Hathaway, quite good) who has him in public school for principled and selfish reasons. She’s works, is president of the PTA, and wants to run for school board. Paul’s dad (Jeremy Strong), an appliance repairman, runs hot to cold. He’s got finite limits to just how much nonsense he’s going to put up with from his kids.

Paul refers to his family as “rich” to his classmates. They’re not. He’s a finicky eater, and leaps from the table in the middle of a family dinner he’s rejected to call in an order of Chinese dumplings over his mother’s money complaints and his father’s rising ire that ends up exploding in front of the whole family.

The film can feel like an attempt at atonement by its writer/director. If he was like this as a kid, that’s an interesting shame to carry around with you.

All Paul wants to do is draw. Caricaturing his new teacher, Mr. Turkeltaub, as a turkey, may get a laugh. But that’s what puts him in the “problem” category with his older classmate James.

Next thing we know, they’re ducking out of a class trip to the Guggenheim — where Paul is quite taken with the Kandinskys — to cruise the subway.

Paul picks up on something about James. He’s singled-out in class for abuse by a teacher who has lost interest in helping him, perhaps out of racism. Paul identifies with this, and his grandfather’s lessons about the pogroms grandma fled and the discrimination he didn’t escape when they left Europe. The kid kind of, sort of, takes his first steps towards being a “mensch.”

There’s not a lot that’s novel in these recollections. Even his beats-him-with-a-belt father repeats a credo that generations of parents have tried to live up to. Dad doesn’t want his distracted, “in the clouds” kid to be “just like” him.

“I want you to be a whole lot better than me.”

We don’t need someone meant to be Trump patriarch Fred lecturing the newcomer at Forest Manor Prep that “You respect for the uniform reflects your respect for the school,” or hear another Trump (Jessica Chastain) point out that these private scion of the (mostly) elite are destined to earn, innovate and rule everybody else.

Young Repeta manages a sort of insecure cocksureness at times. He’s not great in the part, more of a placeholder, someone to bask in everybody else’s light whenever he’s paired up with any other character.

Kids smoking a J in the boys’ room, parents quarreling over a “bad” kid, playing hooky, that one teacher who encourages you, life and death and a future destined to be ruined, Paul faces some hard truths about himself as he shows sympathy but can’t fight his indulged, destructive impulses.

Not all of “Armageddon Time” — it takes its title from Reagan selling a TV interviewer that Evangelical Right talking point about immoral “end times” — is recycled sentiment. But it feels certainly feels that way. And the fact that it comes out just ahead of filmmaker Spielberg’s 1960s similar but but more starry-eyed childhood remembered, “The Fabelmans” just underscores that.

Rating: R, Some Drug Use Involving Minors|profanity

Cast: Michael Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jaylin Webb, Jeremy Strong, Tovah Feldshuh and Anthony Hopkins.

Credits: Scripted and directed by James Gray. A Focus Features release.

Running time: 1:54

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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