And we’re back at it! After stepping back to review our journey with Greg Kinnear at the 25% mile marker, I’m eager to review more movies! I must say, I chose an abrasive change in style from my last GK movie (The Last Song) to the movie featured here, The Matador. I transitioned from the emotional, cheesy world of Nicholas Sparks to a somewhat raunchy black comedy. I jumped from Greg Kinnear as the dying father of Miley Cyrus to Greg Kinnear as a downtrodden businessman who befriends a hitman.
The starkness of this transition made one thing clear, something I would never have known about Greg Kinnear before starting this project: he loves starring in black comedies. He’s starred in at least five such movies (Nurse Betty, The Matador, Salvation Boulevard, Thin Ice, Murder of a Cat), and been downright terrific in Nurse Betty and The Matador. I’ve never loved black comedies, but Kinnear’s performances and the projects he chooses are stellar. In a previous post, I distinguished “Drama Greg” and “Comedy Greg” while admitting a preference for the latter. I’d now be remiss if I didn’t introduce a third and perhaps best GK hat; “Black Comedy Greg.” So, without further ado, “Black Comedy Greg” in The Matador.
The Matador (2005)
Richard Shepard wrote and directed The Matador, as is his customary practice for his four major movies. Shepard’s movies have an avid following in remote corners of the internet, and typically feature two male co-stars. Matador follows suit with Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear, and is a very atypical black comedy.
For one, The Matador draws heavy inspiration from Pedro Almodóvar, king of melodrama. Matador borrows the bright color palette, bullfighting scenes, and eroticism (albeit, toned-down) that are Almodóvar’s trademarks. (As an aside, this New Yorker profile of Almodóvar is well-worth your time. Almodóvar has made some fantastic films such as Mujeres, Volver, Todo Sobre Mi Madre, and Hable Con Ella, but he’s also made films I refuse to watch and been responsible for my most uncomfortable movie-going experience).
Additionally, The Matador bucks conventional templates of black comedy. Many black comedies are constructed around a theme that is generally taboo, and take that theme to excess. Think dating & monogamy in The Lobster. Other black comedies build a narrative of compounding situations that increase in craziness and incredulity, transforming the central character(s) into a person unrecognizable from the film’s outset. Think Greg Kinnear in Salvation Boulevard, Renée Zellweger in Nurse Betty or even Colin Farrell in The Lobster (these two templates are not mutually exclusive).
Neither of these templates readily apply to The Matador. There is no central theme, and not much happens. The movie has the typical set-up and conclusion, but the majority of Matador’s air time is comprised of two very-long sequences (one in Mexico City, one in Denver)–each consisting of a handful of very long scenes. Within this format, Kinnear and Brosnan get most of the screen time and the movie is a character study. The movie is built around the atypical relationship formed between the two characters, each at the end-of-their-ropes and each the foil of the other. So let’s talk characters first, and then the plot that links them.
Pierce Brosnan is not James Bond. Also, he’s gross.
Let’s get this out of the way, Brosnan is not a good actor. His Rotten Tomatoes page is filled with terrible movies. He’s often sleazy and grimy, and was unceremoniously dumped as James Bond in 2004. Releasing one year later, Matador finds Brosnan trying to reinvent himself–and the movie wisely uses Brosnan’s sleaziness to make him the anti-Bond. Brosnan plays a hitman on the decline. (I will now transition to using Brosnan as a reference to his character). After 20+ years in this line of work, he’s isolated, lonely, paranoid, and mentally unraveling.
While the quality of Brosnan’s work suffers (i.e., he lets victims live), his social interactions are also a mess. Years of isolation have left him without the ability to carry normal conversations, while years of visiting brothels have trained him to sexualize every relationship. The only fact viewers learn of Brosnan’s life–that his wife died in a car accident–turns out to be a lie. But hitmen don’t choose when they quit and this brings Brosnan to Mexico City for his next mark.
Greg Kinnear is Everyman.
Greg Kinnear’s character is your average joe. Scratch that, he’s better than your average joe. He married his high school sweetheart (Hope Davis) fourteen years ago. When they met in high school, Davis was an overweight, oft-bullied loner nicknamed Bean. Kinnear was the first to call her beautiful and they built a lovely life together in Denver. They share everything and their marital transparency is worthy of off-screen emulation. Greg worked for a successful design firm, and the two had a baby boy.
Then life took a dark turn. Their son died in a school bus accident, and a few years later GK was fired. Unable to find work, GK started a business with a partner (Adam Scott of Parks and Recreation) but that business never took off. GK and AS travel to Mexico City to meet with a client, whose business will make-or-break their firm and possibly Kinnear and Davis’s marriage. Greg’s non-verbal acting is on par with the best actors in the business, and his whole body language portrays desperation in the movie’s first act. “Desperate Greg” is our relatable guide through the movie’s sparse, but atypical plot.
The “meat” of The Matador is one extended sequence in Mexico City, primarily comprised of three slow-developing scenes. In the first, Brosnan and Kinnear meet in a hotel bar. This scene is one of conversational fits-and-starts, highlighting the extent of Brosnan’s social isolation. Brosnan is paranoid that Kinnear is an agent on his tail and responds aggressively. After this is smoothed over, Brosnan approaches a casual relationship the only way he knows how (sexually) and propositions Kinnear. This takes even more smoothing over, but their conversation progresses until Kinnear shares about the death of his son. Brosnan, in his immaturity, responds with a crude joke that offends Kinnear and “triggers” his exit. The scene is long, uncomfortable, but very sharply written.
In the second scene, Brosnan (after apologizing) takes Kinnear to a bullfight. Kinnear presses Brosnan about his career, and eventually Brosnan reveals he’s a hitman. Kinnear responds just as any male would–this is too preposterous to be true and therefore extremely exciting! Like a videogame or movie come to life. Kinnear chooses a fake mark and has Brosnan formulate a plan as to how he would kill the man. A welcome distraction from the desperation of his personal life, Kinnear excitedly plays along before panicking when Brosnan takes the plan too far (he stops just short of killing the man). Kinnear’s emotions of schoolboy excitement turned real-life panic are top-notch and this was probably the movie’s most exciting scene.
In the third scene, Brosnan tries to recruit Kinnear to help with a job but Kinnear adamantly declines. A drunk Brosnan later stands outside Kinnear’s hotel room apologizing profusely while Kinnear ponders opening the door. The screen fades to black and the movie flashes forward 6 months.
In the second major act, Kinnear and movie-wife Hope Davis are once again happy, and it’s inferred that he landed the business deal in Mexico City by having Brosnan eliminate his competitor. One night, Brosnan shows up at their house in Denver. What follows is perhaps the longest, and definitely the most uncomfortable scene, in the movie. Brosnan, Davis, and Kinnear get drunk together and the sexual tension in the air suggests trouble. Davis is a strong, independent woman disappointed that Brosnan is only packing a .38. Her knowledge of guns renders Kinnear an awkward third wheel which he makes clear by his expressions throughout this scene:
This scene is a brilliant piece of uncomfortable filmmaking and walks viewers right up to the edge of sexual misdeeds (i.e., Brosnan and Davis sharing a slow dance) before ending with no drama. Kinnear and Davis retire for the night…until Brosnan wakes Kinnear hours later to help him with a job–the last job Brosnan has been assigned before he’s “out.” Kinnear obliges, and shows the confidence Brosnan lacks by helping him complete the job. The movie has a few tricks up its sleeve, and ends with some solid twists that I’m not spoiling.
The Matador’s structure ultimately uses a character that’s exciting on paper (a hitman!) as a foil to show how great us ordinary folk have it. Kinnear may be just a businessman, but he can form intimate relationships (he’s blessed with an amazing wife), can call a place home, and doesn’t have dangerous strings attached to his income. Matador is a black comedy because it excels in very long, very uncomfortable scenes. I liked this atypical format, but I get if it it’s not your jam. Especially considering the sexual tension and raunchiness underlying Brosnan’s character.
However, Kinnear exemplifies extraordinary acting range–moving between desperation, schoolboy elation, third wheel incompetence, and confidence with aplomb. Even more impressive is how different this role was from his other black comedy role in Nurse Betty. Kinnear is the villain in Nurse Betty, but the good guy in The Matador. There, his smarmy charm gives way to an angry, narcissistic core. Here, his desperation gives way to escapism and incompetence before gaining confidence. “Black Comedy Greg” has unexpectedly become my favorite, and my Kinnear Meter ranking of Matador reflects that.
I leave you with two final fun facts. First, Brosnan may be Kinnear’s actor-bestie. Kinnear admits Brosnan’s “a very affable person.” The two are in at least three movies together (Matador, Salvation Boulevard, I Don’t Know How She Does It), which is the highest number of repeat appearances of GK with other actors that I’ve counted so far. An odd choice, but Brosnan and Kinnear may be besties irl.
Second, the mustaches in The Matador were Greg’s idea. They were not in the script, but I can’t image the movie without them. Brosnan’s mustache, which he sports throughout, accentuates his sleaziness. On the other hand, Kinnear’s mustache is only present in the Denver scenes (compare picture 1 to pictures 2 & 3). The clear implication is that Kinnear’s meeting Brosnan in Mexico City left such an impression on him that he grew a mustache. He’s basically a little kid dressing like his favorite action star. As we saw in Brigsby Bear with his chair work and here with his mustache work, Kinnear has great skill in improvisational prop work that demands recognition.
Next-up: Sticking with an action movie and seeing Kinnear team up with another of his buddies (Matt Damon), I’m watching Green Zone!
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