"Detachment" Features Impressive Cast Playing Cartoonish Roles

Adrien Brody in Detachment.
Tony Kaye

Adrien Brody stars as Henry Barthes, a career substitute teacher whose childhood trauma has left him flamboyantly unable to connect with other people or keep his shit together. The movie spans his monthlong gig at a Queens high school, where the faculty and students share an absurdly uniform collective malaise. Events range from the risible — our hero defuses a cartoonish thug with a few words about "getting" his pain — to the creepy, as when Barthes shacks up platonically with a teenaged hooker (Sami Gayle). The film establishes a drifting, narcotized visual tone that's effective, but the script brings out the worst in its impressive cast, notably James Caan, Marcia Gay Harden, and Lucy Liu. Brody is all tics. The movie's motives might be admirable, but its execution is so bogged down in impenetrable white-guy self-pity that the real problems facing public education and its practitioners get buried in the wallow.

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