‘Armageddon Time’: Story of a volatile boyhood is often likable, but the boy isn’t
Highly personal period piece suffers from a sometimes bratty hero and some heavy-handed messaging.
The majestic Anthony Hopkins nearly saves the well-intentioned but dour and heavy-handed American family portrait film “Armageddon Time” in a single, elegantly constructed scene in which Hopkins’ family patriarch, Aaron, is in the park with his grandson Paul (Banks Repeta), who tells Grandpa at his new private school, “Sometimes kids say bad words about the Black kids.”
“What do you do when that happens?” asks Grandpa Aaron.
“Obviously nothing, of course.”
“You think that’s smart? Next time those schmucks say anything bad about those kids, you’re gonna say something. You’re gonna be a mensch, OK?”
Focus Features presents a film directed by James Gray. Rated R (for language and some drug use involving minors). Running time: 114 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.
Grandpa then tells Paul to give him a “firm handshake” and a hug, while in the distance, Paul’s mother and Aaron’s daughter, Esther (Anne Hathaway), sits in the car, overcome with emotion — because she knows something about her father’s health that hasn’t yet been conveyed to Paul, who worships his grandfather.
It’s a simple yet complex and beautifully executed scene, and it speaks to the strength of “Armageddon Time,” writer-director James Gray’s Truffaut-esque and deeply personal work about growing up as the descendant of Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1980, on the cusp of the Reagan years. There are times when this film feels absolutely real and lived-in, as when Paul’s extended family gathers for dinners where everyone talks at once and nobody is listening, and you can feel the tensions but also the enduring and abiding love at the table. Unfortunately, Gray’s central young character isn’t as sympathetic or likable as the talented filmmaker must have intended, and the constant lecturing about white guilt among liberals is delivered in all caps, with exclamation points.
Young Banks Repeta does a fine job tackling a heavy load as the central figure in Gray’s story: one Paul Graff, who is about to start his first day of school as a Queens sixth grader at P.S. 173, where Paul is more interested in drawing comic-book characters and clowning around than paying attention to the rigid Mr. Turkeltaub (Andrew Polk), one of those Movie Teacher characters who seems to hate children and the very idea of real education. Paul makes fast friends with fellow mischief-maker Johnny (Jaylin Webb), a Black student who is bused into school every day — but time and again, it’s Johnny who takes the fall whenever the two get into trouble, in or out of school. As Johnny’s hot-tempered father Irving (Jeremy Strong) says after one such incident for which Paul will get away scot-free, “Be grateful when you get a leg up. You make the most of your break and do not look back.”
This is a constant theme in “Armageddon Time,” as Paul’s family speaks of the struggles of the Jewish people and the history of hatred and persecution of the Jews, even as some of them wave off casual racism in their own community. It’s a lot for an 11-year-old to process, but Paul is written as a naïve, impetuous and often downright bratty kid, especially in his treatment of his loving mother, who seems overwhelmed by a life that entails teaching home economics and trying to run an overcrowded and loud household. She’s dealing with a husband who believes in the belt as a tool of discipline, an older son (Ryan Sell) whose bullying of Paul goes beyond normal big-brother stuff, and Paul, who openly disobeys her and hates his life so much he’s planning to run away with Johnny, who is essentially homeless and increasingly desperate to skip town.
“Armageddon Time” takes a bizarre turn when Paul’s family sends him to private school, where on his first day he’s cornered by Donald Trump’s father, Fred (John Diehl) I kid you not, who looks and acts like Vincent Price in a horror movie, questions Paul about his REAL last name and hustles Paul into a school assembly, at which Mary Trump (Jessica Chastain) proclaims, “In this institution, you can be anything you want to be. It won’t be because of a handout. It’ll be because you earned your way there.” Now THAT’S rich.
Writer-director Gray (“Ad Astra”) and the production design team and cinematographer Darius Khondji perfectly capture the 1980 time period, from the sets to the clothes to the snippets of Ronald Reagan on TV, campaigning for the presidency and then celebrating his landslide victory on Election Night, as Paul’s family looks on in disbelief. The cast is excellent, with Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Anne Hathaway doing true character work, and “Succession” star Jeremy Strong demonstrating once again he can disappear into a wide variety of characters.
Alas, I found Paul’s antics more frustrating and exasperating than endearing, and the steady drumbeat of messaging about institutional racism at the school, at a police station and in and around the Graff family, becomes more tiresome than enlightening. The best intentions, even from such a fine filmmaker, don’t always translate to the best movies.