Reporting from the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.
The kid’s a class clown. You get the sense he might have a learning disability, but Armageddon Time doesn’t make much of it. Just that he acts out at school, befriends the lone Black kid in the class, and incurs the disappointment of his parents and the belt.
He is Paul Graff (Michael Banks Repeta), a tween living in 1980 New York in a typical middle-class home with typical middle-class parents (Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway). At least, that’s how writer/director James Gray presents it. Armageddon Time is his memoir, “warts and all,” as he told the audience at the Telluride Film Festival. The warts are obvious: Dad wasn’t above a little corporal punishment, Mom didn’t have Paul’s back, and a Black kid will go to jail while the white kid walks free with dad. Because “the world isn’t fair,” Irving Graff (Strong) tells Paul. Why? Paul knows this—every child intimately experiences a lack of fairness. Gray knows this. The audience knows this. Why make this Armageddon Time’s grand revelation?
I’m getting ahead of myself. Before that, Paul learns valuable lessons from his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), a Ukrainian immigrant who escaped the thumb of the Nazis. He knows life isn’t fair, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it. Paul’s friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb) knows he’s been dealt a bum hand, but he doesn’t make a big deal about it either. Even after Paul, now transferred to the posh private school, refuses to be seen in public taking to Johnny. If this is Gray’s warts and all story, then maybe mea culpa would better describe Armageddon Time than memoir.
That boarding school also has a very special someone roaming the halls: Fred Trump (John Diehl). He stops Paul and asks him about the ancestry of his last name. Maryanne Trump (Jessica Chastain) gives a speech to the students. What importance this has on the narrative is beyond me. Speaking of politics, Armageddon Time has a scene with the family sitting around the TV shaking their head at the victory of Ronald Reagan. Reagan crushed sitting President Jimmy Carter in 1980. I don’t think this scene has anything to do with the movie; I think Gray just wants you to know his parents didn’t vote for Reagan.
Armageddon Time is a head-scratching disappointment. That a filmmaker with Gray’s talents could turn in something this inert, this bland, is baffling. Even the cinematography of Darius Khondji leaves much to be desired. Oh: The Clash song “Armagideon Time” plays on the soundtrack a couple of times for no real reason. “A lot of people won’t get no supper tonight / A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight,” sings Joe Strummer. Strummer didn’t write “Armagideon Time;” Jamaican reggae singer Willi Williams did. I don’t think this has anything to do with the movie; I just thought you’d like to know.
Armageddon Time will be released by Focus Features on Nov. 11, 2022.