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Armageddon Time (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 13, 2022


Starring Banks Repeta, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Anthony Hopkins, Jaylin Webb, Ryan Sell, Tovah Feldshuh, Dane West, Landon James Forlenza, Andrew Polk, Richard Bekins, Jacob MacKinnon, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Diehl, Jeb Kreager, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Lauren Sharpe, John Dinello, Griffin Wallace Henkel, Jen Weissenberg and Jessica Chastain.

Screenplay by James Gray.

Directed by James Gray.

Distributed by Focus Features. 115 minutes. Rated R.

Screened at the 2022 Philadelphia Film Festival.

Sometimes you see a movie which is so obviously a labor of love, a story in which an artist is allowing some personal glimpse into their own past, that it’s sort of strange to acknowledge that the story is nowhere near as important to you as to the person who made it.

In theory, Armageddon Time should resonate for me. It’s about growing up an artistic Jewish outcast with a big, eccentric family on the outskirts of a big city (in this case, in Queens, New York), in the early 1980s. I know kids like Paul Graff (Banks Repeta). In many ways, I was a kid like Paul Graff.

So why doesn’t Armageddon Time really work for me?

I’m not sure exactly. Perhaps it is the fact that the film is very oddly paced. Perhaps it is because much of the acting is mannered and a bit over the top. Perhaps it is because the story doesn’t really have enough meat on the bones to intrigue. Perhaps it is because the lead character does some really stupid things. Perhaps it is because its moral is heavy-handed and not particularly surprising or insightful.

Perhaps it is because despite the fact that they did a good job with era-appropriate props and wardrobe, it never really feels like it is taking place in 1980. Perhaps it is because there is absolutely no reason for this story to be called Armageddon Time other than the fact that the filmmakers wanted to use the Clash song of essentially the same title (“Armagideon Time”) in the soundtrack – which I suppose may be a good enough reason. Perhaps it is because there are two unnecessary cameo appearances by actors playing members of the Trump family. (More on that later.)

Whatever it is, I wanted to like Armageddon Time much more than I did.

The movie was written and directed by James Gray (whose last film was the similarly underwhelming sci-fi drama Ad Astra) and is apparently loosely based on his life.

It is a story of racism, anti-Semitism and white privilege in a highly WASPy section of Queens at the literal birth of Reaganomics. (The 1980 presidential election is a constant backdrop for the action and a late scene has the Graff family mournfully watching Reagan sweep into the White House with a landslide victory.)

Paul is one of the few Jewish kids in his school. His best friend Johnny (Jalyn Webb) is one of the few Black people. Both deal with discrimination throughout, and yet in the long run Paul is at least partially shielded by his white privilege to the point that he mostly gets away with things that Johnny often gets blamed for. This is doubly concerning because often Paul is the instigator of the trouble, but Johnny seems to be the one always getting punished.

Not that he is completely blameless either. In the early 1980s if some student told his teacher to fuck himself – twice – in the course of a class like Johnny does here, he would at the very least be suspended. However, in Paul’s constant attempts to escape his family life – a life that is mostly pretty cushy, to be honest – Paul keeps coming up with wild schemes and Johnny is the one who inevitably pays.

Yes, Paul stands out in his horribly white bread neighborhood, a haven of class and snootiness, but he can basically blend in. Johnny has no such option.

Of course, Gray has found an odd way of demonstrating the small-mindedness of the neighborhood, arguably the best-known inhabitants of the borough, the Trumps.

Strangely, they found it important enough to get an A-list actress like Jessica Chastain to do a single cameo scene – playing former judge Maryanne Trump, of all people. Adding to the craziness, Chastain was a replacement, apparently Cate Blanchett was originally tapped for the role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts. That’s two Oscar-caliber actors who were going to be brought in for a single speech – a nice enough speech, I guess, but still…

Not only that, but John Diehl also has a few scenes as family patriarch Fred Trump, oozing unctuousness and malice. Luckily, son Donnie was nowhere to be found. However, even if Gray did grow up amongst Trumps, which I assume is the point of this little side venture, it leaves an oily sheen on the film.

It’s just one of many misfires which makes Armageddon Time a disappointing indulgence.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: November 3, 2022.

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