Movie Review: ‘Detachment’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Swinging wildly between screed and lament, “Detachment” doesn’t take much to tap into the raw emotions many people feel about the state of public education in the United States. Adrien Brody brings his offbeat brand of weary, roguish intensity to the role of substitute teacher Henry Barthes, a damaged empath whose commitment to a dispirited student body is admirable, while his bond to an underage prostitute (Sami Gayle) he tries to save carries worrisome shades of “Taxi Driver.”

Former teacher Carl Lund’s lost-souls screenplay has all the hallmarks of something issue-smart yet dramatically amateurish, which in the hands of filmmaker Tony Kaye (“American History X”) — not known for subtlety — certainly makes for emotional unpredictability.

“Detachment” is a movie you keep expecting to fizzle because of its punching-the-air gracelessness, but there’s something weirdly effective about the artistic desperation, which includes inserts of chalkboard animation and to-the-camera testimonials.

Eventually the movie’s accumulated details, especially the fine cameo splashes from Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks and Lucy Liu as fellow educators, culminate in an unmistakable sadness about one of our country’s worsening institutional tragedies.

“Detachment.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. At Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.