A kid, his grandfather and 1980s New York

James Gray’s Armageddon Time will be like taking a journey in a time machine that will transport you back to New York in the 1980s.

 SCENES FROM ‘Armageddon Time’ with Anthony Hopkins.  (photo credit: YES/FOCUS FEATURES)
SCENES FROM ‘Armageddon Time’ with Anthony Hopkins.
(photo credit: YES/FOCUS FEATURES)

For some viewers – and I count myself among them – watching James Gray’s Armageddon Time, which opened throughout Israel on January 26, will be akin to taking a journey in a time machine that will transport them back to New York in the 1980s.

It opens in a time when Ronald Reagan was still a presidential candidate prone to making apocalyptic remarks, one of which gives the movie its title. Armageddon Time is an often sharply observed coming-of-age drama about a Jewish tween trying to figure out who he is and how the world works and watching as the adults around him make nearly every possible mistake. It’s so good in many parts that you will leave frustrated it wasn’t better in others.

Good in many parts

At the beginning, Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) starts off his first day of sixth grade in the local public school in his middle-class Queens neighborhood on the wrong foot when he is caught having made a remarkably accomplished caricature of his teacher. Forced to sit out a rather hellish-looking gym class as punishment, this aspiring artist bonds with another troublemaker, Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb), a handsome, self-confident African-American kid who’s already been left back a year and dreams of becoming an astronaut.

The experience leads them to become friends and soon Johnny, who lives mostly unsupervised with his ailing grandmother, starts teaching Paul his street-smart ways, which are often a lot of fun but occasionally get them both into trouble. But this relationship, which the director seems at times to want to situate at the center of the movie, is just one among several plots.

What works best in the movie is the look at his assimilated but strongly Jewish family. His father, Irving (Jeremy Strong), repairs heaters and often seems angry, both at the world and at himself for not being more successful. His mother (Anne Hathaway), is affectionate and sometimes is a real advocate for him, while at other times, she seems to smother him with a love so strong he doesn’t know what to do with it. She is a home economics teacher who can engage in a push-and-pull with him that will be familiar to many mothers and sons and is nicely dramatized in the family dinner where he defies her by ordering Chinese food after she prepares a nutritious meal he doesn’t like.

 SCENES FROM ‘Armageddon Time’ with Anthony Hopkins.  (credit: YES/FOCUS FEATURES) SCENES FROM ‘Armageddon Time’ with Anthony Hopkins. (credit: YES/FOCUS FEATURES)

There is also his grandmother (Tovah Feldshuh) and Aunt Ruth (Marcia Haufrecht) but the character you will remember and enjoy the most is Paul’s grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). In spite of an accent that sometimes seems as if he spent a few years in Britain on his way from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island, two-time Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins steals the movie out from under the noses of a wonderful cast, including many cute kids. He is the grandfather we all dreamed of – and some of us actually had – who brings his grandson a rocket to celebrate the first day of sixth grade and gives wise advice as they set it off in a park in the shadow of the old World’s Fair grounds.

Be a mensch

Before it launches, he advises Paul to “be a mensch” when he hears classmates in the new private school he has been sent to (which was founded by Donald Trump’s father, Fred, who is a character in the film) making racist remarks. The scenes with Paul and his grandfather are what you will remember when the movie is over, and not surprisingly, they dominate the publicity stills for the movie.

THE RACISM that his grandfather warns him not to take part in is one of the themes that connects all the parts of the movie, which shows how even a white kid from a modest background has a far easier time than his black classmate. While some of his family members make racist remarks themselves, most are more liberal, but they still can’t do much to help Johnny when the chips are down. “Life is unfair,” his father tells him.

One major way that life is unfair when you are a child, this movie reminds us, is that you are at the whim of very fallible adults at every moment and in every arena. Paul cannot convince his parents that he has gotten into trouble in his public school due to a mistake that he could have made anywhere and that being moved into an expensive and pretentious private school won’t solve any of his problems.

He is simply exiled to this new school against his will and then predictably acts out, in a sequence that recalls the moment in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (the movie against which all adolescent coming-of-age films will be measured forever) when its hero takes an irrevocable step in lashing out against the establishment but which seems to make perfect sense to him at that time.

Another thing the movie really gets right is the centrality of the family’s Jewish identity, along with the inconsistencies surrounding this identity. When a character dies, a shiva is held but Paul and his brother are kept out of it and are discouraged from showing their grief in a very American way. But Nazis are much discussed and his opinionated aunt who went off to Europe after World War II to help Holocaust victims in a displaced persons camp is venerated.

James Gray, a name that sounds not unlike Paul Graff, is an acclaimed director who has made such films as Ad Astra, The Yards and Two Lovers and whose movies often premiere at Cannes (as did Armageddon Time, in the main competition) and often turns to his native New York for inspiration. This is his first clearly autobiographical movie and given that it is being released around the world so soon after Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, will inevitably draw comparisons, but this is a very different film, grittier, more like a series of snapshots than Spielberg’s polished canvas. This is not a criticism of Armageddon Time, rather a description of its tone.

The problem with the film is not the tone or the terrific performances by all the actors, who reminded me of real people I grew up with in New York, but a script that sometimes meanders. There were many moments when I expected plot threads to tie together but one story would just trail off. For example, when Paul and Johnny ditch their school trip to the Guggenheim Museum and have fun in Manhattan, I expected there would be some fallout from his school and punishment from his parents but nothing happened. There were other moments like this and they became distracting.

I was looking forward to this movie since I read about it and while I wanted to love it and I enjoyed much about it, I left disappointed. This is not to say it isn’t worth seeing but it isn’t the brilliant coming-of-age story about New York that I was hoping for. I suspect that someone without my personal connection to this material will find it even less compelling than I did.