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"The Immigrant" takes a bite of the (rotten) Big Apple

James Gray shows audiences a side of New York that "Gatsby" didn't

No, "The Immigrant" is not a Ted Cruz biopic. Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

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You're going to leave your homeland. A hostile nation invaded. There's a potato famine. Your government's corrupt. An insane dictator runs the show. Whatever your reasons, you're in luck. Far across the sea, there's a fabled land of freedom and opportunity called America. The whole world's tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free are welcomed there with open arms. If ever there was a place where you could start a new life, America must be it.

In director James Gray's The Immigrant, Ewa Cybulksi (Marion Cotillard) and her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), arrive at Ellis Island in 1921, intent on pursuing the fabled "American Dream." Their plans get derailed when Magda is denied entry and quarantined due to a lung disease and Ewa is nearly deported because of alleged prostitution on the very ship that brought her to New York. The mysterious Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) gets Ewa out of trouble and into a dancing gig in his Bandits' Roost Theater where she can earn money for her sister's treatment.  There's just one catch: Bruno's dancers dance vertically and horizontally. It's far from the glamorous new life Ewa imagined, but it's a means to an end.

Ewa sells her body, and Bruno gets by through his smalltime criminal enterprises. Bruno's cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) - aka "Orlando the Magician" - survives by his wits and charm, parlaying both into a career as a harmless, wholesome vaudeville entertainer. Of course, it's all but impossible to make your way in the city's grungy underbelly without getting your hands dirty, no matter what path you take.

Cotillard and Phoenix have amazing chemistry, playing two battered and hardened people caught up in a tangled web of loathing, lust, loyalty and - as perverse as it may sound - maybe even love. Sometimes you forget you're watching a prostitute and her pimp and not a quarrelsome couple.

Renner proves he has the chops to tackle a dramatic role when he's not playing superheroes or secret agents. Renner's Emil is a magician whose greatest trick is serving as a beacon of hope to the hopeless despite his audience knowing full well that it's all just parlor tricks and sleight-of-hand. It might be a little "on the nose", but his performance really is magical.

Production design is absolutely breathtaking. Last year's The Great Gatsby showed audiences a hyper-stylized New York City in all of its glitz and glamor at the height of the "Roaring Twenties" and backed with the dulcet tones of Lana Del Ray. The Immigrant shows us that same New York in all of its grit and grime and backed with the sounds of consumptives coughing and street urchins crying. Myriad subtle design touches all work together to create a Big Apple gone rotten in every conceivable sense.

The Immigrant doesn't have any clear-cut heroes, villains or damsels-in-distress; just people driven to do heroic, villainous or distressing things in order to survive in an America and that doesn't quite live up to the brochure.

THE IMMIGRANT, opens Friday, May 23, The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, $4.50-$9, 253.593.4474

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