On November 13th, 2016, four days after the race was called, New York Magazine printed a consolation prize: This Post-Election Pain is Good, At Least for Art.
Enter the “nicecore” movement, coined in 2018 by Indiewire critic David Ehrlich. He opened his historic article with a Paddington 2 quote, a seminal line from a seminal text: “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be alright.” It’s the cleanest possible mission statement for a genre that by its very nature is half fuzzy. At the time, this was an optimist’s rallying cry. Now, it is more apparently the monkey-paw catch to that earlier wish – art might not be doing so hot, but it sure is nice.
Not all nicecore is created equal. There are standouts, like the upper peninsula Zen of Joe Pera and the return of Mr. Rogers in both archival and Hanks forms. But the worst of it turns the rest to white noise and Mike Schur spin-offs. There are only so many ways to say be nice.
The Matador is a nice movie that opens with Pierce Brosnan lifting the sheets to better ogle his naked bedmate, then stealing her nail polish to do his toes before she wakes up. Behold hitman Julian Noble, a walking id with a conman’s mustache.
Julian Noble deserves no sympathy, not that he gets much. A nigh-forgotten birthday is spent drunk-dialing through his little black book just to hear the voices of old colleagues who don’t even remember his. When a stranger at a hotel bar extends the commonest possible courtesy, Julian mistakes it for a CIA ambush.
That stranger, by contrast, is a Greg Kinnear type, played by Greg Kinnear. He never cuts looser than business casual. He doesn’t scold Julian for being rude, merely lets him know. He’s so cosmically pitiable that the last time him and his wife tried to fool around, a tree impaled their kitchen. Danny Wright is a sitcom dad in search of a studio audience, waiting for laughter to make sense of his punchline life.
“The thing about hotel bars,” says writer-director Richard Shepard, “is that you can tell the absolute truth about yourself with the safety net of knowing you are never going to see the person again.” Both Danny and Julian could pass for pastiche. When Danny laughs at his new friend’s alleged career, Julian skewers him in self-defense: “You’re absolutely right, Danny – my name’s Earl Johnson, I sell aluminum siding in Minneapolis.” They’re content to let the rest of the world read them as stock, but not each other.
By the end of their chance meeting over margaritas, Danny opens up about the school bus accident that killed his son. Julian interrupts with a joke about a midget and a man with a 15-inch penis. Danny, naturally, leaves. Julian self-loathes clear through morning, when he struts across the crowded lobby in nothing but black briefs and Chelsea boots, Modelo in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Alone in the pool, he hallucinates a shark, closing in for the kill.
Julian doesn’t know time is also running out for Danny, a last-ditch business deal floundering by the hour. Danny doesn’t know Julian struggles with a lost child of his own, blowing contracts because he keeps seeing his adolescent self down the sights. They only learn these things by breaking the golden rule of hotel bars – for reasons neither could or would explain, they decide to see each other again.
The Matador is a love story, ultimately platonic, though Shepard leaves that blank for a while. Some deep, dark thing bonds them in Danny’s hotel room. That scene plays out of time, after the deed is done and the debt repaid. It’s neither deep nor dark. The unspeakable act, the kompromat that binds, is a moment of kindness in a universe where good people suffer and bad people survive. But it’s not the warmest or fuzziest twist here.
After everything, Danny and his wife bring Julian to their son’s grave. He observes from beside their sensible SUV. As soon as they forget he’s there, Julian pulls out his retirement plan – two plane tickets to Greece. Maybe one’s meant for Danny. Maybe they were both gifts from the start. Regardless, he tucks them under a windshield wiper and leaves. For a moment, he looks back. A lesser movie would’ve fumbled, made Julian reconsider and scoop them up again, that cad. Instead, he keeps on walking, gift given, bad man done good.
Despite Brosnan’s well-earned Golden Globe nomination, the film has fallen between the cracks since 2005. The runtime is a tight 96. The cast is wall-to-wall ringers. The writing rings of ’70-something pulp and David Tattersall shoots it like candy. The Matador has all the makings of a streamer rediscovery, especially in this nicecore twilight. Sure it’s mean. Sure it’s occasionally nasty. Sure Pierce Brosnan kicks a tiny dog while he’s having sex. But the lesson is sweet and won’t rot your teeth – the salt only makes it sweeter.
If you’re kind and polite, the world might surprise you.
Isn’t that nice?
“The Matador” is currently streaming on Plex, Tubi, and Hoopla.