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Dull the Hate

I’m not going to lie and say I don’t hate things, because anybody who’s taken even a cursory look at that blog would burst into either laughter or tears (both?) at such an outrageous lie. My recent outburst against the movie Juno might look, on the surface, like a hateful diatribe. I mean, the post has the word “hate” in the title, right?

I did hate Juno. After initially feeling indifferent-yet-positive, closer inspection revealed an aimless story and a protagonist who grew more unlikable the more you learned about her (and she didn’t start out terribly likable in the first place). My real objection, if you cut through the rage, is that it blew a shitload of raw potential on a movie that’s kinda crappy. Making a film is a difficult, expensive process, so why spend the time and money on something that isn’t the absolute best you can make it? Sometimes, it’s just a matter of a weak link; sometimes, it’s a big-ass weak chain.

You might think, based on my review, that the weak link in the film is Diablo Cody and/or her screenplay. Granted, it’s all kinds of bad, but it has so many moments of raw potential that could have been good if, as I suggested, it had undergone a few more rewrites (preferably with a different writer). It had all the elements of a great story, then blew it on an unstructured mess of painful dialogue and cloying sentiment. She missed two great opportunities: (1) pregnancy is hard, especially for teenagers, and (2) there’s so much wonderful irony in the idea of an obnoxious expectant mother inadvertently destroying the marriage of her unborn child’s surrogates.

I’m not saying they had to take it in a pedo direction with Mark and Juno—in fact, I thought what was there was already uncomfortable and unnecessary enough. They just needed to see the storyline through and make it even more destructive and difficult. This would have given Juno her much-needed comeuppance, it would have fleshed out Mark and Vanessa’s ill-defined relationship satisfactorily, and it would have caused all three of these characters to grow and change in interesting ways. As it stands, the divorce is a bump in the road, and both Mark and Vanessa are largely ignored after their dull discussion of it. And yes, I believe they could accomplish all of this while maintaining a sense of humor.

Believe it or not, I didn’t want to turn this into another rant on Juno. I’m just trying to illustrate the untapped potential of that screenplay, which either nobody noticed or nobody cared enough about.

This brings me back to the weak chain. Diablo Cody’s screenplay could have been great if she hadn’t wussed out at every opportunity to make these characters truly come alive with genuine dramatic conflict, which might make you think she’s the weak link. Seems reasonable…

…and yet, people bought this screenplay. People put it through the development wringer (which, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t always ruin a movie). A great cast and a novice director who made one great movie signed on to it. To hear all of them tell it, this screenplay is the greatest thing in the history of time. I can see certain admirable qualities in the screenplay—including superficial qualities that might appeal to actors, directors, and producers (such as the acting challenge of spewing out that atrocious dialogue, or the “edgy” subject matter)—but at the end of the day, the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. The good doesn’t justify the bad, doesn’t make you ignore the bad, doesn’t redeem a bad movie. There’s just not enough of it, and what is there isn’t good enough.

So I don’t hate everything. I just get disappointed. And then I hate the thing for not living up to standards that, frankly, I don’t think are very high. (Case in point: I watched Point Break this morning. Point fucking Break, a movie I haven’t seen in a few years…and it’s just unbelievably good. Even the ending, which I sorta hated at first because it felt like the studio-imposed “three endings to make sure the broadest group of idiots leaves happy,” started to work for me this time around. So no, I do not have high standards. I just have standards.)

I saw Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men in the same week that I saw Juno. The latter is great, about as good a Coen Brothers movie that’s ever been made (and that’s saying something), but the former was—dare I say it?—a masterpiece. No, “masterpiece” might be too strong, but it’s easily the best movie I’ve seen in a year (not just including movies made within the last year). If anybody wants a lesson in how to do crime thrillers or modern noirs—and based on Hollywood’s output, they need a lesson—Gone Baby Gone is the movie they should start with. Great, economic storytelling, great cast, the best use of cinematic misdirection since Marathon Man.

Why didn’t I write about these movies? Because this blog exists to get the rage out. I like feeling happy; I don’t like feeling rage and distress. One could argue that my lack of posting means I’m happy. I have an ulcer that would suggest otherwise; in fact, maybe that ulcer is saying, “Post more.”

And maybe I will…

…but first! I’ve noticed more than a dozen (which is a lot for this blog) searches for Pan’s Labyrinth and Garden State since I posted the Juno review (which contains a barbed reference to each of those movies). I never reviewed them because, frankly, neither one disappointed or annoyed me. They were awful, but they didn’t spark the rage.

Theoretically, they should have, because of the hype surrounding each. I had been told by many that Garden State is the defining movie of our generation. If it is: wow, what a boring, disaffected generation. At the same time, many of the rugged, manly men I carouse with broke down just before last call and whispered through their tears that Pan’s Labyrinth is the only movie that truly made them weep, and they loved every minute of it. Really?

So here’s a generalized assessment of each:

Garden State—I don’t have much to say except that, in a much less irritating way than Juno (but still kind of annoying), it tried way too hard to find deep meaning in largely meaningless words and actions. On top of which, the pacing was a bit ponderous. Yes, I know this was to underscore the malaise of the characters, but fuck, why would I want to watch a movie about listless people that’s boring as shit? Kevin Smith made Clerks, tackling similar themes about the same age bracket, and managed to make the tedium and malaise snappy and entertaining. (And before you get mad at me for defending Kevin Smith, who is essentially the male Diablo Cody: Clerks is still a good movie. It and the insane animated series spinoff are the only things Kevin Smith is associated with that I still enjoy. I used to be a fanboy; then I stopped being 15. It’s juvenile, but the jokes still work, and its depth and understanding of the sad-sack characters holds up better than the treacly sentiment of his later movies.)

Pan’s Labyrinth—Okay, so Sergi López plays creepy like nobody’s business. So the fuck what? The problem here is the fantasy element. I’m all for magical realism, but this is what Jay Sherman would call “fantacrap.” So you have a little girl. She has a shitty life. She escapes into a fantasy world that’s actually about 1000 times more disturbing than her actual life, but for some reason she has a strong desire to keep escaping to this world, without the movie giving us any firm understanding of why she would (other than the shittiness of her life). At the end, she’s killed and escapes permanently into the fantasy world. I was almost on board with the movie until this point, where all the subtle, disturbing imagery suddenly turned beat-you-over-the-head obvious as the little girl is hailed the queen of this goofy alternate world and can finally be happy in death. Duh! I might have actually been okay with the movie—though not nearly as positive as everyone else on the planet—if Guillermo del Toro hadn’t gone the Jane Campion route of explaining to us how deep his movie is like we’re third-graders. Either be deep or confusing as shit and let us sort it out (like David Lynch), or make a normal movie for the unwashed masses. You can’t have it both ways.

Huh, I guess Pan’s Labyrinth did sort of get the rage going. I should blog more.

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