Picks: Disappointing Films
Bewitched, dir. Nora Ephron. I will start with the problem of chemistry. For more than four score years movies have taken the risk of combining a male and female star and hoping that there will be some type of chemistry between them. What does chemistry mean? I suppose it means that we viewers can imagine those two people as having a relationship in a real world, not just in the cinematic world. We believe their characters can co-exist; we believe their arguments, their passions, their values, their senses of humor, and all the minutiae of their daily lives are combined-as two persons they become one couple. We think that one complements the other. With the other person added, the individual is more than the sum of his or her parts. Think of Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Tracy and Hepburn in any number of films, or Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. These combinations of two actors worked. The films were funny. The chemistry was there. But in this film, despite the talents of these two characters, I never felt their chemistry. I have enjoyed Will Ferrell in his other work. But putting him up against Nicole Kidman was not, I think, the best idea. I also fault the script. This film was bumbling from the first few scenes. Nicole Kidman does not play breathless and innocent women very well. If she were a witch, I would assume she would have a kind of world-weary wisdom and experience that would make her the opposite of the naïve and vulnerable woman depicted here. Shirley MacLaine was wasted in a minor role. While she was there, she chewed scenery with the best of them. I grew tired of the Saturday Nite Live sketches that Will Ferrell acted out-one after the other. At the end of the film, my wife suggested we stay for outtakes. She thought correctly that this type of film often adds outtakes in the credits. I told her, "The whole film was outtakes. We don't have to wait for the credits to see anymore of them." Do I sound disappointed about this film? I sure do-because it not deliver humor, character, motivation, and a comedic duo. Each character seems to be running on parallel tracks to the other, and the misshapen screenplay doesn't help either.
Melinda and Melinda. Dir. Woody Allen. I am definitely about ready to give up on this director. I’m sorry, but it is sad to have to watch a good comic actor, Will Terrell, acting out Woody Allen-isms that were original and funny 30 years ago—but not anymore. In effect, Will Terrell mimicked Woody Allen the way Jamie Foxx mimicked—or impersonated—Ray Charles. They both had all the mannerisms and speech rhythms down. But neither approach mattered much to me. The real film here would have been the storytellers at their café tables talking about the requirements of tragedy and comedy. I was reminded of My Dinner with Andre, especially because Wallace Shawn, one of the actors in that film, was one of the protagonists in the café scene. Unfortunately, that scene was only the frame for the rest of the film. I was forced to sit through 100 minutes of watching WOMAN playing an erratic, troubled, drunken, foolish, pathetic woman in both the tragic and the comic versions. Both of her Melinda characters sucked up all of the air in every one of her scenes. She drove me crazy! Woody Allen often filled the frame with shots of her. Early in the film he uses a slow tracking shot, reminiscent of Wayne Wang in Smoke, and later in the film, when she pours out her heart to her new lover, she is shown in a lingering close-up that became wearying after a while. (And I wondered, “Does this character ever comb her hair?”) The film is plot-heavy, and thus the characters come across somewhat flat. Things have happened to them! And things will happen to them. They are like chess pieces being moved around a board. We get the Jewish Park Avenue princess, the struggling actor, a loyal friend, lots of infidelity, an ambitious woman director, and more—we have a gallery of dysfunctional characters who have all been well-educated, know good wines, have read good books, and yet are basically nincompoops. The biggest plot question appears to be, “Who will be sleeping with whom by the end of the film?” So much of the film was flat. Will Terrell was great—as usual—but constrained by having to fill Woody’s shoes. I did enjoy some of the structural tricks—the parallel storytelling, cutting between the tragic Melinda and the comic Melinda. By the end of the film, I realized I did get caught up in the story at some level. But I think the comic side of the film worked much better than the tragic side. Still, when it all comes down to it, I was disappointed that the film did not reach me at a deeper level. I may be at the end of my Woody Allen viewing years.
Me and You and Everyone We Know. Dir. Miranda July. At first blush this independent film and filmmaker look like the real thing. I looked forward to seeing this film, primed by the clever trailer, and yet I was eventually disappointed. The writer-director plays a performance artist, and as the film bore on, I realized that her talents lie in performance art—not in filmmaking. Early in the film, when we saw the loneliness of the man and woman destined to be together, and I was hooked for a while. The scene with the goldfish stuck on the roof of the car in a plastic bag filled with water played out with real inventiveness. In a later scene, the principal characters go for a long walk, and the camera tracks with him (shooting them walking toward the camera), and their conversation is inventive and believable. Then where did this film lose me? I lost track of the characters. For instance, the father (after his wife walked out—leaving him to care for two young boys) was just too much of a klutz of a father. I did not believe he was that incapable of being a good father to those boys. Suddenly other characters were brought to the foreground, and they lacked the depth and believability established with the two principal characters at the beginning. The portrayal of the curator at the museum was forced and not credible. Suddenly we learn this woman has been writing obscene messages over the internet. I did not believe it for a minute. Then there is a shy neighbor man who is bedeviled by two teenaged girls—but that was just more of the same over-inventiveness that began to stifle the film. Performance art seemed to be the primary metaphor of the film. In effect, the performance artist makes her life a performance. But in this case, everyone’s life was a performance—for the sake of what I am not exactly sure. Now to emphasize a point: the early part of the film seemed ready to deliver a believable relationship between two lost souls. The acting by Miranda July and especially the male lead, John Hawkes, was at perfect pitch early in the film. We have been here before in the cinema. But that’s not where this film kept heading. Somehow I lost the thread of what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish. And once it was lost, there was no regaining it for me.