Four new movies try to reinvent the rules of the game
BRIAN D. JOHNSONNovember112002
FOOLING WITH HOLLYWOOD FORMULA
Four new movies try to reinvent the rules of the game
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
IN ADAPTATION, a brilliant new movie by the makers of Being John Malkovich, the main character is the film’s screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, who’s played by Nicolas Cage. The story is about his struggle to script the movie we’re watching, and it’s a mindbending feat of deconstruction. Kaufman is trying to adapt The Orchid Thief, a book by The New Yorker's Susan Orlean, without resorting to Hollywood cliché. At one point he asks in exasperation, “Why can’t I write a story where nothing much happens, where characters don’t change, they have no epiphanies?” But in the end it’s Kaufman who has the epiphany. And as he recombines Hollywood formula like a mad scientist, his movie morphs through every conceivable genre, from romantic comedy to melodrama. Adaptation, due out in December, de-
serves Oscars for best original and adapted screenplay. It’s one of a kind. But Kaufman’s Silly Putty script is an extreme example of something we’re seeing a lot of these days— films that try to subvert Hollywood formula while taking full advantage of it.
Four very watchable movies opening this
Todd Haynes conjures the look of Sirk movies with an impeccable eye, while dramatizing sexual taboos Sirk could only allude to
month—Far from Heaven, Frida, 8 Mile and I Spy—are all modelled on well-worn formulas, yet in each case there’s a twist. The archly stylized Far from Heaven mimics a kind of vintage melodrama that Hollywood doesn’t make any more, while portraying sexual transgression with contemporary verve. Frida is a largely conventional biopic, although it’s about the agony and the ecstasy of an extremely unconventional painter. 8 Mile, another tale of an incendiary artist, is basically a rap Rocky, but its star, Eminem, somehow escapes the script’s Hollywood template with his credibility unscathed. Then there’s I Spy, an amusing confection based on the ’60s TV series that pioneered the black-white buddy adventure. By now, that formula, along with the spy genre, is so heavily freighted that it needs a booster shot
of irony just to get off the ground. In I Spy, every cliché is a double agent.
What a strange world we live in when one of the year’s freshest movies is a faux Fifties melodrama. Written and directed by Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine), Far from Heaven is set in 1957, in a suburban vision of bourgeois bliss about to go bad.
Haynes drew his inspiration from a bygone genre of domestic melodrama, notably Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), starring Jane Wyman as a widow who falls for a young gardener played by Rock Hudsoa The formula is simple: dormant emotions are ignited, sending inappropriate lovers on a collision course with scandalized friends and neighbours. But there’s nothing simple about the richly layered artifice of Sirk’s Techni-
color world, or the ideas underlying it. Sirk, who fled to Hollywood from Nazi Germany, was an intellectual influenced by Brecht, and his glossy “women’s pictures” were popcorn fodder salted with social criticism. Haynes conjures the look of his movies, and his era, with an impeccable eye, while dramatizing sexual taboos that Sirk could only allude to.
With a performance of lapidary precision, Julianne Moore plays Cathy, the perfect housewife. She’s married to Frank (Dennis Quaid), the perfect husband, and they have two kids, a black maid and a dream home in an affluent white suburb of Hartford, Conn. But Frank, an executive for a television manufacturer, is an alcoholic and a closet homo-
sexual who cruises movie theatres and bars while pretending to work late. When Cathy stumbles across his secret, their life begins to unravel. Then, as she falls into an innocent friendship with her black gardener, a gentle widower named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), the plot acquires the momentum of a train wreck. Gossip spreads like a virus, and among the perpetrators is Cathy’s best friend, Eleanor, played by an insidiously smiling Patricia Clarkson.
Far from Heaven depicts an America where homosexuality is still considered a disease (perhaps curable by psychiatry) and any hint of interracial sex is taboo. Through the long lens of cultural hindsight, it’s a portrait overripe with irony. But Haynes has constructed an exquisite film, from the colour-coordinated palette—dresses that match the autumn leaves—to the pointillist score by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein.
There’s the odd anachronism, such as Quaid flashing his six-pack abs (hardly the physique of an alcoholic in the ’50s). And Quaid’s character is so knotted with guilt and self-loathing that, despite the film’s gay esthetic, he remains oddly unsympathetic. Moore, on the other hand, is cast as a gay ideal of saindy womanhood. And what’s uncanny about her radiant performance is that, amid all the heightened artifice, she’s so naturally grounded in emotional reality. Your heart just goes out to her.
At the Oscars, Moore may find herself competing with Salma Hayek, the star of Frida. This is another picture that looks good enough to eat. It’s directed by Julie Taymor, who showed a keen visual imagination in Titus, her 1999 feature debut, and Broadway’s The Lion King. Here Taymor trowels the pain and passion of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo onto the screen with visceral imagery and vibrant colours. There are some ingenious touches, from interludes of surreal animation to scenes of Hayek emerging from dioramas of Kahlo’s paintings. But those bursts of visual innovation are at odds with the script’s paint-by-numbers literalism—as if Kahlo’s autobiographical art is struggling to escape the narrative corset of a Hollywood biopic.
One problem is that there’s just so much ground to cover. It took four screenwriters to squeeze the events of Kahlo’s tumultuous life into a movie, and the result is a breathless string of biographical greatest hits, a drama driven by events rather than character.
The defining moment is the 1925 bus crash that leaves the teenaged Frida with her bones shattered and her pelvis impaled on a metal rod. During her convalescence, Kahlo becomes her own bedridden muse, using selfportraiture to paint through the pain. The other major “accident” in her life is falling in love with celebrated muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), Communist epicure and unrepentant womanizer—in Frida’s words, “a big Mexican piñata with enough candy for everyone.”
The action unfolds as a whirl of tempestuous behaviour, from the bisexual Frida dancing a naughty tango with photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd) to Diego raging against Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton), who wants Lenin purged from a mural in the Rockefeller Center. Hayek and Molina both deliver lusty, engaging performances. But the script tends to push them into Lucy-Desi overdrive (at one point Frida actually says, God “has a lot of explaining to do”). The story accelerates, from miscarriage to in-law incest, and by the time we get to Frida’s affair with the exiled Leon Trotsky (a rather ridiculous Geoffrey Rush), art has become an afterthought. It’s all richly entertaining. ButTaymor turns Kahlo’s life into such a voluptuous romp that you wonder if Frida the musical cannot be far behind.
8 Mile is a portrait of the artist as a young punk which plays like a sports film. Unlike Frida, it’s fiction, but you get the sense you’re watching a fable spun from Eminem’s own Detroit school of hard knocks. He plays Jimmy, a hip hop wannabe who works in a factory and lives in a trailer home with his white trash mother (Kim Basinger), who’s facing eviction. Jimmy hangs with a largely black posse of benign delinquents. He’s painfully shy, but his friend Future (Mekhi Phifer) is pushing him to overcome his stage fright and compete in a nightclub battle for rap supremacy. Like Eminem, Jimmy is the Great White Hope, a hip hop Elvis trying to beat black musicians at their own game. And in the wings is a blond spitfire named Alex (Brittany Murphy).
The movie is directed with raw energy by Curtis Hanson (LA. Confidential). But the script, which bears the slick imprint of producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind), dishes up broad, rollicking stereotypes, from the funny fat boy in the gang to the hero’s sad-eyed waif of a kid sister. And with all the antic joy-riding, it’s like American Graf-
fiti in the ’Hood. But in a movie that works so hard to entertain—straining for crossover appeal—Eminem keeps his head down. He’s a quiedy smouldering presence, with a sullen charisma that suggests ajames Dean in the rough. And when he lashes out, like a boxer letting go with a left jab, it’s electrifying. He also displays a surprising sense of humour. Despite the formula, or maybe because of it, 8 Mile goes the distance. We know exactly where it’s headed—the big showdown with a black rapper. The movie is all about waiting for that moment, and when it comes, it packs a wallop.
I Spy offers a lighter view of black-white rivalry with a comic adventure that’s more fun, and less dumb, than you might expect. Overlaying retro-pop styles, director Betty Thomas (Private Parts, Dr. Doolittle) finds a jaunty tone that splits the difference between the stiff wit of James Bond and the sophomoric farce of Austin Powers. And she’s found the perfect odd couple in Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy. Compared to the cool Sixties spies played by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in the original TV series, Wilson
With his braying laugh and machine-gun delivery, Eddie’s at the top of his game-and has a worthy partner in his co-star
and Murphy are like a burlesque act.
Alex Scott (Wilson) is a second-rate special agent dying to prove himself to a darkeyed Amazonian colleague named Rachel (Famke Janssen). Kelly Robinson (Murphy) is a trash-talking, self-adoring middleweight champion who is recruited to join Alex on a mission in Budapest. Their goal (as if it matters) is to recover an invisible spy plane being auctioned off by an evil arms dealer (Malcolm McDowell).
Murphy laps up the role of an ego-mad boxer as if he were born to play it. With his braying laugh, luxurious swagger and machine-gun delivery, he’s at the top of his game. And in his co-star he’s found a worthy sparring partner. The laconic, wryly earnest Wilson has to be one of the most likeable comic actors on the screen today. Whether playing a cowboy opposite Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon or a male model with Ben Stiller in Zoolander, he’s the ultimate good sport. And inf Spy, he’s well cast as a good-natured nerd making light of the white man’s burden.
The high point of the film belongs to Murphy. In an update of Cyrano de Bergerac’s romantic ventriloquism, Kelly uses a remote transmitter to coach Alex through every move as he clumsily tries to seduce Rachel with the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. Murphy throws himself into the song so passionately, and Wilson repeats it so prosaically, it’s a scream. We’ve seen it all before, the black superstud and the white wimp—I Spy could be called White Men Can’t Hump. But when a formula pays off, laughter can cover a multitude of sins. Rl
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