March 28, 2004

March Movie Madness

Posted by Ed

Spring break at Chicago is about to end, and now I plan to return to several of my usual routines. First, though I haven't exactly been goofing off lately, I plan to spend more time on dissertation research. (I've read a lot of Soviet history over the last week, but I've still only been working at about half or two-thirds my usual rate.) Second, I plan to return to a more usual blogging schedule. Third, I expect that I'll be watching fewer movies over the next month, since I've seen more movies in the last week than in all the rest of the year combined.

I felt an urge to write something for this blog tonight, and since I was short on ideas, here are some random thoughts on the three movies I saw over break:

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has been winning acclaim from a lot of movie critics lately; one of my favorite critics, Slate's David Edelstein, even called it the best movie he'd seen in a decade. I think that these plaudits are, in large part, deserved, but I'm still a little wary of plenty of reactions to the film. The movie is based on an intriguing plot premise, that an enterprising doctor has developed a technique to remove all of a person's memories of a past lover from his or her mind. (A man named Joel--played by Jim Carrey--learns that his ex Clementine--portrayed by Kate Winslet--has erased all her memories of him, and he decides to undergo the procedure himself in response; while the technicians are erasing his memory, he changes his mind and struggles to hold onto his knowledge of their past.) The script is often witty and entertaining, featuring plenty of small but amusing details. (One woman at the doctor's office wants to forget about her beloved dog, for example.) The dialogue, finally, was excellent.

    What impressed me most about Eternal Sunshine was its sense of realism--which surprised me, given that the movie's surrealistic scenes have gotten a lot more attention. I was really struck by how the movie portrayed the relationship between Joel and Clementine, for example. The opening dialogue between them was extremely engaging, and got me hooked on the movie; Winslet appears as an ebullient, eccentric, and (perhaps) self-destructive woman, while Carrey portrayed a shy but likable man. Each of these performances was convincing. I've often felt that Carrey missed the opportunity of a lifetime when he decided against becoming a mime, since he clearly has some talent as a physical comedian but becomes unbearably annoying once he opens his mouth; in this movie, he restrained himself and put in a creditable performance. (His character may have been a bit dull and underdeveloped, but that could just as easily be the fault of the script--or it may be that Joel was meant to be an unexciting but likeable man.) Clementine, furthermore, came across as the sort of character who's lots of fun to watch, but who you wouldn't want to have to deal with on a personal basis. Eternal Sunshine presented both characters as real, flawed, intriguing, and sympathetic characters, and by the end, their relationship--and the problems within it--also seemed very real. When Clementine and Joel describe what drove them crazy about their former lovers near the end of the movie, you get the sense that each person's criticisms were both convincing and largely correct.

    My reaction to the movie wasn't completely straightforward and positive, however. Eternal Sunshine featured several subplots involving the people who worked at Lacuna, and I didn't think these subplots were terribly successful. (I can't really explain why without spoiling some of the movie's plot twists, though in each case, I suspect that viewers will be able to figure out what's going on without too much help anyway.) For a variety of reasons, the movie lost momentum about half or two thirds of the way through, though there were still some very good scenes late in the movie.

    One of the problems with a movie like Eternal Sunshine is that lots of people will feel that they really ought to like it, to the point that they don't notice its flaws. In this sense, it's a lot like Shakespeare in Love, one of the most over-rated--and shallow--movies of recent years, which has somehow won a reputation as a "smart" movie. Eternal Sunshine is much better, but reading reviews and commentary about it, I get the sense that a lot of people enjoyed the movie without really understanding it. I'm not even convinced that I caught on to all its twists, but that might just be another sign that the movie succeeds in looking smart without necessarily being smart... There are several places where the story line isn't completely logical, but the script does its best to hide the flaws in the plot.

    Finally, a lot of viewers see Eternal Sunshine as they want to see it--and not necessarily as it's meant to be seen. I've seen several different reviews and commentaries that describe the movie as romantic, for example. But is this really true? In several scenes, Clementine urges Joel to hang on to his memories of her, which might give sentimental viewers the idea that the movie is meant to be romantic; if you really think about the movie, however, you realize that the Clementine who urges Joel to remember her is a figment of his imagination, and that the real Clementine never had second thoughts about her decision. And it's a serious mistake to view the conclusion to the movie as an unambigously happy ending. It seems overly simplistic to describe Eternal Sunshine as a romantic movie, and its complexity is one of its main strengths.

    (For an interesting essay on the science behind the movie, see this Steven Johnson article in Slate.)

  • I don't have a lot to say about Spartan, the latest movie by David Mamet. This film had two things in common with Eternal Sunshine: it featured long stretches consisting entirely of engaging dialogue (unaccompanied by music), and I was tempted to watch it a second time. (I have a hunch that a second viewing wouldn't add a lot to my understanding of Spartan, though I'm curious about whether I missed anything.) If you enjoy political thrillers or films by Mamet, you'll probably like Spartan. Val Kilmer, I learned, can act better than I realized--or maybe he's just good at the clipped and rapid-fire dialogue that's characteristic of Mamet films. The movie's plot never really surprised me (in part because of TV ads that give away part of what's going on), but Spartan was an extremely competent thriller overall, despite stumling a little near the end.

  • The Ladykillers is an entertaining movie, though I didn't like it as much as the last two Coen brothers films I've seen--Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The Coen brothers' dark and eccentric brand of humor appeals to me a lot, but this time, I just can't think of very many memorable lines or entertaining quotations. Moreover, I wasn't a huge fan of the way that the main character of The Ladykillers was portrayed. The leader of the movie's band of criminals was Professor G.H. Dorr, a Southern classics professor who seemed to have been made bizarre for the sake of being bizarre. (His laugh was odd without being amusing, for example, and he barely seemed believable as a real person.) Tom Hanks played Dorr (against type), which only compounded the problem: for most of the movie, I couldn't help but think "There's Tom Hanks playing someone really eccentric!", which could be quite distracting. The Ladykillers would have worked better if a less well-known actor had played the part of Professor Dorr, though I generally enjoyed the movie. The opening scene features the most artistic portrayal of garbage I've ever seen, and I really enjoyed a scene that took place in a Waffle Hut. Overall, I'd characterize the film as entertaining enough, occasionally quite amusing, but nothing special overall.

One of the oddest moments in my week of movie-going actually came during a preview, in which Will Ferrell was hit in the head by a cabinet file drawer. Susan and I heard a collective gasp of shock from several audience members at the moment of collision, which really makes me wonder about the people who went to the movie. Haven't they seen the same thing happen before in countless movies, TV shows, and commercials? (Was it ever amusing, for that matter?) Sometimes I've even wondered if social historians of the future will decide that dangerous file drawers were an occupational hazard of the turn-of-the-century American office, given how often they appear in pop culture...

Posted by Ed at March 28, 2004 11:16 PM


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