Saturday, May 3, 2008

Beasts and Burdens

Into the Wild, Sean Penn's mostly impressive latest foray behind the camera, has a complex narrative structure. The true story of Chris McCandless, the exceptionally bright college grad who in the early 1990s fled his affluent suburban upbringing to the Alaskan wilderness, would appear ideal for a linear road movie, yet Penn doesn't stage it that way. He begins with Chris's arrival to the north, then goes back to show us how he got there. I don't know how much of this follows Jon Krakauer's book, but it's a wise cinematic choice that enables us to understand McCandless's motives without insisting that we side with him. We meet the family he leaves behind, come to know the people he encounters (and eventually abandons) along his journey. Penn, whose previous films as a director were claustrophobic indulgences of his actors, this time gives the audience room to breathe. A two-hour version of Into the Wild might not have worked; as it stands, the extra 30 minutes or so enables us to spend a fair amount of time out of Chris's head.

Although we hear a few of Chris's voiceovers (mainly pretentious quotes of Thoreau and Emerson), see a few of his letters home and are privy to the writings in his journal which show his loneliness and steady mental disintegration in the wilderness, the film is narrated primarily by his sister, Carine (voiced with purity and emotion by Jena Malone), who reveals the dysfunctional family dynamic created by their parents, played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. Like Stephanie Zacharek, I too was worried that Hurt and Harden would spend the entire movie glumly smoothing napkins and stirring drinks, but Penn and his performers give them their humanity. The disappearance of their son shakes them out of their smug yuppie rut, brings them closer together and mobilizes their efforts into tracking him down. Chris, however, is determined to not be found. I've never before seen Emile Hirsch, the actor who plays him, but he has the baby-faced guile of a younger Leonardo DiCaprio (who perhaps would have taken this role ten years ago). It's hard to tell what kind of range Hirsch has -- like DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can and other efforts, he's at his best when he's on the move, less effective when he's asked to be a still center of gravity.

Fortunately, Into the Wild rarely goes inert, thanks to the appealing and resourceful supporting cast. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker are a vagabond aging-hippie couple growing weary of the road; Vince Vaughn, breaking free from dumb comedies, elevates his manic shtick as a small-town business owner and small-time criminal who takes Chris under his wing; best of all is Hal Holbrook, appearing in the final act as Ron Franz, a spiritually devout elderly man still haunted by the deaths of his wife and child many years ago. Holbrook gives Franz a few shots of stubbornness and irascability, so that when he offers to adopt Chris, the act becomes doubly affecting.

I still have misgivings about Sean Penn the director, preferring him less to Penn the actor, yet more than the sanctimonious bully he comes across as in real life. A bit of the latter persona can't help but show up in Into the Wild, overly invested somewhat in the romanticized ideals behind Chris's quest and occasionally hammering his points too hard. (A sequence where a starving Chris shoots and dismembers a moose goes longer than necessary.) His eye as a filmmaker, while steadily improving (and immeasurably better than several other actor-cum-directors like Jack Nicholson, et al), remains a little flat, lacking the virtuosity of Mel Gibson. Luckily, Penn rejects Gibson's investment in cruelty. He sees the dark side of nature and the tragic toll it took on Chris, and he acknowledges the dark side of Chris's journey and the scars he left on those who loved him.

if Into the Wild is about a kind of 60s nostalgia from the subsequent generation who never experienced it, Seth Gordon's 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, recalls the 1980s in all its gaudy video-arcade mise-en-scene. That's not really a compliment. Like the people in Gordon's film, I grew up playing countless videogames; but I eventually outgrew them and came to focus, for good or ill, on other pursuits. The two rivals in The King of Kong, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, are grown men with jobs and families, yet their struggle to become the world record holder of Donkey Kong (the difficult, addictive, entertaining progenitor of the Mario Bros. franchise, featuring a giant gorilla who kidnaps a damsel in distress and hurls barrels and other obstacles at the player) consumes them. Unlike Penn, Gordon doesn't seem interested in pulling back to show the damage they inflict en route to their egocentric ends.

Instead, The King of Kong is content to depict Wiebe and Mitchell in good-vs.-evil, black-and-white terms. Wiebe is a mild-mannered sad-sack with OCD whose attempts to overtake Mitchell's twenty-year-old records are thwarted, with increasing dubiousness, by Twin Galaxies International Scorecard, an organization of videogame referees who are fawning sycophants to Billy Mitchell. With his long dark hair, loud ties and sleazeball charisma, Mitchell comes across like a Ross Jeffries of the gaming set, a conniving entrepreneur who boasts about being a step ahead of his competitors. As a filmmaker, Gordon is transparently a step ahead as well. His camera is always in the right place at the right time, and he leaves out elements that might add inconvenient complexity, such as Mitchell's relationship with his own family (we catch fleeting, unflattering glimpses of his wife and none of his children), or more of how Wiebe's preoccupation ran the risk of estranging him from his wife and kids. Mrs. Wiebe is allowed a couple of pointed remarks, and their son is occasionally viewed as neglected around the arcade game Wiebe purchases and sets up in their basement, but Gordon mostly confines them to the sidelines, suggesting that they're a support system with no valid interests to call their own.

Even giving the benefit of the doubt that Wiebe is a stand-up guy and Mitchell an asshole, and enjoying some of the atmosphere for its jeez-I'm-getting-old sentimental value, I found The King of Kong amateurish and threadbare. While Gordon deliberately invokes The Karate Kid -- one of my favorite films from the 80s, also for sentimental reasons -- during a cheesy montage scored to the battle theme "You're the Best," I wonder if he's aware of how closely The King of Kong's climax resembles that of the former film. Just as Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso is finally accepted by the bullies who spend the entire movie tormenting him -- conveniently, after he kicks their ass -- Wiebe is welcomed into Twin Galaxies with open arms. (There's even a running gag about how nobody can pronounce his name, just as "Miyagi" gets mangled repeatedly in The Karate Kid.) We're supposed to find this touching, when I'd have been more inspired if Wiebe (and Daniel) had told his adversaries to stuff it. The King of Kong is a dispiriting celebration of need.

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