Thursday, July 29, 2010

Raggedy Anna 'n' Angie (Smiley Face and Salt)

With star vehicles for actors becoming endangered and for actresses practically extinct, it's worth celebrating a comic tour de force in even a film as minor as Smiley Face (2007). Gregg Araki's likable stoner comedy is a remarkably sustained eighty-five minutes of Anna Faris doing a series of creative sketches on her feckless pothead protagonist, Jane F., who would be experiencing the worst day of her life were she lucid enough to notice. Well-meaning yet breathtakingly irresponsible, Jane runs afoul of both her creepy nerd roommate (Danny Masterson) and her judicious drug dealer (Adam Brody), arrives late to an audition for a TV commercial (where she encounters a spiky Jane Lynch cameo), shamelessly exploits a mild-mannered young man in the throes of a misguided crush (John Krasinski), impersonates a union rep at a slaughterhouse (long story), and is pursued by the LAPD on account of a rare manuscript of The Communist Manifesto in her unreliable hands (an even longer one).

Thankfully, Smiley Face is a screwball comedy instead of a romantic one, and Jane F. a terrific part for one of our most inspired screen comediennes. Turn on the Comedy Channel when any of the Scary Movie series is playing and you'll see Faris consistently getting laughs where none exist. In The House Bunny, she did a spirited impression of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch ("Who knew steam could be so hot?"); in Lost in Translation, her impersonation of Cameron Diaz was so uncomfortably accurate nobody likes to mention it. Araki's farce is a solid cut or two above most of Faris's filmography, hilariously uncompromising, and features a showstopper sequence where Jane launches into a Norma Rae monologue that is rousing from her perspective, incoherent babble from ours. There is also a curious recurring motif of pigs -- including an uproarious voice-cameo from Babe narrator Roscoe Lee Browne -- that might mean something profound, or may simply be (like the rest of the film) amusingly random.

I wouldn't have bothered with Salt, the origins of an action-hero franchise for Angelina Jolie, were it not for first a string of rave reviews followed by a series of you-gotta-be-kidding pans, with critics I respect highly on both sides of the fence. Suffice to say I found the effusiveness of the movie's admirers more infectious than the movie itself, which is rather imbecilic, not terribly offensive (though an attempted assassination of the Russian president comes close), yet simultaneously too serious to be any fun and too absurd to take seriously. A couple of action set-pieces contain a few welcome jolts but come nowhere near the Bourne series, their obvious source of inspiration. What makes those films compelling (especially the last two, directed by Paul Greengrass) is how the camerawork conveys mental action as well as physical: fleeting images -- a pen, a window, a fire escape -- seemingly arbitrary at first, combine to show how Jason Bourne is always three steps ahead of everyone else, and has to be in order to survive. Evelyn Salt moves as fast as Bourne and has a MacGyver-like touch with household objects, yet rarely do we see Jolie thinking her way out of a jam. Virtually the only times we're in her head are via a couple of gauzy flashbacks where she makes goo-goo eyes at her husband, scenes that have all the earmarks of an unsuccessful test screening. ("Main character not sympathetic enough.")

Phillip Noyce, who directed the best of the Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games, is a somber, dutiful filmmaker with a scant sense of mischief. He must be puzzled by the purported high spirits attributed to his movie, what with all the trouble he took to establish its drab interiors, heavy-handed themes, and lukewarm performances. None of this quite distracts from the idiocies and groaning obviousness of Kurt Wimmer's script. (Is Salt really the villain? Could the actual villain instead be the most duplicitous-looking actor in the movie? You'll never guess.) Jason Bellamy has thoroughly and wittily vivisected the plot so I won't echo his salient points here. We did, however, have an interesting exchange in the Comments, where I pointed out that many of the most prominent critics who found fault with Inception are showering Salt in a rain of roses (Seitz, Edelstein, Zacharek, Taylor, Emerson, O'Hehir). As Jason surmised, I don't think it's a conscious collective effort to praise one movie at the expense of another. I believe their reactions are sincere, if wildly overstated. I can even imagine Noyce, in response to the chorus of hosannas, scratching his head and muttering abashedly, "Really, it was just a paycheck."


Steven Santos said...

"Smiley Face" is probably the only Anna Faris vehicle that I was willing to watch. It's a pretty good dumb movie. I mean that as a compliment. Faris is talented, but modern comedy is already dire for male actors, so I'm not sure when she'll ever be in a movie even this good again because comic roles for actresses are so rare.

The "Salt" debate has been fascinating in some aspects because I still cannot work up the slightest interest in watching it, mostly for two reasons. First, it looks so generic. Second, I'm just going to say straight out that Jolie is not much of an actress. Outside of "A Mighty Heart" and "Gia", I find her to be an emotional void in movies.

I also noticed how the "Inception" and "Salt" debates seem to have crossed over into one another simply because they were released a week apart. Edelstein, in defense of his "Inception" review, all but hinted that a movie coming out the following week was going to demonstrate how to properly do an action film.

Although I've seen one and not the other, I sometimes wonder that the summer season produces these debates on form when there is little else to these movies to talk about. Then again, because of the lack of interesting summer films, we also have been treated to about 3 months of Critic Wars when critics seem to be writing more about each other than the movies.

Craig said...

Many of the raves for "Salt" have the tenor of one of Pauline Kael's embarrassing gush-fests for a terrible movie. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a few of these people are former Paulettes.) It's as if their love and fascination for Jolie aligned perfectly with their loathing of "Inception" in a vehicle whose elements (as Bellamy indicated) are being mistaken for its execution. I know "Salt" is supposed to show me "how an action flick is done," but in fact it made me respect the ambition of Nolan's film more.

A more fitting comparison to "Salt" might be the superb French thriller "Tell No One." Both have elaborate chase sequences on freeways. Yet whereas "Salt"'s is a forgettable blur, the chase in "Tell No One" is riveting from start to finish, in part because its protagonist is a mild-mannered physician who inadvertently incites mayhem on the streets on Paris. I like Jolie as an actress (and a movie star) better than you, but her character in "Salt" is impervious to bullets or anything else, no matter how desperate she tries to appear while running. (Anna Faris's trail of disaster in "Smiley Face" was also better executed.)

I'm hoping a talented TV producer builds a comedy series around Faris for HBO or Showtime. That would be her best ticket to success.

FilmDr said...

There's still the question as to why Salt got so much high level praise. Does it have something to do with the film's proximity to Inception? Admiration for Jolie's feminist takeover of the Bond cliches? Or what? I was just amazed to see the amount of verbiage that Salt generated.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: First of all, thanks for the plug. Secondly, it's amazing you mentioned Tell No One.

Two nights ago I happened to be browsing DVDs at a store and saw that title. I wasn't thinking at all about the debate around Salt at the time, but for whatever reason I immediately thought of that terrific car chase scene and thought, "No, that is how you film action!" As you said, Tell No One approaches action in a way that is unmistakably different than, say, a Nolan film. As astounding as it is for me to read raves for Salt, I'm even more blown away by repeated suggestions (Seitz, Emerson, Zacharek, etc.) that the action isn't choppy. Compared to Nolan, sure, maybe it's less choppy. But I don't think it's as significant a difference as their reviews imply (intentionally or not).

Here's a strange analogy: The difference between Nolan action and the car chase scene in Tell No One is the difference between a hot tub and a cooler full of ice. The difference between Nolan's action and Salt's is the difference between a hot tub set at 110 degrees and one set at 100. There's a difference, sure, but if you go in one and not the other you're still sweating in a hot tub either way.

I'm going to follow through with my promise to see Salt again and really pay attention to the action and cuts and see if it matches its praise.

Anyway, I also think it's interesting that this is the lead of Ebert's review: ""Salt" is a damn fine thriller. It does all the things I can't stand in bad movies, and does them in a good one." MZS's rave was also highly qualified. It's as if many of these guys are trying to acknowledge Salt's faults for the purpose of not having to weigh them, as if to say, "OK, let's agree it's stupid ... now I'm going to tell you why it's great." The only problem there is that a lot of Nolan fans wish they'd take a similar attitude to his films.

Jason Bellamy said...

One more thing ...

I went into this movie having no idea who Phillip Noyce is. I knew his name sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it. Ironically, about halfway through Salt I thought, "This movie is like Patriot Games, except dull."

Steven Santos said...

"As astounding as it is for me to read raves for Salt, I'm even more blown away by repeated suggestions (Seitz, Emerson, Zacharek, etc.) that the action isn't choppy. Compared to Nolan, sure, maybe it's less choppy. But I don't think it's as significant a difference as their reviews imply (intentionally or not)."

I sometimes wonder whether some critics judge the filmmaking technique in relation to their other issues with the film. That's why the criticisms directed at "The Dark Knight" were understandable, but a bit perplexing to me to how harsh they were. Visually, neither "Dark Knight" or "Inception" were that hard for me to follow, though I criticized the lack of imagination in the visuals of the latter.

Paul Greengrass, whose action is probably considered more choppier, is actually easier for me to follow than Nolan's because every cut to each movement is so precise.

It seems like Nolan has been made the poster boy for bad direction, but I could name plenty of other instances in recent years where it was clear a director had no clue visually of the screen space, like the jungle chase in the last Indiana Jones film (from Steven Spielberg, of all people) or pretty much any action scene in "Star Trek" or the last half hour of "Avatar" (like Spielberg, I expected more visual clarity from Cameron). Granted, I didn't care much for those either, but even some bad films can have well-directed sequences (a few DePalma films come to mind).

Craig said...

FilmDr, Jason, Steven,

This is the kind of discussion that makes me enjoy critiquing other critics. "Salt" is a fascinating case study (perhaps, for one of Film Doc's students, even a thesis!) for a number of reasons. Normally, when a movie I think is just plain bad generates glowing reviews, it's the work of an auteur whose admirers will lap up anything thrown at them. (Admittedly, sometimes, knowing a filmmaker's body of work as intimately as they do, they point out something interesting that I hadn't noticed.) But Phillip Noyce? That's a strange one, and I think Jason's right: "Salt" is like "Patriot Games," without having nearly the same filmmaking efficiency or as compelling a villain. "Patriot Games" also has that amazing and troubling scene where Ford watches a commando team ambush an IRA training ground on a large computer screen. "Salt" comes nowhere close to the ingenuity of that sequence, and I bet Noyce would be the first to admit that.

That's purely my opinion, of course (along with a dollop of conjecture), and "Salt"'s fans are certainly entitled to theirs. As I wrote before, I enjoy their reviews more than the actual movie. But when I read claims that the action in the film isn't choppily edited, I think it can be proven factually that that isn't true. Which makes me think Steven is correct that some critics evaluate technique on how they feel about other aspects of the film. With "Salt," a film made by a craftsman rather than a auteur, they seem to be worshipping instead at the altar of the Goddess Angelina, with trickle-down praise for Noyce as the vessel who finally brought Her to us.

Craig said...

Taking off on another point of Steven's, are once great directors of action losing their sense of visual space due to their use of CGI? Spielberg and Cameron are good examples of this. Compare how the action flows in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or "The Terminator" to their recent efforts. Is using CGI in action sequences hampering their visual acuity? Is it a problem for filmmakers in general? (I'd be tempted to say yes, but Peter Jackson proved in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy that it can be done.)