Friday, November 28, 2008

Bollywood Ending: Tragedy, Art and Slumdog Millionaire

I have a confession to make. When I heard the news about the massacre in Mumbai, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt sorrow for the victims, and not just any Americans targeted in the attacks. I felt anger toward the perpetrators responsible for the death of innocents. And, of course, I felt a twinge of anxiety at the possibility that it could happen here. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that none of these was my first reaction. When I heard the news, my first reaction was: "What's going to happen to Slumdog Millionaire"?

In what has been a dud year for movies, Slumdog Millionaire is the one -- The One -- that I have been looking forward to seeing the most. It's always hard to say what's going to capture my fancy, but it's usually an amalgam of elements. In this case, it was initially the title, both playful and oxymoronish. Then came word of the director attached to the project, the Brit Danny Boyle, a visually hyperactive yet emotionally engaged filmmaker who has made his share of interesting features and colossal embarrassments but seemed karmically poised for a huge success. This was followed by my methodical perusing of the early reviews, which combined knee-jerk raves from the likes of Roger Ebert to huzzahs from typically stingier folks like Scott Foundas, whose appealing description of the film -- "ridiculously ebullient" -- transcended the usual marquee blurbage. Finally, I was intrigued by the locale of Mumbai, India, an overflowing metropolis in a country once described by a globetrotting colleague as his favorite point of destination. "It's beautiful and frustrating and wonderful," he said of India, with a tantalizing suggestion that it's never quite clear where one quality ends and another begins.

I still plan to see Slumdog Millionaire when it opens in mid-December in my neck of the woods, but the pall of reality has made me admittedly less eager. A sucker for box-office (as well as Oscar) sleepers, I'm also worried about its chances to connect with the public: will audiences enjoy the film -- also described, in more predictable blurbese, as a crowd-pleaser, the feel-good movie of the year -- or will the horrible bloodshed on the streets where it was filmed be their (our) only thought?

Sometimes the impact of tragedy on art is mere coincidence. When Hot Fuzz -- a sharp, funny spoof of cop movies, deliberately over-the-top with its violence -- was released a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings, a friend grimly quipped that the film just won the "Bad Timing Award." Indeed, box office was relatively tepid to what it might have been under ordinary circumstances; and while I enjoyed the picture and understood what Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and their accomplices were trying to do behind their barrage of gunplay, several of the laughs lodged uncomfortably in my throat.

In other instances, the consequences are more direct. Some years earlier, following the shocking murder of Phil Hartman, another friend and I were driving down the interstate when suddenly he exclaimed, "What's going to happen to The Simpsons"? He immediately expressed remorse for saying that, but he had a point: although Hartman was a semi-regular, his voicework -- spread across several characters, and which also could be called ridiculously ebullient -- was instrumental to the show's success.

It's easier for me now to laugh at Hot Fuzz than it is at The Simpsons. Freed of its untimely associations, Hot Fuzz holds up as a terrific comedy. The Simpsons, while still fitfully funny, hasn't aged well. This is because of several reasons that have nothing to do with Phil Hartman, but it still seems no coincidence that the series has never reached the same heights of creativity since.

Maybe, when it comes to art, I get angrier when it's comedy -- something that's supposed to make you laugh, forget your troubles, bond with your mates -- that suffers. I made the mistake of recommending sight-unseen what I'd thought would be lighthearted fare, Jonathan Demme's wedding-party crucible Rachel Getting Married, to a co-worker whose accompanying friend had previously lost a child -- not in the melodramatic manner of Anne Hathaway's Kym, but a terrible loss nonetheless. They ended up liking the movie more than I did, but my colleague admitted that afterward there had been a strain for conversation.

Escapism can be affected too, albeit less so when it's not entirely pure. On Thanksgiving Day, my parents and I went to see Quantum of Solace, the continuation of the Daniel-Craig-as-James-Bond saga following the astonishing Casino Royale. I haven't much to add to the negative reception of the latest Bond: the film is grinding and joyless, with set-pieces like an opera shootout that could have been classics in the hands of a great director (or even a good one like Casino's Martin Campbell) but with which Mark Forster reduces to hash. While watching the movie my thoughts drifted to Mumbai, and each time there was a change in locale (drab, uninspired vistas in Italy, Haiti, Bolivia) I kept hoping that India wouldn't be one of them. Turns out it wouldn't have mattered much. Quantum of Solace feints toward relevance, with a enviro-phony villain involved in something fittingly to do with oil and water: nothing meshes in this movie, an incomprehensible mess.

"Don't be so gloomy," Harry Lime, Orson Welles' blithe villain from The Third Man, advises Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins but could just as easily have said to James Bond, to Mumbai, to me. "Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love -- they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Certainly one could cite contemporary India -- no stranger to violence and upheaval, yet a leader in international cinema -- as further evidence of this.

Yet a provocative counterargument came last year courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose brilliant three-part South Park episode "Imaginationland" was re-aired by Comedy Central (coincidentally or not) the day after the Mumbai attacks. In "Imaginationland," the U.S. Government discovers to its horror that Islamic terrorists have "hijacked our imagination," presented as an actual parallel universe where all the lovable fictional characters ever created (including Dorothy of Oz, Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and, um, Jesus) find their Utopian tranquility threatened by suicide bombers. For all of its hilarious bits (my favorite being when a military commander explains to M. Night Shyamalan the difference between an idea and a twist), "Imaginationland" casts vivid light on our current reality, where regular Americans wake up wondering if today will be the day al-Qaeda strikes all fifty state capitals in unison. While something, in some form, may or may not be coming, the question posited by South Park is the crux of the matter: Should we let our fears consume our lives?

Although Parker and Stone argue persuasively that good art is a byproduct of a healthy society, there remains the fact that a comedy golden age occurred during the Great Depression, that film noir surfaced from the shadowy depths of the Cold War, that the last great era of American movies came in the time of Vietnam and Watergate. Although Slumdog Millionaire was made before our current economic tailspin, the plot of the film, as I understand it, clearly has the potential to transcend cultural barriers and connect with American audiences. But will we go for it now as enthusiastically as we may have before the images of the Taj Hotel in flames?

I will file another report after seeing the movie, but already I am fascinated by -- and half-dreading -- this unexpected collision between fantasy and reality. "Boyle and his team....clearly believe that a city like Mumbai, with its shifting skyline and a population of more than fifteen million, is as ripe for storytelling as Dickens’s London, and they may be right; hence the need to get their lenses dirty on its clogged streets," writes Anthony Lane. "At the same time, the story they chose is sheer fantasy, not in its glancing details but in its emotional momentum." As reportedly Slumdog Millionaire closes with a splashy production number, I am inclined to envision this momentum as less dramatic than musical. And this just might be what saves the movie.

A former history professor, whom I will call "Dr. Z," once told me that his threadbare video collection contained no comedies, because once you know a joke is coming you're less likely to laugh at it, and definitely no dramas, but only musicals. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Dr. Z said, he and wife were depressed beyond repair until they decided to put on their copy of Oklahoma! and were cheered by the lyrics to the opening song: "O-k-l-a-h-o-m-a...." I find this oddly inspiring, even if it leaves me uncertain, like the "It Don't Worry Me" ditty that climaxes the assassination at the end of Robert Altman's Nashville, as to whether it's a means of ignoring tragedy or facing it head-on.

What I do know is that familiar axioms -- life is precious, time is short -- reveal their truth in difficult times. Filled with foreboding about Wall Street's impact on our culture, James Wolcott wisely notes that a "hunkered-down, bunkered-in period of cautious retrenchment smothers creative energies, and art is in what infuses life with meaning and pleasure, takes our minds off of death and paperwork." The events in Mumbai this week have brought death to the forefront again; some may argue that that is where it will always remain. So why is it that I see something hopeful in realms both fact and fiction -- from the startling image of birds in flight over the fiery Taj to my stubborn anticipation of a Bollywood ending?

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I had high hopes for Baby Mama that it might be an unsung sleeper during its opening thirty minutes, which sets up the premise of Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey), a professionally successful, personally empty 37-year-old woman so in the throes of baby fever that she hires the lower-class Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) to have a child for her. The set-up is brisk and amusing, with unusually careful attention paid to distributing laughs among the game supporting cast: Steve Martin as Kate's wealthy aging hippie boss; Sigourney Weaver as the improbably still-conceiving head of the surrogate agency; Maura Tierney as Kate's grounded older sister; Romany Malco as the doorman to her apartment complex; Dax Shepard seemingly doing a riff on Jeremy Sisto's tiresome white-trash hubbie from Waitress. Granted, Greg Kinnear shows up as the obligatory love interest, but you can't have everything.

It's not Kinnear's fault (though his flaccid presence doesn't help) that all the threads in Baby Mama unspool precisely at the moment they should tighten -- when Angie and Kate become roommates. From their early Saturday Night Live days to the classic sketch during our recent presidential campaign featuring Poehler as a deadpan, eye-blinking Katie Couric and Fey as John McCain's low-key, media-shy running mate, the pair have always had great chemistry. But writer-director Michael McCullers makes the same mistake as countless other contemporary filmmakers by substituting the farce with sappiness. The leads can't get a rhythm going, the primed ensemble is left stranded rather than brought into the plot, and the air goes out of the movie. It's easy to forgive amateurish direction and staging if a comedy will just be funny.

Thank goodness Fey's 30 Rock seems to be righting itelf. In my pan of the season premiere, I voiced concern that the show's edge had been dulled. Two episodes later and I'm somewhat more relieved. Last week's made more clever use of Oprah Winfrey than I would have imagined possible. This week's was a more scattershot affair, featuring Jennifer Aniston as Liz's visiting sex-crazed pal. (How or why they would be buddies in the first place is left unsaid.) There was the occasional episode of Friends that hinted Aniston's knack for screwball comedy -- donning a cheerleader outfit in one episode (long story), making a giddily drunken phone call in another. About all Aniston brings to the table these days is tabloid baggage: I haven't seen her in anything in years, yet I'm tired of looking at her. She's energetic doing what looks like a roundabout send-up of Angelina Jolie's craziness, but her spirit is heavy. (Not to rub salt in the wound, but Jolie also happens to be a good actress; Aniston is not.)

Nevertheless, I laughed a lot, thanks mainly to the "B" plot involving the efforts of Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) to reunite the cast of Night Court for the finale wedding that never was. As a kid I was a big fan of Night Court, one of those shows that didn't have a lot of depth or meaning (when it tried, it fell flat) but was nearly always pretty funny. Despite the unexplained absence of John Larroquette, Marsha Warfield and Richard Moll, it was fun to see Harry Anderson, Markie Post and Charles Robinson and all the meta references to the series, particularly when an exasperated Anderson says, "Markie, will you do me the honor of being my fake wife so we can get our money and get the hell out of here?" She gushes, "I've waited fifteen years to hear you say those words!" That's the kind of sentiment good comedy needs.

Brawl in the Family

Is Armond White going soft? Years of fulmigating about liberal "hipsters," and now he's giving them the kid-gloves treatment: effusive praise for Oliver Stone's W., (a movie I may have overrated a tad myself); hosannas for Mike Leigh's socialist rib-tickler Happy-Go-Lucky; a generous toast to Jonathan Demme's multicultural Obama-fest Rachel Getting Married. Then again, Armond has always had a soft-spot for familial love, even when the family is as unconvincing as the one in Rachel.

Advertised as a cheery comedy, Rachel Getting Married is actually a dour hodgepodge of the worst tendencies of "independent filmmaking" that White's always railing on about. The screenplay by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) is her first, and it's filled with rookie mistakes: the enunciating of every emotion; the random acquaintance that the main character just happens to bump into who inadvertently spills the beans in front of the others; and, of course, The Tragedy From The Past that casts a pall over the proceedings. All shot by Demme with hand-held camerawork so jittery you half-expect Jason Bourne to crash the party. In the immeasurably lighter and more unassuming Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell was able to make the audience feel like a guest at the titular events without relying on cheap devices. It's time to give this visual style a rest.

Give Demme points, though, for earnestness, however brainless it may be at times. He depicts an integrated marriage between a Caucasian bride and an African-American groom without a lot of preachiness (though the white family is given all the dysfunctional character traits, while the black characters are reduced to the usual insulting role of dispensing virtuous pearls of wisdom). And Lumet has a nugget of a clever idea by making her protagonist, Kym (Anne Hathaway), an antihero who leaves drug rehab to wreak havoc on the two families who have congregated at her father's Connecticut estate for her sister's nuptials. There's something potentially invigorating in throwing a look-at-me narcissist into an event that is always the ultimate display of narcissism, and an early scene where Kym emotionally blackmails big sis Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) into letting her be maid-of-honor (her best friend had originally been offered the part) is effective enough that I wish Demme and Lumet had taken this conceit even further to explore just how far Kym will go to get what she wants.

But, alas, The Tragedy From The Past haunts her still, so that instead of exploiting the perpetual worrying of her father (Bill Irwin) to her advantage, Kym expresses annoyance that his doting is suffocating her. Nowhere to go dramatically there. Ditto her toast at the rehearsal dinner, which could have been wonderfully savage, degenerates into embarrassing psychobabble. Even the only purely entertaining scene, a contest involving a dishwasher, is given the killjoy treatment when The Tragedy rears its ugly head again, as if Demme decided to punish us for laughing.

Several critics infatuated with Rachel Getting Married have nitpicked the last act, when the musicians who have been teetering along the margins of the movie take center stage, but I enjoyed the respite from all the overheated melodrama. My misgivings take nothing away from the actors. DeWitt (whom I didn't recognize as Midge the beatnik from Mad Men) does her part to forge an exasperated yet loving sibling rivalry. Irwin conveys a sweet melancholy. As Kym's estranged mother, Debra Winger cuts through the bull with a mighty fist. And Hathaway gives it her all. It's a career-changing performance, perhaps akin to Jodie Foster's turn as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. That film was preposterous too, but Demme had Anthony Hopkins -- his ace in the hole -- to challenge Clarice, toy with her, and finally grant her absolution. If the lambs won't stop screaming for Kym, it's because Demme and Lumet surround her with enablers (Winger's character excluded) rather than somebody who might force the girl to raise her game. What would Hannibal Lecter have made of her?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Accentuate the Positive

A few months ago, Jason Bellamy wrote a post exploring how one can initially dislike a movie only to come around to enjoying it later. His personal example, The Player, prompts me to take the argument even further to confess there are filmmakers I didn't get for a long time --such as The Player's own Robert Altman -- but now whose body of work I admire greatly. I still, however, have yet to get Mike Leigh. Not for lack of trying: I gave up halfway through Naked and Life is Sweet; Brenda Blethyn's Oscar-baiting blubbering (does she have another mode?) in Secrets & Lies had me cringing beneath a pillow; Topsy-Turvy, Leigh's most acclaimed picture to date, is the only English-language film I've ever seen where I needed subtitles to follow.

It's possible that I'm wrong about those movies, and that I'm also wrong about his latest recipient of sparkling reviews, Happy-Go-Lucky. Not that it's a bad film. It boasts one terrific performance -- though not from the actor drawing all the praise -- and it held my attention to the end. Still, watching an entire Mike Leigh movie from start to finish had the effect of confirming a long-held suspicion: behind his "improvisational" way of making a movie lies some pretty schematic plotting. It's obvious early on, when the indefatigably cheerful Poppy (Sally Hawkins) can't even get a hello out of a surly bookstore clerk, that she will repeatedly encounter one dour member of the human race after another until her entire worldview is put to the test.

The scenes don't flow seamlessly either, like Altman at his best. Watching Leigh's films, I'm always aware of the strings being pulled. A flamenco dancer's histrionics during a class strain credulity. A handsome social worker (Samuel Roukin) shows up less for a child abuse subplot than to help Poppy get laid. The schema works most effectively in the escalating battle of wills between Poppy and a driving instructor who hates the world. As the latter, Eddie Marsan is saddled with some overwrought cliches (nobody can just be angry in Leigh's world; they have to be racist and evangelical too); yet the actor is marvelous at conveying several emotions at once. Even when he finally, terrifyingly lashes out, he still somehow earns a measure of sympathy.

Problem is, the set-up to this climax lacks a step or two to make it plausible. (Compare it to how well Altman prepares you for Chris Penn's horrific burst of violence at the end of Short Cuts.) And while Hawkins radiates energy and decency in the lead, she can't make Poppy completely credible either. "Happy people" may lead better and healthier lives (a common claim of which I'm skeptical), but from what I have seen they don't own a monopoly on happiness. Coming from others less upbeat, the emotion might even mean more. It was only a week ago in this country that numerous cynics like myself were reduced to tears of joy. However lasting or temporary the feeling might be, it's living proof that nobody is any one thing.