Saturday, July 14, 2012

Coming in Threes (Savages and Design for Living)

The funniest moment at last week's screening of Savages came during the preview for the absurd-looking thriller Alex Cross, when Tyler Perry's wife asks sincerely, "Why would you want to leave Detroit?", and my friend's wife let out a belly-laugh that reverberated in the theater. Still, I disagree with the rap on Oliver Stone that he has no sense of humor: I chuckled all throughout his new movie; it's just often unclear what it is that he means to be funny. Are we supposed to snicker at Blake Lively's voiceover during the intro sex scene, where her character, "O," says of Taylor Kitsch's study war vet Chon, "I had orgasms; he had wargasms"? (James Wolcott tweeted: "That line was better when Norman Mailer said it.") Or that the characters are named O (short for Ophelia) and Chon? (I know, it's out of the book.) I'm pretty sure Benicio del Toro's pompadour is meant for laughs. It's the kind of eccentric touch that the actor is famous for, as is a scene with John Travolta's corrupt DEA agent, where del Toro, playing a drug-cartel henchman, removes the tomatoes from Travolta's sandwich before taking a bite out of it, adding a humorous edge to a murderous character.

A lot of Savages plays like Stone finally discovered Breaking Bad but started shooting before the seminal fourth season, where the thrillingly dense narrative of Vince Gilligan's series had far more impact and nuance than Stone and novelist/co-writer Don Winslow's take on Caucasian wannabe drug lords taking on the Hispanic real deals. The third member of Chon and O's trinity, the Buddhist do-gooder Ben (Aaron Johnson), experiences the movie's harshest tests - on the naive worldview that he and his friends can profit from their product without consequences. An even sharper counterpoint to this than del Toro's Lado is the latter's boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), a rare instance of a woman running the drug trade. The misogyny rap on Stone lost its validity years ago, and Elena is another example of a strong Stone (anti-)heroine: Hayek's mercurial shifts between professional ruthlessness and personal emotion, particularly after her maternal feelings stirred by O, whom she kidnaps and holds hostage, is her finest acting since Frida.

The complex yet knuckleheaded plot - threats, double-crosses, bullets to the head, torture, explosions, the usual - would render Savages utterly forgettable were it not for Stone's playfulness. His style, which turned deliberately deadpan in the underrated black comedy W., is back in revved-up, overheated mode; yet the cinematography by Daniel Mindel, a veteran of the JJ Abrams/Tony Scott School of Ugly Visuals, features a vibrantly orange palette, never garish, with lens flares used sparingly for effect. Stone's politics are indeed on display again here, but his views on drugs are far more banal than his epicurean/bisexual side - which, as in Alexander, critics seem eager to ignore (or, at most, make quips about and move quickly on). Chon, Ben, and O are depicted as a loving, trusting threesome that astonishingly doesn't break down by the end. Stone isn't out to teach his young characters (and the audience) a lesson; he's with them completely, invested in their fates. "They must love each other," Elena tells O about her friends, "or else how could they share you?" It's the movie's most insightful moment, suggestive of the real revolution if it ever comes.

 The cleverest quip about Savages came from somebody who tweeted, in effect, "Finally, Oliver Stone's remake of Design of Living."  I laughed knowingly at this zinger, then promptly tracked down the Ernst Lubitsch film to know what I was laughing about. The movie was both what I expected and much more - a 1933 comedy so light and frothy it doesn't really sink in until afterward just how radical it is. Released the year before the Production Code started cracking down, Design stars the usually solemn Gary Cooper and Fredric March as a pair of American expatriates in Paris who fall for fellow yankee Miriam Hopkins, who finds herself equally in love with the two studs and decides to keep them both. Agreeing to keep things platonic, George (Cooper) and Tom (March) invite Gilda (Hopkins) to live with them in their low-rent bohemian studio, where she functions as a kind of counterintuitive muse to George's painting and Tom's playwriting. ("Rotten!" is her standard opinion.) Initial professional struggles lead to eventual success, but not before the three-way "gentleman's agreement" is put to the test.

With all due respect to Nora Ephron, the recipient of glowing epitaphs in the wake of her recent passing, a fundamental truth needs acknowledging: Her movies stink. Ephron's biggest successes, like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail (a remake of Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner) have a dismaying toothlessness completely antithetical to the acid wit in her literary essays; and they helped kill the screwball comedy - a genre in which a pair of crazies are stuck with each other because they realize normal life isn't for them - by ushering in the modern romcom - a genre in which a pair of drips get together because, by golly, it's Destiny! In Design for Living, it's a sign of Lubitsch's subversiveness - as well as screenwriter Ben Hecht's and original playwright Noel Coward's - that "normalcy" comes in the ludicrous shape of Max Plunkett (the marvelous Edward Everett Horton), Gilda's affluent, asexual boss with designs on marrying her. Making Ralph Bellamy's characters from the same era look virile, Plunkett isn't portrayed as a villain; he just represents the kind of life that Gilda can't fit into, no matter how hard she tries (even her name is pronounced differently from what you'd expect, with a "J" sound instead of a hard "G").

Everything about Design for Living is delightfully funny, from Hopkins' terrific performance (worthy of the best of Stanwyck, Hepburn, Dunne, and Lombard) to Cooper's charming awkwardness at playing light comedy. Yet Lubitsch finds room to slip in some truth and poignancy, sometimes on the fly, as when the impoverished George tells Plunkett, "I survive on miracles." It feels miraculous indeed that Lubitsch and Hecht's adaptation ever reached the screen and looks eighty years later more daring and groundbreaking than ever, compared to our bland, stunted Ephronic notions of what love can be.



Adam Zanzie said...

Now I need to see Design for Living. I like the Lubitsch films I'e seen but had never heard of this one when I saw that tweet quipping Stone had remade it, so I wasn't sure if the tweet was a praise or a criticism of Savages. Judging by your review of it, though, Stone might be flattered by the comparison.

Absolutely 100% in agreement with you that Stone is a better humorist/writer of female roles than critics give him credit for. Thankfully, nobody seems to be trying to take Stone to task over this in regards to Savages, although it appears as though the only thing everybody wants to do is complain about the movie's ending. I haven't seen this much anger over an ending since No Country, except whereas that movie got splendid reviews, Savages got pretty lukewarm ones. Is it poissible this movie will be better appreciated on DVD? Or are critics and audiences just going to despise Stone forever and ever!?

Craig said...

I think the "Design" tweet was a criticism, but you're right, Stone probably would be flattered by it. It definitely was for me the most interesting part of the movie: at least in theory; onscreen, I found the lead trio (Lively especially) rather vacuous. Frankly, I think "Savages" is going to look even more dopey in a few years, but I could be wrong.

Jason Bellamy said...

Interesting comparison/linkage. My gut tells me that SAVAGES isn't a good movie (sorry, Adam), but you've piqued my curiosity, certainly.

Erich Kuersten said...

Damn right Porlock! Funny thing I've not seen Savages but am working on a post about cinema's coolest threesomes and I just stumbled on this post via a friend's blog's blogroll.

I admire your honesty - "I laughed knowingly" before seeing Design for Living. We need more of that in this blogville Porlock! keep up the good work, let us link in comradeship. (

Craig said...

Apologies for the embarrassingly late reply, Erich, but thank you for your comment. I've enjoyed your blog as well.