Movie Reviews - 2009 postsMonday October 19, 2009
Review: “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” (2009)
YOO HOO! SPOILERS!
I’m a big fan of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” documentarian Aviva Kempner’s unabashed love letter to the 1930s Detroit Tigers’ slugger, so I thought “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” Ms. Kempner’s unabashed love letter to radio and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, “the Oprah of the 1930s,” would be right up my alley.
I left wondering if maybe Kempner wasn’t too close to a subject I knew too little about.
“The Goldbergs,” a daily radio show created by Berg (nee Tilly Edelstein) from old skits she performed at her father’s Catskills Mountain resort in Fleischmanns, NY, debuted on NBC radio the week after the October 1929 stock market crash. It concerned the comings and goings of a Jewish family—mother Molly (Berg), father Jake, children Sammy and Rosalie, and Uncle David—in a Lower East Side tenement, as they tried to both assimilate in America and not lose old world values.
Verisimilitude was big with Berg. She often visited the Lower East Side for ideas and dialogue, and out of this came Molly’s habit of calling up the airshafts to her neighbor: “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloo-oo-oom!” If Molly cooked eggs in her kitchen, Berg cooked eggs in the studio. During the Seder after Kristalnacht, a rock was thrown through the Goldbergs’ window. During World War II, families often referenced boys off fighting or relatives left behind in Nazi-occupied Europe.
It was a hit. The show became the second-most-popular show on the radio, after “Amos n’ Andy,” while Berg was voted the second-most-respected woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. At the same time, the doc reminds us of the anti-Semitic touchstones of the period: Kristalnacht, Father Coughlin, bund rallies in Madison Square Garden.
This shouldn’t be a disconnect—Rush Limbaugh has the most popular radio show in an America that still elected Barack Obama—but it’s enough of one to raise questions. “The Goldbergs” was the second-most-popular show...in all of America? Including the South? What year or years? And what year or years was Berg voted the second-most-respected woman in America, and by whom?
Basically Kempner shows us this square peg but doesn’t tell us how it fit into the round hole of 1930s America. She posits “The Goldbergs” as unique—the first family sitcom; the only ethnic show where creative control was held by that ethnicity—but doesn’t tell us what it was unique against. I’m sorry but I'm blank on 1930s radio. The talking heads, mostly Jewish, mostly female, give a ton of love but not much perspective. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, says everyone she knew growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn listened to “The Goldbergs,” but that hardly feels like news. How did it do in Wisconsin? That’s what I want to know.
Eventually, the show was cancelled, in 1945, but was reborn in the new medium, television, on January 17, 1949. Was it the first TV sitcom? The first domestic TV sitcom? Did Berg introduce the nosy neighbor? That’s what people who love the show imply. Do we believe them? Ehh. By surrounding us with fans of the show, Kempner is actually shortchanging the show.
The episodes themselves, which ran live, are fascinating to see. Each began with Molly (Berg again) talking directly to the camera as to a neighbor, welcoming us in. “Greetings from our family to your family,” she says. She pitches corporate sponsor Sanka, and, via window-conversation with her neighbors, introduces the episode’s conflict. Then we go indoors and watch it all unfold.
But a conflict about the show—about America, really—turned out to be more compelling than any conflict on the show.
Broadway actor and union activist Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, Jake, was one of the 151 entertainers listed in “Red Channels,” the 1950 anti-communist tract about supposed communist influence in the industry, and in Sept. 1950, General Foods, which sponsored “The Goldbergs,” told Berg, “You have two days to get rid of Philip Loeb.” Berg resisted, and the doc makes much of this resistance. But a few months later CBS cancelled “The Goldbergs.” When it returned, a year and a half later and on a different network, there was a new actor playing Jake. When he didn’t work out, a third actor replaced him. Three years, later, as “The Goldbergs” wound up its run, being filmed now rather than performed live, and with the family assimilated in the Connecticut suburbs rather than struggling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Loeb took his own life in a New York hotel room. Twenty years later, he became the inspiration for Zero Mostel’s Hecky Brown in “The Front.”
These revelations are so stunning—to me anyway, a longtime fan of “The Front”—that they almost upend the documentary. One wonders: Should this have been the focus of the doc? Should “Red Channels”?
It doesn’t help that Berg, so innovative in the industry, hardly seems present in her own story. What do we learn about her? She dressed nice. Her father disapproved of her work and her mother wound up in a mental institution. She was a workaholic. But how she felt about Loeb? How she felt about anything? Who knows? There doesn’t seem to be much there there.
In terms of tone and structure, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is similar to “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," but it shouldn’t be. There was no Philip Loeb to sour Greenberg’s story. And if Greenberg’s personality wasn’t exactly dazzling, well, he was a ballplayer. He wasn't supposed to have personality. Besides, you still walked away from the doc with a sense you knew him. Not so with Berg.
Most important, Hank Greenberg is forever—people who know baseball will always know his name—but Gertrude Berg is not. That, in fact, is the doc’s raison d’etre: “The Most Famous Woman in America You've Never Heard Of,” reads the tagline. So why did Berg fade while contemporaries, such as Jack Benny and George Burns, did not? Were they funnier? More talented? More male? Less Jewish? It should be the doc’s main question yet it’s hardly asked at all.
Love letters are well and fine; but this one could’ve used a little more letter, a little less love.
Review: “A Serious Man” (2009)
WARNING: FARMISHT SPOILERS
For most of my adult life I’ve suspected myself of being fairly Jewish for a gentile kid from Minnesota. I blame the usual suspects: Roth, Doctorow, Mailer, Bellow, the Marx Bros., Woody Allen, Seinfeld. I’ve been made an honorary Jew by Jewish friends, been told by gentile friends that I’m the most Jewish gentile they know.
Friday night, halfway through the Coen brothers new film, “A Serious Man,” I had the following epiphany: I have no fucking clue.
First they get all Hebrew on my ass. A gett? Hashem? Haftorah? Shabbos? Then they go Old Testament. “Actions have consequences,” Prof. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stahlbarg) tells Clive (David Kang), a Korean foreign-exchange student attempting to bribe him to get a better grade. “Yes, often,” Clive quickly agrees. “Always,” Gopnik tells him.
Don’t even get me started on the prologue with the dybbuk.
It’s 1967 and Gopnik is a professor of physics who teaches the uncertainty principle and then lives it when his wife asks for a divorce, a ritual Jewish divorce, or gett, so she can remarry within her faith. To Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed). “Sy Abelman?” Larry asks incredulously. He seems more perplexed for her reasons than her actions. So are we when we finally meet Sy. He’s bald and bearded, hardly Gregory Peck, but he’s controlling in a moist, maternal way—he’s forever hugging Larry—rather than being controlled by, as Larry often is.
Gopnik is the kind of man who timidly obsesses over small details—such as the property line with the Brandts, his stoic, hunting-happy Minnesota neighbors—and misses the big picture. Not only is his wife leaving him but his kids have left him. His son, Danny, is a mess of sixties contradictions: he has that classic Beatles haircut (redhaired version), smokes pot, listens to Jefferson Airplane, but only cares to talk with his father when the reception for “F Troop,” the lamest of ‘60s sitcoms, comes in fuzzy. His daughter, Sarah, only talks to her father to complain about Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, hogging the bathroom to drain the cyst in his neck. When Larry gets banished from the marital bed, Arthur is the reason he doesn’t even get the couch in his own home—Arthur’s already there—he gets a cot next to the couch. Everyone wants something from Larry but never Larry. “We should wait,” he says at the dinner table when Uncle Arthur hasn’t arrived yet. “Are you kidding?” Danny responds and everyone starts in. Soon Larry is the one they don’t wait for. He and Arthur have been banished to The Jolly Roger, a nearby moto-lodge.
That’s at home. At work he’s being considered for tenure but letters arrive denigrating him. Dick Dutton from the Columbia Record Club, that great ‘60s scam, keeps calling abut money he owes. Then Clive’s father shows up accusing Larry of 1) defamation, because Larry accused his son of a bribe, and then pleading 2) cultural differences, because Larry didn’t accept the bribe.
Larry’s helpless before this kind of illogic. He can’t extricate himself from it. Life has the quality of a nightmare: Everything’s repetitive—Sy keeps hugging him, the Brandts keep playing catch, Arthur keeps draining his cyst—and everything’s unknowable. Dream sequences in other films are usually easy-to-spot but in the Coens’ films they blend almost seamlessly with life, so we in the audience are in the position of the dreamer: We don’t know what’s dream until it’s over. And even then. By the pool last night—did that happen?
Once Larry establishes that nothing is established—that everything he thought was one way is another—the film can be divided into three parts, or three solutions to this dilemma, based upon the three rabbis he visits at his temple, the “well of tradition” he tries to draw from.
The first, and youngest rabbi, is Rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg), who counsels seeing everything—everything—as an expression of God’s will. To see it all anew. This is the closest of the three to a Christian vision of life. “Look at the parking lot, Larry!” Rabbi Scott announces proudly, peeking through his horizontal blinds at the asphalt outside. Larry tries to carry this Pollyannaish mood to the office of his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), who looks at him as if he’s crazy. Then during the meeting he gets an emergency phone call from his son. What’s wrong, Danny? That pipsqueak voice: “F-Troop” is fuzzy again, Dad. How can we look at life anew when it’s so repetitive? This section ends when Larry gets into a fender-bender after cursing out Clive on his bicycle, while, at the same time, Sy, trying to make a left turn into a goyisher country club, dies in a car accident. Actions have consequences. Always.
The second, middle-aged rabbi, is Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), who tells Larry stories that at least seem headed toward the direction of eternal questions. He tells about the goy’s teeth, for example, a story about a dentist, Dr. Sussman, who, after making a mould for Russell Kraus, finds the phrase, ‘Help me, Save me,’ in Hebrew on the back of his incisors. He searches other people’s mouths for messages and gets nothing. He translates the letters into numbers and gets nowhere. And the Rabbi sits back, pleased with his story. Gopnik’s confused. “What did you tell Sussman?” Gopnik asks. “Sussman?” the rabbi answers. “Is it relevant?” “What happened to the goy?” Gopnik asks. “The goy?” the rabbi answers. “Who cares?” Told that you can’t know everything, Gopnik finally loses it. “Sounds like you don’t know anything,” he says, voice rising.
At this stage, more of life becomes unknowable. Detectives come looking for Uncle Arthur, for gambling. Cops bring home Uncle Arthur, charged with sodomy. Gopnik suspects his wife of draining their bank account. He gets high with his sexy neighbor, whom he’d seen nude-sunbathing from his roof. An old lawyer, about to reveal the secret to the Brandts’ property line, suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. “I am not an evil man!” he tells a colleague. “I’ve tried to be a serious man,” he tells the world. And there’s our title. We first heard it used to describe Sy Abelman at his funeral. A serious man. An able man. As opposed to a Gopnik? What is Larry’s crime? Not to God but to the Coens—who are, admittedly, the gods of this universe. Is it the foolishness of the assumption that good fortune follows good deeds, and thus bad fortune must follow bad deeds, and yet—he keeps asking himself—what bad deeds? Is it the foolishness of the “Why me?” question, when the universe, if it could answer, would simply answer, “Why not you?”
The final rabbi, the eldest and wisest and most difficult to see, is Rabbi Marshak (Alan Mandell), and Gopnik isn’t allowed to see him. He’s as silent to Gopnik as God is. But we get to see him. After his bar mitzvah, Danny, still stoned, visits Marshak, who, slowly, Yiddishly, delivers this pearl of wisdom:
When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
The boy smiles, recognizing the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” which the rabbi first heard after Danny’s transistor radio was taken from him at the beginning of the film. “Be a good boy,” the rabbi finally says. Is this doddering wisdom or ultimate wisdom?
Who knows? There’s a scene early in the movie where Larry ascends the roof of his ranch-style house to fix the antenna so Danny can watch “F-Troop,” and he checks out the view over the other, ranch-style homes in this flat Minnesota neighborhood. It’s the shot on the poster, in which Larry looks decisive. He’s less so in the movie: all dress shoes and highwaters on a slanted roof, and the view isn’t exactly revelatory. Until he sees his neighbor, nude-sunbathing, and forgets everything else. That antenna on his roof only picks up so much—now this channel but not that channel—and all of us are pretty much the same: We only receive so much, and usually we go for “F-Troop” or get distracted by the nude sunbather. There’s an old proverb—“Man thinks, God laughs”—and much of the Coens’ work feels built upon this proverb. Their characters are helpless trying to fathom it all.
Give the Coens this: They get the details right. I was born in Minnesota in 1963 and seeing this film gave me flashbacks. I got as dizzy as Gopnik got on his roof looking at his nude neighbor. Mr. Brandt, the detective, the cop: they all have these classic, bland, Harmon Killebrew-type Minnesota faces from the period. The burnt orange Larry’s sexy neighbor wears is the exact right burnt orange for the coming age of Aquarius. The iced-tea glass she gives Gopnik is the exact right iced-tea glass. There’s a scene at a lake, Uncle Arthur at a neighborhood lake, and Gopnik on the shore complaining to a friend that he doesn’t deserve the miseries that are being visited upon him, and even that lake, somehow, feels exactly like a lake in 1967. I don’t know how they did that. The iced-tea glasses I can see; they can be manufactured or bought at a Value Village. But where does one get a lake from 1967? Is it the clothes and the bathing suits people are wearing, the landscaping that was done, the angle of the light in which the DP chose to film it—like the light of a slightly faded photograph? Is it all of the above? Nothing the Coens do is frivolous and yet little of it makes sense.
The ending of “A Serious Man,” which is a film about unknowability, and which is written and directed by the brothers who gave us the uncertain end of “No Country for Old Men,” shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, although it will, I’m sure, lead to debate. It’s already led to the internal kind.
Gopnik, assured of tenure, seemingly back with his wife, and the father of a son who’s now a man, gets the bill for his brother’s criminal defense attorney, Ron Meshbesher—who is, in reality, one of the more famous criminal defense attorneys in Minnesota—and it’s exorbitant. And he thinks about the envelope full of Korean bribe-money still in his desk drawer and eyes Cliff’s grade in his gradebook. The weather’s turning. In Hebrew school, Danny and others are being led outside because of one of Minnesota’s numerous tornado warnings, but the rabbi has trouble unlocking the door to the shelter. And as Gopnik in his office changes Cliff’s grade from an F to a C-, Danny sees the dark tornado funnel heading their way. THE END.
My first reaction: Aw, crap.
My second reaction: OK, unknowability, uncertainty. Way to emphasize the point, boys.
Third reaction: Or maybe it’s the opposite. Actions have consequences—always—and this disaster is what Gopnik’s slight indiscretion has wrought. By accepting the bribe, changing the grade, he loses his son—and anyone else in the tornado’s path. It’s Old Testament, baby. It’s Malamadic. The problem with Gopnik isn’t that he assumes that good fortune follows good deeds; it’s that he doesn’t assume it enough. He doesn’t live his life by it.
Fourth reaction: Or is the tornado metaphoric? Gopnik is feeling settled again in his life in suburban Minnesota in 1967 but there’s a tornado coming his way and our way: the rest of the sixties. A tornado that will upend everything.
Final reaction: I think, the Coens laugh.
Review of “Bright Star” (2009)
WARNING: ODE TO SPOILERS
The Uptown Theater in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood unintentionally helped its audience empathize with John Keats (Ben Whishaw), the doomed protagonist in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” during its first show the other afternoon. As Keats coughed from tuberculosis, shivered in the rain and fled to the warmer weather of Naples and Rome, we in the audience sat for two hours in the cold, seemingly unheated theater. By the time Keats succumbed, we were chilled to the bone. Right there with ya, bro.
“Bright Star” is a lovely film about doomed love told at a leisurely pace, which raises—at least in me—the following questions: Does love need lethargy to bloom? Does it inspire lethargy? If you’re deeply in love, what else do you want or need besides your love? What do you pursue? The world is too much reduced. Maybe in this sense all young loves are doomed. We either lose the love or lose the world.
The key to “Bright Star,” though, as with all love stories, is less the love than the forces that keep the lovers apart.
Initially young Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), expert seamstress, and John Keats, failed poet, roundly savaged by the critics of his day, are strangers in Hamstead Village, London, 1818. They meet, talk of wit, talk of fashion, become intrigued. His brother dies, she sympathizes. She’s headstrong, as are all cinematic heroines during this period, and she buys and reads his book of poems, Endymion, which begins:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Nice thought! She doesn’t quite know what to make of it. “Are you frightened to speak truthfully?” he asks. “Never,” she replies, headstrong. Then she confesses she doesn’t really know poetry. He confesses he doesn’t really know women. They solve their mutual dilemma by having him teach her poetry.
The main aesthetic principle attributed to Keats is negative capability, “when man,“ he once wrote, ”is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Shakespeare was the master, he felt, and in the film he describes the principle to Fanny via metaphor. Why do you dive into a lake? To swim to the other side? No. It’s for the experience of being surrounded by water. And that’s what poetry is.
These lessons take place over the protestations of his housemate and contemporary, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who, either from pettiness, jealousy, or genuine worry that Fanny will distract the great man, is one of the forces trying to keep them apart. He has the equally thankless role of playing Salieri to Keats’ Amadeus: the contemporary who recognizes the unrecognized genius and knows he’ll never measure up. Plus he chases after dull maids and knocks them up. Dude's a piece of work.
But there's a greater force keeping them apart: He’s a poet whose books don’t sell. He has no means of support.
Still, despite the mores of the time, they fall in love. Her family—mother, gawky silent younger brother, cute button of a red-haired baby sister—move into the duplex Keats and Brown share, where Fanny and Keats now have nothing but a wall separating them. Sometimes, rarely at the same time, they press their faces against this wall. It's the physical representation of all those forces keeping them apart.
These forces are no match for Spring. The weather warms, the bees flit around the flowers, and Mrs. Brawne says, “Mr. Keats is being a bee.” Indeed. He and Fanny go for a walk, and he tells her of a dream and talks of lips. “Whose lips?” she asks teasingly. “Were they my lips?” They kiss. The kiss comes as a shock. We get that? They get that? The film, quiet anyway, drops to murmurs. The music overwhelms. Is it Mozart? Baby sister fetches them and they play a game on the way back, freezing in their tracks when she turns around. Fanny lays on her bed, the breeze billowing the curtains. Life is suspended and buzzing. It’s opened up—all senses—but reduced to the next walk, hand hold, glance. Campion is close to brilliant here. Her film isn’t just about first love; it feels like first love.
But being in love is never the story. So Keats travels to the Isle of Wight to write, to try to make a living, and Fanny is left behind. Ah, but the letters. He writes, says he wishes they could be butterflies, living three perfect summer days and expiring, and she and her siblings collect butterflies and fill her room. “When I don’t hear from him,” she confesses to her mother, “it’s as if I’d die.” One can't help but remember one's own first love. Mine took place in the late 1980s, and, though 170 years had passed, the means of communication, give or take a telephone, were more or less the same. Twenty years later, they're not. Do young lovers today still send letters? How does one clutch an e-mail to one’s chest? There is no more daily waiting for the postman. Now the wait is 24/7. Has she written? Has she written? Has she written? I think I’d go crazy. Or crazier.
When the Isle of Wight doesn’t change his fortunes, Keats seeks them in London, and the dead butterflies are swept up. But he keeps returning in all kinds of weather. Does anyone go to “Bright Star” not knowing Keats’ end? Watching, I kept thinking of that Seymour Glass poem from J.D. Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:
Please put your scarf on
When Brown says, “Mr. Keats has gone to London with no coat,” I knew this was it. But even death is drawn out in the 19th century.
My disappointment with the film is in its end, dealing, as it does, with the pain of those left behind and not with the mystery of the final barrier. Does Keats have his face pressed to that wall or is he dissolved like the butterflies? The film should’ve dove into those mysteries, surrounded us with them. What happened to him and her and their love? Did it pass into nothingness or is it a joy forever? Or am I irritably clutching after?
“Bright Star” is a wholly evocative film. See it not to find out what happens. See it for the sensation of surrounding yourself with it.
Review: “The Invention of Lying” (2009)
WARNING: JUST-THE-FACTS SPOILERS
The big problem with Ricky Gervais’ comedy “The Invention of Lying” is this: Lying isn’t funny. The truth is funny. Uncomfortable truths. Blunt truths. It’s funny—in this universe where people haven’t yet developed the gene to lie—when Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) greets Mark Bellison (Gervais) at the door by admitting she’d just been masturbating and he responds, helplessly, “That makes me think of your vagina.” It’s funny when she tells her mother, who phones during their date, and within earshot of Mark, “No, I won’t be sleeping with him.” It’s particularly funny, because it’s particularly uncomfortable, when the old folks’ home is named: “A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People.”
But saying to a bank teller that you’ve got $800 in your account when you have $300, or telling a cop that your friend isn’t drunk when he is, or even telling your scared, dying mother that there’s a beautiful place we go when we die—all of which happens after Mark develops the gene for lying—none of that is particularly funny. It’s sometimes poignant, and certainly ballsy, but it isn’t funny. Thus the movement of the film is from funny to less funny. By the end, there’s hardly any laughs at all.
“The Invention of Lying” is basically a magic realism film like “Liar, Liar,” and “What Women Want,” where an extraordinary thing happens to an ordinary man. Here the extraordinary thing—being able to lie—makes Mark more like us rather than less. He’s also a nicer guy than the main characters of those two films. The extraordinary thing happens to Jim Carrey and Mel Gibson so each will become a better man. It’s the “Christmas Carol” pattern: 1) jerk; 2) extraordinary thing; 3) OK dude.
Not here. Mark is actually a decent sort. Sure, he lies his way to riches, and, yes, initially he almost lies his way into bed with a beautiful woman, but at the last instant, because he’s a decent sort, he backs out. (Every guy in the audience is going, “Nooooooooo!”) Then he immediately does good deeds. He doesn’t wait for the third act. He steals money for a homeless man. He helps a bickering couple. He stops a neighbor from killing himself. And, yes, as his mother trembles at the prospect of dying, of not existing, he invents...heaven. So she can die happy. If anything, he’s trying to make the rest of the world as decent as he is.
There’s audacity in this. In a world without lying, there isn’t religion, there isn’t God. It’s up to Mark, pressed into service after word of “heaven” spreads, to invent these things. So he invents the Man in the Sky, and the Good and the Bad Place, and he tells everyone that if the Man in the Sky sends them to the Good Place they will get a mansion. Since people can’t even fathom the concept of lying, everyone takes everything he says as fact. One wonders why it doesn’t lead to a rash of suicides. We don’t have them because we have doubt, and, for true believers, suicide is against God’s will. But what’s to stop these folks? The undiscovered country is not only discovered, it’s mapped.
This element of the film, yes, is audacious, but everything else feels small and predictable. Why are magic realism films always like this? Mel Gibson can read women’s thoughts and he uses the power...to create a better ad campaign? Ricky Gervais can lie in a world where no one else can and he uses the power...to get his old job back? He’s a screenwriter for Lecture Films, which is exactly what it says it is. Films in this world consist of professorial lecturers sitting in armchairs and reading history to the camera. Mark has been stuck with the 13th century, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to exciting storytelling. But with his newfound power he creates a screenplay about aliens and adventures that everyone takes—must take—as fact, and reduces people to tears. It’s called “The Black Plague” and it’s a big hit and wins awards, but, beyond the insider-Hollywood stuff, what’s the point? He’s the most powerful man in the world! Whatever he says is fact because there’s no concept of non-fact. “I’m your husband.” “That’s my house.” “I’m the president of the United States.” Rob Lowe plays his nemesis? Mark could reduce him to nothing. “He’s been fired.” “He’s been evicted.” “He wants his head shaved.” Instead Mark suffers his presence throughout the film.
Worse, the film becomes about the most conventional of conventional tropes: getting-the-girl.
Anna (Garner) eventually comes to love Mark for his unconventionality but can’t bear the thought of having kids with him because they might look like him: i.e., fat, with snub noses. She wants a better genetic partner. Everyone does. Everyone is shallow in this world. Everyone goes out of their way to say the meanest things. Admittedly we are a rude, shallow species but is that all we are? I’m running through my day, thinking about what I’d say not only if I couldn’t lie, but, as here, and as in “Liar, Liar,” if I felt compelled to say every truthful thing that came into my head. So, yes, there’d be “Man, you’re annoying,” “God, you talk a lot,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” But there'd also be: “Man, you’re smart,” “God, you’re fun to be with,” “My, I’d like to sleep with you.” I don’t think we’re as bad as Gervais implies.
Critics are already setting up in knee-jerk camps. Kyle Smith of The New York Post says the film takes “outspoken atheism” and “dump[s] it all over an unsuspecting audience,” while hipster critics dig its attack on organized religion. But its greater attack is on human nature. In the world according to Gervais, the truth doesn’t set us free; it makes us jerks. Meanwhile, lies—including religion—make us better people. The film might as well be called “The Invention of Decency.”
There are some impressive cameos here: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ed Norton, Jason Bateman. (We also had Jeff Bezos in the audience at the Regal Meridian in downtown Seattle.) But the film is too conventional for its unconventional premise, while its unconventional premise goes against the grain of what's funny. The truth may not set us free, but it does make us laugh.
Review: “'Surrogates” (2009)
WARNING: LUDDITE SPOILERS
At first glance “Surrogates” didn’t look like much, particularly when I saw those online ads of scantily clad, sexy women with exposed robot parts. Then I read some synopses and became intrigued by the premise. Then I went to see it.
Trust your first instincts.
The premise is from the graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele. In the near-future, near-perfect robots, attuned to individual brain patterns, are created initially so the handicapped and debilitated can move around more easily, and then in place of soldiers in time of war, and then, well, because it’s fun for everybody. You lay in a chair at home and feel whatever your better-looking, younger-looking, stronger surrogate is doing out in the world. You experience life virtually. All the fears you may have of the outside world—death, germs, stubbed toes—are gone. You’re safe. You’re out in the world but you’re not. You’re living but you’re not.
So it’s kind of like TV. It’s kind of like this thing. It’s kind of like video games and avatars and fill in the blank.
But it’s not. It’s just silly and ultimately hugely naive about human nature.
During the titles, we get the 14-year history of surrogates. How they were created by a wheelchair-bound man named Canter (James Crowell: uh oh!), and how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of surrogates “in daily life” (making “with all deliberate speed” sound like the most precise language possible), and how the conglomerate VSI became the leading manufacturer of surrogates, but how seven years ago they had a falling out with Canter, and how three years ago an anti-surrogate movement began, led by a man named The Prophet (Ving Rhames in Rastafarian wig), and surrogate-free zones were created in major American cities like Boston.
The story proper begins in the back of a limousine, where an obvious surrogate, and more obviously the son of Canter, is on his way to the opera. Off the phone with dad, he heads instead to a club, meets a beautiful blonde, makes out with her in an alleyway. He’s also been followed by a sinister guy on a motorcycle—or a guy on a motorcycle who inspires sinister soundtrack music—and this guy promptly kills the two in the alleyway. Because the surrogate revolution has led to a 99 percent drop in crime, we know we’re watching an unprecedented homicide.
Surrogate FBI agents arrive: Greer (Bruce Willis, with blonde hair and a plastic, wrinkle-less face) and Peters (Radha Mitchell, looking as beautiful as she tends to look in movies), and they find out that the beautiful blonde was surrogate to a fat bald man—nice touch—who’s had his brains scrambled in his chair. Young Canter, too. It’s the first time such safety walls have been breached.
Then everyone clams up fast. The FBI chief, Stone (Boris Kodjoe), imposes a total media blackout, Canter is distraught and enigmatic, the folks at VMI are toeing the company line.
Greer plays good cop with Canter, bad cop with the lawyers at VSI. “I hate lawyers,” he says. But he’s friends with the agency tech geek, who, in yet another nice touch, doesn’t rely on a surrogate, but who, in a crushingly obvious plot device, has access, from his little room, to every surrogate/operator in the world. That’s basically the gun in the first act, isn’t it?
Through the tech geek, Canter learns the killer’s name (Strickland) and whereabouts. Surrogate cops go after him, surrogate cops drop—as do their operators. Greer almost gets it, too, but crashlands in a surrogate-free zone. Even as he pursues Strickland, he’s pursed by a hillbillyish mob, who, just as he’s about to get Strickland, get him. They crucify him—the surrogate—as a warning to all...surrogates.
Questions at this point in the story:
- Why would surrogacy lead to a 99 percent drop in crime? If surrogacy is similar to going online, wouldn’t we be even less civil as surrogates, as we are online? Wouldn’t it be easier to fight and kill, because it’s all just a game now, as it’s easier to fight and kill on Xbox or PlayStation? And what happens when a surrogate, driving recklessly, say—as one does in a video game—kills a real person? Wouldn’t that happen a lot? The behavior the filmmakers foresee is the exact opposite of the behavior inherent in their metaphor.
- If your surrogate doesn’t have to look like you—as seems to be the case—does this mean a million Angelina Jolie-ish girls are walking around—as in the poster? Wouldn’t this be confusing? How about a million Batmans walking around fighting non-existent crime? Don’t tell me Warner Bros., which owns the copyright to BM, wouldn’t jump on that profit-making venture.
- Why are all of the luddites, the “dreads,” fat and ugly? Wouldn’t these be among the first people to embrace surrogacy?
- The surrogates have a blanched, creepy look because the film is ultimately anti-surrogacy. It’s supposed to make surrogates less appealing to us in the audience, but it doesn’t answer the question of why surrogates are appealing to them in the movie. And surely there are kids in this future, ironic hipsters, who would want an old/fat/ugly surrogate? Just to thumb their noses at the rest of society?
- Why do the posters of The Prophet, with LIVE printed below, remind me of the Obama HOPE poster? Is this another right-wing message from the right-wing folks in Hollywood—like Bruce Willis?
- With all the looks in all of the world to choose from, how did surrogate Bruce Willis wind up with that hair?
There are many ways the movie could’ve been less conventional and more interesting, but the filmmakers always opted for more conventional and less interesting. Example: When the agents first question Canter, I thought, “Why aren’t they questioning the real Canter?” until I realized, duh!, everyone in the room is a surrogate. The real world is the virtual world. But my original thought arrived because, while surrogates for Willis and Mitchell look like Willis and Mitchell, Canter’s surrogate doesn’t look like James Cromwell. So wouldn’t it have been more interesting and off-putting—and increased our awareness of surrogacy—to have the surrogates not look like Willis and Mitchell? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper for the studio, too? “We'll pay you half-salary for half a film.”
In the wake of the mob crucifixion, the real Greer—bald, wrinkled, goateed—is momentarily surrogateless and taking baby steps in the world again, but there’s a half-heartedness to him. He’s father to a son who was killed (baseball glove and Red Sox posters fill his still-pristine room), and husband to a wife who relies on her surrogate to get through her day. In fact, he seems more interested in connecting with his wife than in connecting-the-dots of the case. He’s more interested in making the filmmakers’ case (surrogacy sucks!) than his own.
Maybe because the criminal case isn’t that interesting. Three villains to choose from: Canter, VSI, Stone. Who’s guilty? All of them. VSI invented the weapon that breached the safety wall but tried to hide it, Stone has been promised a cushy gig at VSI if he can bring it back, but it’s in the hands of Canter, who, sickened by what he’s created, wants to undo his Frankenstein monster by killing its billion operators. He’s even behind the whole “dreads” movement, whose Prophet is actually a surrogate, controlled by Canter. Question: Wouldn’t Canter himself have made a better prophet than his Prophet? Wouldn’t he have immediate authority in the matter?
In the end Canter kills Peters and controls her surrogate to breach the room where the tech geek has access to all surrogates and operators, so he can kill them all. “They were dead the day they plugged in,” he snarls. Greer tries to stop the countdown and we get the following exciting dialogue from the handcuffed tech-geek: “Hit enter! No, wait! Shift enter!” Is this what all of our action movies are going to sound like now? “Control-alt-delete, motherfucker! Oh shit, you’re on a Mac keyboard? Command-option-escape! No, the command key is the one with the apple on it! With the apple on iiiiiitt!”
One of the saddest moments I’ve experienced at a movie this year came at the end of “Surrogates,” when Greer, given the option to reconnect or disconnect operators around the world, chooses disconnect, and a billion surrogates—and planes, trains, automobiles?—drop to the ground. In the theater someone actually applauded—so loudly and insistently I wondered if he wasn’t a plant from the studio/production company. If he wasn’t, more's the pity.
Why was he applauding? Because Greer defeated not only the bad guys but the concept of surrogacy. Operators—that is, us—came out of their homes, blinked, and looked around. It was a new day. But it wasn’t. If anything the scene reminded me of a power outage, when everyone suddenly leaves their homes and mingles with their neighbors...until the power is restored. Then they return to whatever surrogate life they were living: TV, Internet, video games. The same would’ve happened in the movie. Power outages do not change human nature. The filmmakers want the ending to be uplifting when they know it’s not.
Here’s the sadder part. Why was this guy really applauding? Because his surrogate for the last 90 minutes, the actor Bruce Willis, defeated the concept of surrogates in this movie he was watching. That’s the disconnect, isn’t it? That’s the lie the filmmakers are smoothing over as expertly as VSI smooths over its lies. That's why the best lines of the movie are the first lines of the movie: Ving Rhames' contemptuous voice against a dark screen: “Look at yourselves. Unplug from your chairs and get up and look at how God made you.” Not only you, the operators in the movie, but you, the audience watching the movie. Unplug yourselves.
No one did.