Moriarty’s One Thing I Love Today! Being Completely Out Of Step On MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS And LEATHERHEADS!
Published at: April 2, 2008, 6:46 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
I can tell already I’m in a distinct minority on two films, and it’s going to be one of those cases where I’m going to be stubborn and insistent that people are simply wrong about the movies. These are good films. These are films that have a pulse, films that are genuinely worth your time. These are movies that are actively engaged with trying to make you feel something, and they come from genuine places. When people want to shit all over big slick corporate product, I get it. It’s impersonal. There is something vaguely insulting about the way we’re ordered to consume a lot of pop culture, but that’s just the nature of the beast. Hype owns you if you let it. But when someone does offer up something that you feel while you watch it... when you spend some time with a film and you walk away feeling like you were treated with respect by the filmmaker... I sort of value that above anything else.
I’ve gotten some very angry e-mail from fans of SOUTHLAND TALES since I reviewed it. And you know what? If you sat through every minute of that film and you felt like you had a genuine experience... if you were engaged by it and really bought into the aesthetic and the characters and the flights of fancy, then you win. Because I was miserable watching it, and I can’t imagine what it is that a fan of the film is getting from it. But you got your money’s worth... you felt like you were rewarded for the time spent. So you win.
Many of you will detest LEATHERHEADS and MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, I’ll bet. When MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS played at Cannes last summer, it took a beating. People seemed actively angry at it. They didn’t just dismiss it, they seemed like they wanted to kill it. Now it’s a half-hour shorter, and of course people blame Weinstein for taking it away from Wong Kar-Wai. LEATHERHEADS was supposed to come out at Christmas in ’07, but it got pushed back, and now it’s getting unceremoniously dumped, like a sacrificial lamb for the studio, an orphan. Both films are running about 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, certainly indicating a lack of enthusiasm for them.
But I think both of these movies are pretty grand, taken on their own terms. I’m not sure what anyone expects of Wong Kar-Wai because I’m not sure what work of his they’ve seen. AS TEARS GO BY and DAYS OF BEING WILD were the first two films of his I saw, and I saw them both theatrically, first run. I know people who wax rhapsodic about his work, but I’ve always felt like the more you talk about his movies, the more you pick apart the pieces and try to describe or analyze his aesthetic, the more you risk destroying the pleasure of them.
Expectation is death for a filmmaker like Wong Kar-Wai. When you see a film like DAYS OF BEING WILD, it’s so potent because you expect nothing of it. It’s just this raw expression, almost like early Jarmusch. I always saw a connection between the styles they were developing. Not like either one was imitating the other, but like both of them had the same ear for human behavior, the same love of rough edges and elliptical storytelling. When CHUNGKING EXPRESS got a release in the states, it had “Quentin Tarantino Presents” branded on it, and as a result, it came with a certain set of expectations. And there were a lot of people I knew even then who went to see it in the theater and were just baffled what this sort of dreamy drifting yearning character sketch had to do with their expectations of big-dick-cinema-bad-boy Tarantino, who was hot shit that year because of PULP FICTION. Even as Wong Kar-Wai’s craft has gotten sharper and more controlled over the years, expectations have grown for his work from film to film. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE set the bar pretty high for people following his work, and then 2046 became a cause for much heated and angry debate. And I think he’s become somewhat bogged down by the expectations people have of his work, and I also think people expect something from his movies they’re never going to get. He doesn’t make movies that are designed to sledgehammer you or give you the “big moments” that we’re conditioned to expect from something we consider “good.” We are weaned on the idea of certain kinds of payoff, dramatically, and without those things, we reject what we’re watching. When Wong Kar-Wai takes a film to Cannes, the expectations are that the movie’s going to be some transcendent special moment in cinema. There’s a weight on him to knock the audience out, because these are the eyes of the whole world. And when what he delivers turns out to be a very tiny, feather-light story of a girl whose heart gets bruised and who needs a road trip to show her what’s in front of her face.
Sound cheesy? Well, it sort of is, in a really sweet, really earnest way. And Norah Jones ends up being the perfect fit for it. She’s a lovely girl, but she’s not a knockout at first glance. She’s the kind of girl who gets prettier the longer you talk to her... the more time you spend around her... the more times you make her smile or laugh. She sneaks up on you. And part of that is her fault. She is a mouse at the start of the film, when she stumbles into a small café owned and operated by Jeremy (Jude Law). There’s a guy who cheated on her, and there’s this set of keys, and what starts as an angry gesture becomes a reminder of this betrayal, then becomes an annoyance, but finally seems to be an excuse to talk to someone, the first hint of the possibility of something new. Elizabeth (Jones) spends her evenings in the café after a while, eating pie and talking and just plain nursing her injuries. And then... she disappears. Jeremy waits for her. Waits for her. Days pass. And then weeks.
Where Elizabeth goes is the meat of the film, a road-trip story about a woman in search of her own definition, and the way the characters she... blah blah blah. It’s a road trip. You get it. Either you buy into the people she meets along the way, or you reject the film, and for me, both Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman acquit themselves nicely here. I like Weisz’s work a lot these days, but I’ve been fairly vocal about my skepticism regarding Portman. Here, she fits the role just right. I have trouble believing her sometimes, but here, she clicks. Special praise has to be reserved for David Strathairn, who makes the most of his role. He’s my favorite thing about the film, hands down, and it’s a reminder of just how great this guy always is. He’s one of the most consistently good character actors working.
I haven’t seen the original cut of this film. I’ve only seen the theatrical release version that will open in the US on Friday. Even so, I personally thought it was really wonderful. I would love to see the longer cut, and I hope that when I do, I like it even more. For now, though, I’d recommend this film, except that might pitch your expectations too high, and you’d miss the gentle, quiet pleasures of a stolen kiss, a stack of promise chips, your own car and the open road, or the pie that no one wants.
In the case of LEATHERHEADS, I think Clooney picked an uphill battle from day one. It’s a period film. It’s a sports comedy. It’s a screwball homage. It’s all the things a studio will tell you they don’t want to do when you take meetings anywhere in town. LEATHERHEADS is like a perfect recipe for box-office death. You know how the Coen Bros comedies make nothing at the box-office? Well, LEATHERHEADS will probably be just as big as THE HUDSUCKER PROXY was, and it’ll be just as well-liked. You can certainly compare some stylistic choices in both films, but I think LEATHERHEADS is a little more rough-and-tumble and Three-Stooges-funny than anything the Coens have made. You can see how Clooney’s leared from them in the way he stages things and in the way he paces his comedy, but I think the sense of humor is his. I think if you don’t like LEATHERHEADS, there’s a pretty good chance that you don’t really like George Clooney. This is just as much a part of how defines himself as GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK was. Clooney is in a position where he can get a film made as a director simply by agreeing to star in it. So he can get some real gambles bankrolled. And here, it feels like he finally made his very own HUDSON HAWK.
And I don’t mean that as a slam. Seriously. I’m one of the people who likes HUDSON HAWK. I think it’s a very compromised and half-finished film, but there’s stuff in that movie that makes me cackle. I like it because it appears that Bruce Willis lost his motherfucking mind and somehow got Tri-Star to pay him a shitload of money to have his nervous breakdown in Italy while things blow up. I like it because I can’t imagine how it got made.
I like LEATHERHEADS because you can feel how much Clooney believes in the past. You can tell he mourns the moment that football became a matter of money instead of a matter of sport. Yes, there’s a lot of nouveau-screwball patter in the film, and yes, it’s got a romantic triangle of sorts in it, but what makes me really love this movie is the way it looks back at professional football when it was just a bunch of coal miners and ex-soldiers beating the shit out of each other in random turnip fields, as someone describes it in the film, with real affection and longing. Clooney romanticizes the guys who played it for pure love of the game, and he manages to get a really likeable, pitch-perfect performance out of John Krasinski. The movie loves drinkin' and fightin' and swearin' and ridin' motorcycles and bulldogs and sharp-talkin' dames and it's not even a little bit ashamed of it. LEATHERHEADS isn't a cartoon because it has too much genuine heart, but it's also never meant to be taken too seriously And Randy Newman's score is one of his best in a long, long, long time. Seriously.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m underestimating the audiences on these movies. I saw MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS at a tiny screening room in Beverly Hills in the middle of the afternoon, pretty much alone, so I have no idea how it would play for an audience. With LEATHERHEADS, I was surprised how vocal the crowd was for the first half-hour or so of the film, and then they just sort of... got quiet. Maybe they enjoyed it and I couldn’t read the room. Maybe not. But every now and then, it feels good to see something and react strongly to it and then realize you’re all alone on it. It makes you really think about why you like it, what it is you’re reacting to. It engages you as a viewer or, in my case, as a critic, and that... well, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in the first place.
MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS opens in limited release on Friday, and LEATHERHEADS opens wider, although I don’t know how many screens Universal wants to have it on a week later, when they open the sure-to-hit FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. In both cases, prepare to disagree with me, but I sure hope you enjoy them the way I did.