Movies reviewed this week: Beyond the Sea, Flight of the Phoenix,
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
, Meet the Fockers, The Phantom of the Opera, and Spanglish.
The remainder: Spanglish. Heart-on-sleeve comedy from James L. Brooks (Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, to name his better ones), told in the form of an admissions essay to Princeton University, a document that must, by the end, have stretched to 60,000 words. It has, in the pattern of a Well-Made Sitcom if not a 19th-century Realist Novel, a set of characters and relationships in a socially "relevant" milieu: a master chef fearful of the effect of a four-star review on his cozy little neighborhood restaurant; his high-strung, motormouthed, hardbodied wife, who requires domestic help now that she has been downsized into a full-time mom and part-time adulteress; her bibulous live-in mother, a former jazz singer; an adolescent daughter with a weight problem less burdensome than her mother's jabbing reminders of it; a younger brother who you often forget is in the movie; and a beautiful Mexican housekeeper who knows no English and has a beautiful preadolescent daughter of her own. Naturally, Brooks being Brooks, there are occasional scraps of observation and sensitivity: e.g., the maid's inability to express her indignation in language when the lady of the house appropriates the other's daughter. Yet the entire project looks to have been sabotaged in the casting. Adam Sandler remains a highly mannered actor even when he attempts to tone down his shtick; and his standard recipe of juvenile awkwardness and bashfulness, with a dash of infantile temper, seems rather unattractive in "the best chef in the United States." Téa Leoni, as the wife, is portraying so unattractive a personality to begin with, it's both unfair and unwise to allow her also to be less attractive physically than her unimpeachable maid and romantic rival, Paz Vega, who appears ready to steal a few roles from Penelope Cruz. In the result, what's supposed to be a bittersweet ending tastes strictly bitter. Sarah Steele, as the Anglo daughter, operates in only two modes, glaringly sunny and drenchingly stormy. And Cloris Leachman's tipsy-old-lady bit is straight sitcom. Thomas Haden Church, the goofball groom-to-be in Sideways, pops up in a role so small that some of it presumably got left on the cutting-room floor. His sole purpose, as a representative of that other adult comedy, is to remind us of the importance of casting.
Flight of the Phoenix. Stripped-down remake of Robert Aldrich's near-perfect survival adventure of 1966 (despite what I keep seeing in print, including in the press notes: 1965), about a new plane constructed from the wreckage of an old one in the middle of the desert. Among the things stripped away are all vestiges of character and thematic interest: no more humanism versus pragmatism; no more lingering hostilities of the Second World War; no more division between military and civilian; no more tension between the old school and the new; no James Stewart (a pilot for real in the Second World War as well as in The Spirit of St. Louis and Strategic Air Command on the screen), no Richard Attenborough, no Hardy Kruger, no Peter Finch, no Ronald Fraser, no Ian Bannen, no Ernest Borgnine, no George Kennedy, no Dan Duryea. And nothing put in their place. Nothing, that is, except a computer-cartoon sandstorm and plane crash, a handful of pop songs, and a lusterless cast (headed by Dennis Quaid) assembled for demographic rather than dramatic purposes: a headstrong woman ("This is bullshit!") where the original cast was all-male (save for Barrie Chase in a momentary hallucination), plus a couple of blacks, a Mexican, a Middle or Far Easterner, a virtual Rainbow Coalition. Director John Moore covers the same distance in half an hour less, hitting none of the right notes but hitting them faster and louder.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. An amalgam of three of Daniel Handler's children's books under the pen name of Lemony Snicket (Jiminy Cricket! what a monicker!), here impersonated in voice and in silhouette by Jude Law (this year's Colin Farrell: six screen appearances and no solid foothold). The setting is an amalgam as well: Charles Addams Gothic and Edward Gorey Edwardiana infiltrated with modern conveniences such as cars with telephones, and verbal anachronisms such as "This place could use a little TLC." The grand total, the small sum, is a sort of mock-Dickens to do with three orphaned siblings and their nefarious guardian, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey, piling two additional disguises, a slimy herpetologist and a salty sea captain, on top of his initial disguise as a hook-nosed ham actor with Bride-of- Frankenstein hair). The movie starts out with a just-kidding animated feature called The Little Elf, and our author/ narrator, after its abrupt interruption, cautions us solemnly that the movie we are about to see instead is "extremely unpleasant," and he gives us leave to go elsewhere for our entertainment: "It's not too late to see a film about a happy little elf." But oh yes, it is. In 2004, it is most definitely too late. The "dark" children's film we are now obliged to put up with -- ironic, cynical, facetious, factitious, forced, and jaded -- takes excessive pride in its trendy conventionality and its stout opposition to forces long since decimated.
The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks (if that's the word) to the "revival" of the movie musical by way of Moulin Rouge and Chicago, the bombastic score of Andrew Lloyd Webber at long last reaches the screen, in a jewel-box production of flowers, candles, literal smoke-and-mirrors, under the direction of Joel Schumacher: an overstuffed and suffocating bore. (Mere boredom, moreover, becomes outright exasperation in the cemetery scene where the romantic hero, after a sloppily staged swordfight, lifts his blade from the Phantom's throat and lets him go, only to begin frantically plotting his capture in the very next scene.) None of the fulsome visual effects can match the little slip of a thing who goes by the name of Emmy Rossum, with her tightly woven mat of hair, her pillowy lips, her perpetually surprised eyebrows. If she made a few fans with Passionada, Mystic River, and -- was it only this past summer? -- The Day after Tomorrow, she should herewith make a few slaves. Broadway musical star Patrick Wilson, meanwhile, following his impressive screen debut -- also this very year? -- as Travis in The Alamo, proves to be strangely bland in his own element. And Gerard Butler is an uncharismatic Angel of Music (a nicer alias of the Phantom), but at least his habitually noisy nose-breathing gets drowned out in the din.
Meet the Fockers. Twenty-five, thirty years earlier, a cast of Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Barbra Streisand would have tilted the earth's axis. Nowadays they -- or at any rate Hoffman and Streisand, pickups for the sequel to Meet the Parents, as the hippie-dippy, touchie-feelie, loosey-goosey parents of the groom-to-be -- are just riding the coat-tails of Ben Stiller, happy to prolong their careers and to pretend they are partly responsible for a financial windfall that would have been infinitesimally smaller with Ron Leibman and Lainie Kazan in the parts. To do so, they have only to swallow their pride, if any, at such moments as when the preserved snipping from baby's circumcision gets catapulted into the fondue pot (Hoffman has been entrusted with the compulsory punch line: "Anyone for Chinese?") or when playing second banana to an undersized and oversexed pooch who will hump a foot, a cat, a doll, anything. As if all this were not demeaning enough, the two newcomers are introduced on screen via answering machine. De Niro, by comparison, comes off as almost dignified. Everything's relative.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. With, more factually, Bill Murray in the role of Zissou, an over-the-hill, or over-the-wave, oceanographer cum filmmaker, a cut-rate Cousteau: "What happened to me? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever going to be any good again?" Director Wes Anderson, a critical darling and "indie" bellwether for Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, took a lot of money from Disney for the sake of some animated marine life and a marvelous cross-section set of the oceangoing vessel, the Belafonte (shown off to excellent effect on a single-take trek from the belly to the deck). To his credit, he hasn't let the larger investment alter the size of his ambition. He still goes after the muffled chuckle in a quiet corner (i.e., no foreskin in the fondue), and he aims, foremost and hindmost, to please his loyal followers instead of the anonymous crowd. The action scenes, either beyond him or beneath him, are so ridiculous (one-man-army Murray against a boatload of cut-throat pirates) that they play as if they must be fantasies, except they're not. Maybe they're a "comment" on contemporary action films in general. The bonding between father and long-lost son (Owen Wilson with an uncertain Kentucky accent) takes an unexpected turn at an unexpected juncture. And the quest for revenge against a man-eating sea monster ends not with a bang but with an ooh-ahh. Willem Dafoe has more than his share of good moments as a German crew member with a thin skin; and Seu Jorge as another crew member, endlessly strumming a guitar and singing David Bowie tunes in Portuguese, and Cate Blanchett as a pregnant journalist with a two-shades-too-dark suntan, have their moments, too. The whole thing, though, seems quite daftly pointless. Or pointlessly daft. In honesty, if you've seen the theatrical trailer, you've the seen the best of it, or anyway a fair sampling of it.
Beyond the Sea. Vanity film from Kevin Spacey, directing himself in the part of pop star Bobby Darin in a free-form, fantasy-riddled biopic, throwing in a gratuitious impression of Jerry Lewis in the bargain (not bad), and doing his own singing in a mellower, droopier, croonier style possibly more suited to a biography of Vic Damone or Al Martino. The objection, voiced on the set of an autobiographical film-within-the- film, "He's too old to play this part," will not be answered by the rhetorical question, "How can you be too old to play yourself?" You can be too old to play "yourself" if you are really Kevin Spacey and not Bobby Darin, and you are already eight years older than Darin at the end of his life, never mind when he was recording "Mack the Knife" or courting Sandra Dee. (Kate Bosworth, whom I myself likened to Sandra Dee in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton, fails to measure up when trying to cram her hoof into the actual glass slipper.) Spacey does manage to win some sympathy -- no small feat -- for the teen idol's makeover into the mustached, sideburned, wigless, and politically involved Bob Darin of the late Sixties (a sudden cousin to Bob Dylan), perhaps partly because his physical resemblance is closer at that point. But at all points we are conscious of contemplating not the life and legacy of Bobby Darin but the chutzpah of Kevin Spacey. Not without interest of its own.
Darkness snuck up on me unawares, and Fat Albert I would consider seeing only at gunpoint. Even then I might decide the time had finally come to put me out of my misery.