As hard as I try, it’s more difficult than ever to build immunity to the movie hype machine. Banner ads flash and flicker all over the Internet, bloggers report from premieres’ red carpets, and trailers posted on YouTube make headline news. But if it’s easy to get excited about a new film, it’s just as easy to feel disenchanted with the results. Looking over 2006, I can’t help but feel a bit disrespected. There were lots of unkept promises.
Let’s start with the obvious: Kevin Smith. Five years ago, saying “Clerks 2” would have been sacrilege, a punch line to illustrate commercial-driven lows to which Smith would never stoop. The original Clerks, a cherished indie gem, seemed like a closed chapter; furthermore, it was clear that Smith was striving to outgrow that sort of film, with more and more polished projects under his belt. So, as rumblings of Clerks 2 were confirmed, an implicit pact was made: he wasn’t in it for the payday. He wanted to do something special with Dante and Randal. We just knew it. And so, Smith had a chance to reimagine what exactly a sequel could be. Yet, the result was filled with mere fast-talking dialogue intended to offend or wow, now sounding like a desperate imitation of a Kevin Smith film. It was Rosario Dawson, the element of the film I questioned the most at the outset, who delivered the freshest Clerks-like performance.
The other sequel that didn’t quite deliver was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Perhaps Singer’s allegiance to the previous series is to blame. When Christopher Nolan revisited a similar series last year with Batman Begins, he embraced his own vision, one quite distinct from previous films. For Superman Returns, Singer walks around in Richard Donner’s pants the whole time, and they just don’t fit like his own.
M. Knight Shymalan is another director capable of greatness. But his Lady in the Water confirmed all our worst fears (and all the rumors preceding the film’s release). Not only was his storytelling stilted—hell-bent on the fairy tale angle without the lush sophistication that makes a fairy tale work—but the movie offered his least compelling visual work to date. Worse, it was preposterous. Where The Village perhaps dipped its toes a little too deeply in the pools of allegory, Lady in the Water did a complete belly flop. And with an ensemble of characters so contrived, it was more or less adrift by the second act, leaving the audience feeling disconnected and befuddled.
To be fair, it’s not only directors who fuel anticipation. When Paul Haggis, whose Million Dollar Baby and Crash earned him back-to-back Oscar wins for Best Screenplay, adapted the nuanced Italian drama L’ultimo bacio, I was sure the dark and complex themes of the original love story would translate. Unfortunately, The Last Kiss unraveled as a standard romantic comedy, only without the comedy. And as much as I’d like to blame Zach Braff’s vacant stare or Rachel Bilson’s ever-present midriff, even veterans Tom Wilson and Blythe Danner failed to spark interest in characters who were written as unsympathetic.
This is exactly how talent can be deceiving. The Black Dahlia boasted a formidable cast, accomplished director (Brian De Palma), and a screenplay adapted from the James Ellroy novel. But it was mired in its own campiness, with actors chain-smoking and playing dress up rather than peeling back layers of a tragic mystery. It’s almost as though De Palma and co. didn’t trust the story, opting for garish stylistic choices made worse by Josh Hartnett’s stiffer-than-ever performance and Scarlett Johansson’s reliance on her consummate sex appeal rather than bothering to act.
Worse than the abject failure, though, is the film you know could have been just a little better. In this category, Borat warrants some discussion. An Ali G Show fan, I knew the possibility a film-length Borat held, that Sacha Baron Cohen would have the time to develop that sharp cultural commentary he’d condensed into seven-minute segments. Sadly, Borat used its expanse not to explore and linger in uncomfortable moments, but to shoot fish in a barrel. Of course, I laughed. The premises and reactions were irresistible, but they simply could have been better and smarter: Borat’s interview with Alan Keyes is only one wasted opportunity. Instead of Cohen maneuvering Keyes into a conservative corner, he merely gets him to confirm that Borat’s engaged in homosexual intercourse (and set up a lame joke that comes 45 minutes later). How adept can Cohen be at teasing out our prejudices when he can’t even get Alan Keyes to offend anyone. And: there’s absolutely no finesse required to play naked romper room in the middle of a hotel convention. That just takes balls.
Another film in 2006 that denied its own smarts was V for Vendetta. Although it could have been a film about revolution and our dwindling social awareness (“Remember, remember, the fifth of November”), the film worked best when it was just a plain old action flick, all swords flying and dizzy-seeming stunts. The important, intelligent socio-political elements of this futuristic Britain were exchanged for an overwhelming visual style. Unfortunately, when it came to the dramatizing, the film’s best actor remained masked and Natalie Portman’s heavy-handed performance weighed down any potential “liberation.”
And what discussion of disappointment would be complete without mentioning that juggernaut of hype, Snakes on a Plane? Although audiences seemed prepared for it to be bad, I don’t think anyone knew how bad it would actually be. For some, that it delivered snakes that were, indeed, on a plane, was enough. But when did filmmaking become about giving an audience exactly what a title promises and nothing more? If there’s one thing that all disappointing films share, it’s that they promise, either implicitly or explicitly, something more satisfying and resonant than what’s in the name and the trailer. Otherwise, it’s all just old.
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// Marginal Utility
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