As for the latter film: Those who love it won’t be dissuaded from their love; others, like me, who find its ponderous pace and leaden exposition fatal won’t be dissuaded from theirs. But I will point to one scene that exemplifies this failing, fairly early on, in the Krakow Ghetto. (I can’t find it in the scripts available online, so I suppose it’s possible Spielberg himself put it into the film.) A group of people on the street are discussing their plight. One guy talks, with a bit of jocularity, about a dream he had. “I was broke and sharing a room with 12 people I didn’t know.” He wakes up—here’s the big punch line—“only to discover I was broke and sharing a room with 12 people I didn’t know!”
This sample of mordant Jewish humor, which I think can be fairly described as tepid, is followed up, incredibly, by a woman saying, laboriously, “You laugh about it?” The guy replies, with a Jackie Mason shrug, “I have to laugh!”
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When it comes to Spielberg movies, however, you don’t actually have to laugh. In fact, one of the weaknesses people have noticed about his work—but have not, I think, yet commented enough upon—is that he can’t do comedy. Early in his career, there are some nice comic moments—in Jaws, in Close Encounters, and in E.T. (Recall the scene where the kids go trick or treating and E.T., covered with a sheet, sees a diminutive Yoda figure, and moves to follow it.) But he has not directed a successful comedy. And he’s tried. 1941 was an attempt to pull off an It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-style comic panoply, complete with some elaborate fight and dance scenes, all set against a panorama of life in Los Angles when paranoia about a potential Japanese attack supposedly gripped the city. Watching it today is like watching a comedian flop on stage. There’s a lot of energy, and increasingly desperate moves, but no one laughs.
Ten years later, in Always, which starred Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter, Spielberg tried his hand at a romantic comedy—a well-worn genre which you’d think a student of Hollywood like Spielberg could pull off. The result, though, is an unromantic uncomedy of the first order—there are Sarah Jessica Parker-Matthew McConaughey movies I’d rather sit through. The humor is wooden. (Seriously. Just watch the movie’s “funny scenes.”) Richard Dreyfuss looks like an aging gigolo. In one scene, John Goodman, for some reason, does some decidedly uncomical dancing, and Hunter has the challenge of feigning laughter during it. It’s the sort of scene a rom-com director with a deft touch might have managed with aplomb; here the effect is cringe-inducing.
Hook, from 1991, is another film marred by Spielberg’s awkward, unsuccessful handling of comic material. More recently, Spielberg attempted an odd mix of Tati-like miming and episodic low-level slapstick with Tom Hanks—a great comic actor—in The Terminal. The results are tedious.
Why can’t Spielberg do comedy? Comedy relies on the human touch, usually in the form of skillful comic acting. And Spielberg has a surprisingly weak record when it comes to eliciting great performances. He works wonders on the nonhuman level—sharks, dinosaurs, robot alien invaders, and so on—but he doesn’t seem as interested in actual human beings. For a director of his stature, a surprising number of his films are filled with relative nobodies. Sam Neill, the lead in Jurassic Park, is a decent actor, I guess, but I’m having a hard time visualizing him, and I just watched the movie again. Does the name Paul Freeman mean anything to you? He was Belloq in the Indiana Jones films. The actors getting top billing in E.T.? Dee Wallace and Peter Coyote.
Even when he uses first-rate thespians, he rarely gets great work out of them. Dreyfuss, Goodman, and Hunter are serious performers, but they all flounder in Always. Glover is a considerable talent, too—but look how one-dimensional he is in The Color Purple. He spends half the movie mugging like Buckwheat. He grimaces, bugs his eyes out, and hops around in a big dumb show of getting socks out of a drawer and so forth. He’s supposed to be running a big farm, and yet when he’s not being menacing or brutalizing someone he’s a total buffoon.
In 40 years of making what are typically critically acclaimed and often quite prestigious films, Steven Spielberg has garnered more than 100 Oscar nominations for his work. But the vast majority of these are in the technical categories. (This week, War Horse got nominations for art direction, cinematography, sound editing and mixing.) Martin Scorsese, Spielberg’s coeval and the director of roughly the same number of films, has helped five actors to Oscars. Spielberg’s tally? Zero.
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Thus far, the reviews of War Horse have been decent, those of Tintin fairly middling. No one stateside will regret missing Tintin. If you happen to get stuck in a theater with War Horse, you will see a classic Spielberg movie—a lot of people doing arbitrary things to move a plot along, paired with some undeniable technique and ladled with dollops of loud, intrusive music. The plot itself? Well, it seems that some doughty British men got a bit banged up in the early years of the 20th century, and a few, apparently, were even killed. But thankfully one fine horse made it through unscathed, even after it ran into—horrors!—some barbed wire, so there was a bright side.
I’ve never understood the complaints about the consequences Spielberg’s early hits—Jaws, Close Encounters, and the like—supposedly had on the movie business. What’s wrong with unforgettable action movies with imaginatively conceived sequences and snappy writing—films that, for a time, brought an entire country together in a shared aesthetic experience? Pulp Fiction still got made, and so did Blue Velvet. Back in those days, Spielberg was using tropes from an earlier time; today, 30 years on or more, those films have themselves become archetypes, ones imitated by a new wave of directors.
In the last year, both Jon Favreau (Cowboys & Aliens) and J.J. Abrams (Super 8) have offered us Spielberg homages (in both cases, oddly enough, under the protective producership of Spielberg himself). Is it a coincidence that, in both cases, the directors delivered work far beneath what they are capable of? In Cowboys & Aliens, which could have taken Indiana Jones into a new world of genre mashups, a delicious premise starts out amiably enough, introducing a spectrum of characters one by one. But then the demands of showcasing the technology overwhelms the story. The characters become inconsistent and the plot becomes increasingly risible. (Wait—the aliens sent Daniel Craig back to earth with a secret weapon on his wrist that could blow up their spaceship?!)
Super 8 is even weirder; it’s a deliberate homage to the Great Master’s work, right down to the camera flares that salute E.T. It starts with group of kids making movies, just like Spielberg himself did. Abrams elicits their charms and emotions effortlessly. But the movie’s second half is a drag; forced, arbitrary, noisy, and senseless, just like much of the later work of Spielberg himself. Abrams let his sensibilities be overwhelmed, just as Spielberg did—by the stiltedness of The Color Purple, the heavy-handed sentimental manipulations of Hook, the schlockiness of War Horse, or just the sheer noisome randomness of Minority Report or War of the Worlds. It’s almost as if Abrams’s unconsciously encoded into the film the arc of Spielberg’s career. It’s the story of a filmmaker whose talent for great pop art was too thin a foundation on which to build bigger things—and it’s ultimately an arc of failed promise.