2002: The Year in Movies

Watching Ourselves Watch Movies
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2003 6:41 PM

2002: The Year in Movies

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Dear Friends,

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First, Sarah's comments on Adaptation. In my opinion, the film is not about "adaptation" in "the genetic or behavioral sense" but simply a movie about a guy trying to write a screenplay while the characters mess with his mind and ours. It is like many other works where the characters become real for the author. You write, "His attempt to connect writing to evolution is strained." Yes, it is strained. It is supposed to be strained. If he had been able to connect them smoothly, it would have been much less entertaining.

As for the ending, I believe it is a masterstroke. It is not arbitrary or willful but a clear-eyed, cynical demonstration of the tyranny of the formula ending—a demonstration about the countless times we've heard about when studios make directors reshoot the ending after the original ending "tests badly."

Kaufman more than any other screenwriter right now forces us to look at ourselves looking at the movie.

I disagree, by the way, with the theory (not yours) that Kaufman's screenplay is merely the result of his failure to do a straight adaptation of The Orchid Thief. Having tried to listen to the audio book and given up halfway through (orchids, orchids, orchids), I think he quite reasonably found it unadaptable and saved the day with a brilliant, quirky improvisation. I don't think I would have wanted to see a straight adaptation of Orchid Thief anyway.

Lovely and Amazing. Catherine Keener has been criticized for playing the Catherine Keener Role, but isn't that partly because we have all seen ALL of her movies? The average moviegoer may be seeing her for the first or second time. We've also seen all of John C. Reilly's roles. Critics must necessarily approach films in a different way than the average moviegoer because we are more familiar with the connections and conventions. I got a heartfelt note from an articulate grade-schooler once berating me for a review in which I referred to the plot as recycled. It wasn't recycled to him, he said. True enough. Not that it would have altered my review.

(Which leads me to berate the way many newspapers and magazines actually desire critics who reflect rather than lead and inform. A friend of mine was fired as the critic of a major newspaper because, the editor told him, he didn't share the taste of the readers. If they liked Adam Sandler, he should, too. The first movie critic I read with any regularity was Dwight Macdonald, in Esquire, when I was in high school. I read him because he knew more than I did. Today it is perfectly possible to swim in the demographically fine-tuned mass media and never learn anything you didn't already know.)

But back to Catherine Keener repeating herself: Isn't it the usual practice for actors to play a certain kind of role? How many reinvent themselves every time? I like Hugh Grant precisely because he is Hugh Grant, and the best possible Hugh Grant. Keener I almost always enjoy because of the approach she takes to a role; sure, I'd like to see her in something warm and fuzzy, or in a "human comedy," but then again, did I miss her in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood? Would that have been the right career move?

Sarah, I am amazed to learn that Alexander Payne was involved in City of God. Of course the film is nothing at all like any of his—more of a speeded-up GoodFellas.

I am departing at dawn for a place where it will be hard to get online, but not, I hope, impossible and will try to check in again later.

Best,
Roger

Roger Ebert is the Chicago Sun-Times' film critic. David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can e-mail him at movies@slate.com. Sarah Kerr is Vogue's film critic. A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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