The Movie Club

Love Is Acquisitional
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 6 2007 4:02 PM

The Movie Club

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Dear Everyone,

I haven't seen Pursuit of Happyness, but I'm familiar with the Mucus School—august institution. I applied, but I they rejected me. I'm not bitter, though.

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It's funny how it always seems it's the histrionic performances that are rewarded. It's the quiet ones that get me. Helen Mirren in The Queen, Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson, Carmen Maura, Penélope Cruz, and Lola Dueñas in Volver, Greg Kinnear in Fast Food Nation and Little Miss Sunshine, Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children—those were the ones that stayed with me for a while. I've never been so thoroughly won over to a character's point of view as I was in The Queen, but I'm at a loss to tell you what Mirren did to convert me. And Greg Kinnear, I think, is almost alone in his ability to portray a type so commonly found in nature, but not so commonly found in the movies. He's Dockers Man: deceptively bland and banal in appearance, but his face registers every nuance of the indignities suffered by disappointed middle-class middle managers everywhere.

On that subject, you definitely have a point when you say that it's impossible that the family in Little Miss Sunshine wouldn't have been aware of the nature of child pageants, but their willingness to go along with it was something I accepted because it would have been cruel to deny their daughter a chance to do something she wanted to do so badly and had worked so hard to achieve. And I disagree with the idea that the family is composed of losers. I don't think it was going for realism, for one thing. As a satire of the American obsession with success, what it challenged was precisely this reductive and specious winner/loser dichotomy that we seem to be stuck with.

Keith, I love what you said about Pirates of the Caribbean being one of those movies that everybody saw but nobody liked. It's amazing what a $30 million marketing campaign can do. What depresses me about movies like that is that going to see them somehow takes on the aspect of a civic obligation. Revenge of the Sith? It was like jury duty. All their success proves, in the end, is that advertising works, but if there were a way to return a film that fails to deliver on expectations, I think the movie landscape would look pretty different.

But let's talk about love stories and romantic comedies! It was a bad year for them. Most years, it seems, are bad years for them, especially where studio movies are concerned. This speaks volumes, don't you think? Is there something inherent in the process that makes it impossible for a studio to deliver a decent romantic comedy?

I don't think the problem is the formula, per se, though the formula gets such preference over all other aspects of the form that it tends to obscure everything else. In my opinion, it's this ingrained corporate inability to conceive of characters in a comedy as anything more than a collection of hackneyed quirks and personality traits that telegraph "who they are" (winner, loser, etc.) in one note or less. (Consider the Cameron Diaz character in The Holiday. What is that, exactly? Does it exist?)

In Hollywood, love is acquisitional. It's always about finding the perfect love object, not the experience of being in love, which is the problem, really. I think the reason people never give up on love stories is a lot like the reason people give up on love—because it's such a strange, ephemeral, parallel experience. So, for my money, it's the true to life (but not necessarily realistic) recreation of the emotional experience that counts, not the sequence of events. When you have to construct some elaborate mousetrap of a plot in order to convey an experience that presumably all of us have experienced at least once, if not many times, you know the people making the movie haven't had the greatest social life in the world. (And I'd sooner gouge my eyes out with a blueprint than watch The Lake House again.)

In that category, I thought Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep was such a lyrical, interior depiction of what it's like to be young, confused, vulnerable, unbearably sensitive, and in love. I especially loved the way Gael García Bernal's character suffered under his older boss's romantic cynicism. I also liked Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation very much for many of the same reasons, even though the movies' styles couldn't have been more different. I loved the savage casualness of the love triangle, the way that early-20s imperative to be cool with everything trumps betrayal. Miss Potter was not a very good movie, but Ewan McGregor was so charismatic and convincing as a man in love for the first time that Renée Zellweger seemed to genuinely light up when he was around. And what about My Super Ex-Girlfriend? Did it drive you crazy to see it described as misogynistic? I mean, she's supposed to be angry. And crazy. And unhinged. That's what makes her relatable, right? (If you disagree, I'm sure millions of Alanis Morissette fans would back me up.)

You oughta know,
Carina

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