Note to readers: This post contains spoilers.
This Pixar animated fairy tale Brave has a lot of charm; it’s one of the few movies this summer that I’ve been able to send friends to. But it takes a wrong turn in the middle that’s almost disastrous. The heroine, a bright, tomboyish Scottish princess named Merida, has reached the age to be courted, but she has no interest in any of her suitors and she bests them easily at the archery competition that’s meant to determine which one is worthy of her hand. Merida hopes that she can win her mother’s sympathy but instead the queen is furious at her unladylike behavior. So – in the film’s most inventive sequence – the princess enlists the help of a witch who promises to deliver a potion that will alter the queen’s perspective. What it does is to transform Queen Elinor into a bear. The scenes that follow, in which Elinor continues to attempt to act in a queenly manner while her body keeps working against her (and while she’s unable to communicate except through gesture), are comical, and Merida’s efforts to keep her father, a celebrated bear hunter, from seeing Elinor while trying frantically to track down an antidote underscore the princess’s imagination and resourcefulness, certainly appropriate in a coming-of-age story. The problem is what we might call tonal follow-through.
It’s easy to think of fairy tales whose narrative structure depends on the child hero’s learning from his or her mistakes, usually after meeting their consequences; Pinocchio comes immediately to mind, and Guillermo Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, which is framed as a fairy tale, contains such an episode (the girl, Ofelia, disregards explicit instructions not to touch any of the delectable food on the monster’s table). There’s no doubt that Merida’s selfishness and recklessness and short-sightedness cause her mother’s unfortunate transformation, but at the moment when it occurs the screenwriters (Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Irene Mecchi and Brenda Chapman, who also wrote the story) don’t acknowledge that she’s done anything terrible. Instead they mine the scenario for its humor and try to make Merida look admirable. The images of Elinor in a bear’s body tripping over her size made me uncomfortable; I wasn’t in the mood to laugh at the results of Merida’s bad behavior. Brave untangles its problems in the last act, where Merida finally owns up to her faults, but for this viewer at least it had to win back the confidence I’d lost in it.
|Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom|
Some years ago Anderson once wrote a piece in the Sunday New York Times arts section about trying to get the late film critic Pauline Kael, one of his heroes, to watch Rushmore. The article read as comic-absurdist: Anderson reached her by phone but she behaved weirdly and even professed to have no idea who Bill Murray was when he tried to lure her into letting him send her a print by mentioning that Murray, one of her favorite actors, co-starred in it. It wasn’t until the very end of the piece that Anderson revealed that Kael, unbeknownst to him at the time, was enduring the ill effects of medicines administered to her for Parkinson’s disease, which she continued to do until her doctors got her cocktail right (a familiar story about Parkinson’s sufferers). The placement of this information late in the article, after Anderson had gotten laughs out of Kael’s condition, was extremely unsettling, and another critic, New York Magazine’s David Edelstein, wrote an objecting letter. In his reply to Edelstein, Anderson claimed that he had only admiration for Kael and certainly didn’t intend to make her look ridiculous. He sounded baffled by Edelstein’s anger, and I believe he was sincere; he simply had no idea how his anecdote came across in print. That’s because as a writer – and as a director – Anderson is tone-deaf.
|Seeking a Friend for the End of the World|
Seeking a Friend tries to have it both ways, and neither way is authentic. Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, with a screenplay by Reid Carolin, does something similar. This movie about two male strippers in Florida, one (Channing Tatum) experienced, the other (Alex Pettyfer) a novice, is made with great skill; it’s beautiful to look at, the backstage scenes are fresh and funny, and the club numbers are cleverly choreographed and extremely well danced. But every time the film gets away from the club, the dialogue becomes leaden and even the good actors in the (decidedly mixed) cast get swallowed up by it. Carolin makes a familiar error here: he assumes that realism means having the characters talk the way real people speak, but most real people speak in clichés and repeat themselves endlessly. Tolstoy was a realist, but the dialogue in Anna Karenina doesn’t read like a transcription of actual conversations. And God knows I’m no prude, but the fact that most of us pepper our everyday exchanges with casual obscenities doesn’t justify the 7,500 or so “fucks” in Carolin’s script. I’m sure we’re all relieved that we no longer live under the infantilizing restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code of the thirties, forties and fifties, but screenwriters are still under the obligation to be inventive. The dialogue scenes in Magic Mike, which sound as if they could have written by anyone in the audience, are so arid that you’re parched for a semi-literate line.
|Channing Tatum in Magic Mike|
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.