Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Light Fantastic – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug & The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The middle part of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is terrifically enjoyable, and its two hours and forty minutes move with alacrity. It’s the ideal Christmas entertainment, though it’s now fashionable to deride Jackson, who was – justifiably – everybody’s hero between 2001 and 2003, when he turned out the three Lord of the Rings pictures. The general feeling seems to be that he returned to Tolkien with his tail between his legs because his two intervening movies, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, were disasters and it was the only thing he could do – as if nearly-three-hour fantasy adventures with enormous casts were so easy to pull off that they no longer merited any respect. And then it turns out that The Hobbit movies are piddling achievements because they’re not in the same class as The Lord of the Rings.

Well, backlashes don’t make sense except as expressions of envy, but I feel duty bound to correct the record. The Lovely Bones was indeed a disaster: Jackson didn’t have the sensibility or the style for Alice Sebold’s delicate novel, which is the damnedest coming-of-age story I’ve ever read (the heroine, who narrates it, has been murdered by a predatory neighbor). Jackson compensated by overproducing it in a kind of storybook lushness probably meant to mimic Maxfield Parrish or maybe the 1940s output of the English filmmaking team Powell and Pressburger. And it was all wrong – the way Spielberg’s The Color Purple was all wrong. Talented directors sometimes fall flat on their faces. But King Kong was another story. Yes, it went on for hours, but there were splendid things in it right alongside the scenes that fumbled, and if you stuck around for the last section, in New York, which focused on the love story between the ape and Naomi Watts, your patience was rewarded. A former student of mine theorized cannily that it was way too long because Jackson loved the material so much he couldn’t bear to let it go – a charge that might be made about his Lord of the Rings movies, too, if it weren’t for the fact that there was nothing in them you’d want to cut (and that includes the roughly half an hour of additional footage he restored to each for the director’s-cut DVDs). You can call King Kong a folly, but it’s hardly fair to call it a waste.

I admit that I didn’t know what to expect of the first Hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey. The Hobbit is an awfully slim novel to generate three giant-sized movies, and unlike the Lord of the Rings books it’s dull. And for the first forty minutes or so An Unexpected Journey dawdles – sumptuously, of course (the cinematographer and production designer are, respectively, Andrew Lesnie, Jackson’s brilliant collaborator from The Lord of the Rings, and Don Hennah). When Gandalf the White Wizard (Ian McKellen) brings the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) together with a troop of dwarves set on reclaiming the kingdom stolen from them by the dragon Smaug, the preparation for the journey, which should take maybe fifteen minutes of screen time, goes on for nearly three times as long. But then Bilbo and Gandalf and the dwarves set out on their journey, and the movie picks up immediately. The paucity of engaging narrative material from the book doesn’t impede Jackson and his co-screenwriters, his wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (who worked on all three of the Lord of the Rings pictures) and the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro; they simply embroider on Tolkien’s plot and come up with more than enough set-piece sequences to fill the next two hours or so.

Director Peter Jackson
The Desolation of Smaug provides more of the same, and since the story has already been launched – and Bilbo established as a courageous member of the band, and craftier than any of his dwarf companions – Jackson can move from one episode to another without having to slow down for (much) exposition. There are four major sections. In the first, the dwarves are captured and imprisoned by Thranduil (Lee Pace), the ruler of the elves; Bilbo, with the aid of the ring he stole from Gollum in the earlier movie (and which no one else knows he carries in his pocket, able to make himself invisible in a moment), frees them, though they’re chased by orcs. In the second, the travelers confront a nest of giant spiders. In the third, they wind up in Laketown, a settlement of humans close to Lonely Mountain, where Smaug watches over his hoard of treasure. In the final section, Bilbo gains entrance to the door of Lonely Mountain and braves the wrath of the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) in order to obtain the arkenstone, the glowing blue jewel that rightfully belongs to the dwarf monarch whose kingdom Smaug devastated years ago. (Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, is the dwarf prince who belongs on the throne.) The Laketown sequence is required narrative filler (though it’s well directed); the other three are visually and viscerally exciting.

The Hobbit movies don’t have the weight or depth of The Lord of the Rings, in which compassion and self-sacrifice are constantly at odds with greed for power, and no one, except perhaps for Gandalf and Sam, Frodo Baggins’ faithful servant, is immune to the seductions of the second. Jackson links The Desolation of Smaug to the epic battle between good and evil in The Lord of the Rings by bringing in Sauron, who is preparing to dominate Middle Earth; Gandalf is absent from the party of travelers for almost the whole movie because he’s concerned with the impending descent of civilization into darkness. The ring, of course, is in Bilbo’s possession, and there’s a moment early on when he considers telling Gandalf about it but gives in to its dark power sufficiently to keep the information to himself. And Jackson suggests a parallel when the quest for the arkenstone so obsesses Thorin that he doesn’t consider Bilbo’s safety and at one point even begins to suspect that he wants to keep the jewel for himself. But the current trilogy is lighter – more in the nature of a boys’ serial, like, say, the Indiana Jones movies. The main thing is that Jackson hasn’t lost his gifts for dramatic construction or image-making. The Desolation of Smaug may be minor magic, but it’s certainly magic.

Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

In his fifth feature as a director, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller finds his feet. His other movies, like The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder, were aggressive ten-ton apparatuses that came barreling at the viewer without mercy: if you didn’t feel like laughing your ass off you felt obliterated. But Walter Mitty, with Stiller in the title role, is as graceful and understated as a soft-shoe routine, and it’s paced for leisure, so you can settle in and get to know the characters as human beings. (Even Shirley MacLaine, as Walter’s supportive, live-and-let-live mom, tones down and gives an affable, tossed-off performance.) When I caught a screening during Christmas week at my local cineplex, the audience burst into spontaneous applause at the end.

Steven Conrad’s clever script is very loosely based on the famous James Thurber short story about a cowed schlemiel who is a hero only in his hyperactive fantasy life. Thurber enthusiasts tend to resist adaptations because they turn Walter into a real hero, but there’s no other way to dramatize the story. (A faithful adaptation might just work as a half-hour TV play.) Samuel Goldwyn Studios fitted it out for Danny Kaye in 1947 with songs and in Technicolor, but it was uninspired; the only memorable thing in it was “Anatole of Paris,” the novelty tune (written by his wife Sylvia Fine) about a French hatmaker that became one of Kaye’s signature numbers. The new version, also from Goldwyn, updates it to contemporary New York, where Walter works as the head of negative assets – i.e., photographic negatives – at Life magazine, which has just been bought out and is being downsized and moved online. Forty-two-year-old Walter is great at a job that doesn’t register on the radar of Ted, the repugnant “director of the transition” (a bearded Adam Scott, skillfully playing the heartless-corporate-villain role as a frat-house bully whose bark is bigger than his brain). That is, until Life’s most valued photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn, in a relaxed parody of a daredevil), sends him the neg of a photo Sean thinks is his all-time best and offers for the valedictory cover. But when the contact sheet arrives, the promised image is missing, and Walter has to keep dodging Ted while he goes to increasingly desperate lengths to track it down – not an easy prospect, since Sean is usually halfway across the world and unreachable by the usual twenty-first-century technology. And of course there’s a romantic plot as well. A retiring bachelor, Walter is dying to ask out Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a divorced co-worker; he goes as far as to sign up for a dating website he’s overheard her telling her friends she’s on. The movie’s best running gag is a series of conversations between him and Todd (Patton Oswalt), the website supervisor who’s trying to put together a profile on Walter to make him look more appealing.

Stiller with Kristin Wiig
Unlike Thurber’s Mitty, Stiller’s isn’t henpecked; the only people who don’t appreciate him are Ted and his sycophantic cohorts. But, true to the story, he does zone out for minutes at a time, playing out wish-fulfillment fantasies in his head (and some are pretty funny) in which he stands up to Ted or distinguishes himself for Cheryl’s benefit. The premise of the movie is that Walter is a man with a sense of adventure who got stalled – at seventeen, when his father died and he had to go to work to help support his mother and sister (now an actress and performance artist, played by Kathryn Hahn). The combination of his need to locate Sean’s missing photo and Cheryl’s friendliness to him when their paths cross at work brings out the long-buried risk taker in him. On impulse he decides to fly out to Greenland, following clues to Sean’s whereabouts from the other negatives on the sheet. At this point the movie shifts gears: Walter stops fantasizing and starts having adventures. The kicker is that instead of staging them as extravagant action sequences choking on CGI, the movie presents them casually, in a modest magic-realist style that complements Stiller’s bemused everyman approach to the role. Stiller has made a career out of go-for-broke comic caricature and he can be very entertaining, but this is the best acting he’s ever done. I’d guess that he got his inspiration from a pair of silent-movie geniuses: the tireless conviction from Buster Keaton and the heart from Harold Lloyd. And his scenes with Kristen Wiig feel improvised – not in that phony, glamor-puss way that we’re used to seeing comedians interact in movies these days but like two real grown-ups, messed up by life’s unexpected detours but making an honest try at finding their way back to happiness. Wiig is one of the most gifted and audacious comics working right now, but I fell in love with her in Walter Mitty in a completely new way.

The movie’s affection for the old school is seen in Sean’s refusal to be tied down by modern technology and his respect for Walter, whom he insists on calling his best collaborator. It honors rituals and traditions – Walter’s sister Odessa shows up at his work on his birthday with the clementine cake, his favorite, that his mother bakes him every year, and when he winds up on a ship in Greenland after leaping into shark-infested waters from a chopper driven by a sloshed, lovelorn pilot (that’s just the beginning of Walter’s adventures), one of the sailors offers him a piece of clementine cake. (How it got there is part of the film’s nutty, pleasurable treasure-hunt structure.) And the movie honors Life magazine, which the filmmakers see as an embodiment of vanished glory. No argument here.

– 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 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.

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