Sunday, April 1, 2018

Spin Control: A Wrinkle in Time

Reese Witherspoon and Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time .

We can't take any credit for our talents,” says Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) in A Wrinkle in Time. “It's how we use them that counts.” Mrs. Whatsit is one of three powerful cosmic beings who guide thirteen-year-old Meg Murray (Storm Reid) on a quest to battle evil and rescue her father (Chris Pine), a scientist who disappeared five years ago, while conducting experiments out of his home laboratory, discovering new planets, and generally messing around in the realms of the unknown. This movie adaptation of the beloved 1962 children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle was directed by Ava DuVernay, who first attracted attention with I Will Follow (2011), which was made on a $50,000 budget, and Middle of Nowhere, made in 2012 for $200,000. Her big one, the phenomenally successful Selma (2014), starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, cost $20 million, practically chump change for a big studio movie with name actors, acres of extras, and a period setting. Those movies established DuVernay as a director who had a talent for working with actors and telling down-to-earth stories depicting adult emotions.

A Wrinkle in Time is her belly flop into the deep end – a lavishly mounted fantasy film with lots of special effects and a budget of $100 million. The movie scarcely taps into DuVernay’s talents as a filmmaker, but it comes thickly swaddled in her talents as a publicist and self-promoter. During its much-anticipated long march into theaters, A Wrinkle in Time was lauded for being the first movie directed by a woman of color to have a budget that rose into nine figures. The politely “meh!” reviews the movie has garnered confirm that media professionals have received the message that it would be very bad manners to wonder aloud how many good movies that money could have paid for instead.

Once it’s been established that Meg, a lonely outcast at school who is alienated from her peers by her grief over her missing father and her own scientific brilliance, DuVernay brings on Mrs. Whatsit and her fellow astral traveler Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who speaks in quotations from great thinkers because she has evolved so far beyond language that she cannot express her own thoughts in ways comprehensible to mere mortals. (This detail is carried over from the book, but it unfortunately may remind some viewers of Michael Jackson’s wan, sad-ass Scarecrow in The Wiz, who was always reading famous quotations off strips of paper he pulled out of his stuffing.) Finally, they both invade Meg’s backyard and introduce her to the third member of their little group: Mrs. Which, who is played by Oprah Winfrey, and who first appears as a special effect so big that she towers over Meg’s house.

Winfrey’s presence sums up the ways in which this movie goes wrong if any one thing does. She was in Selma, too, playing Annie Lee Cooper. Her small role there confirmed that, while she is an impressive and talented person, for some of us it’s mighty hard to look at her playing someone else in a movie and see anything but Oprah Winfrey playing dress-up. Here, that’s part of the idea: DuVernay has said that, in looking for a way to establish how special and extraordinary these inter-dimensional travelers are, she cast Winfrey, Witherspoon, and Kaling for their own real-life specialness, as women who produce their own projects. Usually it takes longer than this for success to eat a young filmmaker’s brain alive in quite this way, so that it leaves her with show business as her only point of reference.

It’s a frame of reference that’s especially ill-suited to conveying the spirit of L’Engle’s book, which, like L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, manages to make the cosmic and unearthly seem charmingly homey. It is also a book that is not devoid of humor, but DuVernay is uninterested in anything as non-turgid as jokes. That’s why, when Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) tells the mountain-sized Oprah that she’s the wrong size and she replies, “Is there really any such thing as the wrong size?,” you know that nobody on the set was going to dare to ask if maybe that line didn’t sound a little funny coming from someone who has spent years getting America involved in her never-ending search for the right meal plan. It’s even funnier in context, because DuVernay, having no visual style of her own, tries to bowl the audience over by shooting the three women in massive, looming close-up, because nothing says “challenging new world” like imitation Spielberg.

Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, and Reese Witherspoon in A Wrinkle in Time.

A Wrinkle in Time has everything money can buy in movies these days: psychedelic fields of swaying, neon-colored flowers, Reese Witherspoon transforming into some kind of flying, smirking celery creature, an Oprah as big as a brontosaurus. It does not have humor, playfulness, forward momentum, or even a clearly characterized villain. (It’s called IT. It stole the heroine’s dad. It’s evil. That’s kind of . . . well, it.) The three goddess figures just stand around making speeches and looking like RuPaul’s Drag Race simulations of their own better selves; DuVernay must have thought that having them act on top of radiating their own iconic celebrity specialness would be more than the audience could handle. If the movie has any pulse at all, it’s thanks entirely to 14-year-old Storm Reid, who must have pulled her strong, emotionally charged performance out of her pores; thanks to her, you care about Meg and about what happens to her, and you want to see her reunited with her father so she can fulfill her dream of restoring her family. She cares more about that than about the threat IT poses to the world, and given the tissue quality of the world DuVernay has created, she’d be nuts to feel any other way.

The same can’t be said for Deric McCabe, as her brother. In the first half of the movie, he’s pushed to overdo the cuteness, and when the role takes a dramatic turn at a critical moment, he doesn’t know how to play it and DuVernay doesn’t know how to guide him. Levi Miller is blandly competent as a boy who has a crush on Meg and accompanies her and Charles Wallace on their journey, but in acting terms, Storm Reid’s compelling intensity consigns him to the friend zone. Among the many highly recognizable but not distractingly famous actors who appear in small parts, Michael Pena stands out as an agent of IT; he oozes untrustworthy affability, and in a striped summer suit, marcelled hair, and double-decker mustache, he looks as if he stepped out of the gatefold edition of Sgt. Pepper: Beachfront Edition. 

A Wrinkle in Time was hyped to the skies before its release, and the critical establishment seems united in wanting to be nice to it, or maybe nice to themselves when they imagine what it’ll say in the comments if they call it a dog. The movie has been praised not just for its good fine moral lessons – those that it inherited from the book, and those embodied in its diversified casting – and also for DuVernay’s grand ambitions as a filmmaker. But the ambitions she betrays here aren’t filmmaking ambitions, of the kind that can producing uneven but thrilling follies – it’s not that kind of movie. They’re the ambitions of a politician, the kind exhibited by liberal humbugs of the movies from Stanley Kramer to Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin and Richard Attenborough. You get to see the virus taking hold in the little speech DuVernay makes in a short film preceding the movie in theaters, smiling and talking about the challenges she and her collaborators faced to bring this life-changing experience to you . . . (For the benefit of all the people who are still accusing everyone dumbfounded by the election of Donald Trump of being condescending to conservative voters: the emotions you’ve been witnessing are disgust, disappointment, and dismay. This is what condescension looks like.)

I think A Wrinkle in Time is a movie more deserving of furious vitriol than quiet patience and a participation method, because, Storm Reid’s performance aside, the most distinctive thing about it is the scale of the waste it represents. And not just because it’ll be a while before anyone thinks about making a better movie out of the book, but because the movie is designed to turn potential young readers away from the book, if they think it, too, is an exercise in self-congratulatory worthiness. Some kids in the audience may even become less interested in movies, not understanding the compromises and gutlessness that can make grown-ups think they should be generous towards well-intentioned mediocrity and thinking that this is what a “good movie” is like. And it’s not as if Ava DuVernay herself is ever going to make a good movie again. She’ll make plenty of movies: having shown no aptitude whatsoever for large-scale fantasy filmmaking, she’s already signed to direct a movie based on the Jack Kirby New Gods superhero comics, because the great thing about America today is that race and gender are no barrier to failing upwards. But even if she were working on material suited to her gifts, she’s gone to a place where good intentions and uplift count for more than talent and entertainment value, and no A-Team of ancient wise women and gifted children has ever been able to pull anyone out of there.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. Club, HitFlix, Nerve, HiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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