Monday, January 8, 2024

Year-End Movies II: The Color Purple and May December

Taraji P. Henson in one of her spectacularly ugly costumes she wear in The Color Purple.

Why are most of the recent movie musicals so ghastly? Much as I’d loved Paul King’s Paddington movies, I walked out on his Wonka, just as I’d bailed on The Greatest Showman, which looked like it had been made by people who’d never seen a musical, and Matilda, which was so grotesque it was painful to watch, like Cats. In Wonka the overproduction magnifies everything that’s wrong with the numbers – the bland, paltry songs by Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot, the uninspired choreography (by the usually inventive Christopher Gattelli) and hapless Timothée Chalamet in the title role, pretending to be a musical-comedy performer. It’s not just that he isn’t a singer; legends have built up around non-singers who gave indelible renditions of show songs, like Rex Harrison and Richard Burton and the enchanting, recently departed Glynis Johns. It’s that Chalamet has zero showmanship. There were clunky musicals in the early days of the talkies, when the studios were desperate to find ways to show off the new technology; strident musicals from 20th Century-Fox during and after the war years; misconceived musicals during the sixties and early seventies trying to chase down an audience that had been replaced by a younger, hipper one while the studios weren’t paying attention. But these contemporary out-of-sync kitschfests are way worse.

The latest fiasco is The Color Purple, set mostly in Georgia in the first half of the twentieth century and based on the Broadway musical adaptation of the Alice Walker novel that, nearly four decades ago, generated Steven Spielberg’s unfortunate early attempt to break out of the fantasy-adventure niche. I wasn’t so hot on the book, a fruitcake whipped up out of a tawdry race melodrama and a sisterhood-is-powerful fairy tale, but it was better than the Spielberg version. The director was such a wrong match with the material that I assumed that Black audiences and critics would be offended by all the Disney cuteness. Imagine my surprise when I read an interview with Blitz Bazawule, the director of the new Color Purple, in which he proclaimed that watching Spielberg’s picture had changed his life.

I didn’t see the 2005 Broadway musical, which had a book by Marsha Norman and songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, but I caught the 2015 revival with the talented Cynthia Erivo in the leading role, and it was more fun than I’d anticipated. The songs were sung with a gospel brio, the choreography was lively, and the director, John Doyle, did a wizardly job of bringing together the elements. It would be a stretch to say that I was having too good a time to notice the insane plot: Celie, raped by her father and beaten by her husband, learns from his bisexual mistress, the cabaret singer Shug Avery, how to love and stand up for herself and goes on to make the store she inherits into not only a winning business proposition but a stylish one before she’s reconciled with the sister who, unbeknownst to her, has been raising Celie’s incest children in Africa. But the show was so rousing that the crazy narrative settled down to becoming just one of the factors in the entertainment.

However, Doyle, even when he missteps, is a director; Bazawule is not, even if that’s what his union card says. His film doesn’t have a concept, just a checklist of disparate ideas about how to stage and shoot numbers. They don’t fit together, so it’s like watching a compilation of numbers from a dozen or more different movies. It’s anyone’s guess what was on his mind (or on the mind of the choreographer, Fatima Robinson) when one of Celie’s numbers takes her wandering through a prison gang working in the cotton fields or why a number set in the 1940s like “Miss Celie’s Pants” interpolates dance styles that would be better suited for a rave. Now and then you catch a visual quote from another movie musical, but Bazawule doesn’t follow through, so you wonder if he might have found it by chance while thumbing through a pictorial history of musicals. If I had to name Bazawule’s approach, I’d call it inadvertent collage – he throws in whatever comes to his head, like a junior Baz Luhrmann. He doesn’t understand the rhythm of a show number so he’s utterly at sea about how to shoot and edit one.

And God, he’s an appalling director of actors. Fantasia Barrino, who plays Celie, can certainly sing the part, but her acting is all oversized gestures and playing emotions, which results in a generalized wash. As Mister, Celie’s brute of a husband – who, however, turns around and redeems himself by selling his land to bring her sister Nettie (Ciara) back from Africa after he’s spent literally decades hiding her letters to Celie – Colman Domingo scowls for most of the two hours and twenty minutes. Bazawule doesn’t give Danielle Brooks much help with transferring her stage performance as upfront, jocular Sofia, who’s pregnant by Mister’s son Harpo when we first meet her. Even Taraji P. Henson, whom I usually love, isn’t much good as Shug, though she manages to put over her final song. The only person in the cast who seems remotely grounded is Corey Hawkins as Harpo. Henson isn’t even lit or dressed to make her look good, though her costumes are only the most conspicuous of the atrocities designed by Rashad Corey and Francine Jamison-Tanchuck. The cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, who has done fine work with Guillermo del Toro, but his contribution here is baffling.  Why would you underlight numbers in a big, boisterous self-actualization musical?

Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December.

The premise of Todd Haynes’s May December is that, twenty years after a teacher has gone to jail for sleeping with a thirteen-year-old middle-school kid, married him and raised a family with him, the actress who has been cast in a movie version of her story comes to spend time with her to research the role. Haynes and the screenwriter, Samy Burch, have added a meta-layer to the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal, but instead of adding complexity it slows the movie down and makes it hopelessly self-conscious. Everyone on screen seems to be sleepwalking. Julianne Moore is miscast as the childlike Gracie (the character based on Letourneau), but then I’ve never thought she was at her best in her collaborations with Haynes; here, as in Safe and Far from Heaven, she’s playing an idea he hasn’t turned into a flesh-and-blood woman, and she responds with a mannered performance. As the actress, Elizabeth, Natalie Portman comes across as so amateurish that you can’t help thinking that was a deliberate choice to force a comment about acting and reality. If so, it is, to put it lightly, misguided. In one scene Elizabeth attends an acting class in which Gracie’s daughter is enrolled at the local high school, where the teacher introduces her as a Juilliard-trained actor. That intro pulled me straight out of the movie; I wondered if somewhere along the way someone had made a clerical error.

– 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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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