Saturday, April 5, 2008

Proof You Can't Always Count On Critics

(...or maybe wunelle's blog reviews.)

I saw Disney's Enchanted a while back, a fambly-dining-at-its-fambliest kinda movie to which I would give pretty high marks despite having no fambly. My strongest impression (apart from its espresso-machine-steam-cleaned kid-friendliness--even the "grittiness" of New York is carefully sanitized) is that it would have been a very different movie, if indeed it could even have been made, without Amy Adams. Plenty of reviews sang her praises and extolled the complete sincerity with which she played the wide-eyed, animated-cum-I'm-a-real-boy! Princess Giselle, a cartoon heroine who is sentenced to a life in the real world by her evil soon-to-be mother-in-law. The movie is yet another Variation On the Theme of Disney, the same basic no-reality-allowed formula they have employed without exception for more than 50 years.

But Amy Adams really is enchanting in it. Without this performance they'd have no movie. She's absolutely delightful, enough to make a person look back at other things she's done to see if this was an aberration. And the biggest thing on her resume before Enchanted was clearly 2005's Junebug.

Directed by Phil Morrison on a screenplay by Angus MacLachlan (relative newcomers both), Junebug follows a hip Chicago newlywed couple Madeleine and George (Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola) as they travel South to investigate a mentally-handicapped, penis-obsessed painter's work for Madeleine's Chicago art gallery, after which they take a side trip to visit the husband's family in North Carolina. It's the standard mixing of divergent worlds thing, red state versus blue state, blah blah blah. And Amy Adams again stands out, this time as a very pregnant woman, Ashley, living in her husband's parents' home. She is the lone shining light in a sea of bleakness.

Though I'll allow it was thought-provoking, I hated this movie. After watching it, I read a review which said it avoided stereotypes and deftly handled both the always-misunderstood South and the often-simplified shallow, urban sophisticate. Bullshit, I say. The movie shines its light on just about the ugliest family in the South that imagination could conjure (without the easy resort to out-and-out criminality) and plays them rather incomprehensibly against the art-gallery-0wning Chicago couple. We expect the clash of worlds, but it occurs here to no end; there is no payoff for the interaction: people are not redeemed, differences once aired are not explored, quarrels are not settled, mistakes are not rectified. And in the end, both sides retreat to their corners, unmoved and unchanged. An hour and a half of pain to end up precisely where we started.

Well, if there is no payoff for our 95 minutes of turmoil, at least the turmoil is mostly miserable to watch. Amy Adams steals the show as the ├╝ber-chatty, very pregnant wife to George's brother Johnny, the young couple still living with Johnny's parents in the family home. The patriarch of the family--Johnny and George's father--is so introverted as to seem autistic, while the mother seems hopelessly provincial and harshly judgmental, a woman without light. Johnny, the father of the soon-to-arrive child, is surly and hateful, a pungent condensation of the ignorant, violent Southern redneck; his interaction with his impossibly sunny wife is a source of constant heartbreak, so unyieldingly toxic that it might have been a source of humor if there were levity elsewhere in the film. (At one point Ashley responds to one of Johnny's many tantrums with one of the film's more memorable lines: "God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.")

But with the exception of the two young women--Ashley and Madeleine, both of whom are genuinely warm and sympathetic people--the rest of the household will depress you right to your bone marrow. And just to make sure the point is not lost, the decency even of these two sources of light will be duly submerged by movie's end. It's the way of the world, they seem to say, that the wolf pack will rip the scholar limb from limb for a tasty meal before he will have a chance to enlighten them with his lecture.

What makes the whole exercise even more frustrating (not that the scales were threatening to balance) is that I didn't believe any of the characters. OK, the movie doesn't have to be unstintingly realistic, but the unreality should have some point, no? Not even the ideological clashes play out in a believable way. Embeth Davidtz's Madeleine, though genuinely warm and friendly, would never take to these people as she is shown to do--especially the hostile younger brother, who blows her off with stunning rudeness continually and then makes a pass at her--and certainly (if my own life experiences are any gauge) not without a lot of discussion, before, during and after, with her spouse who presumably understands these people. But no. She relieves her stress by telling her husband nothing but having sex with him instead. (Is she secretly turned on by all the abuse?) Madeleine seems incredulous that everybody prays in the church basement--everybody but her--and she watches in near-disbelief as her husband sings a solo in church, and he even seems renowned in the congregation for his singing; and yet there is no follow-up to these questions raised about his singing or his friendship with the rural pastor or his religious life or that of his family or his hypocritical duality. They just have sex.

It's cute (OK, not really) but exasperatingly impertinent; its like an ineptly-done deus ex machina, where the hand-of-god solution (sex, in this case) doesn't even manage to fix the plot issues. It's meant to be like some cosmic movie reset button, but it doesn't even pretend to work. The husband joins in his family's almost universal disapproval of Madeleine (except for Ashley, who judges no one and seems to love everybody), but then declares himself "so fucking glad" to be leaving. And Madeleine--who might explicably beg for forgiveness or tell him the relationship is over or at least scream "What the fuck is with you people?!"--thinks for a bit in silence and then seems to forgive him and put the whole experience behind her. Their discussion in the aftermath--if they had had one--could have made a great movie in its own right. I wanted to throttle everyone on the cast and crew and even innocent bystanders.

If this is a "sympathetic" portrayal of the South, then the rest of the world is right in rejecting and even poking fun at these people; and if it's not realistic--surely there are millions of intelligent, learned and warm people in the South--then I would be pissed at yet another portrayal of the region as a modern-day Neander Valley.

I love Amy Adams, but she is not enough to carry this Superfund site of a movie.

Grade: D


dbackdad said...

He-he. I love your very funny review. Like you, I think Amy Adams is great and she truly was what made Enchanted, but I've never taken the time to see Junebug despite hearing it was supposed to be good. After reading your review, I think I'll shelve my plans to see it permanently.

wunelle said...

The more I think of it, the more irritated I get! I'd give it an F except that I've already gone from a D+ to a D.

I should keep counting to 10.