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This is a difficult movie. I laughed pretty hard through a lot of it, except where I was wincing. Sympathetic wincing, not angry wincing. The Coens are not in the business of making movies that are easy to figure out, and they don’t do open access. This is like that.

A lot of the criticism of this movie revolves around how unlikeable the characters are. Filmspotting talked about the Coen tendency to mock stupid characters. There’s no doubt that most of the protagonists are dumb and/or cold and/or malicious, but I don’t think I can write the movie off as an exercise in mockery.

Frances McDormand and, oddly, George Clooney saved it from that. Clooney’s performance is really way overmannered — for most of the movie. After sleeping on it for a couple of days, though, I’ve come around to thinking that was purposeful. Clooney isn’t a great actor, but he’s a smart actor, and he can do subtle. Watch what he does with the character after he kills Brad Pitt. I think what we’re seeing is someone who’s overacting because the character overacts. The scene where he calls his wife and begs her to come home? That’s someone stripped of his pretensions, and I think Clooney played it perfectly. Not to mention the symbolism of destroying his own phallic substitute sex toy; he’s destroying his own facade right there, poor guy.

His earlier lines about his quick reactions and his, ha ha, “I’ve never discharged a firearm” are the set up. On first glance, that’s part of the fakery. Those are his lines which he uses to get laid. But the Pitt death shows us a) that he does have really good reflexes and b) that he really hasn’t fired his gun in anger before. That’s the hook demonstrating that there’s a person underneath it all.

McDormand’s role is less complex. It wasn’t hard at all for me to sympathize with her. Yeah, she does horribly stupid things, but she’s intensely lonely. Richard Jenkins humanizes her in a wonderful performance by letting us see why someone would love her. To a degree, she’s a monster — but with someone as decent as Jenkins emotionally involved with her, you can’t write her off as nothing but monstrosity.

So I do wind up — not liking them, but at least wishing them redemption. The arc of the movie brings them together, then thrusts them apart. They’re definitely the centerpiece. And in the end, of course, they’re the protagonists who get out of it all alive. If not happy.

With that in mind, it’s another tragedy. It’s just that the Coens have no scruples about tragic movies overlaid with brutal humor.

Originally published at Imaginary Vestibule.

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I’m thinking about a long essay on Johnny Depp’s trilogy of food movies: Chocolat, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and of course Sweeney Todd.


What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

Originally published at Imaginary Vestibule.

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Spoilers ahead.

I’m unclear as to whether Stranger Than Fiction is a comedy or a tragedy. I guess strictly speaking it’s a romantic comedy, but really, that’s not the story of the movie; the story of the movie is about how something dies. Does a great person have a downfall? Yep. So I think I have to read it as a bittersweet tragedy, albeit one with an ending which could be seen as rather happy.

Then again, it perhaps betrays my bibliophiliac nature that I think the death of a novel is a tragedy. But — no, I think I’m on target. A classic tragedy is inevitable. In Stranger Than Fiction, everyone makes the right decisions; ethics prevail throughout. It just so happens that the result of these decisions is that Karen Eiffel doesn’t complete her greatest novel.

But the alternative would have been worse. It’s to the movie’s credit that there’s a bit of uncertainty there, though. Around fifteen minutes before the end, I thought Harold was going to die, and that would have been an impressive choice. Then I thought we were going to have a saccharine ending; then it was redeemed, because it was clear that the choice made was a painful one. Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson pretty much pulled this off with their final scene; perfect portrayal of two people who know a sacrifice has been made.

The two of them more or less made the movie work all along, actually. Will Ferrell was good; the role wasn’t deeply demanding, but he did avoid hamming it up and he was perfectly decent as a mostly blank cipher. I’m guessing he’ll do one of these every few years to maintain cred, and if he’s this good every time he’ll deserve whatever cred he gets. But really, it was Thompson and Hoffman deserve the credit for creating the context in which he could work.

So I liked it. As elliptical Wes Andersonesque movies go, it was no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but it beat the crap out of I Heart Huckabees.

Originally published at Imaginary Vestibule.

January 2017

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