Friday, September 3, 2010

The Worst Movie I Saw This Year: the American

Until today, the worst movie I saw this year was Dinner for Schmucks. And it was bad. Relentlessly awful. Of course, plenty of people steered clear of it because of the theoretically nasty premise -- invite the biggest loser to dinner and mock him -- but that could have worked. The 1991 River Phoenix/Lili Taylor indie Dogfight had a similarly cruel plot line -- marines compete to bring the ugliest girl to a dance before they ship out to Vietnam -- but it ended up being a good, small movie.

Others stayed away because the marketing campaign suggested typical summer guy comedy -- but The Hangover was one of last year's better movies, so that argument didn't hold up. It turned out to be a terrible movie for none of those reasons; it was just an especially miserable American idea of French farce. It's true there's no accounting for tastes, and I would hate farce under any circumstances -- it would never be anything I would find funny -- but it would be hard to imagine anyone could have been amused by that movie. Nothing about it worked, and it wasn't just lost in translation.

Although it's obviously a different kind of movie, The American fails in some of the same ways...before spectacularly veering off to new and unexpected depths of epic failure that are difficult to find in any kind of movie. (This would typically be the correct point to insert a spoiler alert, but really, if anything said here can persuade you not to see either of these movies, keep reading.)

It certainly feels European in that slow, plodding, pretentious manner that you wouldn't typically expect outside of an arthouse indie with subtitles. Lots of time is spent ordering and contemplating coffee, in Italian. There are long, lingering, symbolic shots of lambs. Just in case you missed the symbolism (innocence, sacrifice, etc.), mutton stew turns up on a plate in the very next scene.

And in case you don't get the obvious stylistic references to Sergio Leone (the guns, the shootouts) ... there is an actual Sergio Leone movie playing on a tv screen in a coffee shop. And in case you didn't get that... a character helpfully points out to our hero/assassin George Clooney, "Sergio Leone...Italian." And by the end of the movie, there is an actual Sergio Leone shootout, which is all but footnoted in subtitles. And in case you missed any of that, poor George Clooney wields an actual sledgehammer in his little DIY gun shop, timed to coincide symbolically with the loud peal of a church bell. But wait, couldn't we get a butterfly in there somewhere? Why yes. Yes, we could.

Catholic imagery and icons pop up everywhere, and not just the storyline with the priest (which goes nowhere more scandalous than a harmless Thornbirds-esque revelation) -- one, of maybe 732 red herrings that just gasp and flop around. (It doesn't help that the priest is virtually unintelligible, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Rodney Dangerfield.)

There's even a "pro-cess-i-Ohn" led by a statue of the blessed virgin that even Francis Ford Coppola would reject as too over the top for the Godfathers. Get it? It's a morality play. See, there's crime and sin and there's redemption. There are curvy naked women (who've clearly never visited an American gym), so see! See how they can free their sexuality and those pendulous, pendulous udders. Madonna/Whore/Madonna/Whore. My sister/my mother/my sister/my mother. Even the most devoted straights will be sick, sick of bare breasts by the end of this movie.

Clearly, director Anton Corbijn has no fundamental understanding of Chekhov's gun, beyond any literal interpretation that would entail Clooney taking that gun and beating someone to death with it. (The shady mechanic? Forget about him.Why do we meet the hooker's girlfriend? Why not?. How and why is somebody killing hookers? Don't know. Doesn't matter. Who are The Swedes? Who cares?)

In the end, we know that the girl assassin works for "the" death rattle, death rattle, rattle, rattle. Snipers typically call those bullet-through-the-brain kill shots for their eloquently descriptive characteristics. One rarely lingers past a kill shot long enough to choke out "The Moral of the Story."

Aren't we all working for the same man? Really. It's Clooney. There must be a political nuance.

At this point in the narrative, we were just praying for Clooney to package her head in a box and hand it off to Kevin Spacey so he could drive into the desert and hand it to George's buddy Brad Pitt.

Remember Kubrick explaining the desolation on the streets of New York as part of the intentional stylized affect he was going for on Eyes Wide Shut? And how that "affect" was mostly his lazy indulgence in refusing to leave England long enough to make a damn movie, with the unfortunate consequence that the "New York skies" shot on London soundstages for Eyes Wide Shut, looked suspiciously like "the city of Hue skies" in Full Metal Jacket. That's not "eccentric," it's just self-indulgent.

And this is too. Corbijn is to be faulted far more than Clooney. He directed the thing right into the ditch. Although Clooney does need his mouth smacked in his clear bid to attain the Oscar for "most tensely chewed gum by a lead actor in what should've been a $28 buck foreign language entry." Who does he think he is? Billy Jack?

As arted and tarted up as this movie is -- from Focus Features, no less! (the guys who brought you Brokeback Mountain!) --  Corbijn needs to spend a long weekend with Jason Statham and the first Transporter movie. Let that bring him down to earth a little.

Then make him watch Taken,  with Liam Neeson, so he can figure out that while sometimes less is more, sometimes it's just less. Taken was a throwaway January release with Liam Neeson as a guy who kills people for a living  (in a slightly more sanctioned governmental role), and he's delightful at it. Plus he never chews gum at any point in that 92 hours. And he delivers the movie's best line in context -- you just have to watch it to see why it works -- "apologize to your wife for me."

Would this movie have been as bad if Liam Neeson or Jason Statham had starred? No. It would've been marginally better (but still hard to watch). Not because they are better than Clooney, but because less is expected of them. If an indie band in Omaha sends you a bad CD from their mom's basement, that hardly merits a review, or even a comment. If Radiohead puts out a failure, that's news. Clooney is a movie star, not just an actor, and this movie is too slight a vehicle for him, or anyone else. He has done perfectly good Actor turns (Up in the Air, Syriana), so this is especially disappointing. It's fine that he doesn't feel compelled to deliver Ocean's 27 every time at bat, but if he's going to make Art, it should at least be Art, not a straight-to-DVD poser that would be justifiably ignored if it was anybody but him in it.

It's hard to say this out loud, but this movie is even worse than eat, pray, love -- but they are awful in some of the same ways. By and large, it is not interesting to watch people think for vast, uninterrupted expanses of time. It just seems more plausible when Clooney does it than Julia Roberts.

Fans have long said they would pay to watch George Clooney read the phonebook. They just about get it in this -- see how you feel watching him contemplatively drinking his seventh cup of coffee or hammering his 28th nail.

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