Thursday, April 26, 2012

House of Wax

DiCaprio & Hammer with slabs of veal glued to their faces.
There is one moment in which Leonard DiCaprio is completely convincing as the titular character in J. Edgar (2011).  It comes toward the end when a stricken Clyde Tolson discovers Hoover stretched out on the floor, white, tubby and lifeless.  I've seen some dead bodies in my time, and in my opinion, Leonardo completely nailed it.

I'm not sure why anyone is still producing these movies from the Madame Tussaud school of filmmaking.  We no longer believe their mythmaking--books of popular biography provide more and better information for those who are interested in historical characters.  For the general public, one needs to cook up a new angle, a fresh scandal or a new interpretation.  My Week With Marilyn tells an untold story, gives us a new window into Marilyn (and into Sir Larry as well) which, together with Michelle Williams' performance, justifies yet another Monroe go-round.

There is nothing remarkable or new in J Edgar, and that includes DiCaprio's predictable performance.  Hampered by the worst make-up since Billy Crystal in Mister Saturday Night, DiCaprio demonstrates no deep understanding about how older people move and think.  He still looks like a boy, albeit a puffy boy, wearing grown-up clothes and acting "old" like the other kids in the school play do, but without having actually done the hard work of thinking through how the moving parts of the body age.  It is utterly mysterious to me how DiCaprio became a Master Actor, playing leads for Scorsese, including the even more inapt Howard Hughes.  Kevin Spacey is a master actor.  William H Macy, Gary Oldman, Ryan Gosling, Stanley Tucci, Paul Giamatti (who would have been a great Hoover if he'd had a good script) are Master Actors.  They make startling choices.  They have supple, expressive voices and eyes.  DiCaprio is well-intentioned, but never surprising, never fresh and rarely authentic.

But even if he were good, he would still be in stuck in a film that no one had taken the trouble to decide what it was about.  It spends most of its time rehearsing the well-known public outlines of Hoover's life, the Palmer Raids, the gangster era, the Lindbergh baby, the Commie hunts, the conflict with the Kennedys.  This is bad TV movie stuff (and executed in exactly that fashion) and utterly unnecessary.  The interesting, juicy stuff between Hoover and alleged lover Clyde Tolson is based virtually entirely on speculation.  Mixing this together indiscriminately with documented fact renders the entire film unreliable and therefore unengaging.  Better to have fabricated everything and focused solely on Hoover's domestic arrangements, with perhaps a nod to the hypocrisy of his public crusades, than to have jumbled docudrama and "drama" drama.  Nonetheless, the question of Hoover's possible homosexuality is neither settled nor explored, so why bring it up at all?  Where a film like Secret Honor is willing to make up the entire inner monologue of Richard Nixon's tortured soul; likewise Oliver Stone's films, especially Nixon and W dare to invent their psychodrama, much as Shakespeare would project his own dramatic ideas onto the House of Lancaster, whether or not those ideas fit the facts.  J Edgar is afraid to veer from the public record, and is stuck with a central character who is too repressed and tight-lipped to enlighten us, or, more sadly, himself.

Meryl Streep attempts to let her dental appliance do the acting.
The larger point is that you can't tell a story unless you've decided on a story to tell, which is also the problem with The Iron Lady (2011).  At least it has a bit of a performance, although it is not clear what it is that Meryl Streep is supposed to be doing when she is not doddering around as the dementia-ridden remnant of the feared Margaret Thatcher.  Much of the obligatory "rise to power" sequence is handled by another actress, as we are not expected to accept Meryl Streep as a young woman in her 20s anymore.  So Streep only handles a portion of the flashbacks, but as in J Edgar, it's hard to see what they're getting at.  Thatcher's only motivation to enter public service seems to be to emulate her adored father, small businessman and chamber-of-commerce leader.  Thatcher brings a nearly fully-formed political philosophy to bear, but we never see whwere it came from, how it started or how it evolved.

Art Tatum is my favorite jazz musician.  He might be my favorite musician period.  No one will ever make a story of his life.  At least I hope they don't.  Because Art Tatum arrived as an artist complete and completely sui generis.  His influences are minimal and generic, and the people he influenced few (because few have the technical skill).  His style shifted slightly with the advent of bebop -- he added some extended chords to his toolbox, but there is no mistaking Tatum for anyone else, from his first recording in 1932 or so and his last in 1956.  Great art.  Great, great art, but no story.

The worst thing about spending a lot of time with a person experiencing advanced stages of dementia is that it is very repetitive.  I doff my hat to writer Abi Morgan's fidelity to this painful subject, but major points off for sheer boredom.  If there was anything to say about the dementia, if it was related to Thatcher's career, if there was some metaphoric connection, perhaps maintaining a Conservative outlook requires a bit of amnesia, I don't know, something.  But let's face it, dementia happens to lots and lots of people and there is not anything dramatic about it.  If Michael Phelps gets arthritis, you've got a story.  If Truman Capote, who loved nothing better than to loll on a sofa, gets it -- not much story.  So Streep does her best bent old lady wobble, but so what?  (The Academy Award given to Streep should have gone to the costume designer, the wigmaker and whoever swiped those front teeth from the corpse of Alistair Sim.)  Did somebody think that famous people don't experience the ordinary infirmities of old age?

And why, for heaven's sake, is so much running time given to it?  Were we supposed to have trouble figuring out that husband Dennis isn't really there, it's just in her mind?  (Jim Broadbent was clearly hired in order to repeat what he won an Oscar for in Iris.)  Got that in the first speech, thank you, we saw The Sixth Sense.  So if there is no twist to come, why does that go on and on.  And if she's senile, how can she be accurately remembering her entire political career?  Wouldn't she remember it wrong?  Wouldn't Michael Foot be wearing a chicken suit and Parliament turning into a disco?  As in J Edgar, why the dry factoid rehearsal of her life story without any comment or perspective?

I mean really, why?  I hope nobody expected to get rich on these films.  They're sure not going to get any drama or insight.

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