Sunday, November 11, 2012

A sharp veer to the left and straight off the cliff

I have just seen two films recently which, in a strange coincidence, both feature John Goodman and Melissa Leo (who played a couple in Treme) in separate storylines for which they share no scenes.  And both films start in one genre, suggest a certain layer of complexity which is never fulfilled, and then make a sharp 90-degree veer in a different direction, one with more success than the other.

Michael Parks and John Goodman talk theology.
The films are Red State (2011) and Flight (2012).  Both had wonderful marketing campaigns that were criminally misleading.  I have no idea why Red State was marketed as a horror film, which automatically put a lid on its earning potential, while at the same time directed it to the wrong audience, which rightly rejected it.  The fact is, that the first half-hour of the film trades on a premise which might also be used in a horror-film:  teenage boys lured by the promise of sex, but delivered to a very different and frightening fate -- some sort of unspecified harm by a bunch of Westboro Church-type evangelicals led by Michael Parks.  Except that that particular velvet glove not only lacked an iron fist, it lacked any content whatsoever.  The threat turned out to be utterly fake, and the film morphed into a satire of the inadequacy of government bureaucracy in the face of utter suicidal lunacy.

To Kevin Smith's credit, he started off with a cardboard political agenda which he is simply too good a writer to adhere to and -- perhaps unconsciously -- realizing that when he got there there was no there there, took off not so much for another target, but in favor of character over ideology.  He wanted to make fun of extremist evangelists, but he seems to have been distracted by the idea of some poor working stiff in the ATF having to sort out a potential Waco-type mess he wants no part of without it blowing up in his and everybody else's face.  It's this sort of thing that leads me to wonder if Kevin Smith ever writes second drafts, or whether -- given that it takes him years to get the energy to crank out a script -- he is satisfied with just getting something down on the page, then immediately dials up his production manager and starts perusing the craft services menu.  (Yes, I know that he raised the financing and distributed the film himself, so the process was a bit more complicated, but...)

Nonetheless, once you get past the tedious set up of the premise of the movie, with a long, redundant monologue by Michael Parks, the film centers around the always-satisfying John Goodman as a man in the middle, squeezed between doing the right thing and toeing the line with his superiors.  This is first-rate satire, but it lacks the time and scope to have enough weight to anchor the entire film.  Then Smith tosses in an anti-climax in which what sounds like The Rapture turns out to be some hippies teasing the evangelicals.  I say "tossed in" because what could have been an intriguing and funny scene is conveyed by some dialogue in a brief denouement scene.  (Plus Smith admitted it was added after the fact in his video Q&A, Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell.)  The result feels like an anthology of different films from different genres stitched together sequentially.  I don't know how Red State performed commercially, but I can't help but think that there must have been a LOT of disappointed horror fans.

Denzel got some explainin' to do.
When John Goodman appeared on screen in Flight (2012) a lot of the audience, including me, "ooh"-ed with the feeling of "Oh boy, this is going to be good."  We were also to be disappointed.  After a slam-bang initial half-hour of Washington performing an heroic landing of a wounded passenger plane while drunk and high, one looks forward to the story of transcendence and transfiguration promised by (a) the title of the film; (b) the spiritually suggestive trailers and television ads; and (c) Zemicki's work in Cast AwayForrest Gump and the failed by aspirational Contact.  No such luck.  John Goodman's role as Denzel's connection turns out to be dispiriting rather than energizing, and the rest of the film is a rehash of The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses, Clean and Sober, 28 Days and every other movie about a drunk trying and failing to clean up.  These stories are always repetitive -- they have to be if they're going to be realistic, but that doesn't make them any more fresh or insightful.  This is a movie without anything to recommend it other than Denzel's presence, albeit he doesn't have anything else to do.  And a movie that can waste Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo and a lot of less-famous but equally ill-used actors rates as a major waste of time for the audience and the filmmakers.

It would seem that would have been fairly easy to make a much better, much more original film.  And how disappointing that Denzel finally breaks away from the tedious potboilers he has given so much of his working life to (Safe House, Unstoppable, Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Inside Man), the result is still deja vu, just in a more exalted genre.

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