JANUARY 22, 2014
If About Time, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Her, and The Past are so strong, why are their setups so weak?
By Mark Jenkins
A NUMBER OF PROMINENT MOVIE CRITICS have announced that 2013 was a great year for cinema, but that judgment actually reflects the fact that it was a lousy year for criticism. Film reviewing, like other forms of pop-culture analysis, has long been an extension of advertising, but a few independent-minded writers once dared to differ with the consensus dictated by eager publicists and timid editors. In recent years, most such writers have vanished, or at least gone deep underground.
In their place are reviewers who rarely question the premises of movies, or at least of movies that come with the right sort of pedigree. That's true even when those premises are astonishingly lame.
Take, for example, About Time, the latest of British writer-director Richard Curtis's vaguely creepy rom-coms. At least Curtis doesn't waste a lot of dialogue in an attempt to sell the goofy notion that his hero, Tim, can travel into the past. The filmmaker gets straight to the business of allowing Tim -- a boyish type who's presented, unconvincingly, as a lawyer -- deceive Mary, the woman he will soon marry. Since he can redo moments in his life, Tim gets an endless number of chances to convince Mary that he shares her interest in, of all things, Kate Moss. The result is true love forever -- for him. She remains a dupe, unaware that their relationship is based on a series of lies.
That's monstrous for her, of course, but also not so great for him. Imagine growing old with your mate, and having to dissemble every time someone asks how you met. Including, of course, the couple's daughters, who will grow up as suckers for daddy's fibs. But maybe they'll settle down with manipulative time-travelers, too.
As Curtis veterans will guess without actually enduring About Time, Tim is a bumbling Brit and Mary is a glamorous American. The director's enduring fascination with this scenario is a mystery, but this time it's particularly distasteful. Tim and Mary live in London, and make frequent trips to Tim's childhood home in quaint Cornwall. Mary's parents appear briefly, and there are references to her brothers, but they're never seen. Mary is, essentially, brainwashed into joining the cult of Tim's cozy family. About Time isn't a love story -- it's a kidnapping fantasy.
A simpler problem bedevils Inside Llewyn Davis, but then it would have to be simpler. Very little happens in the Coen brothers's latest existential nothing-burger.
The title character, a commercially unpromising folksinger in 1961 New York, finds himself locked out of his friends and benefactors's Upper West Side apartment in the company of their cat. Logically, he would park the cat with the building's super, or simply leave him in the hallway. Both would be safer for the cat, and easier for Llewyn, than lugging a small animal downtown on the subway, and later halfway across the country. Which is what he does.
Of course, without the cat the movie is desperately uneventful. Ultimately, the creature also offers an opportunity for the sort of gratuitous cruelty that passes for profundity among the brothers's admirers. Nonetheless, it's simply not plausible that the narcissistic Llewyn would take the cat with him -- even if that action provides the opportunity for the movie's best (and least mean-spirited) joke: a shot of a poster for The Incredible Journey, the adventure movie about two dogs and a cat who travel hundreds of miles to find their humans.
That movie, by the way, was released in 1963, not 1961. That makes it almost as big a period-buster as supporting actor Justin Timberlake's fey soul-boy vocals, which would have been as welcome in the early'-60s Greenwich Village folk scene as an electric guitar.
Nebraska native Alexander Payne's Nebraska might be even bleaker than Llewyn Davis -- hey, it's in black-and-white -- and just as inexplicably over-praised. Here the lazy premise is that a cranky old fool insists on making a Great Plains hegira because he received a Publisher's Clearinghouse-like letter that stated he "may have won" a million dollars. But anyone who's old enough to open his or her own mail knows that "may have won" is a euphemism for "zilch."
It's just not credible that the old guy wouldn't understand this, or at least be capable of grasping it when it's explained to him. After all, the movie is a comic drama, not a farce, and is supposed to be as poignant as well as funny. (Like About Time, it tries to cover for its implausible relationships by warming viewers's hearts over the glow of father-son rapport.)
Nebraska is also one of several ostensibly intelligent recent movies that take their comic cues from frat-boy gross-out comedies. For laughs, it relies heavily on the character of a foul-mouthed old lady who's outspoken about subjects that are generally of more interest to 14-year-old boys than 70-year-old women. In one scene, the woman lifts her skirt at a cemetery, taunting with her genitalia the grave of a dead man who once tried to have sex with her. Like so many moments in the film, this scene comes not from plausible characterization, but instead from writerly desperation.
Sex is more exalted, at least some of the time, in Her, Spike Jonze's latest exercise in little-boyish masculinity. The central character is Theodore, a lonely, about-to-be-divorced L.A. man who lives in the past in the near-future. His job is writing "personal" letters for people who can't handle the task themselves, perhaps because they're been crippled by e-mail, texting, and tweeting -- or brain-dead rom-coms.
Theodore tries dating, both virtually and actually, but women are needy, demanding, and borderline crazy. Spending time with the future's chicks, it turns out, is the real Where the Wild Things Are.
The exception is Samantha, a new "intelligent operating system" with the kittenish voice of Scarlett Johansson. In the real world, an operating system runs your computer, not your life, but the movie's boosters blithely parrot the phrase "operating system" as if it made any sense at all. They also accept, and credit as sort of sweet, the idea that a simulated female who exists only to serve a man is a suitable romantic interest. Perhaps Jonze's next project will be the big-screen version of I Dream of Jeanie.
Some critics seem to think that Her is a movie of ideas, but what makes the movie so accessible is that its psychological notions are utterly trite and generally retrograde. Tomorrow-land L.A., represented by Shanghai's banana-republic architecture, is just what was imagined in the 1920s: streamlined, towering, and blank. (Perhaps Samantha should have been played by the female robot from Metropolis.) And futuristic enlightenment derives from 1960s counter-culture, as exemplified by Zen popularizer Alan Watts and the sort of couples-therapy truisms that had already become greeting-card fodder by the 1970s.
"Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It's like a socially acceptable form of insanity," says Theodore's best female friend. So is accepting the off-the shelf banalities of Her, a nicely art-directed and utterly fatuous fable of male perpetual adolescence.
Most of these movies owe their place on best-of-2013 lists, at least in part, to their December releases. (Another couple of months and Her will likely be as dimly remembered as Don John, another callow-guy-meets-Scarlett-Johansson parable that was greeted with over-awed reviews.) Timing may also explain the reaction to Asghar Farhadi's The Past, the favorite 2013 foreign-language film of American critics who only saw a handful of 2013 foreign-language films.
The Past is more skillfully constructed than any of the other movies discussed in this essay, but that doesn't mean it ultimately convinces. In Farhadi's masterly previous film, A Separation, the accumulation of details was devastating. His new effort proceeds more like a commonplace Hollywood effort: The further the plot unspools, the less believable it is.
The film can be seen as an apology for A Separation, which quietly showed the crushing effects of Iranian-style Islam. People behaved as custom and law required, which turned out to be utterly inhumane. With The Past, the writer-director seeks to demonstrate that a similar sort of thing could happen in Paris, a capital of Western liberality. He even presents the main Iranian character, Ahmad, as the story's only example of common sense. But where the previous movie's climax felt inevitable, this one's is contrived and preposterous.
Since the plot is tangled, and summarizing much of it would undermine the story, the scenario won't be summarized here. Let's just note that Ahmad is summoned from Tehran to Paris so that his estranged French wife, Marie, can marry another man. But that guy is still married, albeit to a woman who's in a coma, and the action is set not in Iran but France, where polygyny is illegal. (Also, if less fundamentally, one character tells Ahmad that Marie is only interested in the new guy because he resembles Ahmad -- the sort of audience-nudging flattery that's more typical of heavy-handed American movies.)
The social and legal forces that make A Separation's story credible are absent here, yet Farhadi continues nonetheless. The filmmaker clearly has a future in Hollywood. Perhaps Scarlett Johansson will be available for his next marital-dissolution horror story. Let's just hope it doesn't feature time travel.