Tue, 15 Mar 2005

I sort of expected Reds to be a load of propagandistic horseshit, but it’s pretty even-handed. Whenever you get too exasperated with Beatty and Keaton and their revolutionary zeal, Jack Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neil comes along and deflates their pretensions. (It’s easy to forget, for all his hamminess in starring roles, that Nicholson is a damn effective character actor.) We get a hilarious glimpse into the quarrelsome, inbred world of the American communist movement – where a fight for control of the Socialist Party executive quickly escalates into a three-way schism among the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and Communist and Labor Party.

But the movie is really about Beatty and Keaton’s relationship. While Keaton’s character is convincing, I found it hard to get a grasp on Beatty. Apart from being ridiculously handsome, his appeal lies solely in his maniac convictions. So when his convictions settle into dogma, what’s left to like about him? After basically telling him to stuff his politics and get the hell out, Keaton travels across Scandinavia by foot to rescue him from a Finnish prison. This is perhaps an act of love, or perhaps of noble self-sacrifice, or both. But when they’re reunited in Russia, and Beatty is dying in her arms, and it’s clear that after all they’ve been through, she loves him anyway – well, why? It’s a Hollywood convention – we’re made to believe that Love Conquers All, even gross political naivet√©. But with a little tweaking, we can turn Reds from a love story to a feminist tragedy: our heroine, after long resentful years spent trying to escape the glare of her husband’s charisma, finally gives up her independence and accepts her wifely role. And as Jack Reed ascends into history’s sustaining embrace, Louise Bryant disappears into…what, exactly? I wouldn’t have minded a brief coda showing what happened to Louise after Jack’s death. Was she stuck in Russia? Did she continue to write? Or did she dedicate herself, tragically, as so many wives do, to burnishing the memory of her saintly genius husband?

Speaking of Warren Beatty, Bulworth was on the late show a couple nights ago. I don’t know what to make of that mess of a movie. What usually happens with polemical dramas is that the polemics get in the way of the drama, and I think that’s the problem with Bulworth; Beatty’s so intent on getting his message across that he doesn’t notice how clumsy and uneven his movie has become. Still, it has its moments. There’s something irresistable about the premise of a lifelong bullshitter who finally cuts loose and speaks the truth. It’s the same thing that makes the first half of Network so giddily entertaining. But Chayefsky knew that the mad prophet is beloved more for his madness than for his prophecies. After a while, the novelty of the profanity-spewing anchorman, or the rapping senator, wears off, and all you’re left with is the prophecies, and somehow the prophecies aren’t all that interesting on their own. Especially when they turn out not to be true.

Don Cheadle and Oliver Platt are great in their small roles. Halle Berry isn’t up to the task of redeeming an utterly ridiculous part. Warren Beatty’s hard to figure out. He’s not an unbelievable actor, in the manner of, say, Keanu Reeves; he always seems at ease and believable in his roles. And yet his characters are just as opaque at the end of his movies as they are at the beginning. He’s always averting his gaze, always keeping the audience at a distance. This is frustrating. Or maybe the word is “challenging”.

I watched The King and I again tonight. Continuing my Deborah Kerr kick. I dunno about Rodgers & Hammerstein – the more I see their shows (in their film adaptations, anyway), the more I’m forced to conclude that they basically coasted after Oklahoma. South Pacific at least has a couple good songs, but it’s hamstrung by its lame, albeit well-meaning, lesson in tolerance. The Sound of Music, admittedly, is pretty good, if you can get past the relentless perkiness.

The King and I has no really catchy songs, and far too often the director relies on closeups of adorable children to divert our attention from the fact that there’s nothing interesting happening. I won’t bother griping about the casting of Rita Moreno and that cheesy white guy as a pair of Burmese lovers. But the show’s main failing is its utter cop-out of an ending. There are a thousand different directions the story could go after the climactic scene, where Anna intervenes to prevent the king from punishing his runaway wife. The least plausible, and the least satisfying, is for the king to suddenly and inexplicably drop dead. I recognise that the composers were working from a pre-existing source, and presumably they owed a certain fealty to the outline of the story. But come on. We’re interested in the relationship between Anna and the king – let them have just one more good scene together. Alone. Not this drawn-out deathbed business with multiple wives, children, and the Prime Minister all looking on.

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