I’ve been putting this off for a long while because Mrs M has been hoping she’d have good news to report instead. That good news would be that she got a new job. I’m sure she’ll be reporting it at some point but in the meantime it’s time to get the bad news out of the way.
Mrs M lost her job.
She was laid off just in time for the holidays. A Bain-like hedge fund bought the company that owned her newspaper and and a bunch of other newspapers and is doing the Bain-like thing of looting their new acquisitions in order to be able to report “cost-savings” that will pump up the stock price etc etc. You know how it works. Mrs M was let go along with nearly two dozen others, including the entire photography department, because who needs an editor or photographers when you’re running a newspaper?
As you can imagine, and as too many of you know from your own experience first hand, this has really knocked the stuffing out of Mrs M.
Mrs M has loved the newspaper biz for as long as I’ve known her. She has taken great and well-earned pride in her work and her accomplishments on the job. To be told after over 25 years in professional journalism, as an award-winning reporter and then as a highly regarded editor who for the past 10 years has put together and overseen a staff of reporters who routinely rake in the awards every year that You aren’t worth keeping around is a terrible blow even when you know you’re being told it by people to whom no one is worth keeping around.
Many of her friends and family won’t have heard this news until now. Mrs M and I are sorry for not telling you sooner. But she’s been feeling too low to talk about it and she’s been embarrassed, which she shouldn’t be. The only mistake she made was staying on the job and doing it so well she kept getting promoted without declining to paid more as she moved up the ladder.
Anyway, morale has been a little low around here but we’re muddling along. The Mannion guys have been great. Things will work out eventually. But it would be a big help if you all would keep your eye out for Mrs M.
If you hear of any openings in journalism, communications, or public relations for an experienced, energetic, successful manager and communicator with a record of hiring and mentoring a diverse array of talents, please drop me a line.
I’ll keep you posted as things develop. To those of you who have heard the news and checked in to check up on her, Mrs M says thank you very much. She loves you all.
And yet we mustn’t get the wrong idea about the Eagles. They are not champions of goodness, soaring about looking for wrongs to right and damsels (or hobbits) to rescue. The eagles do save the dwarves, but they don’t actually care much about them. the Lord of the Eagles expresses gladness that they were able to do a good turn for Gandalf, but he says that the main reason they interfered was to “cheat the goblins of their sport.”…Saving the dwarves is more of a means than an end. The Lord of the Eagles further emphasizes their lack of investment in the dwarves or their quest when he is discussing plans for the next day. The eagles will help, but they are unwilling to put themselves in any danger in order to do so. “We will not risk ourselves for dwarves in the southward plains,” he says flatly…Gandalf the wizard may choose to accompany the dwarves far and at great danger to himself but the eagles are not as proactive nor as generous.
Even the eagles’ enmity with the goblins is actually quite casual. The narrator simply says that they neither love nor fear the goblins. They do at times swoop down on them and drive them shrieking back to their caves, we are told, but this doesn’t happen regularly or often…Most of the time, the eagles don’t really care all that much.
…The main reason they usually ignore goblins, the narrator tells us, is that they “did not eat such creatures”…
…The eagles are good, but they are thoroughly wild.
“I need to get to know London again, breathe it in,” Sherlock Holmes says in a voice-over in a trailer for Sherlock Series 3 while we see Holmes standing on a rooftop---presumably not the one he jumped from at the end of The Reichenbach Fall---surveying his London.
If you click on the target link in the interactive version of that trailer you hear Holmes go on to say, “London is like a great cesspool into which all kinds of criminals, agents, and drifters are irresistibly drained.”
I felt terrific satisfaction when I heard these lines. Besides that the second quote is very much like something Conan Doyle’s Holmes would have said and very well might have said---I don’t have the stories memorized---London is intrinsic to Holmes’ character and one of the the reasons Sherlock is so much better than Elementary is that Sherlock evokes and uses London to an effective degree Elementary doesn’t come close to evoking and using New York City where they’ve re-settled their 21st Century Holmes, taking away from his essential Holmesishness without adding anything to replace it. Holmes is as much a denizen of a particular place as any of the criminals, agents, and drifters he hunts. It’s not just that he knows London (and should know New York) like the back of his hand in order to get around. He knows what it’s like to live and work in any part of the city because he lives and works in the city himself. The city is a part of him. He identifies with it. With all of it, from the Limehouse opium dens to the poshest neighborhoods in Belgravia, and with everyone else who lives and works there, including the criminals, agents, and drifters whom he often deplores not for their villainy but for their lack of the industry and imagination he would bring to the job if he decided to become one of them.
IN THE third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses. The first day Holmes had spent in cross-indexing his huge book of references. The second and third had been patiently occupied upon a subject which he had recently made his hobby–the music of the Middle Ages. But when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes, my comrade’s impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer. He paced restlessly about our sitting-room in a fever of suppressed energy, biting his nails, tapping the furniture, and chafing against inaction.
“Nothing of interest in the paper, Watson?” he said.
I was aware that by anything of interest, Holmes meant anything of criminal interest. There was the news of a revolution, of a possible war, and of an impending change of government; but these did not come within the horizon of my companion. I could see nothing recorded in the shape of crime which was not commonplace and futile.
Holmes groaned and resumed his restless meanderings.
“The London criminal is certainly a dull fellow,” said he in the querulous voice of the sportsman whose game has failed him. “Look out of this window, Watson. See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim.”
“There have,” said I, “been numerous petty thefts.”
Holmes snorted his contempt.
“This great and sombre stage is set for something more worthy than that, ” said he. “It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal.”
But when I thought a little more, about it, I realized something.
It’s a trick.
Looking back over the six episodes of Series One and Two, I can’t think of one in which London as London figures as more than a backdrop.
Sherlock does make better use of London, visually, dramatically, and thematically than Elementary does of New York. It's better written and, more to the point here, better directed. Paul McGuigan, who directed four of the first six episodes of Sherlock, and Euros Lyn and Tobey Haynes, who directed the other two, have been able to capture just enough of the right details of the real London to establish a rich and solid sense of place. On Elementary they don’t seem able to capture anything of any street scenes except the traffic. But the producers of Sherlock have another advantage over Elementary they cleverly exploit.
The London they need to create for their stories already exists inside the heads of their audience.
On Elementary, it’s not how little New York is seen. It’s how generally absent it is. The cameras can’t seem to find it. The writers don’t seem able to locate a scene let alone an entire plot there. The characters Holmes and Watson encounter in their investigations don’t seem to live or work there or have any connections that tie them to any specific, peculiar aspect of the city. They come from Nowheresville or rather Anywheresville in TVpoliceproceduralland USA. Holmes and Watson live in Manhattan but I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve left there to investigate a crime in the outer Burroughs in what are essentially suburban neighborhoods where people live in detached houses with yards and there’s plenty of available onstreet parking---everybody owns cars. There are neighborhoods like this all over what is technically New York City, in Brooklyn and Queens particularly, but on what is also geographically and culturally Long Island. They're also in different counties, placing them outside what ought to be Holmes and Watson’s jurisdiction.
Now, Holmes and Watson shouldn’t have jurisdictions. Conan Doyle routinely sent them far out of London on cases (which always bothered Holmes the London man). But Elementary’s Holmes and Watson are cops. Forget their supposed role as “consultants.” The producers have wedded them to the official police force in a way no previous incarnation of Holmes would have accepted and all for plot convenience. Holmes and Watson get to bully witnesses and suspects, avail themselves of forensic evidence and warrants and police backup, and generally throw their weight around like any other set of TV cops whose writers don’t have the time or imagination to make think and talk their way through a case and actually solve it as opposed to appearing to have just read ahead in the script. And while they’re at it, they end up dragging the real cops along which highlights the fact that Gregson and Bell appear to be the only two homicide detectives on the NYPD and as such don’t work out of any precinct and have no limits to their jurisdictions unlike, say, Briscoe and Logan and their various other partners on Law & Order, a show in which New York City and its idiosyncratic neighborhoods and peculiarly eccentric citizens were very much a part of every episode’s look, feel, and general narrative. Often the fun of the Law part of any given episode was in recognizing the types of New Yorkers the detectives met in the course of an investigation. Law & Order was practically a video precursor to Humans of New York.
London and its humans rarely figure in the plots of Sherlock to the extent New York figured in the plots of Law & Order. Sherlock is able to make London a felt presence not by actually working it into episodes the way Law & Order worked New York into its storylines or even by letting us see it very clearly. It evokes it through imagery, allusion, and the occasional plot point and then lets our imaginations fill in around it with details derived from Conan Doyle, to a degree, but mainly from movies and TV shows and other novels and short stories set in Victorian England. This starts with any shot of the doorway of 221B and explodes when we’re taken inside where Holmes and Watson’s 21st Century flat is almost a perfect reproduction of Conan Doyle’s (Well, Sidney Paget’s) Holmes and Watson’s 19th Century one, but with better lighting. One glimpse of the sitting room windows overlooking Baker Street conjures up Jeremy Brett looking out the window of his 221B onto his Baker Street and we immediately “see” what’s out there.
Which of course isn’t the real London but a literary London.
This is true to Conan Doyle in that it’s pretty much how he settled his Holmes and Watson in their London, through allusion, occasional plot points, and imagistic shorthand. He was writing for magazines and didn’t have the time or space for long descriptive passages. But he could rely on his readers’ to see what he needed them to see because he knew what they’d read and were reading alongside his stories.
That’s Dickens’ London outside the windows of 221B, and Wilke Collins’, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s. Beside building from what they’d read, Conan Doyle’s contemporary readers would have known that London from illustrations in those books and in magazines and newspapers and from the stage sets of plays that were to their time what movies would become to their grandchildren’s generation.
The photo up top reminds me of something….
Of course the visual quote from Skyfall is deliberate. Sherlock’s creators and head writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss love referencing Bond, partly I think because they get a kick out of reminding us that Mycroft (played by Gatiss) is essentially M in Sherlock’s universe (and, when you get down to it, in Conan Doyle’s universe too), and partly because they don’t want to us to forget that Sherlock Holmes, in all the universes he inhabits, is an action hero and has on many occasions acted as a secret agent in adventures that Watson often alludes to but for reasons of “national security” either hasn’t written down (yet) or published if he has. But you know that. The reason I’m bringing it up is so I can post this tweet by rufus jones:
Sherlock in big coat on roof looking out across London cityscape. Sees Daniel Craig doing exactly same thing on next building. Little wave.
I’d been beating my head in trying to figure out who’s the guy with the beard and the hangdog look Lestrade meets in the pub. He appears in one of the previews, briefly glimpsed among characters Sherlock is said to care about and worry about Moriarty’s taking his revenge on them, Watson, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, Molly, Lestrade. Is he a new character or someone from the Conan Doyle stories? Maybe he’s Holmes’ old friend from university, Reginald Musgrave? How about Sigerson? He’s someone who’s lost his job thanks to an obsession with proving Sherlock Holmes is still alive and Lestrade thinks his putting a word in might help him get that job back. So would that make him one of the other Scotland Yard detectives Holmes has worked with? Is he Moffat and Gatiss’ version of Gregson?
Actually, I found out accidentally who he is and it’s perfect! Can you guess?
(Note: for a long time the character wasn’t listed on imdb. Now he is. Don’t cheat.)
Joan of Arc claimed to know what God was thinking. The English thought this proved she was a witch and dealt with her accordingly. The French, who liked the idea that God was apparently on their side and who had better PR and more pull with the Vatican, got her declared a saint. Probably what she really was was a teenager succumbing to schizophrenia who was in the right place at the right time to be exploited by both sides in a dirty little war over land-grubbing that God would have wanted no part in.
Look, Rep. Walberg, I know you’re a minister and supposedly know about these things, but God and/or Jesus rarely talks directly to people and when he does it’s never to ask them to do the politically self-serving thing.
Yeah, I know, my previous posts haven’t been particularly tolerant. Right Wing Christians love to point this out when sane and decent people challenge their demon worship.
“You supposedly preach tolerance but you’re the ones who are intolerant of us!”
Which, as has been pointed out time and time again, is basically a demand that we tolerate their intolerance. Which turns the virtue into an oxymoron.
Look, folks (and I know how you like to think of yourself as jess folks), all virtues have limits. For example, charity is a virtue but you folks believe it’s extremely limited, beginning and ending at home.
And mercy is a virtue that you folks treat as practically a vice.
Toleration by its definition and nature opposes intolerance the way charity opposes greed, mercy opposes anger, and humility opposes pride, so, for the umpteenth million times, folks, the practice of tolerance requires us to oppose your angry, selfish, vindictive, vain, hate-filled, intolerant brand of what you in your quaint, folksy, self-serving, ignorant way call Christianity.
If your brand of Christianity encourages you to feel virtuous for being cruel---you call it being tough---to others, particularly those lacking your status, privileges, and wealth, you need to get a new religion.
I hear actual Christianity is an available possibility.
Michigan Congressman Tim Walberg channeled God on the floor of the House of Representatives the other day. Walberg thinks he knows what God’s thinking. Most people who think they know what God’s thinking are on medication or in serious therapy. Walberg’s in Congress. One of the sadder aspects of our time is that people with the religious beliefs of particularly credulous and slow-witted children or Medieval witch-hunters or a combination of both get to hold public office and from there attempt to force their religion on the rest of us and the political press corps shrugs this off as jess folks being folks, even folksy.
The intertubes are clogged with middle aged men who don't seem able to grasp how much time has passed since 1980.
What's more, they don't realize their memories how things worked in the 80s are mixed up with memories of the 1950s they inherited from the middleaged men of their day who weren't aware of how much time had passed since 1950.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), lost in another daydream, momentarily escapes from the cold, corporate grayness threatening to swallow him up, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a fortunately not very faithful adaptation of James Thurber’s short story.
Not sure what did it. Might have been the look on Ben Stiller’s face as he studies his checkbook and sees he has enough money to cover the deposit on his mother’s new room at the assisted living center and a few of his own immediate expenses but nothing left over for anything else.
The look includes half a smile and it mixes sadness, frustration, satisfaction, relief, and a determined good humor. It’s the perfect look for a man with a lot to be down about resolving not to let it get him down because, hey, things could be worse and, anyway, today is ok, problems are taken care of, at least for now.
It’s the look of someone whose life is circumscribed by responsibilities he has only a limited power to meet on his own. He can only do so much and the rest is up to luck and the charity, mercy, forbearance, and competence of other people, most of whom don’t know or care he’s alive. And the ones who do care have their own worries and problems.
In short, it’s a look that marks Stiller’s character, Walter Mitty, right away as an Everyperson.
He’s us. Most of us. The most of us who aren’t rich and extremely lucky but who are lucky enough at the moment not to be poor, sick, miserable, and totally without means to help ourselves. The most of us who can console ourselves with the thought Things really could be worse but then can’t help thinking But they could be a lot better and when we start wishing they were feeling vaguely guilty about that.
That look captures the mixture of wishfulness, frustration, guilt, and mustered faith and good cheer with which most of us live our lives and identifies Mitty as our hero.
But it also warns us not to expect too much of him.
His heroism will be of an ordinary and limited kind. We’ll be rooting for him not to triumph but to just get by on our behalf.
Whatever it was, that look or something else, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Stiller as well as starring him, had me choking up from practically its very first shot.
There have been a few movies that have done that to me, had me on the verge of tears from beginning to end, and all of them have been about the muddling through of ordinary people beset with the usual amounts of sorrow and care contriving to find satisfaction and enjoyment (even joy) in their less than wonderful lives, The Dead chief among them, a movie I insist earned its director, John Huston, a thousand years off in Purgatory.
Of course, even if I hadn’t known it from the trailers, I’d have been fairly sure The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wasn’t going to continue in this vein. Hollywood isn’t in the habit of lavishing big budgets on movies about the inescapable melancholy of ordinary life. That’s why Hollywood exists---to let us escape from ordinary life. But I was impressed with how long Stiller let the melancholy persist and how deep into his story he allowed it to seep.
Maybe too deep.
When, inevitably, Stiller switches gears in order to have Walter start living the kind of life Hollywood does like to make movies about---adventurous, romantic, heroic, thrilling, funny in a laugh out loud way and not a rueful, shaking of the head, boy, do I know what that’s like way---it feels like he’s cheating himself. And us.
I felt cheated, at any rate.
I felt like a sap for investing real emotion in what come before the adventure begins and then like a cynic for not getting into the spirit of things as the plot takes over and the movie works its way towards a happy and triumphant ending, even though the ending isn’t that happy and triumphant and Walter’s adventure isn’t that Hollywood movie-level implausible. In fact, the middle section of Mitty reminded me a lot The Big Year, an overlooked movie I liked from a couple years back, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black as three rather ordinary men who manage to have a satisfying adventure chasing a bird-watching record that doesn’t require them to lose their ordinariness. The adventure in The Big Year is realistic because real people undertake the same one every year. Walter’s adventure is not realistic in that way. But ignoring that time has to essentially stand still for him to pull it off in the very few days he manages to do it in, he doesn’t do much more than a real person (with a company credit card and no boss watching) couldn’t do.
So the cheat isn’t in the adventure. It’s in how Stiller begins to push Walter as a hero. Inexorably, it becomes clear that we’re not going to be left to see one of us rising to the occasion in a way we hope we’d rise. We going to be expected to cheer at his triumph, a triumph not on our behalf, but on Walter’s own. A movie that starts off being about how an Everyman manages to muddle through despite the cares and woes wearing him down turns into a movie about how wonderful it is to be Walter Mitty.
I suppose that by extension it’s about how wonderful it is to be the rest of us Mitty-esque Everypersons or at least how wonderful we could be if like Walter we find a way to break free from our ordinarily dull and dulling lives, shake off our inhibitions, unburden ourselves from unnecessary guilt, and put our too restricting senses of obligation aside, at least now and then, and…go for it!
But for the first third, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t just suffused with wishfulness and melancholy. It’s close to heartbreaking.
I haven’t heard of anyone complaining Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t faithful to the James Thurber short story it’s based on, possibly because few people read the story anymore. Which is too bad. It’s one of the great American short stories. But it’s easy to understand why Hollywood wouldn’t wan to ante up for a faithful adaptation.
As funny as it is on the surface, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a very dark, bleak, and depressing story. And its themes are antithetical to everything Hollywood stands for. In the story, ordinary life isn’t melancholy. It’s miserable. For Thurber, as much as for Sartre, hell is other people and there’s no exit. Romance is a fleeting illusion, love is a trap, and marriage is literally the equivalent of death.
And if that isn’t enough, Thurber makes it plain that the kind of escape from dreary reality movies offer is no escape at all. His Mitty’s daydreams are pastiches of movie clichés. The alternative heroic selves Mitty imagines are as ridiculous and empty of meaning and purpose and devoid of true heroic possibility as the self he inhabits. On top of his other problems, Mitty lacks a real imagination that would allow him to see his way out of his predicament or at least put his troubles in perspective. His ability to think for himself or about himself has been supplanted by bad movies. Hollywood does his dreaming for him.
Stiller’s Walter can think for himself. He has an imagination and he dreams real dreams. That’s one of the reasons he’s so sympathetic and why his situation is saddening. He’s self-aware. Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad don’t get carried away showing us their Walter’s daydreams. They give us just enough glimpses of the adventures and moments of romances occurring in his head to let us know how he’s compensating and sublimating and distracting himself at the moment and then cut them off before they turn into stories and mini-movies in their own rights---which is what happens in the 1947 Danny Kaye musical adaptation. Stiller’s Walter is made of sterner and less silly stuff than Kaye’s. His daydreams are just passing thoughts, not alternative realities. Walter’s mind wanders but he doesn’t get lost in his imagination. He’s too responsible to let that happen. Too tough and too brave for that matter, as well. Besides, he doesn’t want to live a different life or not too different a life. He just wants a little more out of the life he has.
It’s not too bad a life.
He has friends. He’s close to his mother and his sister who love him and depend upon him. He has a job he’s good at, that he’s proud of (to a degree), and that means something (although not as much as he wishes it did). He has some financial worries and he’s lonely. There’s a woman at work he has a crush on but can’t bring himself to ask out, partly because he doesn’t want to risk rejection, partly because by habit and temperament he can’t bring himself to do things that will make him happy when, in his own opinion, he should be trying harder to make his mother happy. But there’s nothing awful about his life at the moment. The worst that could happen happened twenty-six years ago when he was sixteen and his father died. He’s still feeling the effect of that all these years later, however; he’s stuck on the day after his father died when he decided to put aside all the dreams and ambitions his father had encouraged and helped prepare him to realize to become…responsible.
What happens, of course, is circumstances come along that force him to become irresponsible.
That is, he’s suddenly deprived of the means to continue to be responsible, which leaves him desperate enough to do what he’s afraid is the irresponsible thing, run off on an adventure.
It’s at this point Stiller begins to cheat. Like I said, the cheating isn’t in the adventure itself but in how Stiller tries to force us to cheer for the hero the adventure reveals Walter to be and to keep the cheering up past the point there’s any more reason to cheer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly become The Public Apotheosis of Walter Mitty, but that’s not for want of trying on Stiller’s part.
Stiller the director, I should point out. Stiller the actor plays things more honestly and ironically.
For the better parts of the movie, that’s how Stiller directs it too, in the visual equivalent of a minor key quietly punctuated by comic and melancholy grace notes---one of Walter’s laid off friends rescuing his potted plant from the moving men cleaning out the office, the car rental agent in Greenland’s pride in being able to offer Walter a choice of two cars, a red one and blue one, the care with which Walter carries a cake his sister has dropped off for his birthday, a pickup soccer game in the snow on the slope of a mountain. And it’s a beautiful looking film.
The dullness and numbing routine of Walter’s too ordinary and joyless life suggested by the grays and pale, cold whites of the magazine offices where he works are tricks of light. Look closely. They’re not grays and whites. They’re chromes and silvers in shadow. All it would take is for the light to shift and they’d shine and sparkle, an effect stunningly realized in the rocky and snowy landscapes and oceanscapes of Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas when Walter takes off on his adventure and shifts the light shining on his life for himself.
In style, tone, and theme, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminded my of Stranger Than Fiction. Both movies are stories of an Everyman trapped in the drab, gray routine of a too ordinary life, although Will Farrell’s Harold Crick is trapped by his addiction to his routines and Stiller’s Walter is trapped by his overburdened conscience. If Walter’s addicted to anything in his life, it’s too self-denial. Both our heroes are offered salvation by the sudden insertion (assertion) of art in their daily lives. Harold, of course, has to come to terms with the idea that he is art, somebody else’s art at that. But he then learns to make his own art. Art’s role in Walter’s salvation is less direct and less obvious. Ultimately, he has to wake up to the idea that what he does for a living is a form of art, but his adventure begins with running off to rescue someone else’s work of art. It’s not obvious that’s what he’s doing, though, because he thinks he’s just trying to save his job.
Stranger Than Fiction is a work of magic realism and yet seems more true to life for that. There’s magic in Walter Mitty’s world but it’s out there. It can’t be touched and doesn’t touch us directly. It can be felt and it can be glimpsed through things,wonderful things, like the sighting of a snow leopard, or fairly ordinary things, like the appearance of a friend coming to help you out just when you need him.
Both movies share the theme that a life doesn’t have to be like a movie in order for it to be worth the effort. You just have to make the effort. And if the effort’s made, then love, romance, beauty, joy, even a bit of adventure are all attainable.
A big difference between the two movies as movies is that Will Farrell shares the screen with a couple of acting powerhouses in showy roles given most of the best lines, Dustin Hoffman (“Dramatic irony, it’ll fuck you every time.”) and Emma Thompson. Thompson is in fact the second lead. Then there’s Queen Latifah, more understated but far from fading into the background. And as Ana, Harold’s love interest, Maggie Gyllenhaal is given a character to play who is more than just the lover interest. Ana has a life and a sense of herself apart from her place in Harold’s story, and she doesn’t need him to rescue her in any way, except from himself in his role as the auditor of her unfiled tax returns.
Stiller almost never has to share the screen with anyone (characters or actors) capable of taking the focus off him and, when he does, it’s not for very long. Shirley MacLaine has a lovely cameo as Walter’s mother. Sean Penn appears just long enough to have made me wish there were more straight-forward heroic characters in his filmography. Patton Oswalt appears just when we need him. But I’d be surprised if you tallied up their collective screen time and it came to more than ten minutes. And as Cheryl, Walter’s love interest, Kristin Wiig is less of a person in her own right than the character she voiced in Despicable Me 2, Gru’s love interest the overly enthusiastic secret agent Lucy Wilde, and she’s given fewer laughs. Her main job is to look like the kind of person Walter would find it nice to come home to. Cheryl has her own ordinary sorrows and cares as she’s also stuck in a life circumscribed by responsibilities she’s barely able to meet. But her predicament is too careful contrived to be one Walter Mitty is perfectly suited to rescue her from.
I’m still not sure what to make of Adam Scott’s corporate weasel who becomes Walter’s antagonist at work. With his impossibly black and glossy Elvis pompadour and lumberjack beard, between which his baby face peeks like an infant’s who’s been dressed up for Halloween as his hipster dad by his comically-minded and too easily self-amused parents, Scott looks less like he’s been sent by corporate to play the villain on their behalf than like he’s been dreamed up by Walter himself, an imagined, cartoon version of such a person too silly to be a real threat.
Maybe that was the intent. The weasel has Walter pegged as a dreamer and is contemptuous of him for that. But it may be that he’s the real fantasist and has dreamed up a macho, hairy, swaggering bully of an alternate self to disguise the weakling toady and flunky he really is. This would be more likely if there were other characters in the movie daydreaming their way through their own lives.
But the key difference is that Stranger Than Fiction stays true to the theme that a worthwhile life doesn’t have to be like a movie and thus earns its payoff in its wonderful bit of closing narration:
As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s not Bavarian Sugar Cookies, it’s citrus cake.
Unfortunately, Stiller, the director again, flinches and backs away from this idea almost to the point of backing up into the opposite idea, that a life is only worth living when it is like a movie.
Thanks to readers' kindness and generosity, the car's taken care of. That's the good news. The bad news---the latest bad news...is our sump pump just died and water's rising in the basement. I'm headed out to buy the cheapest replacement Lowes has listed, but that's still a hundred bucks we can't really spare this week. What I really need, though, is help installing it and fixing the problem that caused it. Anybody living around here know a handy person who can do plumbing at a discount?
This description of Mrs Varden from Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge pretty well describes a side of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in American Hustle. I don’t know if Lawrence or her director David O. Russell or Russell’s co-writer Eric Singer was influenced by Dickens. But they don’t need to have been. All individual human natures are variations on a few themes and a type that turns up in a novel published in 1841 can turn up in a movie made in 2013 because that type will have turned up in real life over and over again in all the years before Dickens invented Mrs Varden and in all the years since. We all know this person or somebody very much like them:
Mrs Varden was a lady of what is commonly called an uncertain temper--a phrase which being interpreted signifies a temper tolerably certain to make everybody more or less uncomfortable. Thus it generally happened, that when other people were merry, Mrs Varden was dull; and that when other people were dull, Mrs Varden was disposed to be amazingly cheerful. Indeed the worthy housewife was of such a capricious nature, that she not only attained a higher pitch of genius than Macbeth, in respect of her ability to be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral in an instant, but would sometimes ring the changes backwards and forwards on all possible moods and flights in one short quarter of an hour; performing, as it were, a kind of triple bob major on the peal of instruments in the female belfry, with a skilfulness and rapidity of execution that astonished all who heard her.
Here’s a movie I’d like to see: A movie about a couple, he’s the owner of as struggling small chain of dry cleaners, she’s a former stripper who’s talked her way into a secretarial job at a fashion magazine that glamorizes a lifestyle she’ll never be able to afford on her salary, brought together by their mutual out of date---it’s the 70s---love for the music of Duke Ellington and a shared dream of a life of sophistication, elegance, culture, and taste---they dream of being the kind of people who dance to the music of Duke Ellington.
This is a common working class variation of the American Dream. It’s an ambition more than a wish not to be rich but to be better. Nicer. Smarter. Classier. And usually what happens is that people who dream this dream realize it through their children. They get them library cards. They find a way to pay for music lessons. They go to every concert, recital, and play. They fill their homes with books. They send the kids off to college. The trouble for this couple is they are impatient and they don’t have superior amounts of self-discipline and they are vain---of their looks (comical in his case) but more of their intelligence. They know they’re smarter than most people, including and especially greedy people with money. And they’re crooks. They figure they can steal and con their way to the honest life they dream of. Ironically, together they are too good at that. They inspire each other to more brazen cons, more reckless gambits. They start performing for each other and they get careless.
Enter the FBI.
An ambitious, ruthless, and vain agent has come up with a plan to use them to advance his own career.
This movie could be called American Hustle, and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other two movies about working class dreams of a better life and a better self, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.
If it starred Christian Bale and Amy Adams as the couple and Bradley Cooper as the FBI agent, so much the better.
Here’s another movie I’d like to see: A politician, a mayor, for instance, of a mid-sized city in the industrial Northeast fallen on hard times, falling apart except where the mayor, who was born here and grew up here and loves the place and its people like he loves his own family, has been able through wheeling and dealing to hold things (neighborhoods) together and even fix them up a little.
Trouble is the mayor’s got a little larceny in his heart. And he’s vain---of his love for his city and of his efforts to do good on its behalf. He sees himself as a working class hero, even a bit of a saint, so he feels entitled to reward, not himself, his family and friends for his good deeds. He’s a practitioner of what used to known as honest graft. Nothing gets done without his friends and associates making money out of it. But things get done. Good things. Schools get built, roads get paved, people get jobs. So what’s the harm?
But despite the love and devotion of his wife and kids and the adoration of his constituents, he’s a little lonely. He doesn’t have any real friends. Every adult he knows outside his family he knows through politics, his kind of politics, so they’re all either crooked or know he is and both types treat him accordingly. What he wants to be treated like, though, is an intellectual, of a sort. A politician who is philosophical about what he does, who has ideas, who has a vision. Someone who thinks about the good life and how to live it and how to bring it about for himself, his family, his city. And it’s not simply a matter of bringing more money to town. It’s culture too. (He has a son who’s an artist and of whom he’s inordinately proud.) He dreams of being a better, that is, a more cultured, nicer, classier person.
Enter this guy who seems to have the same dream.
They hit it off.
They become pals.
The mayor and his wife welcome the guy and his wife into their family.
The thing is, this guy is offering the mayor a deal.
He knows people. People with money to invest in cities like the mayor’s and who are looking to invest it. The guy can put the mayor in a room with these people. He promises the mayor these people will be eager to “help” the mayor finance his most cherished and ambitious dream for the city’s redevelopment.
The thing is these people are criminals.
The thing is, so is this guy, the mayor’s new best friend.
The thing is he’s working for the FBI.
Definitely a movie I’d like to see. It could be called American Hustle and if it was directed by David O. Russell, it would make a nice companion piece to his other films about large urban, ethnic, working class families united by their shared dreams of a better, that is, more cultured, elegant, and nicer life but strained by their clashing ideas of what that means and how to get there and by their conflicting eccentricities and difficult personalities, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.
If it starred Jeremy Renner as the mayor and Christian Bale as the guy, each sporting ridiculously elaborate hair styles that Bale’s character thinks makes him look like Burt Reynolds and Renner’s thinks makes him look like John Travolta, so much the better.
Here is the movie I thought I was going to see: American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner, based on a true story, or as loosely based on a true story as Hollywood movies claiming to be based on true stories usually are, about an ambitious FBI agent who coerces a couple of real con artists into helping him pull off an overly complicated sting operation designed more to advance his own career than to bring down the corrupt politicians he’s targeted but who self-destructs---self-corrupts---through his attraction to the woman and the seductiveness of the easy-living, easy-money lifestyle they adopt in order to play out the con.
I expected a movie that had elements of the two movies I would like to see and elements that would make it a companion piece to Russell’s other two movies about out of control eccentrics struggling to realize their dreams of a marginally better life, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, and it would have something to say about the time period, the 1970s, but mainly it would be a straight-forward heist movie with comic undertones and some, I hoped, not too heavy-handed lessons about the fallibility of even the best-intentioned human beings.
This is the movie I saw:
A movie called American Hustled directed by see above, starring see above again, that shows as if it needs showing that Christian Bale is a great character actor with absolutely no vanity.
A movie that showed that Bradley Cooper is a very good actor who wants to be a great actor but is maybe trying a little too hard right now but doing a good job of shedding his movie star vanity.
A movie that shows that Amy Adams is in spectacular shape and…and…what was I thinking before the macramé swim suit scene? Oh yeah…a very good actress who happens to be able to do an excellent imitation of someone who can imitate an English accent less than excellently but just good enough to fool people who’ve never been closer to England than their TV screens on a Sunday night when Upstairs, Downstairs is on Masterpiece Theatre.
A movie in which Jennifer Lawrence takes advantage of another opportunity provided by David O. Russell to use an ostensibly dramatic role to show she’s on her way to becoming one of our best comedic actresses.
I hope that doesn’t sound like a knock.
Many of the best dramatic actresses have also been among the best comedic actresses.
Hepburn. Stanwyck. Russell. Dunne. Fonda. Streep.
Saying a great dramatic actress is also a great comedic actress is a redundant way of saying someone’s a great actress.
(The same is true of male actors but less demonstrably so. See note below.)
I saw a movie a lot critics and fans of Martin Scorsese have enjoyed and admired for its cheerful, affectionate, and respectful nods to to Scorsese’s genius, which means I saw a movie a good part of the enjoyment of which is being able to give the person next to you in the theater a nudge and whisper out of the side of your mouth, “Goodfellas.”
But I also saw a movie a lot of other people disliked for all the times they nudged the person next to them and sighed, grumpily, “Goodfellas, again.”
This means I saw a movie many of whose strengths and weaknesses someone like me who isn’t a Scorsese buff and hasn’t seen Goodfellas in nearly twenty years---and didn’t commit it to memory at the time---can’t appreciate or deprecate. So, you know, when it comes to the homage thing? So what?
I saw a movie that was more stylized than stylish. A movie that captured the look of the 1970s down to the last extra button on Bradley Cooper’s suit coats but didn’t seem to be actually taking place in the 70s because nothing about the story or the characters was particularly of the 70s. There was no reason to set it in 1978 except that’s when the historical events American Hustle’s barely based on (A title card at the beginning of the film cheekily announces, “Some of this actually happened.”) took place.
American Hustle has a terrific soundtrack that includes a number of hits from the 70s but from the early 70s---Horse With No Name, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live and Let Die, among others---and when they were played I grew instantly nostalgic for the wrong half of the decade. As advertised, it’s supposed to be 1978 but there are only two disco numbers, no punk, and no new wave (Remind me again. What was the name of the Talking Heads' first album?). Those songs were still on the radio and maybe what Russell wants us to hear is music his characters prefer to listen to, which marks them as out of step with the times, just as do the scenes of Bale and Adams dancing to Duke Ellington and Jeremy Renner leading a roomful of the mayor’s cronies in singing along with Tom Jones singing Delilah, and that would be part of the point. These people are living in the past, dreaming of better futures that are like the past, while the 80s are looming over them ready to overwhelm their small-time dreams with large-scale dreams of real MONEY and real POWER. That’s another movie I would like to see, a movie about some old-fashioned petty grifters and cheap hoods stunned by a confrontation with the sort of sociopaths who took control of Reagan’s America.
I actually suspect that if the inclusion of those songs on the soundtrack had any point other than that Russell really likes them, it’s to highlight the fair warning we were given at the beginning of the movie: Some of this actually happened. The rest? All made up and therefore fantasy. In other words, folks, don’t take any of this as realism.
There are elements that connect it to The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook---beside the cast---because there are elements of the two movies I would like to see and the movie I thought I was going to see. But those elements come in such a rush, one on top of the other and often all at the same time, that it wasn’t just hard to focus on any one, it was a distraction and a waste of time. If I got to thinking about one scene too deeply, I missed the next two.
What this all adds up to is that none of it adds up. Or at least I couldn’t follow the math in my head. It seemed to me that American Hustle was mainly about Russell having a little too much fun bringing together some of his favorite actors and letting them go to town, failing to rein them in when they needed it, allowing their improvisations to wander and go on too long, leaving too much of what he got a kick out of in the finished film instead of saving it for the deleted scenes segment of the bonus features on the DVD. I enjoyed it, in pieces. My enjoyment alternated with my disappointment and as the movie went along the periods of disappointment began to outnumber and outlast the periods of fun. As the saying goes, it’s a movie that’s less than the sum of its parts.
But many of its parts are good and the best of those good parts are provided by Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence, singly and together.
Bale makes his Irv Rosenfeld, who ought to be a repugnant figure from the top of his appalling comb-over to his pot belly-strained polyester shirts and down to the zippers on his ankle boots, into a deeply sympathetic human being. He does this by giving Irv the intelligence and imagination to see what ought to be happening at the same time he sees better than everyone else what is happening. And what ought to be happening doesn’t just mean how the con ought to be working. It means how it ought not to be working as well, that is, Irv sees that life would be nicer and more pleasurable if his marks were better enough people that they didn’t want what he’s pretending to sell them and if he himself was a better enough person not to want to pretend to sell them anything. It’s not so much that he has a conscience as that he has a dream he knows he’s getting in his own way of realizing by being a crook.
But some of Bale’s best work in American Hustle comes in scenes in which he plays straight man to Jennifer Lawrence, who as Rosalind Rosenfeld, Irv’s seemingly crazy wife and mother of Irv’s little stepson whom he’s devoted to, steals the movie. Roz uses the kid the way she uses everything within reach, as a prop in the wacky drama she’s made of her life. She’s a genius performance artist with an audience of one, herself. She doesn’t make a move---bat an eyelash, light a cigarette---without calculating its dramatic effect. She’s apparently careless, thoughtless, reckless, heedless, and even perverse---tell her do one thing and she’ll do the opposite even and especially when doing the opposite puts herself or people around her at risk. Warned not to talk to a gangster’s chief henchmen, she starts an affair with him. Warned not to put metal in her new microwave, her very first attempt to use it involves putting metal in it and setting the kitchen on fire, which a brilliant throwaway line---that is, a line brilliantly thrown away by Lawrence---lets us know is a routine occurrence in the Rosenfeld household. The only way to engage with her is to enter her little dramas, accepting the role she’s assigned you and playing the character as she’s written it.
Of course, this is how Irv works his cons, by manipulating his marks into playing parts in a play they don’t know he’s written for them. Which makes Roz as much a con artist as Irv, possibly even a more talented one. And he’s aware of this. He can even appreciate it, on a professional level. He just can’t think of any way to outmaneuver her.
As I said, Bradley Cooper maybe tries a little too hard here, but he’s wonderfully without vanity playing a man consumed by his own vanity. And as I said in my review of Man of Steel, Amy Adams is one of my favorite actors now in their primes, but she’s an elf and as an elf she has basically three modes: good elf (Enchanted, Julie & Julia), wicked elf (The Master), and conflicted elf (The Fighter). Here she goes for a blend, a conflicted elf who wants to be and sometimes is a good elf but is more often a wicked elf who can pretend to be a good elf so well she fools even herself.
It’s good to see Jeremy Renner back at work playing a real human being after a run of playing superheroes (The Avengers) or essentially superheroes (The Bourne Legacy). Elisabeth Rohm shines as the mayor’s large-hearted wife who, maybe unwittingly, maybe not, encourages his scams and his schemes on behalf of the city through her absolute faith and devotion---the mayor can’t help thinking, A woman like this wouldn’t give her love and loyalty to a crook so I must not be a crook. Louis C.K. plays Cooper’s sad-eyed, put-upon boss who at first appears to be the only reasonable and wholly honest person in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area but who may actually be one of life’s willing and self-assigned victims, a masochist who gets satisfaction from allowing himself to be bullied and manipulated because he knows that in the end he’ll be able to say, “Told you so.”
Like me, Oliver Mannion enjoyed the movie while he was watching but he was also disappointed and his disappointment grew as it went along. He expected a different movie too, based on the trailers, although he wasn’t sure if it was going to be a more realistic, deeper, and more heartfelt drama or more of an out and out comedy. Either way, he was expecting it to be more about the con than about the characters as characters or, rather, about the lead actors’ performances as characters. The only likeable character, Oliver thought, was the mayor, and he thinks that if you’re going to make a movie full of unlikeable characters you should go one of two ways.
Either you do a serious exploration of what makes them tick or your exploit their flaws and foibles for laughs. Russell left most of his cast somewhere in between, but Jennifer Lawrence went for the laughs and that’s why she was Oliver’s favorite part of the movie.
Mine too, adding that often a smart and well-done comic performance can be more illuminating than the most emotionally wrought, Oscar-baiting serious ones.
Following up on what I said above about great dramatic actresses being great comedic actresses, as well: Male movie stars don’t get as many opportunities to show their comedic skills. When they take on “non-serious” roles it’s usually in action-adventure films. Crime and cop dramas in the 30s and 40s. Westerns in the 40s and 50s. Crime and cop dramas again in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Blow-em up, high body count action movies starting in the 80s.
These days there’s a second-tier of male romantic leads who get to play opposite female stars in their comedies. Comedies with male leads usually star clowns and comics.
Then there’s Ben Stiller. Coming up: My review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell; written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell. Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Louis C. K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Rohm, and Paul Herman. 2 hours and 9 minutes. Rated R. Now in theaters. Soundtrack available at Amazon.
12:40 Tuesday morning. Winds picking up. Cold has come in. A balmy 16 degrees at the moment. Weather.com says it feels like -2. Hope you're all snug and warm inside and if you're still awake reading some Dickens.
Sim, as he was called in the locksmith's family, or Mr Simon Tappertit, as he called himself, and required all men to style him out of doors, on holidays, and Sundays out,--was an old-fashioned, thin-faced, sleek-haired, sharp-nosed, small-eyed little fellow, very little more than five feet high, and thoroughly convinced in his own mind that he was above the middle size; rather tall, in fact, than otherwise. Of his figure, which was well enough formed, though somewhat of the leanest, he entertained the highest admiration; and with his legs, which, in knee-breeches, were perfect curiosities of littleness, he was enraptured to a degree amounting to enthusiasm. He also had some majestic, shadowy ideas, which had never been quite fathomed by his intimate friends, concerning the power of his eye. Indeed he had been known to go so far as to boast that he could utterly quell and subdue the haughtiest beauty by a simple process, which he termed 'eyeing her over;' but it must be added, that neither of this faculty, nor of the power he claimed to have, through the same gift, of vanquishing and heaving down dumb animals, even in a rabid state, had he ever furnished evidence which could be deemed quite satisfactory and conclusive.
It may be inferred from these premises, that in the small body of Mr Tappertit there was locked up an ambitious and aspiring soul. As certain liquors, confined in casks too cramped in their dimensions, will ferment, and fret, and chafe in their imprisonment, so the spiritual essence or soul of Mr Tappertit would sometimes fume within that precious cask, his body, until, with great foam and froth and splutter, it would force a vent, and carry all before it. It was his custom to remark, in reference to any one of these occasions, that his soul had got into his head; and in this novel kind of intoxication many scrapes and mishaps befell him, which he had frequently concealed with no small difficulty from his worthy master.
Sim Tappertit, among the other fancies upon which his before- mentioned soul was for ever feasting and regaling itself (and which fancies, like the liver of Prometheus, grew as they were fed upon), had a mighty notion of his order; and had been heard by the servant-maid openly expressing his regret that the 'prentices no longer carried clubs wherewith to mace the citizens: that was his strong expression. He was likewise reported to have said that in former times a stigma had been cast upon the body by the execution of George Barnwell, to which they should not have basely submitted, but should have demanded him of the legislature-- temperately at first; then by an appeal to arms, if necessary--to be dealt with as they in their wisdom might think fit. These thoughts always led him to consider what a glorious engine the 'prentices might yet become if they had but a master spirit at their head; and then he would darkly, and to the terror of his hearers, hint at certain reckless fellows that he knew of, and at a certain Lion Heart ready to become their captain, who, once afoot, would make the Lord Mayor tremble on his throne.
Not Roy Edroso. And as far as I know, not his cat either. But a link to his review of the Coen Brothers’ latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac (above) and the cat (above) is below.
As regular visitors know, I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with the blogging because my back problems make sitting at a keyboard for extended periods a challenge. (See below.) Slowly but surely though I’m coming to the end of my review of American Hustle. I should have it done this afternoon. I’d finish it up this morning but I have to spend the next few hours sitting with the car in the shop. (See a different below.) But I’ve got good news for those of you who are in the mood for some Monday morning movie reading.
Roy’s best known around these parts for his hilarious reports from the Right Wing territories of the internet, but as his fans know, he’s a terrific writer, one smart cookie, and a guy who knows his way around the cineplex. In short, he’s a very fine movie critic and recently he’s written about the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in posts that make me really sorry I’m probably not going to be able to see either.
I'm sorry to bother you all again, but as you know things have been very tight here and they've gotten tighter recently for reasons I'll be explaining in a post next week. But today we've got major car trouble and I need to ask for some help to pay a $200+ repair bill. We've been getting by with just the one car the last couple of months so we can't put this off. If 20 of you can make a donation of $10 each that would really save the day.
Thank you all for your patience and understanding. Thank you also for sticking with the blog. My review of American Hustle is just about done. Should have it posted soon. Then it's onto The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Now and then I lament that I can’t draw. But it’s really the case that I don’t draw enough anymore to be any good. I used to draw all the time and not just doodles. Once upon a time I even drew all the Christmas cards I sent. One at a time. No photocopying. No scanning and uploading onto a computer because that wasn’t an option. Once I sat up all night working on my cards. Best night up all alone of my life. But even when I did draw enough to be any good I was never this good:
And here’s a time-lapse video of the drawing in progress:
I hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah and a joyful whatever other holiday you celebrate this time of year. Happy New Year from all of us here in Mannionville---the blonde, Ken, Oliver, and me!
[M]ost people [forget] that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves (who, on the whole, are quite keen on blood provided it’s shed by the deserving*)…
*That is to say, those who deserve to shed blood. Or possibly not. You never quite know with some kids.
This was when I was in seventh grade. My youngest sibling, Laura Mannion as was, is nine years younger than me so Santa came to our house until my senior year of high school.
I was thrilled when I saw that book under the tree. That was the year I’d read The Lord of the Rings, all three books in three days, and I couldn’t wait to get back into Middle-earth. I took it with me to Church and started reading as soon as we got into the car after Mass to go to my grandparents’ for Christmas dinner. I’m pretty sure I had the manners and the sense not to keep reading during dinner---if I forgot my manners, Nana Mannion, who, love me as she did, I don’t believe ever thought I had much sense, would have reminded me, sharply.---but I read continually enough to have finished both novellas before we got home. That in itself was disappointing, that they were quick and easy reads. I thought that as a reader of “grown-up” books now, it should take me a good while to get through a book. That was supposed to be one of the rewards of having outgrown the Hardy Boys. More time spent happily lost inside a good story. But I went to bed sort of ticked at Santa and wishing he’d thought to bring me a new Allistair MacLean or Agatha Christie instead for two other reasons.
The first disappointment was they struck me as stories for children. I didn’t know Tolkien intended them as jokes for adults. The Lord of the Rings certainly wasn't a children’s story. But neither was The Hobbit. Not in the way fretful adults think of children’s stories. The Hobbit was written for children but to be read by grownups who believe children need to be and want to be protected from life’s harsher realities.
The narrator’s jolly, confiding, chummy tone is meant to fool adults listening to themselves as they read out loud at bedtime that the story they’re telling won’t give the kids nightmares. They hearThe Hobbit as a merry little fairy tale about a funny character with pointed ears, furry feet, and a pot-belly who goes on a treasure hunt and has some comical adventures along the way before coming home, safe and sound and rich, to live happily ever after in his snug little house in the ground in that cheerful and protected place with the comfortingly bucolic name the Shire and name that insists this is a place where nothing scary ever happens.
Children listening aren’t fooled. They know better.
The Hobbit is about what Terry Pratchett says all the old stories are about, sooner or later.
It’s about blood.
Things were looking pretty bad again, when suddenly Bilbo reappeared and charged into the astonished spiders unexpectedly from the side.
“Go on! Go on!” he shouted. “I will do the stinging.”
And he did. He darted backwards and forwards, slashing at spider-threads, hacking at legs, and stabbing at their fat bodies if they came too near. The spiders swelled with rage, and spluttered and frothed, and hissed out horrible curses; but they had become mortally afraid of Sting, and dared not come very near, now that it had come back. So curse as they would, their prey moved slowly but steadily away. It was a most terrible business, and seemed to take hours. But at last, just as when Bilbo felt that he could not lift his hand for a single stroke more, the spiders suddenly gave it up, and followed them no more, but went back disappointed to their dark colony.
There’s nothing like the battle with Shelob’s children in either Farmer Giles or Smith of Wootton Major. There’s nothing dark or threatening or scary. No danger. Nothing to be afraid of and so nothing to not be afraid of, which means no reason to feel brave which is what most children want to feel. Brave. Because they know. The world is a scary and dangerous place. There's no hiding from it by staying snug and warm and apparently safe in you Hobbit hole. The world will show up on your doorstep, force its way in, and drag you out and carry you off to face trolls and goblins and dragons.
In the real world, the eagles never come and the dragons never sleep.
There are no goblins in those novellas. No trolls. There’s a dragon in Farmer Giles of Ham but compared to Smaug he might as well be Puff. There are no orcs, no Wildmen, no white wizards who turn against humans and their wizard friends, no heroes who can be corrupted by their desire to be greater heroes, no hobbits who can have their hearts turned and their minds unhinged by just the barest contact with power. No blood. No evil.
And that, I felt, was wrapped up in the second reason for my disappointment.
Neither story is set in Middle-Earth.
I was shut out of the place I wanted to get back to. And I didn’t just want to go back to re-visit favorite tourist stops and historical landmarks. I wanted to explore new territories, meet new characters, fight new battles, and encounter and brave new dangers.
All these years later and I still feel that disappointment even just thinking about Smith’s and Farmer Giles’ stories, and I now get the jokes.
Which, by the way, aren’t funny.
So you can see why it wouldn’t bother me in principle that Peter Jackson hasn’t made an absolutely faithful adaptation of The Hobbit.
He’s using The Hobbit to do what I’d hoped to do with Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham and what I have done in many subsequent re-readings of The Hobbit and my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings, make his own way on another long explore of Middle-earth.
Of course, in doing so he’s showing that The Hobbit isn’t a children’s story in that way. He’s letting the blood show. He couldn’t help that. Do away with the narration and audiences can’t pretend they don’t see what children who aren’t fooled by the narrator’s diversions hear. Everything dark, violent, evil, scary, and strange that connects The Hobbit to The Lord of The Rings---and that’s what Jackson’s trying to do with these movies, make the connection---is there in the book. That’s a given. The real critical questions are where does he take us in Middle-earth and what does what he finds there have to do with making The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a good movie?
Tolkien created a world and then lost control of it. He couldn’t comprehend the whole of it himself and his son Christopher, working feverishly in his wake, just kept expanding it. It was as if he’d imagined his way through to another universe and left the door open behind him. Or, to borrow an image from his friend C.S. Lewis, his books are the wardrobe that has let millions find their way to Middle-Earth which is endlessly open to exploration and adventure. Narnia is much more circumscribed. Its precincts come into being only when Lewis needs something to happen there as opposed to here. And nothing happens in Discworld Terry Pratchett hasn’t put there. But Middle-earth’s boundaries can be expanded, its population added to, its geography reconfigured and remapped, its history extended forwards and backwards and sideways in time, revised and rewritten by the imaginations of anyone and everyone who visits.
Given all that Jackson could have added, it’s worth noting how little he actually has invented. A lot of what some persnickety fans of the book and irritable film critics with too much on their plates because it’s December and the studios are releasing all their award season hopefuls in a rush dismiss as “padding” to fill out what they think should have been one two-hour movie instead of three nearly three-hour ones is the inevitable result of Jackson the filmmaker having to put into explicit images what Tolkien the writer could get away with implying and even leaving entirely to his readers’ imaginations. More movies should leave more to the imagination, but there’s a limit to that. The camera has to show something.
A picture is worth a thousand words if the words are the work of a mediocre writer and the picture is very good and stands still long enough for us to give it a good look. When the writing is good, one word is worth a thousand pictures.
Jackson may not have needed a thousand pictures for every one of Tolkien’s words, but Tolkien’s words conjure up pictures that don’t stand still and that take time to present on screen. Then there’s the problem of turning into dialog conversations Tolkien was content to summarize.
So the issue isn’t whether Jackson’s added scenes, characters, and dialog. You can’t make a movie out of a book without doing that.
And it’s not whether what he’s added is true to Tolkien if not to the published version of The Hobbit.
It’s whether what he’s added actually adds to the story he’s telling, which isn’t The Hobbit. No one was going to give Peter Jackson millions of dollars to adapt The Hobbit. It’s The Lord of the Rings as told for the screen by Peter Jackson. This Hobbit trilogy isn’t a prequel to The Lord of the Rings. It’s the first three chapters of what will be an eighteen hour movie that until last year was only half finished.
And when you think of it that way, then the orcs are there, Legolas is there, Radagast and his birds and rabbits are there, and the White Council does meet because something terrible is brewing at Dol Goldur. Jackson isn’t inventing. He’s showing what’s implied by what’s already been filmed.
But it doesn’t matter that Legolas is in there because, well, he would be, wouldn’t he? Mirkwood is his home. The wood-elf king is his father. As prince, wouldn’t he have taken part in the Battle of Five Armies? It makes storytelling sense, then, to get him on the scene ahead of time and not have him show up just to be glimpsed leading a charge of elves against the orcs.
What matters is that he appears to have something more to do than make a connection to The Lord of the Rings. Considering the wood elf king’s---Legolas’ father’s---antipathy to the dwarfs, his deciding to take part in the Battle of Five Armies has always seemed like a nakedly thematic choice on Tolkien’s part. Self-interest often wins out over prejudice in real life and in the book the Battle of Five Armies is not meant to be taken as glorious or heroic. It’s a clash of tribal egos and ambitions and greed. But something else is going on if it’s Legolas’ doing that the elves join in.
Something else again if they join despite him.
What also matters is that Legolas appears to be different from how he is in The Lord of the Rings. He’s more vain, more arrogant, crueler, and much more a hero in his own right than the hero’s perfect lieutenant which is his role as part of the Fellowship. The question is what softened him and when did it happen?
I suppose I could be misremembering what Legolas was like in The Lord of the Rings. It could be that Jackson or Orlando Bloom or both misremembered. It could be that Bloom, with ten years’ more experience as an actor in his quiver, didn’t want to repeat himself and figured out how to avoid it. But I hope more than that’s going on and we’re going to see him learn lessons in wisdom and humility in the next movie and I have a sinking feeling I know how he learns those lessons. Jackson is going to give us a reason somebody isn’t in The Lord of the Rings besides the fact Tolkien didn’t put that somebody in there.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter that Jackson has found things and characters in Middle-earth Tolkien didn’t put there or didn’t know were there himself.
It doesn’t matter that Jackson has concocted the character of the female warrior elf Tauriel all on his own and given her a torch to carry for Legolas and then burdened her with a compensatory crush on Fili, the handsomest, swashbucklingest of the dwarfs after Thorin. That seemed forced to me but I still kind of liked it because it prefigures the romantic triangle of Aragorn, Eowyn, and Faramir in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
What matters is whether Tauriel more than an avatar for girls playing the video game spinoffs. She isn’t as interesting a character as Eowyn who is more than her unrequitable love for Aragorn and her ability to fight like a boy. But that’s so far. She has potential but we’ll have to wait until The Hobbit: There and Back Again to find out where Jackson’s taking her.
It doesn’t matter where Jackson got all the backstory he’s piled on Bard the Bowman. All of it could have come straight from The Silmarillionand Unfinished Talesand it wouldn’t matter if it didn’t make Bard interesting and give us a rooting interest in him. It’s always bothered me that in the book Bard isn’t much more than an attitude and there isn’t any reason to care he’s the one who’ll fire the black arrow except that somebody has to do it.
Judging how well all of this, invented outright or mined from other Tolkien sources, works depends on how Jackson follows up in next year’s next installment, which means that at least a third of The Desolation of Smaug is setup for There and Back Again.
I’m not saying that The Desolation of Smaug is just a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again or that it isn’t at all faithful to the book (or books). It’s very much a continuation of the story and it is faithful to the book, much more faithful than it and An Unexpected Journey have been given credit for, particularly in the three set-pieces at the center of the part of the book The Desolation of Smaug is taken from: the battle with Shelob’s children, the barrel escape from Mirkwood---I mean from the point when Bilbo hatches his plan to when he finds himself in the river without a barrel of his own. The orcs chasing the barrels and the elves chasing the orcs chasing the barrels is another question. But the moment when Bilbo realizes he’s forgotten to arrange his own escape is a gem---and Bilbo’s confrontation with Smaug.
But these scenes aren’t good simply because they’re faithful to Tolkien. In fact, if all they were was faithful they’d be dramatically flat. What I liked best about them is what Jackson does with Bilbo and to him with them.
And not just to Bilbo.
I should say to our understanding of Frodo.
As I said last Hobbit season in my review of An Unexpected Journey, one of the things I'm enjoying most about Jackson's adaptation is how, with considerable help from Martin Freeman, he's establishing that Bilbo is a hero. The hobbit hero. And Jackson and Freeman are doing it in a way that I think will carry over into all future viewings of The Lord of the Rings. Bilbo isn't Ian Holm anymore. Holm is Freeman's shadow.
For all his protesting at the beginning of An Unexpected Jouney that he's a Baggins of Bag End and therefore very much a stay at home sort of Hobbit, Gandalf has Bilbo’s number. There is a strong strain of adventuresome Took in him and it's coming out in The Desolation of Smaug.
Bilbo is getting to like adventuring. He's coming to like being in danger because, like children reading the book, he likes feeling brave. He's enjoying his role as the Burglar because to pull it off he has to solve problems---riddles---think for others, make decisions on their behalf, come to their rescue, and, when you get right down to it, take over from Thorin as the leader of the company.
In other words, he's getting a kick out of being a hero.
This is a good development in its own dramatic right for this set of movies. But it's good for Jackson's whole project because it calls attention to what he did with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
Now of course Bilbo had to change in order to become a hero. But in The Desolation of Smaug we're beginning to see how the change works on itself. Being a hero is changing him. Bilbo has started to look for opportunities to be heroic. He is growing into his role as hero, which means he is growing ambitious.
Frodo is not ambitious, because Frodo is not a hero.
I think a lot of readers who find their way from The Hobbit straight into The Lord of the Rings tend to see Frodo as Bilbo all over again.
Jules Rankin and Arthur Bass understood that. That's why in their cartoon adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King---which are both pretty good, The Hobbit especially, considering the limitations Rankin and Bass had to work within.---they drew Bilbo and Frodo as lookalikes and had Orson Bean provide the voices for both.
Jackson's Frodo is very different from his and Tolkien's Bilbo, and the scene that encapsulates that difference is Arwen's Ride in The Fellowship of the Ring.
In the book, Frodo makes the ride alone. And on his own he turns his pony and draws his sword to face the Nazgul and dares them to come and take the ring. He acts the part of a hero, just as Bilbo would have done in a similar fix.
But in the movie Frodo's in no shape to play the hero. He's close to dying from his wound (Note to myth watchers: a wound that will never truly heal.), barely conscious, and essentially helpless. He needs Arwen to protect and save him. Jackson didn't make this change just to give one of his very few female characters something important to do. It's a motif. Jackson's Frodo is always in need of saving. He needs Arwen and Gandalf and Sam and the other hobbits and the rest of the Fellowship to do the fighting for him. That’s the job of the Fellowship, to protect Frodo. And not simply because the journey's dangerous and there'll be minions of Sauron all along the way trying to take the ring from whoever's carrying it. It's because it's Frodo's job to carry the ring, and it's his job because he's not a hero.
He's a saint.
Carrying the ring is a burden and he's the only one up to taking it on. He's the only one up to enduring the suffering that goes with it and capable of resisting its temptations as well. Bilbo has already failed at that second part. In The Desolation of Smaug we see that failure begin, which means we see Jackson setting up a theme in his Hobbit movies that will tie it tight to his Lord of the Rings.
We know Bilbo kept the ring. What we maybe didn't know or maybe only suspected or knew in our hearts but didn't want to believe is that Bilbo didn't make a mistake because he didn't know better. Jackson is showing us that Bilbo knew and kept the ring anyway.
Right away after he finds it in An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo senses there's something odd and disturbing about the ring. In The Desolation of Smaug it's dawning on him he needs to get rid of it. Since we already know he's not going to, we know that what's ahead in There and Back Again is Bilbo's moral failure.
The hero-hobbit is going to fail to resist the temptation the hero-king Isildur failed to resist, the temptation the hero Boromir will fail to resist, the temptation Aragorn can only resist by letting Frodo continue to suffer on his and everyone else's behalf. With what he's doing with Bilbo, Jackson's effectively gone back in time to set up the need for the Fellowship and the need for its being Frodo who carries the ring.
This is what really makes The Desolation of Smaug more than a bridge between An Unexpected Journey and There and Back Again. It's the chapter in which the plot of The Lord of the Rings really gets underway.
Oddly, with all this intensified focus on Bilbo, it seemed to me that Jackson kept losing track of him. Even in scenes in which Bilbo ought to have been our main focus, the camera seemed to have a hard time staying with him.
I had a similar feeling the first time I saw An Unexpected Journey. The second time we went and when we watched it on DVD I didn’t notice it. The explanation I came up with then was that Jackson filmed it in 3D but we saw it on the screen in 2D which means Jackson had the camera focused on points that shifted in the translation. The second time we went my eye knew better where to look. That probably happened again this time out. We saw the 2D version. This might explain something else, as well.
There’s no point complaining anymore that Jackson didn’t need to make three movies out of a story that could have been told in one, which, by the way, I’m not so sure is the case. I think he would have had to rush things. Two movies, then. Two three hour movies, for sure. But he didn’t so we have what we have. And what we have so far are two two-hour and forty minute or so movies that I think could have benefited from being edited down to two-hours and thirty minutes or even two-hours and twenty. There seemed to be a lot of repetition within scenes. Images repeated each other. Dialog went on past the point where anything important or interesting was being said. Whole seconds went by at a time (and a second is a long time within a single shot) when nothing appeared to be going on. And I wonder if it was the case again that I just wasn’t seeing what the 3D camera was supposed to show.
This is either a reason that you should see The Desolation of Smaug in 3D or more evidence that 3D is a waste of time and gigabytes.
As for the movie as a movie apart from its place in Jackson’s grand scheme of things, it’s generally a rip-roaring good time with as much humor as An Unexpected Journey though with less comedy, if that makes sense.
The video game Jackson made of the barrel escape is fun and exciting because of the addition of the orcs and the elves and because it is integral to the plot. But the video game that ends the film is just a video game, and a routine one in which things appear and disappear just because they’re needed at the moment or they force the characters to continue on to the next level. Worse than that, however, is that coming where it does and going on and on as it does, it erases the effect of the great and key scene before it, Bilbo’s game of wits with Smaug.
And speaking of Smaug…actually, speaking of Smaug speaking, it was terrific news that Jackson had cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice (and face and body behind the motion capture) of Smaug. But went and made a huge mistake by not letting Smaug speak with Cumberbatch’s real voice. He’s distorted it so that Smaug roars and growls and snarls his way through his speechs in ways that could have been the work of any actor and that pretty much reduce Smaug to the level of a special effect like the orcs Azog and Bolg rather than a performance like Andy Serkis’ Gollum.
Smaug isn’t any old fire-breathing monster. He’s a highly intelligent dragon and, as these things go, a cultivated one. How much more appropriate and disturbing and frightening would it have been then if he spoke in Sherlock Holmes' plummy, seductive, and very human baritone? Plus, it would have been a treat for Sherlock fans to hear Freeman and Cumberbatch sounding like Watson and Holmes but talking to very different purpose.
So Cumberbatch’s kind of wasted. So is Mikael Persbrandt as Beorn the skin-changer, although in his case it’s because his whole character is wasted. Beorn’s chess set is more interesting than he is. I expect, though, he’ll have more to do in There and Back Again.
But Lee Pace is definitely not wasted as Legolas’ father, Thranduil, the wood-elf king. Pace is marvelously and gorgeously languid and decadent and yet still sinister and menacing as a once upon a time noble warrior corrupted and weakened in spirit and will by fear, hatred, and, it appears, boredom resulting from having lived too long to no special purpose. Pace gives him an extra note of self-loathing that Thranduil nurses by making arbitrary decisions and doing and saying things that disgust him, which gets to back to why Legolas’ presence comes across as necessary. Pace’s Thranduil is another lost father or father-figure like Denethor and Theoden in The Lord of the Rings who needs to be saved from himself by his children, which, by the way, is maybe what Thorin ought to be doing, saving his father, who is wandering Middle-earth mad and lost, instead of pursuing his ambition to take his grandfather’s place as king. (That he’s not, turns out to be on Gandalf who is playing Realpolitik and using Thorin to use Bilbo to use Smaug to unite dwarfs, elves, and men in alliance against you know who.) At any rate, the question raised here that I presume will be answered in There and Back Again is whether Thandruil is redeemable like Theoden or irredeemably lost like Denethor.
Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin continue to the good work they started in An Unexpected Journey. Ian McKellen as Gandalf is Ian McKellen as Gandalf. As Radagast the Brown, Barry Humphries has toned down the eccentricity and we can begin to see why Gandalf trusts Radagast.
Evangeline Lilly’s effectiveness as Tauriel will depend on what she does with what Jackson does with her in There and Back Again. As Bard, Luke Evans is suitably grim but his grimness has reason. It the book it’s just his temperament. Here it’s both a mask and a shield. There’s much more to Bard than he dares let on if he wants to protect himself and his family from the political intriguers who run Laketown. Still, like Lilly, most of what he’s doing in The Desolation of Smaug is setting up what he’ll be doing in There and Back Again.
Stephen Fry is having a high old time as the oily, craven, and debauched Master of Laketown, but he seems to have wandered in from another sort of movie. I’ve noticed this is often the case with Stephen Fry. Some of this is the effect of his being so much bigger and broader than the other actors around him. But I think a lot it is that he always seems to be having much more fun than everybody else as well.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug directed by Peter Jackson; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien . Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Aidan Turner, Dean O’Gorman, Graham McTavish, Adam Brown, Peter Hambleton, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, John Bell, and Lawrence Makoare. 161 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Peter Jackson didn’t invent the eccentric woods-dwelling wizard Radagast the Brown and the cutsey and cuddly Disneyesque birds and animals that go with him for the The Hobbit movies. He just went to town with it. Radagast is a Tolkien creation. His original name, Aiwendil, means “Bird-friend” and Tolkien made him the wizard in charge of protecting Middle Earth’s flora and fauna. Terry Pratchett is obviously up on his Tolkien lore and makes use of it in his Discworld novels. So I got to think Sir Terry had Radagast in mind when he came up with Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of Unseen University:
Unseen University had had many different kinds of Archchancellor over the years. Big ones, small ones, cunning ones, slightly insane ones, extremely insane ones---they’d come, they’d served, in some cases not long enough for anyone to be able to complete the official painting to be hung in the Great Hall, and they’d died. The senior wizard in a world of magic has the same prospects of long-term employment as a pogo stick tester in a minefield.
However, from the Bursar’s point of view this didn’t really have to matter. The name might change occasionally, but what did matter was that there always was an Archchancellor and the Archchancellor’s most important job, as the Bursar saw it, was to sign things, preferably, from the Bursar’s point of view, without reading them first.
This one was different. For one thing, he was hardly ever in, except to change out of his muddy clothes. And he shouted at people. Usually at the Bursar.
And yet, at the time, it had seemed a really good idea to select an Archchancellor who hadn’t set foot in the University in forty years.
There had been so much in-fighting between the various orders of wizardry in recent years that, just for once, the senior wizards had agreed that what the University needed was a period of stability, so that they could get on with their intriguing and scheming in peace and quiet for a few months. A search of the records turned up Ridcully the Brown who, after becoming a Seventh Level Mage at the incredibly young age of twenty-seven, had quit the University in order to look after the family’s estates deep in the country.
He looked ideal.
“Just the chap,” they all said. “Clean sweep. New broom. A country wizard. Back to the thingumajigs, the roots of wizardry. Jolly old boy with a pipe and twinkly eyes. Sort of chap who can tell one herb from another, roams the high forest with every beast his brother kind of thing. Sleeps under the stars, like as not. Knows what the wind is saying, we shouldn’t wonder. Got a name for all the trees, you can bank on it. Speaks to the birds, too.”
A messenger had been sent. Ridcully the Brown had sighed, cursed a bit, found his staff in the kitchen garden where it had been supporting a scarecrow, and had set out.
“And if he’s any problem,” the wizards had added, in the privacy of their own heads, “anyone who talks to trees should be no trouble to get rid of.”
And then he’d arrived, and it turned out that Ridcully the Brown did speak to the birds. In fact, he shouted at birds, and what he normally shouted was, “Winged you, yer bastard!” ---from Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett.
Aren’t three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen a part of every normal suburban family? Former villain turned good guy father and jam and jelly maker, Gru, deals with fallout from the household help’s helping out too much in Despicable Me 2.
But in both Red and DM2 we have a bald, middle-aged retired action-adventure hero trying to live a normal life in the suburbs who gets dragged back into a world of mystery, danger, and suspense by the uninvited and unwelcome appearance of ghosts from his exciting past.
The difference is that, unlike Red’s Frank Moses, Gru isn't bored or alienated. He's quite happy, in fact. He has a new line of work, making jams and jellies in the underground laboratory and factory where he used to build the weapons and devices for his evil schemes. He fits in and gets along well with his neighbors---Most of them, at any rate.---and they like him. The mothers in the neighborhood, particularly, look out for him. They see Gru as a normal single dad doing an admirable job of raising his three adopted daughters on his own. And that's just it. Frank is lonely. Gru has Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They adore him, he adores them and would do anything for them, including, if the situation is desperate enough, dressing up as a fairy princess now and then.
But then those ghosts come calling. Gru, as reluctantly as Frank, although reluctant for very different reasons, gets back into the game and puts the old skills to work to save the day.
And that's about as far as the Red-Despicable Me 2 parallels go, because...
The temptation for makers of sequels, especially for makers of sequels to movies that didn't really need sequels, is to deliver more of the same with emphasis.
If something worked once in the original, then you can count on it being tried twice in the sequel. Or three times. Or four. Or four dozen. (See above.) As you might expect, in Despicable Me 2 that means more minions.
Now, as a fan of the minions, I might have been inclined to feel you can't have too many minions. But directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud don't test that. They give us more but in a way that feels like less. Not less as in not enough. Less as in always leave 'em wanting more.
The minions get more scenes and more to do. There's more minion slapstick. More minion singing and dancing. More minion involvement in the plot. But we see them more on their own terms. They have lives, you know.
Freed from having to spend their workdays in the underground lab---it doesn't take as many minions to make jams and jellies as to build shrink rays and rocket ships--- Gru's core group of minions, Dave, Stuart, Lance, Jerry, Carl, and Kevin, have assigned themselves key jobs in the running of the Gru household and are, generally, handling things so well that Gru has learned to take them and their efforts for granted. In fact it's not until the WiFi goes out and Kevin doesn't come running to fix it that Gru starts to suspect there's trouble brewing at home, although his first thought is that Kevin has taken another vacation day without putting in for it.
But because Gru takes the minions for granted, we do too. They don't exactly sneak into scenes. It's more the case that their being there is such a given that it takes a minute to remember that three foot tall, one-eyed, yellow, indoor golf-playing, cross-dressing, fart joke-loving, French ballad-singing henchmen aren't a part of every normal suburban family.
There's another temptation for sequel makers, the temptation to undo the happy ending of the original in order to redo it in a slightly different but still safely familiar way, and this one Despicable Me 2 avoids completely.
Gru doesn't fall back into his evil ways. He's truly reformed, a really good good guy. The girls aren't taken from him, so he doesn't have to prove his worthiness as a loving and loveable father all over again. The moon doesn't need to be stolen again. Vector, thankfully, doesn't return as the villain.
Despicable Me 2 quietly picks up Gru where Despicable Me left him, cheerfully and contentedly at home, a devoted family man with three loving daughters, the foundations of a full and happy life safely laid, lacking for nothing except---
No, not adventure.
Enter Lucy Wilde, an overly enthusiastic rookie agent for the Anti-Villain League who arrives to forcibly recruit Gru in an effort to track down and thwart a mysterious new supervillain whose evil scheme will eventually involve cupcakes, chickens, a threat to the minions, and a lot of purple.
Lucy is voiced by Kristen Wiig but that hardly matters any more than it matters that it’s Steve Carell doing the voice of Gru. Like Despicable Me, Despicable Me 2 is very close to being a silent movie. Not that it is very close to being silent. But it could be and we’d still get it. Almost all its humor is visual and much of its exposition is delivered visually too. Lucy looks and moves funny, but what she really brings to the story, which Despicable Me lacked, besides a grown-up female lead, is a visual complement to Gru.
I like the style of both the original and the sequel. They don’t look any other CGI cartoons. I can’t identify all their influences, but Gru is clearly inspired by Edward Gorey and in Despicable Me he was alone in that. But Lucy could be one of Gorey’s ballerinas, slender, apparently boneless, and liquidy, except cheerful and always in motion instead of at rest or frozen in mid-plie. Actually, she never rests. And in her company Gru never rests either. He becomes graceful. I should say, more graceful. Together they’re paired in a continual slapstick tango.
I don’t think you need to have seen Despicable Me first in order to enjoy Despicable Me 2, although it’s probably better if you did. But coming out of the theater, I had the feeling that I liked Despicable Me 2 more than the original. Not a lot more. But more. I’m not sure why. It may have been that all the sentimentality of Gru’s reformation and adoptive fatherhood was gotten out of the way. It may have been that I was just glad Vector wasn’t back. He was a truly annoying villain. It may have been that Lucy really was exactly what was needed to complete things. It may have been that Gru makes an even better hero than he did a villain.
It may have been the tortilla chip hats.
It may have been that it was simply a better made movie all around.
Despicable Me 2, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, screenplay by Ken Dorio and Cinco Paul. Featuring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Ken Jeong, and Kristen Schaal. 98 minutes. Rated PG. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.