What's wrong with this picture? Quite simply, the fact that the movie itself--its quality or interest--self-evidently has so little to do with the audience's response. How could it? The huge and hugely profitable reaction comes before word-of-mouth has the chance to circulate, and it usually proves unrelated to the judgments of reviewers. In fact, the movie can be mediocre to crummy and the public will still act as if it's been given a Pavlovian command, the cinematic equivalent of "You will eat massive quantities of junk food--it doesn't matter if you actually like the taste or not."
The current summer started out with a flaming display of this kind of mass idiocy. Hardly anyone you talked to really liked Mission: Impossible 2, and why should they? Except for the last 20 minutes, it's a dull, noisy mess that makes little sense and doesn't even look like the handiwork of its director, John Woo. Additionally, far more than any movie I've seen this year, it leaves a bad aftertaste due to the flagrant narcissism and cupidity of its star, Tom Cruise, whose reasons for making the film can be reduced to a simple formula: zero conviction, pure greed. But does any of this make any difference to the United States of TV-Besotted Morons? Of course not. The movie's grosses were stratospheric from day one.
You will notice that I'm here violating one of the unwritten rules of movie reviewing: Pretend to respect the average moviegoer's intelligence. My response to that is: what intelligence? A nation of lobotomized sheep would be smarter than to go see Mission: Impossible 2 in such numbers. No, there are occasions where I believe it's incumbent upon the reviewer not to endorse the general appetite for cinematic junk food, but rather to point out that these cravings and what feeds them aren't in essence movies at all. They are consumerist urges constructed of large, all-purpose signifiers by the advertising industry and sent into theaters cleverly disguised as movies. In fact, even those that aren't created first as trailers function as such; they're two-hour ads for themselves. Or, if you will, shopping malls that appear inside of multiplexes.
Wolfgang Petersen's The Perfect Storm and Bryan Singer's X-Men show the variations possible on what is surely these summer behemoths' one common theme: mindless sensation. Because it centers on "real" people (meaning not only people who actually lived but recognizable human beings), comes from a best-selling book and contains a couple of stars, The Perfect Storm might seem to hinge on being a genuine movie attraction. But come on. Do you suppose its humongous opening-weekend business came from people concerned with the endangered fishermen of Gloucester, Mass., or who wanted to pay tribute to the literary smarts of author Sebastian Junger?
Of course not. The Perfect Storm is this summer's Twister, a slack-jawed super-spectacle in which special effects, playing the forces of nature, treat the viewer's eyeballs like hockey pucks. And it appears not to matter that the movie's lousy in just about every way you might care to name. As fictionalized by screenwriter Bill Witliff, Junger's real-life reportage becomes a riot of hootable clichés. In fact, the film's first 40 or so minutes, when the titular storm's brewing in the distance and we're introduced to the boatload of struggling fishermen who'll get trapped in it, has to be the most dull-witted and hackneyed dramatic setup I've seen in a major-studio movie this year.
This ill-starred crew includes: two staunch enemies who of course will bond during the big crisis; a hot-blooded young romantic (played by Mark Wahlberg) who's so in love that he can barely stand to leave his sweetie (Diane Lane); a geek who meets a kind-hearted floozy the night before; and so on. By all appearances, these characters and the story containing them were spat out by a computer program designed not to exceed the average 1915 two-reel potboiler in sophistication. To top it all off, the movie contains the most flagrant recent example of Hollywood's automatic, unthinking racism: The boat's lone black sailor is also the only crew member who's given no lines or any real character definition--virtually the only thing we're told of him is that he's so hyper-sexed that his bedroom antics shake the ceiling at the local hotel bar.
Wolfgang Petersen has two very good movies to his credit, the undersea nail-biter Das Boot and the Clint Eastwood actioner In the Line of Fire, so he's no hack. But Perfect Storm is the kind of film that can crush a director between a dull script and the heavy priority given to special effects. As it turns out, the latter are lousy too. Water is proverbially the hardest element for F/X masters to mimic, and although a lot of money and effort went into technical innovations for this film, its visuals are still fakey enough to make The Poseidon Adventure look topnotch by comparison.
As a friend who admires Junger's book put it, the moviemakers here seem not to have realized that The Perfect Storm has one great character: the sea. Instead, they give us a gallery of truly lame human characters--including the captain played by star George Clooney, whose job is to make one speech, then get doused with water for 90 minutes--while reducing the sea to the thankless supporting role of a mechanical monster. What a wash-out.
But everything's relative. Peterson's film looks positively Dickensian in its old-fashioned human focus compared to the comic-book vacuity of X-Men, which has no stars or other obvious commercial hooks and yet set records recently with its stupendous $55 million opening-weekend gross. A critic friend who got bushels of hate mail after he panned the movie in a national magazine has a theory that explains this success: He says that the mass audience, in growing progressively stupider, increasingly wants movies that take it away from real-life situations and characters with recognizable emotions. Nevertheless, he notes, some of the mail attacking him actually defended X-Men, which concerns the exploits of a bunch of mutant superheroes, as a statement about "tolerance" and "diversity." In other words, the slogans preached in schools these days have begun to be mistaken for actual thought, and a movie gains credit with the cretins for parroting them. As my friend put it, though, "You can bet it wasn't black people making such silly claims."
Centered on a superhero who looks like the kind of professional wrestler who used to play Raleigh's Dorton Arena in the '60s, X-Men boasts special effects that are state of the art, which means they're exactly like those you've seen in dozens of other movies. As much as I can see it being vastly enjoyable to 12-year-olds, the age when people should be avidly consumed by the two-dimensional mythic flights of comic books and their superheroes, it's the latest disturbing evidence that there are now lots of moviegoers who never make it past the mental age of 12. It also offers undeniable proof that Bryan Singer is ideally suited to such material: He's an extraordinarily soulless and mechanical director. Vastly overrated for The Usual Suspects, a film with a brilliant script, and revealed as a somewhat pretentious hack by Apt Pupil, he's now found his niche, it seems. And boy, does his audience deserve him.
I was late catching up with Mike Hodges' superb British noir, Croupier, but the fact that I was able to catch up with it at all is an encouraging story in itself. In stark contrast to The Perfect Storm and X-Men, movies that people flock to before opinion has time to circulate, Croupier is something that had seemed almost lost: a film that turned into an indie-scale hit over a period of weeks, due solely to audience word-of-mouth.
Also in contrast to its huge Hollywood competition, Croupier owes its success to real story-telling originality and characters that are complex, distinct and believable rather than two-dimensional clichés. Its hero (a brilliant performance by Clive Owen) is a young would-be novelist who, unable to get his writing career off the ground, takes a job in a casino. He's warned by management of the various things he's not allowed to do, so of course the dark muse of temptation beckons him from the beginning. Thus, not only do we have a realistic character in strange, challenging circumstances, but the story's twists all hinge on ethical and psychological dilemmas. Throw in Hodges' hypnotic, sleekly stylized direction, and the result is easily the year's most impressive and intriguing British film.
At the beginning of the current week, Croupier was still playing at Chapel Hill's Chelsea. If you haven't seen it, it's worth seeking out, in part as proof that there can be intelligent movie life in summer.