The Schumacher Hypothesis

Can the director of Batman & Robin be said to have an oeuvre?

Batman & Robin
Directed by Joel Schumacher
Warner Bros.

I staggered out of a showing of Batman & Robin into Times Square. The world looked evil and sad. The sun was sinking out of sight at the end of 43rd Street, where signs no longer read “43rd Street” but instead “43rd Street: Adolph S. Ochs Street,” in tongue-twisting homage to the patriarch of the New York Times. Five or six neon-striped storefronts seem to have sprouted in the past five or six days. The Disney Complex now has a Hercules Store, not to mention a Hercules complex. Billboards high above 42nd Street advertise Amsterdam Beer; fake movie marquees draw attention to them with chortling messages like “Don’t Look Up.” Those fake marquees first appeared during the filming of the Arnold Schwarzenegger bomb Last Action Hero. Afterward they bore pseudo-provocative art-slogan messages of the Jenny Holzer variety. So we’re looking at fake ads parodying fake slogans parodying fake movie titles. I wish Schwarzenegger would come back now and blow everything up again. I went into McDonald’s, hoping to find solace in an order of Super-Size Fries. They were stale. Where can you go these days for decent trash?

When I say that Batman & Robin is a punishing ordeal, I want you to know where I’m coming from. I have an appetite for Hollywood blockbusters of the sort that some literate people consider big and dumb. I thought the first Warner Bros. Batman, Tim Burton’s pulp opera, had genius in it. It invented a huge movie world in which the eyes could go dreaming. It also had the wit to set a menacing hero against a merrymaking villain–the line between good and evil grew scribbly. The last Batman, Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever, was nowhere near as cool, but it was clean, campy fun from beginning to end, and it rode high on a maliciously daft Jim Carrey performance. I was also lucky to see Batman Forever in more pleasant surroundings than the New Times Square–in a high-modern movie palace in Helsinki, with an audience of hip Finns who giggled at subtitles that seemed to go their own way from the script. (At one point, the Finnish text made some kind of joke about Chevy Chase. No one was saying “Chevy Chase” on-screen, or possibly could have been.)

Now Schumacher is not a talentless filmmaker. Indeed, a sophistical argument could be made that his films, while meretricious, are always at least mildly entertaining. If your next dinner party threatens to turn dull, you might try antagonizing sophisticates with a Revisionist Schumacher Hypothesis. St. Elmo’s Fire? An unflinching descent into the shallowness of the Brat Pack, notable for the discovery of the brooding dramatic craft of Demi Moore. The Lost Boys? An innocently homoerotic vampire spoof, notable for the discovery of the brooding dramatic craft of Jason Patric. Flatliners and Dying Young? Best passed over in silence. Julia Roberts is found not to be a tragedian. (Dying Young was really notable as the first big whoosh of air out of the balloon of Roberts’ megastardom.) Falling Down? A descent into white-male, white-collar vigilante fantasies. The Grisham diptych, The Client and A Time to Kill? Bad movies done in style. Schumacher is once again the maestro of the 8 by10s, unveiling the teen idol Brad Renfro and twentysomething dreamboat Matthew McConaughey.

“But this Schumacher is a pompous idiot,” your dinner guests sputter. “He once said on TheCharlie RoseShow that he made ‘commercial’ pictures like Batman so he could afford ‘idea’ pictures like A Time to Kill!?!” All too true. But let’s at least admit his flair for trash. At his best he offers an empty but internally consistent flamboyance. He is skilled at evoking places: Falling Down captured with precision what Los Angeles looks like on a vicious summer day. He is also good with faces, particularly male faces. This is not to make assumptions about the man’s sexuality–he might just happen to be as gifted a director of slow-witted male models as, say, George Cukor was of fast-witted female actors. I enjoy this aspect of Schumacher’s work, although I wonder, in the case of A Time to Kill, whether he worried about McConaughey’s inability to enunciate or to assume different facial expressions. The acting is not always an embarrassment; in Falling Down, the one Schumacher film that threatened to be decent, Michael Douglas delivered one of the creepiest slow burns of the decade.

B atman & Robin quashes the Schumacher Hypothesis for the time being. (I will have to return to my old contrarian standby, the Unsung Greatness of Oliver Stone.) It has none of the minor virtues of Schumacher’s other films. It looks bad: cluttered surfaces, production design reminiscent of overblown Broadway musicals, editing too fast for the eye to catch up, poor staging of fast action. The first few minutes are particularly trying–direction seems to have been handed over to a fractious committee of prepubescent speed freaks. And while this kind of movie doesn’t cry out for a coherent plot, it does need surprises. Most of Batman & Robin’s clichés were parodied in advance by Austin Powers. (When Commissioner Gordon shows up on a TV monitor warning that Mr. Freeze has taken over Gotham Museum, Austin fans will think fondly of the plot-spewing monologues of Basil Exposition.) The smirky George Clooney has no screen charisma. Chris O’Donnell’s strutting, crew-cut Robin is a superfluous second superhero, indistinct from the first. Uma Thurman tries to interject some vampish style as Poison Ivy, but the inanity of her character–environmentalist turned plant woman?–has the audience snickering against her. Alicia Silverstone, as a computer whiz turned Batgirl, purses her lips uncertainly.

With so much wrong on every front, it’s hard to single out a basic flaw. But Schwarzenegger has to take the blame for providing no immoral center to the Batman world. Each of the previous Batman films had a sly, spry villainous turn, with Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, and Jim Carrey dancing through their roles. Schwarzenegger slowly and methodically munches his way through reams of cardboard zingers. “Winter has come!” “Everyone chill!” “The Iceman cometh!” etc. He’s Mr. Freeze, see? Arnold has regressed to his ultraprimitive Conan the Barbarian manner, except that, in this case, not even his big frame adds much to a waddling-icicle role.

One of the movie’s few redeeming features is partially wiped out by one of its worst excesses. Elliot Goldenthal, the best film composer now working, has written typically imaginative music, rich in jagged harmony and deft scoring. That eerie wailing at the end of the title theme is a team of trilling horns. Schumacher’s regard for this composer–he used him also in A Time to Kill–is one sign of latent tastefulness. In movies like Interview With the Vampire and Heat, Goldenthal returned the obsolescent Hollywood orchestra to some of its old glory. But in the new Batman, the score was apparently deemed insufficient. It’s repeatedly blotted out by the sound effects that erupt in tandem with every move or twitch on-screen. One whip of a cape sounds like a rocket blasting off. An actual rocket blasting off–yes, at one point Mr. Freeze escapes in a rocket, just like Dr. Evil in Austin Powers–sounds like a dentist going to work on your ear. This indiscriminate racket, more than anything, sent me out into Times Square with the feeling of having been roughed up. The area hasn’t changed so much after all.

Chill out: Mr. Freeze (Schwarzenegger) and Robin (O’Donnell) (15 seconds):
Sound03 - batman1.avi or Sound04 -; download time, 2 minutes at 56K Sound01 - Movie-Batman_Robin01.asf for sound only

Batspat: Batgirl (Silverstone) vs. Poison Ivy (Thurman) (24 seconds):
Sound05 - batman3.avi or Sound06 -; download time, 1.75 minutes at 56K Sound02 - Movie-Batman_Robin03.asf for sound only