Movies

Under the Rainbow

Dragonfly keeps you guessing for a good 20 minutes; Monsoon Wedding has a sparkling chaos; Big BadLove indulges your dissolute-writer fantasy.

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A note in the Dragonfly press kit requests the critics’ “participation in not revealing any of the plot revelations that … are essential for an audience’s full enjoyment of Dragonfly.” Delighted to oblige! But with whom exactly will critics be “participating” in this conspiracy of silence? Not the director, Tom Shadyac, or the three credited screenwriters, who tip viewers off to the climactic “surprise” about 20 minutes into the movie, putting the entire theater at least an hour ahead of Kevin Costner’s anguished Dr. Joe Darrow. Richard Gere went through the same process in the shaggy-moth story The Mothman Prophecies, but at least that one kept people guessing. (A month later, I’m still scratching my head.) There are loud violins when Costner finally puts it all together, but they’re drowned out by the deafening chorus of “duhhhhh“s.

He has spent 98 minutes emoting like mad. Joe’s pregnant doctor wife (Susanna Thompson)—who traveled to the Amazon to heal an epidemic and then went over a cliff in a bus—is apparently trying to contact him from beyond, and he gets coded messages from dying kids in her old pediatric oncology ward (“She was there … all around me …  inside the rainbow … the mist. … I was falling … falling through it … until she caught me … brought me back up …”); from obese, brain-dead organ donors; and from his wife’s otherwise taciturn parrot. Harrowed, furrowed of brow, mixing it up with hospital bureaucrats, airline-ticket agents, and even a weirdly belligerent priest, Dr. Joe gets bombarded with so many oblique directives that the only mystery is why the supernatural entity doesn’t just borrow a plane and sky-write the whole damn message. Of course, that would mean he wouldn’t have to figure it out for himself—and thereby learn faith, trust, and (as the hard-headed protagonist of Return to Never Land would add) pixie dust.

Being full of pixie dust myself, I had the superstitious fantasy of shortening Dragonfly by vocally nudging Dr. Joe in the right direction. It didn’t work—and my interjections didn’t endear me to my colleagues. But being 10 steps ahead helped me steel myself against the inevitable shots of bald, beatific children bathed in milky white light, determined to deliver the word to Kevin Costner (“Go to the rainbow …”) before shuffling off their mortal coils. Shadyac was responsible for PatchAdams, and I’m sure he’s a popular guy at the American Cancer Society; but when Linda Hunt, as a nun, explained to Costner that “pediatric oncology is the perfect place to communicate [with the dead]—these kids are open,” I had a pleasant vision of the director having his organs harvested.

Because Slate is no mere paper-based entity, we have the power to leave this dimension for another, where those not bothered by “spoilers” (or who have endured Dragonfly) can indulge me in some niggling questions.

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The director Mira Nair has said in interviews that she’s turned on by “the sparkle of the chaos” on the streets of India: “I want to use it, eat it up … have every frame pulsing with life—and there’s nothing more pulsing with life than an Indian street.” That’s as good a reason as any to make a film set in her home city of Delhi; and Monsoon Wedding (IFC) is a teeming ensemble comedy shot fast and cheap but with such gorgeous colors and music and swirling silks that you leave with a feeling of riches, of superabundance.

It helps that there’s so much emotion built into the situation—a wedding during monsoon season, the unstable climate both external and internal. Despite cash-flow problems, the bride’s father (Naseeruddin Shah, looking here like an Indian John Turturro) has gone all out to give his dishy daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das) a series of lavishly traditional ceremonies for her arranged marriage to an engineer (Parvin Dabas) living in Houston. But this old custom seems out of sync with the Punjabi family’s increasingly Westernized mores. And the future bride isn’t a traditional virgin, either: She recently ended a torrid affair with a married local talk-show host—to whom she’s inching her way back.

The talk-show setting gives the screenwriter, Sabrina Dhawan, an opportunity to trot out the film’s themes in early scenes, as when a conservative commentator rails: “Just because India has gone global, should we embrace everything? This is not America! This is India!” And so on and so forth—like an especially clunky Hanif Kureishi play. The good news is that, having established their cultural/sociological seriousness, Dhawan and Nair spend the rest of MonsoonWedding leaping lightly among the five or so subplots, which include a lower-caste courtship of a servant (Tilotama Shome) by the ambitious, over-mothered events planner (Vijay Raaz), and a wildly sexy flirtation between an Australia-based college student (Randeep Hooda) and a  hotcha cousin (Neha Dubey). This is a very public society, and much of the fun comes from watching attractive people try to sneak in and out of crowded rooms—searching for privacy—when at any instant the household might explode into singing, dancing, and other conventions imported from the effervescent “Bollywood” genre.

Apart from a dissonant (but heartrending) incest interlude—in which a tradition-weary cousin (Shefali Shetty) discloses a history of molestations by a family member—Monsoon Wedding is wider than it is deep, with characters only slightly more complex than those in Fiddler on the Roof. (Actually, in a couple of spots the picture echoes Fiddler: If Indians flocked to Broadway the way Jews do, I’d suggest throwing in a few more songs and dances and making it a musical—it would run forever.) But by the climax, you’re so transported you can almost smell the spices and feel the humidity on your skin. When the groom’s enormous procession fights its way through the hard rain and muck to the bejeweled bride, Nair’s chaos downright sparkles.

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Through an accident of birth I have never been able to realize my dream of being a gaunt, Southern, alcoholic, chain-smoking writer who does painting or carpentry during the day and all night bangs out sex-addled, in-your-face stories on a manual typewriter, which can also be heaved drunkenly through windows or into shrubbery. I’m guessing by how Arliss Howard plays Leon Barlow, the alter-ego of Mississippi writer Larry Brown, in his self-directed adaptation of Big Bad Love (IFC Films), that he has had the same dissolute-writer fantasies—except that he looks much better than I do with a hangover, squinting into the sun with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a bottle of Maker’s Mark close to his lips. Howard gives himself long scenes in which he tears open and reads from scores of rejection letters; they’re posted over the toilet, so he can eyeball them while he pisses, his skinny bare ass to the camera.

I don’t know if Howard had fun directing, writing, and starring in this thing; but he had to have gotten more masochistic pleasure out of it than the audience does. It’s not that he gives a bad performance—apart from that Forrest Gump accent, he’s rather convincing. (I’ve always liked him as an actor for his slightly groggy timing, which gives him an air of intelligent detachment—a detachment, I should add, that is not the hallmark of really great acting.) And he’s a resourceful moviemaker; he has an eye. But this is a ragingly inadequate adaptation. Defiantly free-associational, the movie is full of surreal images (high-school marching bands, cows with typewriters, upright freezers in the middle of the road) that aren’t especially resonant and that don’t seem connected to anything. (You might feel as if you need to follow along in the book.)

Another problem is that the characters all sound as if they’re narrating their own short stories: I winced for Debra Winger, playing Barlow’s ex-wife, when she announced that she’d be going back into the funeral parlor where her dead daughter lies with the line, “We will sit with the matriarchy and whisper. We’ll whisper ourselves insane.” It’s not so much that people don’t talk like that, it’s that it sounds like the end of a short story you never want to start. The best news here is Winger’s performance, which isn’t great (not with dialogue like that) but reminds you what a vital actress she still is. There’s general agreement that she’s not the easiest person to work with, but she belongs in front of a camera: She has miracles yet to perform.

The death of that young daughter, whom the hero has barely noticed, triggers a change of life, an awakening. Deaths of children always do. My wife once worked for a publisher who wouldn’t look at manuscripts about dead or imperiled children, and I used to think he was a simp, a gutless philistine—that a real man would be able to look into the abyss. Now I’ve come around to his point of view. I’m tired of having to fight back tears and rage over the deaths of kids in second- and third-rate movies. In the Bedroom gets away with it because grief is one of its subjects. So does Jude the Obscure (the novel, of course, not the recent movie). And the world is probably better for Mahler’s Kindertotenleider. But that’s it for me. No more cancer kids in moronic fantasies. No more cheap epiphanies over the bodies of children. No more.