Please Stop Blowing My Mind

Blockbusters have become way too intellectual.

Here are the sum of my hopes for cinema in 2010: I want to feel something. I don’t want to argue. I don’t want provocation. I don’t want my eyes boggled or my eardrums pummeled. I don’t want to interact more with the characters or immerse myself in their world or engage in mental chess games with their director. I want to feel. Not that Barton Fink feeling, either, but the real thing.

I realize that in saying this I lose all credibility as a serious commentator on film, given that an eighth-grade chauvinism about what counts as world cinema and what counts as sissy-stuff remains my order of the day. Serious commentators on film are all lined up like gun dogs awaiting David Fincher’s movie about Facebook, The Social Network; the heady delights of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, about a ballerina played by Natalie Portman who may or may not be imagining her rival; and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a thriller set inside the mind of Leonardo DiCaprio. “We’re making a film that is a grand-scale action film about the world of dreams and the interior of the human mind,” says Nolan of his forthcoming effort, which, following so closely on the heels of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, also set largely inside the mind of Leonardo DiCaprio, will have many filmgoers asking: Am I indeed watching this, and if it turns out that I am not, do I get a refund?

The films I am most curious about, on the other hand, are Ed Zwick’s pharmaceutical love story, Love and Other Drugs, about Pfizer salesman Jake Gyllenhaal falling for Parkinson’s sufferer Anne Hathaway; The Greatest, in which Carey Mulligan, pregnant with her dead boyfriend’s baby, looks up his mother, played by Susan Sarandon; and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright, in which sperm donor Mark Ruffalo is tracked down by the offspring he bequeathed two lesbian mothers, played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. And while we’re on the subject of wayward parents, put me down for Alexander Payne’s The Descendents, in which George Clooney plays a recently widowed father who takes off with his two rebellious daughters to track down his wife’s lover on the island of Kauai.

Any or all of these movies could turn out to be pure as driven slush: That’s why I’ll be first in line for them. I’m determined not to repeat the mistakes of last year, when I formed part of the early welcoming committee for Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air—both hip, smart, literate scripts of the kind we are supposed to be crying out for—only to watch both through a cool gauze of admiration, my ardor resolutely unfired. Say what you like about the directors who are regularly held up as the saviors of American cinema—the Coens, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Steven Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson—they all fight shy of the kind of direct strike on an audience’s emotions that is usually Hollywood’s raison d’etre. They excel at distance, dislocation, anomie, alienation, emotional cauterization, and cosmic melancholy, with a light dusting of irony covering all. Feelinks, not so much.

Even films as different as Avatar and The Hurt Lockerfound themselves competing not for out hearts and minds but for our spinal columns. They were physiological pictures, and their shared inability to generate any Oscar heat for their actors left The Blind Side and “The Weary Kind” the opening they were looking for. That’s what happens when A-list filmmakers neglect to stoke the heart lights of the nation: The B-listers clean up. It’s a shame, because when our coolest directors do deign to generate some emotional heat, the results can be terrific: Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich and Aronofsky’s The Wrestler both packed a hefty wallop. Then, of course, there is Clint Eastwood, at whose The Bridges of Madison County I once audibly honked while surrounded by some of London’s most cynical, leather-hided film critics. What can I say: When Dirty Harry goes weak at the knees, so do all men within an 80-mile radius.

Eastwood’s new movie, Hereafter, with Matt Damon as a factory man who can communicate with dead people, sounds vaguely risible, but the script is by The Queen’s Peter Morgan, so I’m not ready to give up just yet. We have Peter Weir’s Siberian escape movie, The Way Back,with Ed Harris and Colin Farrell, which promises a hefty blow to the solar plexus. Then, of course, there is How Do You Know?, a comedy set in the world of baseball with Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Jack Nicholson, from Mr. Empathyhimself, James L. Brooks. Most puzzling of all, though, has to be the new Scorsese film, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the mere announcement of which recently caused the blogosphere to break into a flop sweat. Scorsese? Adapting a children’s book? About an orphan who lives in a Parisian train station? Isn’t that more Spielberg’s thing? If so, then Scorsese displays instincts worthy of a director of his stature. Spielberg has, of course, spent the last decade mirror-imaging himself on Scorsese. Maybe the time has come to return the compliment.

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