Reel Time

Joel Schumacher’s Symphony

Plus, Lemony Snicket, Meet the Fockers, and the very, very last word on biopics.

Schumacher’s Symphony: There are people out there who revere the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which must be why he shows up so often in elevators. My late, beloved grandmother treasured the Phantomof the Opera recording, and my siblings and I played it for her on a boombox when she lay dying, no longer conscious. It was the only time I refrained from making fun of her taste in schlock—and even then, on one of the worst days of my life, it took heroic restraint. A few years later, I told the pianist at my engagement party that if she played any Andrew Lloyd Webber she’d find herself covered in clam dip. Her face fell—it was, like, two-thirds of her repertoire.I saw Jesus Christ, Superstar at an impressionable age and still have a soft spot for it, despite the anachronistic lyrics. (“Let me say this for him: Jesus is cool,” etc.) But the rest of Lloyd Webber’s output is super-saturated crap. The melodies—at least the good ones—are derivative, and the composer doesn’t even bother to develop them. The lyrics are godawful—not just grating but on-the-nose, devoid of subtext. On Broadway, Harold Prince brought a conceptual integrity to Phantom. (Prince, miserably deficient as an actors’ director, often has superb ideas for metaphorical designs.) But Prince couldn’t disguise how static the work is. The great operas are also great dramas. Without all the spectacle, Lloyd Webber’s works would molder on the stage.Now that you know my biases, you’ll hardly be surprised to hear that Joel Schumacher’s film of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (Warner Bros.) made for the most excruciating two-and-a-half hours I’ve ever spent in a theater. In my defense, I went in with an open mind—although it admittedly slammed shut after 15 minutes (defensively, as if in the presence of a brain-liquefying virus). As usual, Schumacher’s editing is rhythmless, and he substitutes fussy clutter—swirling costumes, crisscrossing catwalks, dancers surging past the camera, capering dwarves—for the the size and splendor that Phantom desperately needs. With the composer himself on hand to supervise the filming, the director quivers with awe at every musical note.As a kid, I owned a Super 8 print of the complete Lon Chaney Phantom, and its climax is packed with chases and Grand Guignol torture contraptions. The melodramatic possibilities are endless, but Lloyd Webber has been loath to change a bar of his music. Did you ever see those impoverished commercials for Broadway shows like Les Miz—the ones that look dinner-theaterish and feature smoke machines, red and blue lighting, and lip-synching, overemoting performers? For all its budgetary riches, this Phantom is about as cinematic. The plot of Gaston Leureux’s potboiler—the basis for horror-genre adaptations featuring Chaney, Claude Rains, and Herbert Lom—has been transformed into a conventional love triangle, in which the Phantom (Gerard Butler) is now a scarred heartthrob whose pull on his vocal protégé, Christine (Emmy Rossum), is as much romantic as artistic. “The Phantom of the Opera is there inside my mind!” warbles Christine, but there’s no mystery to this opera “ghost”—he’s just a soap opera stud with some hang-ups, ready to be redeemed by the love of a lass.Butler has a cleft chin and a manly profile; to emphasize his good looks, the filmmakers have reduced his mask to a sliver. (Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek whispered, “What’s holding it on? Pus?”) Reportedly a fine stage actor, Butler is a less-than-agreeable vocalist. During his high notes, I covered my ears and then checked my hands for blood. As Christine, Emmy Rossum is a lovely, doe-eyed young woman with a sweet soprano (she actually sang in the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus *), but she has to sing in a contemporary, American Idol style that is laughably at odds with her character’s meteoric rise in the turn-of-the-century Paris opera house. Only Minnie Driver, as the opera’s hot-tempered diva, rises above the material, but her screen time is scant.Will Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera bomb? It’s hard to say. As I tottered to my feet, head throbbing, at the end of the screening, the couple in back of me proclaimed, “Wow! Joel Schumacher really did it! He pulled it off!” It’s possible that those who love Lloyd Webber will love this Phantom. I’m more inclined to suggest that it be used to entertain the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo—at least until Amnesty International gets wind of it. … 12:39 p.m.Focked: Meet the Parents has some nicely-constructed slapstick gags and makes shrewd (if by-now overfamiliar) use of Ben Stiller’s awkwardness—as a squeamish, un-macho Jew—in a world of athletic, golden WASPs. Meet the Fockers (Universal) ups the stakes by bringing his sexually repressed future in-laws (Robert DeNiro and Blythe Danner) to meet his sexually flamboyant counterculture parents (Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman). From the start the jokes are on a different level than the last one: coarse, aggressive, and poorly timed by director Jay Roach. And they’re all variations on how the Fockers’ inappropriate sexuality discomfits the uptight DeNiro to no end. (The picture is so internally inconsistent, though, that one of its running motifs involves DeNiro feeding his baby grandson from a fake breast.) Everyone wants to know: How are Babs and Dusty? She’s OK—high-energy, larger-than-life, ready to smother the rest of the cast with affection and sexual advice. But the material lets her down. Better—in fact, hilarious—is Hoffman, whose Focker Sr. is an overaffectionate, New Age hearty who sports a let-it-all-hang-out wardrobe and greets DeNiro with hugs and kisses. Despite his ever-present grin, though, he’s still something of a streetfighter who won’t back down from a challenge. In a one-joke movie, a two-joke character doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus. … 11:09 a.m.

Enough About the Biopics: The ghastly biopic lines keep coming in, but I’m sorry, folks, the contest is closed. You can always post your great bad lines to the Fray, though.
Oh, OK, one more line, courtesy of one of my favorite bloggers, Nancy Nall, who asks how we could have forgotten Meg Ryan’s showstopper from The Doors: “Well, Jim Morrison! You’ve ruined another Thanksgiving!”Nancy says she often uses this one at home, and we can surely all incorporate it into our own lives, perhaps tailored to individual holidays: “Well, Jim Morrison, you’ve ruined another Thanksgiving/Christmas/Yom Kippur/anniversary.”I’ve actually been using, “You’ve been avoiding me, Lenin,” for the last week, but an irate e-mail from someone who actually teaches Nicholas and Alexandra in a Russian history course asserts there’s no such line. That is heartbreaking, if true, but I’m sure, if nothing else, it captures the gist of the exchange in that woeful movie. I say let’s incorporate it (plus “Nice work on the manifesto, Trotsky”) into our lives anyway. (Update: Kim-Mei Kirtland writes with the correction line, spoken by Lenin: “Trotsky, you’ve been avoiding me.” I’d say it’s still up there with the greats, no?)I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails on the subject of when I’ll post my 10-best list for 2004. I’m flattered that some people seem to be waiting with bated breath, but I’m still tinkering. The creation of a 10-best list is a full-time job, which is why I keep a notebook beside my bed and next to the john. (To take my mind off movies, I’m also tinkering with my 10-best friends and 10-best ex-girlfriends list.) Obviously, the best movie of the year is Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s inexhaustible masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the “comedy of remarriage” that’s infused with the spirit of Philip K. Dick. For the rest, you’ll just have to wait until next week. … In the meantime, you can listen to my conversationon the year in film with Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

And did you catch me on CBS Sunday Morning? After years of making fun of cretinous TV critics, I finally got to play one on national TV! … 9:45 a.m.

Snicket: saved by design

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Paramount) is the underwhelming film adaptation of the witty and economical series of macabre adventures featuring the three Baudelaire children: wealthy, cultured children suddenly orphaned by the conflagration of the family manse, now plagued by a greedy and dissolute Count Olaf (played onscreen by Jim Carrey). Directed by Brad Silberling, the movie comes off like Chris Columbus (bland, homogenized) trying to be Tim Burton (brusque, eccentric, surreal). Silberling has even appropriated Burton’s brilliant production designer, Rick Heinrichs, who is the true star of the movie, serving up a world that is one part Dickens to one part Salvador Dali. Heinrichs helps take your mind off the slack direction and the letdown of a climax, which ought to make the kiddies hurl Gummi Bears at the screen.

Monday, Dec. 20, 2004

A subdued Sandler for Spanglish

Domestic Disturbance: Reviews of James L. Brooks’Spanglish (Columbia Pictures) have been almost uniformly crummy; I wonder if I saw a different movie than everyone else, or if I simply loved the way Brooks handled his actors so much that I forgave the conceptual oddities. The movie is what in Hollywood they call “character-driven,” and it does take its sweet time. But much of that time is sweet indeed.

The film focuses on a high-school girl, Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), and her mom, Flor (Paz Vega), who journey from Mexico to L.A. with what might be considered unprecedented ease. Cristina—who narrates the film—has a lively command of English, but her mother barely knows a syllable. Despite that impediment, the staggeringly beautiful Flor is hired to keep house for a well-off Beverly Hills family: a four-star chef, John Clasky (Adam Sandler), who dreads his tip-top ratings because he loves the homey atmosphere of a more modest establishment; his obsessively fit wife, Deborah (Téa Leoni); his overweight daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele); and his mother-in-law, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), a former singer and current dipsomaniac. By nestling the wide-eyed Flor in the middle of this privileged environment, Brooks shows that he doesn’t take it for granted that everyone lives this way—a refreshing change from, say, Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, in which the characters’ East Hampton beach houses and fabulous Manhattan co-ops are presented as a natural part of the human condition.

What is Spanglish about? My inability to give you a straight answer is probably the key to the film’s problems. (You get no help from the ad, which carries the puzzling tagline, “Every family needs a hero.” Perhaps it says “grinder” in Boston and “hoagie” in Philly.) The core of the movie is certainly the struggle between Leoni’s Deborah and Vega’s Flor for the soul of Cristina. It’s nearly impossible for Deborah to relate to her own daughter, Bernice, who is plain, awkward, and given to reading in her room. When she meets the lovely, self-assured Cristina, she is instantly dazzled. While Flor cleans her home, Deborah whisks Cristina off to hair salons and clothing stores and then lobbies the director of a posh private school to give the underprivileged girl a full scholarship. Deborah is so taken with her own fine liberal altruism that she never considers the estrangement she’s helping to foster between Cristina and her mother, who is driven to despair at the thought of her daughter leaving her behind. And Deborah never considers that her abrasiveness is helping to propel her husband into the arms of her housekeeper.

Some critics complain that Spanglish slights Flor, others (the majority) that it demonizes Deborah. I concede that the latter is a neurotic basket-case, but I was so agog at Leoni’s magnificently dizzy performance that it never entered my mind to despise this woman. Having given up her career to be a stay-at-home mom (there is another child, a boy, but Brooks doesn’t make too much of him), Deborah has developed a fierce obsession with clothes, décor, and running. She flies past the domestics making their way up the hill from their bus stop in the morning screaming, “Your left! Your left!” and they regard her as one might a train that has jumped the tracks. She accuses her husband of “being stark raving calm” and of appropriating the role of “good cop”—and, in a way, she’s right. Leoni’s Deborah is narcissistic and overbearing but never stupid. She means well. And what she wants to do for Cristina would be, under other circumstances, admirable.

I liked Brooks’ TheMary Tyler Moore Show and parts (the ones with Albert Brooks) of BroadcastNews, but As Good As It Gets was close to emotional pornography in the way it used a sick child and violent gay-bashing to work the audience over. The Brooks of Spanglish is a lot less pushy. He seems to be trying to figure out his themes as he goes along, and if he doesn’t always see the big picture, he makes the small interactions unusually rich and believable.

If nothing else, Spanglish is a hang-out movie with some entertaining people. Sandler is subdued, but it’s a thoughtful and nuanced performance. His John is a childlike artist who wants to remain cut-off from the day-to-day running of things: That’s why he married a whirlwind like Deborah and why he wants to keep his restaurant a family affair despite the fact that rave reviews will mean more money for his employees. Sarah Steele is heartbreaking as his plump daughter, who also withdraws from the real world in the face of her tornado of a mom. As Deborah’s mother, Evelyn, Cloris Leachman gives my favorite Cloris Leachman performance—high praise. Evelyn pours one glass of wine after another down her throat, but she’s an acute observer, alert to the currents of manipulation in the house. She’s a good foil for Deborah, but it’s clear that her own self-absorption and alcoholism is partly responsible for her daughter’s temperament.

As for Paz Vega, I can’t tell if she’s a good actress or not; I was too busy laughing at her absurd gorgeousness. Unlike many directors, Brooks doesn’t try to pass the Spanish actress off as ordinary-looking or even merely attractive; no one in the movie can believe what they’re seeing, and Sandler’s John nearly weeps as he gazes on her. It’s an open question whether her beauty unbalances Spanglish. (Oh, it probably does). But no one in the sneak-preview audience with whom I saw the film seemed to mind. At least, I took the gasps from both men and women during certain shots to be signs of approval. … 2:10 p.m.

Oops: I goofed in saying that Gwen Stefani plays a cigarette girl who becomes Jean Harlow in The Aviator. Stefani is only onscreen for a few seconds and has a couple of lines. The cigarette girl, Thelma, is played (tremulously and very well) by Josie Maran. Sorry, Josie. The only nice thing about this mistake is that it prompted a lovely correction from Martha Plimpton, who said that “character actresses” have to stick together. Plimpton—of Running on Empty, I Shot Andy Warhol, Sleepy Time Gal, and many other movies—is a wonderful character actress, one I treasured in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and have missed seeing onscreen in the last few years. Now what I wouldn’t give to see a Martha Plimpton/Josie Maran buddy movie.9:10 a.m.

Correction, Dec. 22, 2004: The item on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera originally said that Emmy Rossum studied at the Metropolitan Opera. In fact, she sang in the Met’s Children’s Chorus. Return to the corrected item.