Sunday, July 13, 2003

Stephen Daldry’s screen adoptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Hours,” (if you’re suddenly thinking to yourself, as I presently am, that the 13 words that proceeded the comma at the beginning of this aside read like a million other generic reviews and that, yes, it would probably be a good thing- a great thing even, to avoid beginning any review in so clichéd a way- if you’re thinking that, or even an approximation of it, then I want to buy you a beer! ) manages, for the films first two-thirds at least, to be one of the finest major studio melodrama’s of last year. Not that there was much competition. Gangs of New York is probably the only other major studio release that connected more often to the kind of swooning pathos The Hours was striving for. There were certainly a number of other mainstream-big-studio-Hollywood releases infused with hearty strains of melodrama (like Signs, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, 8 Mile, Minority Report, Panic Room, Road to Perdition, Insomnia, Changing Lanes, Solaris, Attack of the Clones) but in each of these films the atmosphere was usually more impressive (and distracting) then the film’s emotional content, which, when present, came across like bland expository stuffing. 8 Mile, for example, Curtis Hanson’s Karate-Kid update starring Eminem (who does, now that I think about it, share some terribly unexploited similarities with Ralph Macchio) hustles its pathos into awkward kitchen-sink/trailer park scenes between Eminem and his mother, played by Kim Basinger. These scenes, while dripping with atmosphere (you can practically smell the dreams deferred) seem obligatory and blunt. They’re exposition enrichment! Their purpose comes, I believe, from the nervous tinkering of those School of Business Management graduates who are more adept and interested in the artistry of executive finance then film. “The studios no longer make movies primarily to attract and please moviegoers,” Pauline Kael wrote in her seminal essay, “Why Are Movies so Bad? Or The Numbers”, “they make movies in such a way as to get as much as possible from the prearranged and anticipated deals.” Executives want a guaranteed $90 million 3000 screen opening on Memorial Day weekend, at least $50 million in oversees revenues, $60 million from video/DVD and, if all goes well, $40 million for pay-television/airline/cable rights- or if they already own any one of the Big 3 networks, in addition to some of those cable channels...well, in that case, at least a $40 million from ad revenue over 20 years and a projected 100 airings. (This does, after all, include cable, where 100 re-runs is a gross underestimate and where repeated viewings of a single movie like “Back to the Future” on TNT can run into the thousands...though each showing chips away at its ability to attract revenue.) Scripts are re-written a dozen, two dozen or more times whereby all nuance, poetry and subtlety is paved over by a franchise mentality. 8 Mile, while not a sequel, walks in the footsteps of films like Rocky and Karate Kid. It replicates those films proven systems of operation; loser struggles, loser becomes even more of a loser, loser becomes a hero in films final 10 minutes by defeating the true loser. A film like 8 Mile is not unlike McDonalds introducing a new hamburger. It may market itself as something new and exciting but chances are it’s going to taste a lot like a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Still, until the final act of The Hours, Daldry and his fine cast manage to avoid most of these clichéd pitfalls and it’s pleasure to watch, with numerous scenes that throw off sparks of honesty and, more importantly, a rare tendency to lean toward a kind of trust for the intelligence of its audience that most mainstream Hollywood films eschew as box office poison.

What is it about the final half hour of The Hours, then, that’s so unfortunate? It all begins to go downhill the moment Ed Harris’s character, Richard, commits suicide. Probably one reason is because each of the leads (Kidman, Moore, Streep) have done much better work in other recent films. Kidman’s Oscar, for example, should have come for her turn in 2001’s Moulin Rouge where she demonstrated a range that leapt from hilarious and sexy hamming to lump in the throat tragic. And she sang and danced with more verve than either Catherine Zeta Jones (too clunky) or Rene Zellweger (I was afraid she was going to fall and shatter) in the flat and disappointing Chicago. In The Hours she relies too much on physical ticks to convey Woolf’s “otherness.” Moore should have won this year’s Oscar for her similar performance (similar, but with a lot more freedom to shade her performance- the result is exquisite) in Todd Haynes’s brilliant film, Far From Heaven, where she gave her best performance since Haynes’s other masterpiece, Safe. And Meryl Streep was hilarious in Jones’s Adaptation, showing an easy-going charm for comedy she rarely gets a chance to exhibit. While each actor is quite good in The Hours, too often they’re forced to step up to the plate and offer to the viewer palatable nuggets of the profound that awkwardly call attention to the studio’s need to remind the audience that it’s watching a tour de force or Oscar bait. “You’re watching some serious, heady stuff!” Kidman, especially, is made to offer up lines that glows like highlights from a copy of Cliff Notes- one or two sentence summaries encapsulating some of the film’s “Major Themes.” And we know why they’re there. Hollywood never trusts its audience to understand films that strive for even a modicum of depth and complexity. The wizards of finance are terrified of nuance...of the unexplained, of losing the audience. Kidman’s Woolf is made to wallow back into the shallows, plant her feet firmly on terra firma and offer expository laxatives to those perceived viewers who might, the executives fret, be blocked with confusion. To those of us who aren’t confused, and I reckon that’s most, such intrusions can be exasperating. The actresses are made to step awkwardly out of character and pander to executive fears and bottom lines. They might as well pause, allow the director and writer to come forward and pontificate on what it all means. It’s a classic case of the timidity that runs through so many of Hollywood’s dramas and it intrudes upon the vitality of each actor’s performance.

Another reason the film crumbles is because you realize that so many of those supporting actors hovering competently about (Stephen Dillane, Jack Rovello, John C. Reilly, Allison Janney and Claire Danes) aren’t really characters at all- they’re more like warm blankets in a film that works to undermine all elements of the cozy. Its themes could be articulated as, “Life is grim- end yours (Kidman), flee from it (Moore), or face it head on, suffer its consequences and find what exactly (Streep)? Grace? All these characters, especially cute little nubin, Jack Rovello, are there not as actors but as soothing lubricants. I mean, none of them really ads up to much, do they? Especially Janney and Danes, whose function seems to be to give Streep’s Clarissa hugs and kisses.

In the last half hour, The Hours wants to provide the audience with sweet resolution. It’s the worst kind of pandering. It expects this is what we want, that this is what we paid our money for. It provides a cathartic powwow between Clarissa and Laura (Moore) that offers up a lot of tears and trembling but is glaringly at odds with all that has come before it. It’s a kind of reconciliation for all the doubts and mistakes each character has made. It’s very sweet, but is it honest? The first two-thirds of the film seem to be saying one thing- that art helps us to survive, that it can offer catharsis and that art intertwines with and enriches our little lives. That is to say, that great art doesn’t offer definitive resolutions but rather, numerous avenues of possibility. When Streep turns off that light at the film’s end, the very light that first baths her warm smile of acceptance and grace in the most ingratiating of yellows, are we to understand that her character has found peace? Philip Glass’s score seems to want to coax us in that direction. His embalming repetitions suddenly arc up into a sugar sighing sweetness that the rest of the film has fought so hard to repress. This is followed by Kidman’s Woolf wading into the water. Her suicide is portrayed as grossly romantic and another kind of redemption without sticky consequences. It’s beautiful to look at and certainly very sad, but it’s forced through you like a spoonful of castor oil for fear that you might leave the film feeling anything but cleansed.

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