THE SIMPSONS MOVIE
On its journey to the big, wide screen, The Simpsons Movie has largely contented itself to expanding its familiar, beloved, vitally American universe of characters to fit the wingspan of the Panavision frame, and of course to making jokes about what works in the movies that doesn’t so much on TV (spectacle, more detailed animation, full frontal nudity, for example), as well as hurling barbs at those who would pay $10 to see what they could ostensibly get for free on the airwaves. Regular viewers (among which I cannot count myself, and not for lack of desire) might tell you, however, that the major difference between the new movie and an average episode from one of the last few seasons, is the high laughs-to-dead spots ratio offered by the new big-screen version. For anyone who still finds him/herself on the show’s wavelength (and the lines circling the Kwik-E-Mart 7-Eleven in Burbank throughout the month of July attest that they are still legion), the movie is almost a guaranteed good time. Although I did not laugh until my knees hurt, I most certainly did laugh, and a lot. The Simpsons Movie is consistently, likeably weird (Homer staring awkwardly at a pig with whom he has become obsessed, just before suggesting they just kiss and get it over with); touching in the familiar fashion of the series in confirming the solidarity of the Simpsons family while simultaneously peeling it apart at every opportunity (Bart begins to look on Flanders as a model father); but genuinely subversive merely in fits and starts.
Whereas South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut took the opportunity to rip with impunity (and a great song score) into the fabric of American intolerance and hypocrisy, The Simpsons Movie is ultimately satisfied with just providing the laughs— Homer sets in motion the environmental destruction of Springfield, which leads to the family’s exile in Alaska and eventual return to their hometown to save the citizenry from the evil intentions of a megalomaniacal EPA official (voiced by Albert Brooks), and that’s it, in terms of plot. No character behaves in a surprising fashion (except maybe Bart with that Flanders fixation), no institutions are ever more than mildly tweaked (even a U.S. government led by President Schwarzenegger), no sensibilities remain disturbed for long. Of course, there are many great bits and line readings along the way, more than one could possibly process in one viewing, and the vocal performances of the cast (Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer, et al.) are, as always, peerless. There is, however, one neutron bomb of a visual gag laying in wait within the jam-packed frames and usual sly references: at one point what appears to be a giant spaceship casts its ever-elongating shadow across the candy-colored Springfield landscape, and in a single shot we see the fear-stricken congregation of Reverend Lovejoy flock from the church and stampede straight into Moe’s Tavern, crossing paths with the panicked alkies who bolt from their barstools into the recently emptied pews. For this bright, shining, frighteningly hilarious moment, The Simpsons Movie honors and lives up to the acerbic standard of satire set by the long-running comedy series of all time at its best. For the rest of its 87 minutes, it settles merely for being one of the funniest movies of the year.
As much satisfaction as there is to be had in having high expectations for a movie actually fulfilled when you finally see it, I’m here to testify that I like it even more when my own prejudices and preconceptions about a movie get upended right from the get-go, leaving me to receive with enjoyment and a smidgen of awe the insistent happiness that has just ambushed me. And so it was with Hairspray, the heretofore undistinguished director Adam Shankman’s screen version of the hit Broadway show, itself based on director John Waters’ daft 1988 musical comedy film about stiff hair, stacks of 45s and the racial tension underlying a local Baltimore TV dance contest in the early ‘60s. By now one might think that Hairspray, an adaptation of an adaptation, would have cannibalized itself into irrelevance, or at least stood a good chance of coming across as merely a ghastly museum exhibit, an echoing souvenir of one’s fond memories of Waters’ film, or of the Tony-winning musical, only this time with John Travolta in a fat suit—kind of like that recent, ill-fated filming of the Broadway adaptation of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
But Shankman, the choreographer-turned-director of such must-avoids as The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember, Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier has pulled a rabbit out of his hat with this exuberant picture. He gives the whole enterprise (courtesy of the film’s big budget) just the right pulse of over-the-top, stylized giddiness, and right from the first frames. The camera glides over the rooftops of a Baltimore neighborhood, which from this vantage point looks like a slightly upscale version of that Yorkshire ghetto immortalized in the “Every Sperm is Sacred” number from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, settling on portly, untraumatized Tracy Turnblad (played with infectious cheer by newcomer Nikki Blonsky) as she darts past friendly flashers and hops a ride to school on a garbage truck, all the while singing “Good Morning, Baltimore,” the upbeat ode to down-to-earth values that sets the tone for the story’s inclusiveness, as well as its relentlessly catchy song score.
I don’t think there’s another movie this year that, minute for minute, has made me feel as unabashedly happy as has Hairspray. Shankman stages each of Marc Shaiman’s tunes with verve and a kaleidoscopic, kinetic sensitivity to the musical form—the movie is paced headlong, without rearview mirrors, and there is hardly a misstep of tone or pace to speak of. The irresistible numbers, shipped straight from Broadway, illuminate the story with infallible appeal and had me, my friend (who was on his third viewing) and my wife and daughters bouncing with delight-- my oldest turned to me midway through the movie, unable to stop her shoulders from swaying and bopping, and said with a grin, “These songs are really good!” And the moments between songs, in which Tracy tries out for a local TV dance show – The Corny Collins Show-- are anything but filler. Our happy heroine unwittingly becomes the lightning rod in a struggle to exclude negroes and anyone else (like Tracy) who doesn’t conform to the slender, starched, bee-hived, teenage WASP ideal, made emblematic by hunky hoofer Link Larkin (High School Musical’s Zac Efron), society princess Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and Amber’s vicious ice-queen mother, Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who also happens to own the TV station from where The Corny Collins Show originates.
But for all the right directorial moves and the solid foundation of source material, it really is the cast that vaults Hairspray into rarified air. Zac Efron is effortlessly charming as the sincere Link, who must choose between his newfound love for Tracy and his shot at stardom via Corny Collins; and as his counterpart from the Negro side of the tracks, Elijah Kelley radiates star quality as the detention-bound Seaweed, who opens Tracy’s eyes to what it means to really move on the dance floor—it’s all about feeling good rather than looking good—and has eyes of his own for Tracy’s lily-white best friend, Penny Pingleton. For those who may know her only from her Disney Channel incarnation on The Amanda Show (or not at all), Amanda Bynes, as Penny, may well be the movie’s biggest revelation. She exudes a loopy innocence (whoever created her first-half hairdo, which perfectly visualizes her off-kilter appeal, deserves special applause) camouflaging a heady current of lusty curiosity that is worthy of classic sidekick dames like Joan Blondell, and her way with a line reading (not to mention a lollipop) kept me giggling every time her big eyes showed up center screen. She and Kelley strike a blow for on-screen miscegenation with a steamy kiss that is certainly cause for happiness, though the fact that such entanglements should still, in 2007, be thought of as a particular event, is cause for pause too. Similarly, who would guess that James Marsden, known mainly for his comparatively bland presence in WB-style teen dramas and as Cyclops in the X-Men franchise, would be such a magnetic song-and-dance man, as well as a razor-sharp comedian? His Corny Collins is an oily, smarmy showman with a mile-wide smile who lives to tweak uptight sponsors (embodied by the ever delightful Paul Dooley) and his boss, Velma von Tussle, and if he can do it on live TV, all the better. Marsden gorges on the ambitions and good intentions of this local TV star and turns what could have been a rote show-biz characterization into a small diamond of a performance. Of the entire supporting cast, only Queen Latifah disappoints, and only slightly. She’s a warm presence, but a bit too vanilla, especially in comparison to the live-wire Ruth Brown, who played Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed’s blues-lovin’ mother, in the original film. Even so, she sells the movie’s big civil rights anthem-- which has the cast marching on the big televised Corny Collins Dance Contest after Mrs. Von Tussle successfully gets Negro Day banished from the program’s regular schedule-- with considerable power and genuine emotion.
Michelle Pfeiffer seemed, in the late ‘90s, bent on sabotaging her credibility and interest as a movie star in flaccid vehicles like Dangerous Minds, Up Close and Personal, A Thousand Acres and The Story of Us. It’s been five years since she last starred in a movie, the well-regarded White Oleander, but it’s been a lot longer than that—I have to go back to The Age of Innocence (1993)—since she’s been fully engaged by a good script, and back even farther, to 1989 and The Fabulous Baker Boys, to remember a time when she seemed to be having as much fun on screen as she does as Velma von Tussle in Hairspray. Sure, it’s a cartoon portrait of evil, but there is plenty of room in even a cartoon for nuance, excitement, and for the sheer pleasure of acting, and Pfeiffer’s hits all the right notes of splendid outrage, sewn-up sexuality-- in a number glorifying her past triumph as the queen of the Baltimore dance party, as well as a brazen seduction of Tracy’s father, played by her Batman Returns nemesis Christopher Walken-- and sheer, waxen monstrousness. She’s devastating, and devastatingly funny, with a throwaway eye-roll that effortlessly spins vicious disregard into fine strands of high comedy.
But the movie lives or dies on the presence of Tracy and her mother, Edna. Newcomer Blonsky is relentlessly enthusiastic without becoming overbearing-- you believe her sincerity, and in the sheer pleasure she derives from opening herself up and letting her body move. It’s refreshing to see satisfaction in the act of dancing, rather than in the posture and processed image derived from dancing, being held up for enjoyment. And the positive images to be gleaned by kids and adults from a movie like this in regard to not only fitting in with a group, but specifically issues of body image and self-regard, are no less important. They seemed invaluable to me as I observed my own daughters basking in the image of a five-foot, 160-pound heroine who didn’t let the fact that she wasn’t built to code get in the way of her being who she felt she was.
Tracy helps bring her own mother, Edna, an apartment-bound seamstress, out of her own shell too, and the rather miraculous performance of John Travolta as Edna disarms the last possible reservation, the last possible holdout to the movie’s seductive enthusiasm. Travolta, from beneath a mountainous fat suit and tons of facial prosthetics, locates the crux of Edna’s soulful inertia, the little bit of Tracy left inside her struggling to break free, and transmits it through what is easily the actor’s most physically and emotionally graceful work since Blow Out. His Edna is right up there with Divine’s as a grand, cracked comic creation— listening to Edna describe, in a gloriously exaggerated Baltimore accent (authenticity confirmed by Waters himself) as she hovers over an ironing board covered with garments, how she must concentrate while painstakingly “nee-gayOSHiating pleats” is to marvel at an actor’s gleeful confidence in working without a net.
Yet Travolta locates the human-scaled emotion inside the grand (but never grotesque) cartoon as well, and he respects and responds to the iconic stature of the role of Edna within the history of Hairspray by channeling his own body, its confidence as well as its own struggles with weight and shape, into Edna’s DNA. Travolta rises to the occasion, once again, to shine in a Hollywood musical, one blessedly absent the crass pandering of Grease, and his big number with husband Walken is a bliss-out of sweeping emotion and backyard MGM allusions that recalls (even though director Shankman isn’t ultimately up to either) the sly comedy of Donen and Kelly and the more rigorous stylistic vision of Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven (in which Walken had a brilliant dance cameo). I only wish that Shankman (a gay man), and possibly his actors, hadn’t backed off on the kiss between Walken and Travolta that should have topped this wonderful sequence. They come close, but no cigars, and it’s about the only time that the savvy, spectacular Hairspray misses any of its targets.
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM
The flip side of the joy of having high expectations fulfilled—that deflated feeling when they are not—is the dizzy, bitter emptiness I was left with upon stumbling out of The Bourne Ultimatum. Having loved the first two in the series about Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), amnesiac spy who, over the course of two movies, must discover who he is, and then the why of his existence, all the while dealing with the specter of how much death he has dealt, I had little reason to think director Paul Greengrass wouldn’t come through again, especially as the rave reviews started pouring in. Critics like Carina Chocano of the Los Angeles Times and Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly made convincing cases (before the fact, anyway) that Greengrass’ jittery, fractured spatial approach, where no single image is left still when it can be shattered into five or six or seven, the camera appropriating the restless paranoia of the protagonist, was essentially a new way of seeing the action.
Greengrass’ style is pretty much continued from Supremacy to Ultimatum. The difference is that, whereas the second film had to take time to lay the groundwork for an entirely new set of circumstances through which to propel the character toward the reawakening of his identity, of his purpose, this new movie simply picks up the dangling thread of Bourne’s discovery of his real name and puts him (and us) through very similar paces—ante all upped, of course—in a relentless trajectory toward Bourne’s quite literal reacquaintance with his maker. There’s a thinness, a perfunctory quality to the story this time around—the new movie, for all its utterly implausible post-9/11 globe-hopping (just how does Jason make it through all the security—national and corporate—necessary for him to be where the plot requires him to be?) and seat-of-the-pants visual construction, has very little weight. I can remember whole sequences from the dazzling second film; but two days after seeing Ultimatum, I have only vague recollection of a few details of performance (Julia Stiles is lovely and restrained; Joan Allen is pinched and self-seriousness, absent all joy of pursuit now that she’s, in this chapter, the conscience of the CIA; David Straithairn is Nixonian in his corruption, but also quite one-note) and a strong sense of visual disorientation not as an effective corollary to that of the Bourne character, but instead, as the Shamus suggests in his thoughts on the film, that Ultimatum’s shattered-glass propulsion is there to mask the hollowness at its core.
Worst of all, the tortured soul that Damon provided for the character in the first two movies has been replaced by a generic robotic relentlessness—we don’t fear for Bourne’s life any more than we do his soul, because all threat of him succumbing to his programming, or even dying in one of the movie’s you-are-there action sequences, has been snuffed out in remodeling Bourne in the image of the Terminator. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Greengrass pursues a pummeled verisimilitude, a camera-and-editing strategy that refuses to allow an image or sequence of images to take hold in our consciousness, one that values sensation—in this case an increasingly distressing sense of nausea—over meaning. In his attempt to charge up this adult-oriented franchise, he may have just pounded it into oblivion.