Monday, May 26, 2008

Baby Mama

By Elise Nakhnikian

As a member of the oops-I-forgot-to-have-a-baby generation, I have a love-hate relationship with movies about pregnancy and parenthood. Parenthood is to me what a Barbara Cartland novel is to a hopeless romantic without a soulmate: intense vicarious pleasure. But that pleasure can morph into pain with alarming speed, like the time I mortified myself by sobbing as a nurse comforted the Charlize Theron character in The Cider House Rules after her abortion, reassuring her that she’d have beautiful children someday.

All this is by way of explaining why I didn’t see Baby Mama until last weekend – and why this feel-good movie left me feeling so bad.

A comedy is about something as primal as a woman’s longing to have kids can have enormous lasting power if its humor is rooted in real situations and feelings. That’s what made both Juno and Knocked Up so funny last year, and what made so many of us care about their characters – in spite of Juno’s sometimes annoyingly mannered dialogue and the fairy-tale Beauty-and-the-Beast mismatch at the heart of Knocked Up.

Like Juno, Baby Mama is about class in America – specifically, the strained intimacy that can develop when working-class women birth babies to be raised by upper-class women. In a refreshing twist, both movies empathize with their tightly wound, yuppie would-be mothers as well as their more emotionally accessible, working-class baby mamas.

The women in both stories support each other, too, for the most part, and their heroines are gratifyingly self-sufficient, making their own decisions and living their lives without apology or crippling self-doubt while their men flit about the edges of the story, offering themselves as romantic partners or sympathetic sounding boards.

But Baby Mama lacks Juno’s spark and originality, falling back on canned characters and stock situations.

Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey) is a 37-year-old executive in a Whole Foods-style organic food company who has worked her way up to a vice presidency by doing “everything I was supposed to do.” She’s used to taking care of business, so when she begins to yearn for a baby, she hires a surrogate mother to bear her one. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a gum-snapping, working-class woman who’s as irresponsible as Kate is responsible.

Almost immediately after Kate hires her, Angie’s chaotic life collapses and she moves into Kate’s spotless apartment. Much Odd Couple-style wackiness ensues, but Kate and Angie develop (surprise!) a warm, mutually nurturing friendship.

Together they go to a humorously New Age-y birthing class, test super strollers, and encourage each other to branch out and take risks. They have their inevitable falling out, but they clear that up pretty well in the obligatory court scene.

Poehler and Fey have worked together for years on Saturday Night Live, where writer-director Michael McCullers (Austin Powers in Goldmember) also worked as a writer. Their comfort with and delight in each other makes Kate and Angie’s friendship almost believable, especially during the few times – like when Kate and Angie sing karaoke together – when the actresses break out of the sit-com-y mold that entraps them, evoking the spontaneity of real life.

The rest of the cast is also fine. Kate’s mother is a walking stereotype, a stiff-necked, narrow-minded patrician -- but if that’s the part you’re casting, you can’t do much better than Holland Taylor, who brings her usual satiric edge to the role. As Kate’s married-with-kids sister, Maura Tierney has almost nothing to do but does it well, suggesting both sympathy and smugness. As Kate’s doorman and confidant, Oscar, Romany Malco makes a likeable and funny “magical negro,” as Spike Lee calls the subordinate black characters whose only function is to help a movie’s white protagonists. And Steve Martin is clearly having a blast in full-blown supercilious/oblivious mode as Kate’s boss Barry, a self-infatuated hippie entrepreneur who likes to brag about the time he “toasted pine nuts at the mouth of an active volcano.”

Their charm and goofiness gives Baby Mama its moments. But for the most part it’s dully formulaic, even mean-spirited.

The script shows no mercy to Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver), the head of Kate’s surrogacy agency, who commits the apparently unforgiveable sin of having children well into middle age. Granted, she’s a pill, flaunting her pregnancy in front of her frustrated clients, but must she be treated like a biological freak?

Baby Mama raises and refutes the usual objections to surrogacy, asking us to empathize with Kate’s decision to go that route. Fair enough, but why isn’t that same charity extended to women who get pregnant in their 50s? Haven't we always winked at men having babies much later in life that that?

Monday, May 12, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

By Elise Nakhnikian

To Kill a Mockingbird is not that Great American Novel that people used to be so eager to discover, but it is a great story for and about children. And both the book and the movie adapted from it are quintessentially American, in both their failings and their accomplishments.

Mockingbird’s most compelling subplot is about the trials – and trial – of Tom Robinson, an upstanding black man unjustly accused of the rape of a white woman. But the real subject of Horton Foote’s 1962 screenplay, as of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, is the moral education of young Scout Finch (Mary Badham), the story’s narrator, and her big brother Jem (Phillip Alford).

Lee got an awful lot right about childhood, including the myths kids invent about their neighbors, the speed with which they can make new friends or enemies, and the sense of adventure and risk that can be involved in a simple walk – or run – down the block. Scout learns to respect and empathize with other people; Jem struggles with wrenching truths about how the world works. Mixed in with those big themes are plenty of light moments that ring just as true, like Jem’s longing for a gun of his own, or the ham costume Scout wears for her school’s Halloween pageant and gets stuck wearing home.

The picture Mockingbird paints of a particular place, time, and stage of life is its main strength, but it’s a heavily touched-up portrait. The little 1930s Alabama town of Lee’s memory was fighting some ferocious demons, including the Depression and the crippling effects of Jim Crow racism. Lee also has some things to say about the damage done by poverty and sexism. But viewing it all through the eyes of a young white lawyer’s child blinds us to some hard truths.

Scout’s Maycomb is a neighborly place, full of people who are essentially decent, even if they sometimes do indecent things. Its terrors are almost all imaginary, like the reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, (Robert Duvall, looking affectingly spooky in his first movie role) whose image the kids conjure up to scare themselves, each other, and their summer friend Dill (the Dumbo-eared John Megna, playing an endearingly fanciful emotional orphan based on Lee’s childhood playmate Truman Capote). And though her mother is dead, her father, the estimable Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a one-man band of parental virtues: eternally wise, unflashily heroic, unflappable, devoted to his children, and positively brimming with life lessons.

Director Robert Mulligan, who specialized in earnest TV dramas before Mockingbird, and cinematographer Russell Harlan, who did mostly B-movie Westerns, shot in a beautifully composed yet unshowy black and white that is a visual match for Lee’s combination of realism and nostalgia. Foote’s elegantly structured screenplay carries Lee’s poetic/ironic voice into the movie in the form of a voiceover, which is read in a wise and world-weary drawl by Kim Hunter. And the brilliant Elmer Bernstein score includes a sparingly used theme song that contains the children’s hopes, fears, and sense of wonder.

It all adds up to a compelling but suspiciously comforting tale – a declaration of faith in the essential goodness of human beings, the power of one extraordinary man to change everything, and the moral superiority of who else but you and me.

To Kill a Mockingbird infantilizes its African-American characters, stripping them of any individuality other the palpable personalities the actors endow them with. There can be a luxurious self-flattery in shaking your head as Tom Robinson’s wife crumples in despair on hearing of her husband’s fate, or in crying when a dignified African-American minister tells Scout to rise from her seat in the courtroom balcony to join the others in showing respect as her father heads out (“Miss Scout, stand up!” he says. “Your father’s passing.” Gets me every time.)

Crying puts us safely on the side of the good guys, short-circuiting any doubts that might have otherwise surfaced about our own complicity in American racism, past and present. And just as it lets us off the hook as individuals, Lee’s story lets the Jim Crow South off too easily – the same way we so often let ourselves off the hook in America for crimes committed against our black citizens.

There’s something downright distasteful about how accommodating and self-effacing Tom Robinson is. Did Lee believe that a black man had to be a saint in order to gain a white audience’s sympathy? Or, worse yet, did she think only a man who voiced no objection to his own objectification deserved our sympathy?

Surely not, yet Tom is almost childlike in his malleability. And if he and the other African-American characters are too passive, the white characters can be too heroic, accomplishing superhuman feats on behalf of the silent mass of suffering black folks. Even six-year-old Scout single-handedly vanquishes a lynch mob at the jail where Tom’s being held.

William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust offers a mirror image to Mockingbird. The unjustly accused black man in Faulkner’s story meets a better fate than Tom Robinson, yet the story feels bleaker and tougher. That’s partly because it holds white Southerners accountable for racism in a way that has to do with atoning for crimes, not with Atticus’ sense of noblesse oblige. But it’s also because of the anger and resistance exhibited by some of the black people in Faulkner’s story.

Faulkner’s Lucas Beauchamp doesn’t get into trouble with his poor white neighbors because, like Tom Robinson, he has the temerity to be nice to them. He is targeted because he has the nerve to do better than them, and to make it crystal clear that he doesn’t care what they think of that – or of him. A proud, angry man, he calls the shots from jail as surely as he did in his own home. Faulkner also gives us a much richer portrait of the poor whites who target Beauchamp and the resentment that motivates them. In the process, he delivers a more nuanced telling than Mockingbird of a startlingly similar story.

So if you want a realistic, complex, grown-up picture of race relations in the Jim Crow South, read Intruder. But if you’ve got kids, you might want to introduce them to Mockingbird. It may tell us as much about the time when it was made as it does about the time its story is set in, but it’s a fascinating slice of Americana.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Iron Man

By Elise Nakhnikian

I once read a comparison of Jeff Bridges’ movies that said you could predict how well they’d do by the length of his character’s hair. If the hair was long, the picture would tank; if the hair was short, it’d do good business.

If short is good, bald must be better. And sure enough, judging by Iron Man’s $100-million-plus opening weekend, Bridges blows the doors off the box office when he gets rid of the hair altogether.

Of course, it’s really Robert Downey Jr.’s mojo in the title role that makes this movie work. A billionaire playboy and inventor based partly on Howard Hughes, Tony Stark lives way large, but he has no superpowers – just super-cool inventions. Iron Man tells the story of how and why he created his ultimate boy toy, a full metal body suit that gives the former war profiteer a new name and a new role as a crusader for justice, as he rockets halfway around the world to blow up his own warheads and rescue some of the people whose lives his weapons have torn apart.

Downey's not the first guy you’d think of to portray a comic book hero, but his emotional complexity, congenital cool, and smartest-kid-in-the-room vibe make him just the sad-eyed charmer to play this haunted genius.

Stark’s suit is like a wearable F16. When Stark puts it on, he can mow people down, do loop-de-loops at 15,000 feet, and deflect bullets better than Wonder Woman’s bracelet. It even has a built-in flamethrower. That's all pretty typical comic-geek wish fulfillment, but the surprise of Iron Man is how well it works even for liberal-humanist, non-fanboy types like me.

Director Jon Favreau developed the script with two sets of writers (first Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, then Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, who adapted Children of Men for the screen). Their briskly paced, intelligently told story and Downey’s finely calibrated acting, tell you everything you need to know about the character without bogging down in backstory or boring exposition.

They also came up with clever ways of updating the story, which was created by Marvel’s Stan Lee in the ‘60s, mainly by switching the initial setting from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Taken prisoner by a group of insurgents and charged with building a super-weapon, Stark hammers out the prototype for his Iron Man suit instead and uses it to bust out of the cave where he’s being held.

Another smart change was the autonomy upgrade given to Stark’s right-hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In the comic, Favreau says, Potts “fawns over him a bit.” In the movie, the briskly competent Pepper clearly adores her boss, but the adoration is mutual – and so is the fa├žade of tart detachment that both wear to protect themselves. Their awkward tenderness and well written dialogue gives their scenes warmth and wit, and Paltrow sparkles and shines, sparkles and shines.

The always excellent Bridges is rock solid as Obadiah Stane, the long-time ally who helps Stark run his company. Bridges even looks bigger than usual, his bald pate exposing a surprisingly thick neck and broad shoulders.

Not everything works. The Afghan insurgents come off a little like extras from The Mummy, and the action scenes are hard to follow. When Stark defeats his nemesis, you can see more or less what he’s doing, but I had no idea why – though it’s probably best not to look too hard for logic once things like “arc reactors” start being invoked.

Early on, when Stark is nearly killed by his own weapons, Iron Man looks like it’s dangerously close to becoming Irony Man. Then it skates past that sinkhole, leaving us free to enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching cool people operate cool gadgets – and the comforting dream of a quick, clean exit from the morass we’ve waded into in Afghanistan.

We see Stark’s sexy-sleek metal suit from all angles: as it assembles itself smoothly around him, as his robot assistants help him take it off, as he spirals through space or touches down to wage battle. When the camera closes in on Stark’s face inside the helmet, he looks like one of America’s last cowboys, the astronauts who explored outer space around the time Iron Man was born.

It’s a resonant image, calling to mind those cockier and more innocent days and reminding us of how things have changed. So it feels right that Iron Man’s mission is to undo damage he has done, not to explore new territory. And it feels sadly inevitable that his own inventions – even his iron man suit, which his arch nemesis sees as the ultimate weapon – should be used against him. Because if our recent past has taught us anything, it’s that technology and Tec-9s create more problems than they solve.