Monday, January 25, 2010

Escape to Planet Hollywood

By Elise Nakhnikian

So many movies, so little time.

I see about three new releases in an average week. That may sound like a lot, but it almost never feels like enough. I’m forever triaging the titles on my list. The first to go are the big, glossy Hollywood movies, the ones so formulaic you can practically hear the pitch as you watch the trailer.

But sometimes I don’t want to be to be challenged or enlightened; I just want to be entertained. Last weekend was one of those times, so I caught up on three big releases I’d missed when they came out: a romance, a post-apocalyptic Western, and a heartwarming true story. I was hoping for a solid trifecta of escapist entertainment, and that’s pretty much what I got.

It’s Complicated is wish fulfillment for middle-aged women, a less broadly played, more upscale Mamma Mia without the Abba music. You know it’s got to be a fantasy when the 50-something woman’s boyfriend earnestly tells her: “Your age is one of my favorite things about you.”

As in Mamma Mia, Meryl Streep plays the heroine and looks like she’s having the time of her life – and few things are more joyful than Streep having fun. Once again, she plays a vibrant woman with loving kids, a loyal coterie of good-time girlfriends, and a hyperactive love life. This time there are just two men vying for her affections – her ex-husband (a comically raffish Alec Baldwin) and her architect (Steve Martin, as boyishly bashful as ever). But hey, that’s pretty good for a post-menopausal divorcee.

Director Nancy Meyers’ romantic comedies are not about verbal jousting or witty subterfuge. Her characters wear their hearts on their stylish sleeves, and they tend to revert when they fall in love, acting like hormone-addled teenagers. But nobody can run the gamut of human emotions better than Streep, and Meyers gives her a pretty wide range to explore. There may not be any musical numbers in It’s Complicated, but Streep makes it sing.

The Book of Eli takes place in one of those post-apocalyptic wastelands that’s become a genre in itself since Mad Max. Denzel Washington is the righteous avenger this time around. Striding through the barren landscape like Clint Eastwood’s darker brother, he’s literally on a mission from God.

The movie is competently directed by those nice Armenian boys, the Hughes Brothers (You may think of them as African-American like their dad, but their mom’s Armenian, so they’re homeboys to me), who choose their influences well. I saw The Road, The Road Warrior, Children of Men, and more in its picturesquely floodlit, desaturated palette; its smoggy brown air and ruined landscapes; the ragged post-apocalyptic chic of its costumes; and its fantastic twist ending. Some of the cast seems recycled too, with Tom Waits playing the proprietor of a ramshackle store and Gary Oldman, who sometimes appearing to be parodying Pat Robertson, playing a town’s psychopathic overlord. But The Book of Eli is satisfying in spite of being so derivative. Or is that why it works?

What’s not to like about Sandra Bullock? Even when she breaks out a self-conscious accent and some mighty tight pantsuits in The Blind Side, playing a titanium-tough Southern belle in a Memphis McMansion, Bullock holds us close, making us see the mensch beneath the pancake makeup. And when her Leigh Ann Tuohy invites a sad-eyed homeless teenager to sleep on her $10,000 couch, eventually moving him into his own bedroom and then becoming his legal guardian – well, you’d better have brought your Kleenex.

Quinton Aaron plays the boy, Michael Oher, who became a football player under the Tuohys’ tutelage. The script doesn’t let on much about what he thinks, but Aaron makes his feelings clear, and it’s moving to see the glum, guarded boy lighten up as he settles into a life of luxury, emotional stability, and family love.

This is based on a true story (Michael Lewis wrote a book about it, which John Lee Hancock based his script on), which may explain why Leigh Ann and her family aren’t perfect. To its credit, the movie tackles their biggest blunder – the fact that they, like everyone at Michael’s otherwise-white school, assumed he would play football just because he was big and black.

When Leigh Ann finally asks Michael: “Do you even want to play football? Do you even like it?” he answers that he’s good at it. It’s a poignant response, making you wonder what else he might have found out he was good at if he’d landed somewhere else. But then the movie reminds you that that’s how families work: kids often follow in their parents’ footsteps, and our interests and priorities are always shaped by the people who raised us.

Shadings like that give The Blind Side a little depth, which was a pleasant surprise. But on the whole, it was just the cheerful, uncomplicated feel-good story I expected –and wanted – it to be.

1 comment:

  1. I saw It is Complicated and I loved it. Meryl Streep is one fascinating actress. Alec was very funny. But, I hope there are men who genuingly feel a woman's maturity is a good thing. Perhaps, instead of "your age" Alec could have used another word like maturity and it would be more credible. I think that is what he meant anyways.