The Junk Food of Writing

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

For Your Consideration (Guest, 2006)

The cast of For Your Consideration is in awe of the utter mediocrity

Working in an industry that is rumored to be full of narcissistic, avaricious and superficial twits, it’s unsurprising that some of the sharpest filmmakers, like Robert Altman and Billy Wilder, have successfully put their cinematic knife in the belly of the moviemaking machine in
The Player and Sunset Boulevard, respectively.

Christopher Guest is no stranger to scrutinizing a community of losers and uncovering some bizarrely hilarious and dark truths. While small-town theatre, dog shows and folk music were all fresh areas for mockery, Hollywood, on the other hand, is not unexplored territory. Exposing vanity in the moviemaking business is similar to revealing Elton John’s sexuality. In fact, Christopher Guest previously satirized the movie industry in his directorial debut, The Big Picture.

For Your Consideration
, however, focuses on a different aspect of the filmmaking trade – one that should not have a large impact but indubitably does: awards season. Despite this more concentrated scenario, placed on buzz’s affect on actors and overwrought Oscar bait, this monotonous movie still does not have much new to say. The centerpiece in this overstuffed assembly is veteran actress Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), whom—while filming the preposterously melodramatic Home for Purim—hears from a crew member that there is gossip on the internet of a possible Academy Award nomination for her. Ecstatic by the news, the buzz surrounds the set with most actors modestly stating their happiness for her. Suddenly and inexplicably, Home for Purim, which is just too lame to believe even the most idiotic Academy voters could nominate, begins to gain media coverage for two other stars in the film, Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer) and Callie Webb (Parker Posey).

In an interview, co-writers Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy disclosed their unorthodox methods of scripting. “The film, aside from the movie within a movie, is improvised,” Christopher Guest said. “There is a screenplay without dialogue – just scene by scene breakdowns of exposition and story and the actors have to get certain information out however they would like,” Eugene Levy added. “It’s an outline of only about 25 to 30 pages, but we spend nearly three months delineating scenes and characters. What the free actors do to it in terms of look, sound and voice is completely up to them.”Guest explained that he follows this unique style of filmmaking because “it’s spontaneous and it has some real connection to the way real people talk.”Although Guest and his loyal company have achieved this realistic spontaneity in their previous productions, much of For Your Consideration feels painfully strained. The usually reliable cast members appear as if they are delivering punch lines. While the actors battle to create the glibbest, most incompetent character, the film tops them all in glibness.

At 86 minutes, For Your Consideration is quick to cover all of its satiric bases—too quick. Therefore, the film is never cohesive and organic enough to be a cogent indictment of the absurdity of award season. An example of this slapdash way of filming, similar to a cinematic checklist, is a moment of potential truth when Parker Posey’s character breaks up with her colleague and boyfriend just after she hears Oscar buzz surrounding her performance. Although Parker Posey is a dependable improv actress, this scene ends nearly instantly—eradicating any plausibility the scene deserves. Perhaps she was hungry that day and wanted to cut early.

In his previous films, Guest and the rest of the cast delicately mocked the characters and setting. They poked fun at their stupidity, but always revealed the fragility of each vulnerable character. For Your Consideration is sorely lacking in humanity. This is due to the overabundance of characters; this more of a parade than an ensemble piece.

Christopher Guest and company also target the inanity of the media, since they are mostly to blame for altering the mindsets of those who anticipate nominations. The ensemble frivolously roasts the nauseating kitsch of Entertainment Tonight, TRL and late night shows and the self-involved hosts “Today”-style morning shows, and Charlie Rose to only moderate success.

Christopher Guest wanted to make it clear that “this film isn’t just about the Oscars – this is about the large amount of generic awards shows. It’s gotten to a point where it’s weighed down. It’s, ironically, something I don’t follow.” This is both an appropriate and odd comment for the director and co-writer of For Your Consideration to make. It’s astute of him to note that awards season is clouded with other precursor awards before the Oscars. His admittance that he does not keep track of this horse race is very telling, though. This lack of deep research is evident in the film, since it is completely oblivious to any other award show, therefore deserting any shred of logic.

Ultimately, For Your Consideration comes off as a sloppy and careless rant of someone who spent too much time listening to the self-involved prattle at the cast and crew snack table. Everything is just too cartoonish to be truly biting. For Your Consideration aims for sardonic and only reaches silly.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Fast Food Nation (Linklater, 2006)

Corporations are nefarious. Even if you are unaware of this common belief, it will be drilled into you at every angle, thinly disguised under a layer of interweaved narratives, during Richard Linklater’s artlessly preachy Fast Food Nation.

With Fast Food Nation, Greg Kinnear, along with cast and crew, bite the big one.

The title may sound familiar, since the film is a very loose adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s meticulous, well-researched nonfiction exposé of the same name. Before the screening, Linklater, co-writing with Schlosser, warned fans of the muckraking bestseller that the film is not faithful to its source material. Instead, the filmmakers decided to weave a fictionalized mosaic, including a plethora of characters from three intertwining storylines that revolve around some aspect of the fast food industry.

This caveat is unnecessary, however, due to the film’s absurdly exaggerated presentation; it’s impossible to mistake the adaptation as nonfiction. Richard Linklater also preceded the showing of
Fast Food Nation with a preface, “I’ll tell you what Fast Food Nation is not; it is not a documentary, a comedy or a satire.” Due to the film’s penchant to overstate the obvious and embellish the supposed truth, though, it’s difficult not to view it as a satirical farce.

Arriving in theaters a century after Upton Sinclair’s opus on immigration and Chicago’s meatpacking industry,
Fast Food Nation—with its depiction of border-jumping Mexican factory workers, a complacent marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) and a naïve teenage employee (Ashley Johnson, best known as little Chrissy Seaver from “Growing Pains”)—similarly insists that it’s a jungle out there.

Fast Food Nation begins with familiarly colored yellow-and-red opening credits and then cuts to a dreamy sequence in a fast food eatery known as Mickeys. Mickeys is filled with happy families and youth baseball teams; the camera floats around until it reaches its destination: a “Big One,” Mickey’s featured burger. The camera closes-up on the burger and lingers for a moment before “entering” the burger, a David Lynch-style. At this moment, the film ostensibly severs all ties from idealized fantasy and sets up its multiple narratives in a world Linklater describes as “very realistic.” A gaggle of Mexicans (among them are Wilmer Valderrama and Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Sandino Moreno) navigate through the desert to sneak into America, and later as they ride their bikes down the highway, it is apparent hat the land of opportunities is paved with chain restaurants.

For a film striving for gritty realism, though,
Fast Food Nation consistently betrays it with hyperbole. Linklater’s cynicism towards greed and unhealthy diets, while justifiable, is ultimately harmful for this production; it carries him—and the film—over the top. Consequently, the overly disparaging and didactic presentation is harder to swallow than a greasy Big Mac. Within ten minutes of the film, Greg Kinnear’s character is informed that an outsider’s test found fecal matter in Mickeys’ burgers. “There’s shit in the burgers” yells another executive. Judging from cartoonish cameos by Bruce Willis and Ethan Hawke, the hamburgers are not the only things full of shit.

This is alarmingly discouraging, since Richard Linklater is often an adept, honest and insightful screenwriter and director; he has created such brilliantly talky and conceptual films such as
Slacker, Before Sunrise, Waking Life and Before Sunset. Fans of the auteur can only hope that Fast Food Nation does not signal an end to Linklater’s philosophical and deeply humanistic works of all-talk-and-no-play and a start to vapid, preachy “call to action” filmmaking.

In an interview with the Beacon, Richard Linklater, casually displaying his social and political consciousness, acutely observed that there is “a mass delusion [in
America]– you’re not supposed to care about your health.” He is just as talkative as the characters in his previous films, but he often pauses in introspection. When asked what he wants the audience to make of Fast Food Nation, he responded, “I hope people like the characters in the movie. That’s where my heart is: depicting life; it’s the reason why I did not do it as a documentary. I wasn’t concerned with only making one polemical, political single statement.” Similar to a corporation, however, the film is more focused on efficiency and message than the human element. Therefore, Linklater’s quest to make a dramatic character study fails, since most of the characters seem more like vague ideas than individuals. “I hope that people come out of it and maybe read up on the issues as consumers,” Linklater added. This is essential, since—despite the abundance of preachy statements—the film does not inform the audience much; it is more numbing than empowering.

Since the simplistic narratives are not working for him by the film’s close, Linklater throws in a gut-splattering and, for weak bellies, gut-wrenchingly graphic scene of slaughterhouse shenanigans. The cheap, uncreative choice to include this manipulative musical montage of meat in the denouement exposes Linklater’s desperation to serve the audience an unhappy meal. Ultimately, the film hits a hypocritical note because, due to all its deriding of corporations and their cruelty to animals, the film spends most of its running time beating a dead horse.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Stranger than Fiction (Forster, 2006)

In screenwriting, a clever idea is a very dangerous possession. It’s even more daunting when that clever idea is bizarre and otherworldly. Can the execution transcend the thought-provoking concept? In Stranger Than Fiction’s ambitious case, not really.

Will Ferrell wisely takes acting lessons from Dustin Hoffman behind the scenes.

Stranger Than Fiction
wears its ingenuity on its sleeve and is forcefully concerned with reasserting its attempted quirk and wit. It may be a playful exercise in self-conscious meta-narrative, but, ultimately, it’s perniciously shallow, even when searching to find depth in its typical themes.Most of the film is so preoccupied with reinvigorating the surface sharpness of its premise that it only flirts with its points on the nature of the narrative and the human condition. There’s no room for truly incisive commentary in this overstuffed production. The symbolic stand-in for humanity in Stranger than Fiction is the tightly programmed pawn, Harold Crick (a surprisingly tolerable and relatively restrained Will Ferrell).

Harold is disturbingly comfortable in his antiseptic, solitary world of suits and perfectly tied neckties. After 12 years of working for the IRS, he finds solace in uniformity and conformity. The modern architecture that surrounds him is metallic, ostentatiously geometric and very cold, reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s bleakly contemporary landscape in Playtime.

The imperious narrator explains that Harold is a man of “infinite numbers, endless calculations and few words.” As Harold brushes his teeth one Wednesday morning—counting each brush stroke—something abnormal occurs; Harold begins to hear a voiceover of his life. It accurately documents every move he makes and every thought he thinks. This omniscient voice belongs to Karen “Kay” Eiffel (a perfectly cast Emma Thompson), a chain-smoking, neurotic novelist who has not completed a book in nearly a decade. Karen is physically introduced into the film while standing on the ledge of a skyscraper, staring down at the pedestrians as they perform menial functions; she clearly represents a God-like figure, but she is unaware of Harold' human existence. This representation is pushed even further when the audience and Harold learn through her voiceover that she plans to kill off Harold Crick.

Troubled by his imminent death, Harold searches for an expert on literary theory, Professor Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman, deftly playing the same basic role he did in I Heart Huckabees), and conveniently—and implausibly—begins a relationship with a counterculture baker he is auditing (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Harold even breaks a few rules and buys a guitar—this is Stranger than Fiction's uninspired way to depict Harold taking control of his life. It's shocking that he did not go for a red Porsche, also. Nonetheless, Harold's meaningless life is finally given significance just before he must face death. Isn’t it odd how that works out.

Although Stranger Than Fiction possesses a unique scenario, it is easy and helpful to describe it as a hybrid of two very successful pictures, Adaptation and The Truman Show. In comparison to Adaptation, it fails to amass the acumen on writing through Kay Eiffel that Charlie Kaufman provided in his script.It also lacks anything as enlightening as the Platonic allegory present in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.

Stranger Than Fiction offers a brief, powerful statement about sacrificing one’s life to create an artistic masterpiece, but it too quickly glosses over this in favor of bland, self-aware charm. By the time Stranger Than Fiction begins to deal with the philosophical implications of its central concept, it bluffs and attempts to justify its contrivances while delivering a humdrum message. The film, along with Harold Crick, grapples with its magical realism. Soon it becomes apparent that this inventive idea is simply used to give context to trite philosophies on free will, fate and carpe diem. This platform is not the most solid one, either. Stranger Than Fiction is such an odd film to wrestle with, not because it fails while trying to challenge conventions, but because it flippantly treats Crick’s predicament as if it could easily exist in a realistic, modern society.

There’s no doubting director Marc Forster’s attempt to be eclectic—he previously directed the gritty drama
Monster’s Ball, the shamelessly manipulative Finding Neverland, and the convoluted psychological thriller Stay—but this diversity should not be mistaken for accomplishment, even if Stranger Than Fiction is his least heavy-handed production to date.

Despite its promisingly singular premise, Stranger Than Fiction is too broad and provides no new insight into the themes it tackles. Instead of including a challenging interpretation of fatalism and existentialism, it offers an anemic romantic subplot. Although the tepid conclusion revolves around life’s subtleties, Stranger than Fiction is unfortunately a stranger to nuance. The film provokes Harold to seize the day, but it should be more concerned with seizing its own original idea in an unexpected way.