Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Virna Lisi in How To Murder Your Wife

I finally saw KNIGHT AND DAY (2010), mainly because I learned it was directed by James Mangold, who's been slowly losing artistic weight since his groundbreaking HEAVY (1995) but is still an auteur (I loved HEAVY) who could possibly add a few layers of fatty subtext to even a rote 'rom-com/action' hybrid film. And while it's bad, as expected, it's not as horrible as the similar THE TOURIST (my review here), or Jonathan Demme's TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (2002). I hate to say this, but Cruise saves it as a variation of his MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series, like he was just in the process of choosing to accept a mission when some hottie wiggled into the room and self-destructed his train of thought. Trouble is, I just can't see that hottie being Cameron Diaz, not anymore. So his train of thought is never quite destructed. He accepts his new assignment of pretending she's still hot - And it nearly kills him.

I hate to be so blunt and even shallow, but when in Rome!

Success when casting two A-listers in one of these 'date films' is chemistry.  If the stars are too big, chances are they haven't even met before their agents shake hands on the deal. And, as Cruise proved in EYES WIDE SHUT, there's only one person who has chemistry with Tom Cruise, and that's Tom Cruise. Far from the the hoped-for level of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, they also lack even a shred of the more age-appropriate Pierce Brosnan-Renee Russo mature chemistry of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, nor is there even a touch of the cold professionalism breached by a sudden rush of adrenalized vulnerability between Brangelina in MR. AND MRS. SMITH. There's not even the Melanie Griffith -Craig Wasson chemistry of BODY DOUBLE! Instead it's the Pierce Brosnan and Selma Hayek trainwreck non-chemistry of the insufferable AFTER THE SUNSET. J'accuse!

So what's up with this need to wear navel piercings and short shorts into your forties, ladies of Hollywood? Cameron was so jaw-droppingly gorgeous in her debut, THE MASK (above, 1984) that she could have just talked into her cell phone through the whole movie and we would have sat, agog in worship. She was dynamic and fun and there were no cell phones then so double bonus; she had to pay attention. Now, well, she should be taking a good, honest look at her UV-damaged, collagen-depleted midriff before donning a slutty halter top. A bit like Jolie, trying to hide how tired she is in action films such as TOURIST and SALT (my review here), Diaz is stranded by a Hollywood that does not remember how to segue youthful bombshells into mature actresses. If they win an Oscar, they might get to make some dull prestige pics like CHANGELING, or an HBO remake of MILDRED PIERCE, but they probably have to put up some producer money, paid for through their conscription to the action genre. So even though we can see how calcium-depleted their birdlike bones have become we're supposed to believe they can fall five stories onto moving trucks and not shatter their fibulae. Can you imagine Bette Davis or Joan Crawford doing that shit? They'd just surrender, and then see you in court for lengthy flashbacks, and lawsuits that award them sole custody of your boat, house, and art collection. That's how a lady conquers the bad guys, and everyone else.

Tom Cruise used to annoy me, but, as I lose faculties to the old devil of age, I've come to respect his amped-up vaguely nonhuman HE WHO MUST BE OBEYED agelessness. For this KNIGHT, however, his momentum-addiction becomes a problem when faced with the hyper-clingy un-fountain of youth-smacked Cameron. Cruise can't tolerate either being rude to, or slowed down by, her dopey boy-chaser hack moves. When the bullets start flying and she keeps getting in the firing line, he just drugs her. BOOM! She wakes up in paradise, or her apartment, or a helicopter. Was it all a dream? What a way to travel and to wallpaper over plot holes! Go to sleep in the middle of a gunfight and wake up in a hammock on a private beach where Tom Cruise is cracking your cocoanuts and preparing the marital hut. Guys like me meanwhile can barely get it together to look at travel sites without having a panic attack but here's the thing: we won't drug you, unless you ask, and anyway we're all out of roofies, because we ate them already, ourselves, alone, like real men. And because we know that drugging your date as a way to shut her up is as wrong as it is for any other reason, you'd not only have to ask, but we'd only give you a half. Yet here it is, the weird subtext angle of ick in KNIGHT AND DAY, the roofie-slipping. Several times!

Meanwhile Diaz is stuck with the kind of nagging attention-mongering dull void of a character that used to drain all the fun out of post-1934 romantic comedies.  She's jealous of the bullets! She's mad Cruise is looking at the guys who want to kill them instead of admiring her hair. Somehow, Mangold expects us to find this endearing. While bullets are flying all around their heads, she's wrangling for his attention like that live-in girlfriend who wants sex only when you're deeply absorbed in the climax of your video game or trying to head out for Thursday night poker with the guys.  Just look at the photos of Cruise and Diaz together above and atop: Cruise is looking outward for danger, guns at the ready, while Cameron moons defeatedly behind him like she genuinely thinks he's just inventing all this danger as a way to not notice her new nail polish. She picked his favorite color! 

Of course she must--and does--become a warrior by the end of film, moving all of a sudden from annoying LA puer aeterna narcissist to competent spy all in a single dose of truth serum --but at no point does she seem anything more than a once too-pretty girl whose youthful sex appeal allowed her to coast through life without developing any survival skills or even basic intelligence. Now the LA sun has caught up with her epidermal soundness and she fumbles for a Tom-sized patch to her ego's torpedoed hull. Her character allegedly restores vintage 70s muscle cars for a living, a trait which, developed, may have made her more interesting, but this characterization is never convincingly developed, it's just a detail cribbed from Michael Bay movies (but Jolie in Gone in 60 Seconds, and even Monet Mazur in Torque managed to actually convince us they actually knew something about cars, which helped give, rather than remove, a layer of Hawksian depth). The end result is she's one of those frilly dames who used to chase the detective hero around, trying to trick him into marriage while passive-aggressively fouling up his murder case (i.e. STAR OF MIDNIGHT, which I discuss here). Scud missiles of marriage, these broads have no other goal in life but finding, seducing, and trapping their man, actual danger be damned. The man knows we bought tickets to see him solve mysteries and get into danger, not wrestle out of wedlock, but that's show biz when a censor is watching and counting the gun shots like a mother-in-law counts your drinks. Any self-respecting girl should get pretty mad at the thought they're supposed to find Cameron's ditziness identifiable. For men it's valuable just to see how blind beauty makes us, because if the Cameron Diaz from THE MASK were acting this role, same script and all, we wouldn't even notice how shallow, myopic and self-centered her character is --our eyes would be too glazed over. Our discomfort and alarm at seeing her now, trying to pull off the same shit after the bird of youth has flown, is the fall-out from that indulgence. We're suddenly grateful our fantasy of marrying her and living happily ever after never came to pass. If she had any brains, she'd bow out of the role and play the mother, Davis-style, or fly to Rome and date gigolos, Leigh-style

For all their faults, these kinds of  romantic misadventure movies have been a staple since the silent age, when DW Griffith would pawn his young lover Carol Dempster off as various island-raised innocent flowers falling in love with castaway Richard Barthelmess, thinking she was Polynesian but then in the final reel learning she's really white, so fit for marriage. The miscegenation-negation was offensive enough, but Dempster's roots-deep blandness didn't help, except as a cautionary tale of how important it is directors not let their vision get clouded by personal relationships. If the stars they chose or received from their backers ("this is the girl") don't have the chemistry hoped for with the leading man, a smart director knows he must recast one of them immediately. Chemistry is all-important in these films and you can't just 'hope' for it - that's what screen tests are for.  Otherwise your harvest will be a vacuum of cringe-worthy moments surrounded by impersonal travelogue details, the sort you see on airplanes when you're waiting to take off or land, telling you about various restaurants and shows and 'hot new' destinations. Now that you're in Spain you must take the time to drive a nice product placement-furnished sports car through zee running of the bulls; while in Paris don't forget to run along the rooftops with Peter Sarsgaard taking potshots at you. iSo classique, oui? 

And of course if you're in NYC, the.. um... place to be is the Brooklyn Navy Yards and perhaps the Lincoln Tunnel. If there's no one to chase you up the nose of the Statue of Liberty, it's only that Mangold (rightly) fears being compared to Hitchcock, the undisputed master of the lovers-on-the-run genre. The comparison would end badly for him. 

Ultimately the fault of films like this-- as opposed to the 'good' romantic meet-cute travelogue spy adventures--is their inability to closely read the sexual politics inherent in the classics they mimic. They capture the exterior style but not the interior motivations. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Eva Marie Saint is the spy, not Cary Grant. She saves him continually just so she can put him in danger later. That's an important detail filmmakers forget when mining its riches. Grant's character thinks he's in charge, and we're conditioned to take his word for it, which makes his referrals to "mother" during cocktails in the beginning of the film so uniquely jarring. Mangold and company forgot all that, and indeed everything else that made Hitchcock's films hum with Freudian subtext. All they remember is a couple meeting cute, and chases.

 If instead of the plot it has, Diaz turned out to be a Keyser Soze mastermind, feigning nincompoopery to get close to her target, endangering him to try and actually prevent his success, that would be awesome; it would make her klutziness suddenly relevant. But KNIGHT is never even close to that level of high-flying paranoia. Diaz is just a girl, flash frozen but already a tad decayed, permanently not yet a woman, standing before a guy who by now seems like an ageless superman, asking him to protect her from getting shot, but preferring death, anyway, to being ignored one minute longer. What she should be doing is watching old films wherein talented, driven older stars like Jill Clayburgh and Goldie Hawn or new ones like Anne Heche or Judy Davis show how one can get older and still stay sexually desirable on camera. One thing they don't do is act desperate. They don't act like those drunken moms who crash their son's Saturday night basement sleepovers with a bottle of wine and too much lip rouge.

In HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE (1965), Jack Lemmon tangles with a similarly needy lady but she's young and hot, like MASK-era Diaz, so his treatment of her as if she's a suffocating drag makes no sense whatsoever. A comic strip writer whose work is nationally syndicated ("The Adventures of Brash Brannigan" - a character similar to Tom Cruise in KNIGHT) and living the NYC bachelor dolce vita, Lemmon winds up married to hot Italian Virna Lisi after she pops out of a bachelor party cake and he's too drunk to understand she's misunderstood his lewd proposition. Still, Lemmon could get used to her if his agent's shrewish wife wasn't brainwashing her to be a jealous harridan, instigating her crashing his gentleman's club because she's sure he's with another woman, the kind of thing she might do when she's Cameron's age in KNIGHT, but which makes no sense in her present 'pristine mint' condition.

Another problem: Lemmon is no suave ladies' man super spy, except in his own mind - while Lisi is the real thing, a goddess. And she's present. And that can be unnerving for a man who lives most of his life in either his imagination or an alcoholic fraternal fog. It's unnerving for her too; she's like a bee trying to get nectar from a plastic flower. And anyway, in New York you can't just marry someone-- you have to get a license first, then wait at least 48 hours, in order to make sure you're not making a decision while in a drunken black-out, and even I haven't been able to stay blacked-out more than a eight hours. I doubt even Days of Wine and Roses Lemmon could go more than 12. 

The title, incidentally, springs from Lemmon's 'acting out' all his Brash Brannigan adventures all around NYC while his knowing butler takes photos as source model for the strip's art, but Lisi reads the latest edition wherein Brash plots to murder his wife, and she thinks he wants to get rid of her, so she vanishes. Lemmon winds up on trial for murder thanks to the strip's murder plot, and from there it gets really misogynous, as in his closing statement:
"Gentlemen, I address you not as judge and jury, but as a fellow American male. The crime that you have just seen Harold Lampson commit in his imagination I have been accused of committing in reality. Too long has the American man allowed himself to be bullied, coddled, and mothered, and tyrannized, and in general meant to feel like a feeble-minded idiot by the female of the species. Do you realize the power that you have in your hand here today? If one man - just one man - can stick his wife in the goop from the gloppitta-gloppitta machine, and get away with it! Whoa-ho-ho, boy, we've got it made. We have got it made. All of us." 
 The trick of course through which to avoid murder trials like this is to not let women get the upper hand in any movie scripted by George Axelrod in the first place, and that requires a certain danger and unpredictability in your actions. Girls love a mysterious bad boy. You don't have to be bad, just seem bad. For example, if she wants you to cut the grass, go out drinking. If she wants you to go out drinking, cut the grass. If she wants to know where you are at all times, then leave telltale signs you're having an affair in such a way as to make her crazier and crazier so she bursts in on you doing something innocent, in front of witnesses. Collect matchboxes from strange clubs and leave them in your coat pocket for her to find; keep a locked drawer in your desk and when she pries it open there's a single envelope, and in it is a single note that reads "honey, you should be ashamed of yourself opening other people's mail." Hide a single woman's earring under the bed in a slipper, a splash of perfume on a crushed Kleenex in the bathroom trash can. Write down the things you left lying around in a hidden notebook you can pull out when she confronts you, to prove you were setting her up. Sounds devious but if she's paranoid and you don't supply her with clues and evidence trails to occupy her time you're not doing her any favors. 

Oh you poor thing,

Perhaps the best thing you can do is to just relish the squabbling. A lot of women just need to sharpen their claws, to punch at you and scream and yell and enact the archetypal tug of war that is one man and one woman tied together like cats on a clothes line. Woman, capital W, will never be satisfied for longer than a few days with any of Man's attempts to appease her: furs, jewels, bridges, water works, steel mills, circuses --none of it has ever worked for long. If he lets her pick out all his clothes she'll lose all respect for him; if he dresses himself she'll wince in embarrassment. The truth is, Jack, she's testing your mettle; she wants to fight. It doesn't matter over what. She just wants to know you're stronger than her, or at least as strong, so she can relax and not feel she has to be the dominant one in your pack, to use Dog Whisperer parlance. Many men make the mistake of trying to appease Woman's wrath, to supplicate, to do anything she asks, but such spineless behavior in their men is what makes wives into nags, which they resent you for, and they should.

Still, I don't mean this as a knock. Without woman's continued dissatisfaction would there be any decadent luxury, or even civilization? Understand the deeper currents at work and admire Woman's rage and discontented howling for its vigor rather than wincing at realizing you're more than likely its target. There's no need to drug her or murder her or cave in to her demands if you're down to fight... for you're right... to par.....

Oops, the ball and chain just yelled out from the bedroom... it's 2 AM, on a weekday. Gotta go...!


  1. "We won't drug you." Great line.

  2. I can't even tell you how timely the advice of relishing the squabbles and let her sharpen her claws is. Strumming my pain with your fingers, Erich, strumming my pain with your fingers.

  3. Thanks, Johnny, glad I could help.You too, Doug.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...