The Ides of March, The Artist and Other Moviegoing Let-Downs of 2011
The key to a list of moviegoing disappointments is the element of expectation: I am prepared to say I watched more suicidally bad films in 2011 than in any other year in my life; to be merely disappointed suggests a certain relativity.
For example, I found The Ides of March to be a tremendous let down, I think partly because my hopes were inflated. George Clooney’s high political tragedy is perfectly cast, and that early, loaded exchange of glances between rival campaign managers Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti goes off like a starter pistol. But The Ides of March is like that -- it keeps threatening to start something interesting, right up to the point that it just… ends. I had the same issue with Good Night and Good Luck, another major disappointment and another film that played as if it were perpetually about to begin. The pleasures of Ryan Gosling’s performance as the fledgling spinmeister feel stingy -- why tell us that he’s known to rock the microphone when we paid for the show? And Clooney’s Teflon governor is an empty, well-cut overcoat -- perhaps the most glaring evidence of both the character and the director’s failure is that his one big scene with his golden boy star is the least exciting one in the movie.
Given the improbable, stadium-rolling wave of appreciation that greeted The Artist, I expected much more than the mannered silent that Michel Hazanavicius and co. delivered. A mediocre movie with a couple of bright moments, The Artist also had too little to say about its chosen themes. Given the challenge of holding our attention across a silent film landscape, the music felt either too sparse or too sentimentally obvious, and the droopy patches felt twice as long as they needed to. The story of a silent film star left behind by the transition to sound was unconvincing when it needed to be clear and dolorous when it might have been lyrical. Similarly cranky friends have fixated on the issue of George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) refusal to speak on film—was it the accent? A principled stance? The fact that they were at all unsure points out a massive gap in the center of The Artist, one its title sews up too neatly.
Any close follower of Werner Herzog’s career should know better than to bring expectations brewed from his last film into the next. Along with an auteurist consistency of preoccupations, Herzog shares with Woody Allen a prodigious output of wildly variable quality. The titles of this year’s Herzogian harvest -- the sublime Cave of Forgotten Dreams and the slapdash Into the Abyss -- seem interchangeable, but the latter felt to me like Achilles Herzog, a hot check of a documentary passed off as the real thing. Researched and assembled under extreme time constraints, Into the Abyss is an inquiry into the death penalty that gets by on artful narrative juxtapositions and moments of profound, almost invasive intimacy with its interview subjects. The reach for effect often feels more craven than considered, and the crime at the heart of the film is eventually clouded over for convenience. When a topic and a director -- and a title! -- of this magnitude collide, the viewer wants the Earth to shimmy; instead we had to settle for the Richter equivalent of a quick freehand sketch.
I’ve watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy twice now and I still couldn’t give you a basic plot summary. Having felt like a failure after the first viewing, after the second I’m prepared to push the better part of the blame onto director Tomas Alfredson and his Let the Right One In editor Dino Jonsäter. It’s a film that seems designed for le Carré obsessives, which means the rest of us may have to sit through all 57 hours of the 1979 BBC production just to get the facts straight. It’s a shame, because the performances and the production design knocked me out, but of all the ways to sex up a retro-procedural, I’d put mincing it into incomprehensibility second to casting Young Jeezy as George Smiley.
With The Iron Lady Meryl Streep re-stamps her all-access passport to human history, and proves once again that the only thing she can’t seem to defy are superlative clichés. There are no words left to describe the kind of work Streep does -- even those who dismiss her as a mere impressionist have to admit that her Margaret Thatcher is uncanny in its near-total self-effacement. But the film built around that performance is in some sense designed to disappoint: The biopic is an inefficient delivery system for dramatic tension or even, paradoxically, the human arc of a lifetime. It’s the movie equivalent of a greatest hits package, and while I’m not crazy about the appropriation of the still-living Thatcher’s dementia as a dramatic device, for me the more broadly director Phyllida Lloyd played her hand -- ruining every successful visual cue by repeating it three times, leaping from one familiar milestone to the next -- the farther we move away from the potential of Streep’s performance and the uneven richness of Thatcher’s story, into the straight flush of political iconography.