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.

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  • AS says:

    There was nothing even remotely disappointing about The Ides of March.

    • topsyturvy says:

      Aside from the wild inconsistency in the Evan Rachel Wood character? In this scene she's flirty and teasing. In this scene she's a weeping emotional cripple.

      • joe says:

        Why didn't they just call it a poor mans remake of Primary Colors? Oohhh the big stare down at the end. Give me a break.

        • Kate Erbland says:

          "The Ides of March" was also tremendously disappointing to me - but for a different reason. The original play ("Farragut North") is superior in every way - I won't list the myriad differences, but there are some damn big ones that were more than surprising to see made on-screen. Also, as much as I love Gosling, I saw "Farragut" when it starred Chris Pine in his role, and he was a much better fit, much more adept at bringing sympathy to the character. Gosling's take was much more biting and cruel, hard to get behind at all.

      • AS says:

        @Topsyturvy I suppose that upon learning she's pregnant with a certain someone's child she should have remained "flirty and teasing." Right, THAT would have been believable! Cause people are incapable of different emotional states.

      • 2+2=5 says:

        In this scene she’s flirty and teasing. In this scene she’s a weeping emotional cripple.
        I know a few girls just like that in real life, and they can change their mood in just few minutes, especially when they're drunk. Although I do understand why this looks odd in movies.

    • Boo Willimon says:

      You can start a war and bankrupt the country but you can't fuck the interns

  • Charles says:

    I could not agree more with you about "The Artist." After all the critical hossanas heaped upon it, it turned out to be so ... ordinary.

    I sure hope I don't agree about "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," as I'm looking forward to seeing it. If it ever makes it this way.

    • Skippy says:

      One of my friends just saw "The Artist" last night and was also bitterly disappointed. She had the same criticisms--why does he just refuse to try talking pictures? Why doesn't this address what sound means to film? She was so irritated by the main character, saying, "I just kept wishing he was Don Lockwood." Now I just don't feel like seeing it anymore.

      • Charles says:

        For me the question of why the actor refused to go into talkies was the least of the movie's problems. I just figured that's where the picture's title came from -- he was too much of an "artist." It's the other points the writer makes that really bothered me: the all-too-few bright moments, the unbearably long "droopy patches," the music, etc.

        This is the kind of movie you have to see *before* word gets to you of how "wonderful" it is (sort of like "The Blair Witch Project"). Otherwise, once you see it, you start wondering what all the initial fuss was about. But hey, now that you've heard all the negative talk, who knows -- maybe you'll like it if you ever get around to seeing it.

  • Morgo says:

    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had such a good trailer! I was looking forward to it also, and also had a lot of trouble following the story, chopped up like it. It was too much "serious actors acting", I'd rather understand the story than watch 10 show-offs giving meaningful glances and holding back tears for 2 hours.

  • couchtamale says:

    From the headline, I was prepared to not like this article, thinking it would be just so much snark. But in fact, I found myself in the rare position these days of wanting to read more from a film writer. People seem to want to tear down movies during 'awards season' almost reflexively, as though they were candidates for the Iowa primary. But in this case, I thought the criticisms articulated well the reaction some of us have had while listening to the general tone of end-of-the-year film talk. I tried dismissing the repetitive, dismal feeling while the 'bottom' of the 2nd act kept 'bottoming'...maybe it was all to set up the cheer of the finale. But it only left time for those troubling questions mentioned here, as well as the sense that nothing new was being felt like marking time.I think If you want to see great silent work, I recommend the 'testimonies' in 'Pina', or the kids in 'The Tree of Life.' 'The Iron Lady' has been significantly criticized, but like 'Ides of March', it was all about opportunities missed. It's hard for me to believe Ryan Gosling could be talked about for best actor here...and be totally skipped over for his layered, humane work in 'Blue Valentine' last year. And the movie did squander it's Giamatti/Hoffman potential. Lastly, thank you for someone saying out loud that it was possible for an intelligent, literate person to spend half of 'TTSS" in a state of confusion...most critics make you feel browbeaten for not appreciating its 'intelligence.' I'd be interested to hear what this writer thinks are the underpraised movies of 2011.

  • josh says:

    Co-sign on almost all of these. While none were suicidally bad, they were still very disappointing. I'm baffled at all of the nominations being racked up by Ides in particular.

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