Milking the morose
Movies are not always an escape from hard times
By Ivor Davis 01/15/2009
Gloom. Doom. Tragedy. And we’re not talking about the economy. Death and despair are the twin themes of a whole bunch of Hollywood’s most recent offerings, as 2008 closed with what was one of the least merry new years in entertainment history. Just take a look at what’s playing at your neighborhood Cineplex; it makes for dismal viewing.
The conventional wisdom used to be that in economic hard times, Hollywood’s mission was to cheer us up. In the depths of the depression, while FDR was promising us happy days around the corner, Hollywood dished up Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire tapping their way to happiness and taking us with them.
The real world may have been bleak, but movies helped us forget. Thankfully, Hollywood is preparing to make good on its promise to entertain us through the hard times in 2009, even though the majority of films currently on-screen or set for upcoming wide release are giving audiences extra justification for antidepressant prescriptions.
In Revolutionary Road, those Titanic lovers Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are together again, but don’t think for a moment they’re serving up another romantic tale. This time they’re a surburban 1950s couple ripping each other apart amid the green lawns of Connecticut. The movie, based on the cult novel by Richard Yates, has few smiles and even less hope. The acting is superb and both may well get Oscar nods, but you’re liable to walk out of the theater wanting to slit your wrists.
Winslet shows up again opposite Ralph Fiennes in The Reader, another gloomy tale set in post-World War II Germany and based on Bernard Schlink’s 1995 novel. Her old boyfriend shows up 10 years after their affair, to discover the woman he was besotted to is now facing charges of Nazi war crimes.
Two other World War II tales are equally bleak. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a hard-to-watch tragedy in which the audience is encouraged to become fond of a small boy even though he’s the son of a concentration camp commandant. The boy meets another kid the same age who is a captive in the camp, and they become friends. Then the film climaxes with both boys dying in the gas chamber. Try going out for dinner after that one.
Defiance with Daniel Craig tells the story of a band of World War II partisans waging a bloody campaign against the Nazis in occupied Poland: innocent victims, senseless death, more good guys going under and misery to spare.
In Good, Viggo Mortensen plays a l930s literature professor with a theory about euthanasia. Much to his horror, he discovers that the growing Nazi regime wants to use him and his theories to suit its deadly propaganda.
In Milk, hot contender for best actor Oscar Sean Penn turns in a powerful performance as the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was murdered in the 1970s by a gay-hating ex-cop and fellow supervisor. Milk is a good guy, a reforming politician, so naturally he has to be disposed of.
Then there’s Mickey Rourke — with his destroyed face, which in itself is a misery to contemplate — playing a sad, bloated hulk of a guy looking for some kind of redemption in The Wrestler.
“I’m a broken-down piece of meat,” he tells the daughter he has abandoned. “I don’t want you to hate me.”
Pretty depressing stuff. And his life goes from bad to worse.
If you think animated films are usually good for a smile or two, think again. Waltz With Bashir is a dark and wildly inventive animated documentary from Israeli film director Ari Folman. It chronicles the nightmares of Israeli soldiers who fought
in the battle for Lebanon in the mid-1980s, then stood by as silent witnesses to a genocide carried out by the Christian Phalangists against Palestinians in the Lebanese refugee camps. It’s pretty rough stuff.
Doubt based on the John Patrick Shanley hit play, has the formidable Meryl Streep as a stick-in-the-mud nun, going for the throat of a priest played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Here the issue is pedophilia, but the driving rain, cold dinners and grim expressions are enough to fuel an Ingmar Bergman film festival.
Even the last James Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, was overripe with death, violence and destruction.
So what gives? Revolutionary Road Director Sam Mendes, who is married in real life to leading lady Winslet, downplays the depressive nature of his movie.
“It is a dark movie,” he says, “but I wouldn’t call it depressing. For me, it was a great romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet or On the Waterfront or A Streetcar Named Desire. They are not depressing movies. In fact, when you see something done well, it becomes uplifting.
For Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler, despite its grimness, is also upbeat. And in a strange way the story mirrors Rourke’s own devolution from star to near deadbeat. While “Ram” Robinson, his screen character is headed for a dead end, the Curious Case of Mickey Rourke has had its bright spots.
“There were small things that saved me,” recalls Rourke. “Sean Penn went out of his way to give me a day’s work on The Pledge. [Sylvester] Stallone saw me in a restaurant one night when I could hardly pay for my fucking spaghetti and put me
in Get Carter. Tony Scott put me in Domino and [Robert] Rodriguez in The Mexican something or other [Once Upon a Time in Mexico]. It’s a slow journey back. You do whatever you can to survive.”
Of course, there are still people in the entertainment industry who remember how the business got its name, and they will be showering moviegoers with uplifting, charming and fast-action fare in the months to come. Meanwhile, if you’re tired of suicides and murders, child killings and holocausts, there’s always Yes Man with Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories or even the somewhat more upbeat romantic antics of Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman in Last Chance Harvey.
They may not be Ginger and Fred, but for now they’ll have to do.