Saturday, January 03, 2009

Marley & Me and Revolutionary Road

In general, I've always had problems with movies about stultifying conformity in the suburbs, especially movies set in the 1950s. As with anything, I'm sure there are, or at least could be, exceptions to this rule (I remember enjoying American Beauty when it came out, though maybe it's just because I saw it early enough in my formative years as a film studies student that I was still open and receptive and relatively nonjudgmental about my tastes, and I might feel differently if I saw it again now), but for the most part, whenever I think of movies that have made me truly angry, they're usually movies about suburban conformity, usually set in the 1950s.

Which means that Marley & Me irritated me a bit, probably irrationally given what it's actually trying to do/say, and that Revolutionary Road made me positively seethe.

I didn't mean to see Marley & Me, but I'd misjudged the starting time of another movie I wanted to sneak into after Doubt was over, so, curious about this dog story phenomenon and interested in checking out Owen Wilson's latest bid for semi-respectability, I ducked in. And I'll say as charitably as I can that I can understand why it's been pretty well reviewed. There's a sweet grace in the tone, with just the right combination of regret, melancholy, resignation to/acceptance of the controllable momentum of one's own life, and true pleasure taken in fleeting glances at joy when they come. I understand why this is appealing, and I understand that it's a dramatization of someone's memoir, and I understand that, on a broader scale, the film's events are emblematic of legitimate choices that real people make all the time. But still, the overall impression that I was left with when the movie was over was...I hate straight white men.

Which is ridiculous! Some of my favorite people in the world are straight white men! Not to mention that I'm generally as big a sucker as they come for masculinity-in-crisis stories (ahem, my fawning over The Wrestler). But somehow, taking this story, which I can only assume is very charming in a book that one might read on the train during the morning commute, and putting it on screen changes the weight of the thing. Film has a way of universalizing the values it's dramatizing, a way of saying "this is what's important to us, this is what really matters underneath it all," perhaps no more plainly than when the movie itself purports to be humble or simple or slice-of-life (slice of whose life?). And I just wanted to gag at the uncritical, unironic cultural hegemony in this movie. Again, I know that these are real issues that real people face and that the decisions are deeply important to the people that make them, but the fact that Jennifer Aniston's character gives up her career to have babies and stay home to care for them and finds a way to convince herself that she enjoys it and finds it fulfilling despite how exhausted and miserable she clearly is felt really icky to me. But ickier still was the fact that her story wasn't even the one we were supposed to feel most sympathetic to. The movie centers around all Owen Wilson's "this is not my beautiful house / this is not my beautiful wife" boo-hooing. She repeatedly comforts him when he's depressed about his job or getting older or his place in the world or whatever. Ugh. And, of course, there's the throwaway line when Wilson's character's old college friend sees a picture of Aniston after many years apart and says, "wow, she's holding up really well." The character's supposed to be a womanizer, and we're supposed to feel sort of sorry for how empty his life is since he doesn't have any stable relationships, but come the fuck on. Don't sneak that shit into a movie that dads are taking their little girls (and little boys) to. Luckily, I find Wilson's persona pretty reliably charming or I probably would've hated the movie much, much more.

Aniston, though, seemed kind of miscast. She's lovely in the early scenes of their marriage, but--and I don't mean this in any kind of tabloidy, unintentional cinema verite way--she just doesn't have the right kind of warmth as an actress (yet?) to convincingly play a mother of three. I loved her in The Good Girl and Friends with Money, so it's not a matter of not thinking she's a very capable and winning actress. There was just a weird stiffness about her in the second half of the movie.

Oh yeah, and the dog dies. I won't apologize for the spoiler because if you didn't see it coming, you should be punched in the face.

So, I hated Marley & Me because it celebrates everything wholesome and traditional about family life, while trying to have it both ways by paying lip service to the characters' "am I ready for all this?" and "is that all there is?" doubts, but then I also hated Revolutionary Road because it's utterly condescending about the same.

It's always really unclear to me who these 1950s suburban conformity movies are for. Are they supposed to shock contemporary people living a life of suburban conformity into the realization that their very existence is hollow and meaningless? Are they supposed to flatter supposedly hip and sophisticated urban audiences into congratulating themselves for having escaped all that (while probably succumbing to bland conformity of another stripe--have the right opinion on the right wine, listen to NPR, go to these kinds of movies)? Are they supposed to shed a light on the shocking-to-exactly-no-one notion that the American dream often fails people, that the post-war era didn't deliver on all its shiny promises? Maybe I'm missing some greater artistic import in these movies or being willfully daft about how the '50s milieu serves a purpose/shorthand as a genre unto itself. Please help explain it to me if I am. But, I can't help but feel like, at some point, these movies are necessarily going to be insulting somebody in some way.

I found it fairly offensive for Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio to be making an Important Cinematic Statement about the perils of living a life of mediocrity. I'm of course not anti-Hollywood--the only way The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could successfully do what it was trying to do was to use the hugeness of Brad Pitt's movie star presence and our familiarity with his face and body as a special effect unto itself, and that was maybe the only thing I appreciated about the movie--but there is an uncomfortable residue left behind when actors of that stature end up attacking, with whatever good intentions, the basic choices and lifestyle of a large part of their audience.

I haven't read Yates's novel, so I don't know how some of the plot points function there, but the glaring obviousness of much of the story was just as offensive. Again, maybe I'm missing the point, but really--these are the places the story is going to go? This is the truth-teller character you're going to let be our Greek chorus? This is the big final shocking situation you're going to culminate with? I'm all for the skillful use of archetypal characters and story lines, but...the tropes just didn't seem too skillfully used here. It was all very self-congratulatory and pandering.

Winslet's performance is competent but by the numbers. She does look amazing, and not just in the immaculately well-tailored period costumes. She's aging into her face exquisitely, though she's a bit skinnier than she probably should be. DiCaprio, on the other hand, still looks distractingly boyish. I guess that probably works in his favor here, giving an extra ounce of tragedy to this idea of a man surrendering to lockstep conformity before he's had much of a chance to know anything different. But, I did like the sexy young secretary (played by Zoe Kazan, who looks a bit like Kristen Schaal) and the fact that there was a disclaimer in the final credits that the filmmakers received no kickbacks from the tobacco industry for all the onscreen smoking.

I'm not exactly sure why these movies rile me up so much. I guess, at the bottom of it all, they just don't square with my experience of the world. Do I think the suburbs can be a soulless, deadening place to live? Of course; I'm infinitely grateful not to be living there myself now. I also pretty fundamentally believe, though, that everybody's doing the best they can. Life is what it is, and people make the best choices they can make given the circumstances, and even if they're vaguely unhappy or--gasp!--even slightly tacky, most people living in the suburbs are still really good, decent humans. Is there no way to effectively dramatize these two seemingly opposed ideas, with compassion and wit and respect and intelligence? However, I also think it's important to find a way to expose people to the lifestyles and values of all different kinds of communities, to give equal weight to stories that break out of that constricting, insular habit of only telling stories about "ourselves" (however we define "ourselves"). Getting used to peacefully coexisting with people who might share nothing other than simple physical proximity is, to me, one of the great lessons available via urban living. And for those who cannot, do not, or choose not to live in the city, I think they're owed the option to see films that tell well-made, accessible stories about, well, about something other than straight white men. Maybe it's good for me to take these occasional trips to the suburbs, though, if that's what I need to get fired up about my own priorities again.

3 comments:

coffee buzz said...

Marley and Me is money to a great extent because Jennifer Aniston is money; Owen Wilson is... not so much

prs said...

RE: Revolutionary Road

Typically, I agree with what you're saying about movies and their "penetrating" looks into the "dark side" of suburbia, but I really enjoyed RR, mostly for the black comedy and the performances. But I don't think suburbia is the only thing the movie is attacking. What are your thoughts about the gender roles? There's a lot of talk about LDiC's manhood and KW seemed unable to breathe through most of the movie.

Michael O'D said...

"It's always really unclear to me who these 1950s suburban conformity movies are for. Are they supposed to shock contemporary people living a life of suburban conformity into the realization that their very existence is hollow and meaningless? Are they supposed to flatter supposedly hip and sophisticated urban audiences into congratulating themselves for having escaped all that (while probably succumbing to bland conformity of another stripe--have the right opinion on the right wine, listen to NPR, go to these kinds of movies)? Are they supposed to shed a light on the shocking-to-exactly-no-one notion that the American dream often fails people, that the post-war era didn't deliver on all its shiny promises?"

That's very nicely put. I always have mixed feelings about reading a thoughtful insight like this regarding I topic I've been ruminating on but haven't really explored through conversation, reflection, or writing of my own. On the one hand, I feel a little guilty that someone else articulated so well my own thoughts for me. But on the other, I'm grateful that there are smart people out there, and that I have the good taste to read (or in this case, befriend) them.