Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Illusionist and Idiocracy

Two movies that begin with the letter I...Okay, that's all I've got...

The Illusionist

The other historical magician movie. Not only does Neil Burger's The Illusionist share a lot of superficial similarities with Christohper Nolan's The Prestige (authentic period detail, superior cinematography, a turn-of-the-century setting, ideas about the nature of deception and honesty), but they suffer from the exact same plight. These are elaborate puzzle movies whose solutions are far too simple. Part of the problem may be in making a film about magicians that are intended to trick us. When you tell an audience up front that they are going to be fooled, it makes fooling them that much harder. The Usual Suspects doesn't tip you off that there's some crazy mindfuck twist coming...It's just a funny, kind of confusing gangster movie for about an hour.

Prestige still manages to be a pretty solid movie, in spite of the botched third act. It looked great, features some nice perfromances and has a few really great scenes. The Illusionist ends up relying far too heavily on a blatantly obvious, unsatisfying conclusion, and never amounts to much of anything aside from some pretty pictures.

The pictures are extremely pretty. Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope have underlit everyone with a warm, golden light, giving the faces the glow of a Rembrandt painting. Some canny, subtle references to silent film techniques likewise bring the period to life. And one shot, in which Paul Giamatti's police inspector walks urgently down a hallway lined with antlers and deer heads, is truly inspired. It comes early on, and portends to greater things than Burger actually has in mind.

In adapting Steven Millhauser's short story Eisenheim the Illusionist, he shows his hand far too early, spelling out the central mystery plainly in the first 30 minutes of the movie. Mysterious illusionist Eisenheim (Edward Norton) has brought his magic show to turn-of-the-century Vienna, interspersing his impressive effects and tricks with heady monologues about the nature of time and space. One night, he manages to impress the Crown Prince (Rufus Sewell), and only then realizes that His Highness' intended is Eisenheim's childhood sweetheart, Sophie (Jessica Biel).

Most of the action concerns the Prince's puppet, Police Chief Inspector Uhl (Giamatti), and his investigation into Eisenheim's background. A trick in which the illusionist seems to bring spirits back from the dead to speak with the audience becomes something of an obsession for not onyl Uhl, but all the citizens of Vienna. Eisenheim professes to be purely an entertainer, but if a known dead person appears on stage, how can anyone say it's simply a trick?

Saying anything else would give it all away. I fear I've said too much already. I'm tempted to still give the movie a passing grade because it looks so nice, but it would have been better served with developing the relationship between Eisenheim and Uhl or Uhl and the Crown Prince rather than focusing so intently on a twist gimmick that doesn't work. There's a lot of interesting subtext in this story, about commoners who serve and please the rich but cannot join their ranks. (Interestingly, the notion that Eisenheim is a Jew who changed his name, and that Uhl may be a Jew as well, is floated but never developed. This of course would add another fascinating layer to the relationship between these two talented but peculiar men whom fate has set into conflict.)

But the film just keeps driving on toward that silly climax, which honestly is so easy to guess that it's almost insulting. Seriously. There's a scene where the characters pretty much come out and announce the scheme that will drive the entire rest of the movie. It was so blatant, I assumed Burger meant for us to know this information, and only realized towards the end of the movie that he thought he was saving it for Act the Third. Not good.


I root for Mike Judge. He's ahead of his time. You can tell because people never appreciate his work in the present. When "Beavis and Butthead" was on television, it was the shorthand phrase for the "dumbing down of America," representative of all that was wrong with media and youth culture. But of course, it was perhaps the most spot-on satire of that very culture available at the time. Ditto Office Space, Judge's live-action directorial debut, a film that made about $20 on its initial theatrical run but is now rightly hailed as a comedy classic.

So even though I knew that Idiocracy had been a troubled, endlessly postponed production and that the studio had basically refused to advertise it because of their total lack of confidence in its quality or marketability, I still held out hope that it might be funny. "Maybe no one gets it now, but in 10 years, everyone will remember it as the best comedy of 2006."

Nope. No way. Not going to happen. This thing sucks worse than that Jump to Conclusions mat. I did not laugh one single time in the entire 87 minutes.

You can tell the film has been retooled a bit since it was first shot. (It looks pretty cheap for a science-fiction comedy, too, but I wouldn't normally hold that against it if it worked otherwise.)

A narrator comes in frequently to fill in holes in the plot and provide background about the grim future in which the film is set. He tells us that, because smart people have priorities other than breeding while stupid people have dozens of offspring, in the distant future mankind has become extremely dumb.

So when Army private Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) and prostitute Rita (Maya Rudolph) awake in the future from a scientific experiment gone haywire inour own time, they're easily the two smartest people alive. They find a chaotic world full of trash, in which everyone sits around and watches television all day and no one can speak properly.

Judge runs into many, many problems at this point. Mainly, he hasn't come up with any kind of actual narrative set in this future world. Joe and Rita wander around for a while, being chased by horribly inept police officers for no good reason. They meet an incredibly stupid lawyer named Frito (Dax Shepard). Joe wants to find a rumored time machine to get back home, but he's sidelined when tasked to save the world's crops, which will no longer grow, by the United States' loudmouth pro wrestling President (Terry Crews). But there's no real conflict. Judge has given himself total freedom from story, presumably because he wanted to focus on humorous observations and character bits. But notice that I said "presumably because," and not "because."

There aren't really any humorous observations, at least not about what it would be like to be the Smartest Person on Earth. Joe's predicament seems like pretty much what you'd expect. He's constantly frustrated because no one can keep up their end of a conversation. And almost by definition, there aren't any funny characters. How could anyone be funny? They're so dumb, they can barely speak! Frito, for example, says "fag" a lot, which I always find exponentionally more funny every time it is said in a motion picture. (For anyone reading this in the distant future, that was meant as sarcastic.)

Additionally, this future never comes alive because it's so inconsistant. What does Judge really mean by "stupid," anyway? For many characters, their retardation seems limited to poor vocabulary and an unhealthy diet. Others seem incapable of basic life functions on their own. Nevertheless, America continues to function. There is electricity and gasoline and television. There are elections and massive farms and functioning corporations. How can this be?
All this may seem like nitpicking, but it isn't. Because Judge didn't figure out what he meant by "stupid people" in the future, his movie lacks bite. Obviously, the whole thing is meant to satirize our own time. We're the stupid people of the future, watching TV all day and ignoring the consequences of our actions and hopelessly out of touch with our own history and culture. But his targets are so random and his jabs are so scattershot, it's hard to get a read on what Judge is really trying to say.

In fact, the tone started to irritate me with its lack of focus. It's like Judge is saying that we should all give up - people are dumb and they will just get moreso. Who cares?

Watching the film is sort of like having a conversation with an annoying libertarian. Not to say that there aren't principled libertarians with some amount of integrity. But a lot of the time, I get the sense that the philosophy is just an excuse for misanthropy. This person just dislikes other people and doesn't care what happens to them, so they just throw up their hands and say, "Oh well, it's a lost cause, there's nothing to be done, better to simply wash our hands of the whole thing."

That's kind of like Mike Judge's attitude coming in this movie. "Oh well, everyone's an idiot but me, humanity's fucked, might as well make a stupid comedy about it..." Right into despair, because it's so easy.

But personal philosophy aside, the movie's just kind of relentlessly pointless and obnoxious. Stale riffs on shows like "America's Funniest Home Videos" and the popularity of pro wrestling were tired when Judge was still working for Spike and Mike. And what is with any comedy spending this much time talking about growing crops? You're telling me that every single person in the future is a retard and the biggest problem they're facing is that the lettuce won't grow right? HOW DID THEY EVEN MANAGE TO PLANT CROPS IF EVERYONE'S SO STUPID?


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steve c. said...

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