'The Ultimate Bad Review'
If our political parties insist on producing bad show business, then the least we should demand is that Hollywood make good movies. Yet who this August could click off the TV, open the newspaper and locate a refuge from the conventions in the air-conditioned dark? This has been one of the shabbiest movie summers in memory--a stretch as desolate as a beach closed by the Board of Health.
Still, out of habit, people make the trek, and while remaining fully dressed poke at the debris that's washed up. There's always something to be admired in this old boot or that chunk of scrap metal, decomposing amid the syringes and jellyfish. Is Space Cowboys amiable and unpretentious? Sure. Does Scary Movie provoke a few laughs? You bet. And X-Men is in focus, all the way through. So we convince ourselves, almost, that we're having fun, for lack of anything better to do. If the political conventions were good television--if they showed the juicy stuff, such as deal-cutting and money-passing--then maybe we'd have better choices, and not just in entertainment. Instead, we've reached the point where John Waters has to drop the avuncular pose he spent the last decade cultivating and once more frolic through the trash. By doing so in his new opus, Cecil B. Demented, he's made the summer's liveliest movie and, by extension, put on America's most vital political show.
But first, a glance at our most dispiriting current show: Bryan Singer's X-Men, an effects-laden movie translation of the cult Marvel comic. It's a picture that took in $100 million in its first two weeks in release and got respectful notices from a few reputable critics, which is reason enough to flip it over with a stick. And what do we find underneath? The Republican National Convention.
This year, the Republicans put on camera a parade of black, Latino, female and gay delegates. To what end? To make everyone feel easier about the party leadership, which is pretty thoroughly white, Anglo, male and straight. In much the same way, X-Men begins with a plea for tolerance for marginalized people: mutants in this case, whose uncanny and sometimes disgusting traits make them social outcasts. Playing to the fear and anger of normals, a slickly groomed US senator has introduced a bill that would require all mutants to be registered. As if the poor creatures weren't suffering enough! Look at Rogue (Anna Paquin), a pretty teenager who draws the life force from anyone she touches and who must therefore exist without human contact. Singer directs us, none too gently, to identify with Rogue, knowing that anyone who's survived adolescence has also, at some point, felt like a weirdo. But then, in casting his entire audience as mutants, Singer does not delve into alienation but instead practices flattery. Rogue gets to be part of a supercool team, which lives in luxury and is led by no less of a benevolent dictator than Patrick Stewart. And what is the most pressing goal of his X-Men team? To promote tolerance for normals.
No sooner do we know about the threat against mutants than we're asked to ignore it--because the immediate mission of the X-Men is not to save themselves but to defend the straight population from bad chromosomal deviants, under the not-so-benevolent dictatorship of Ian McKellen. First the good mutants encourage moviegoers to imagine themselves as exceptional; then they allow viewers to leave the theater feeling protected, and even justified, in normality.
At another moment, I might have described this strategy as an instance of having-it-both-ways, the art at which Hollywood has always excelled--and if the action in this case is fitful, the acting semaphoric, the narrative movement clunky and the plot ultimately self-canceling, that would merely mean that Hollywood isn't what it used to be.
But X-Men stinks. As its first gesture, it introduces the McKellen character in his teenage years, as a survivor of the Nazi death camps. This means that Singer has not just raised the specter of intolerance in order to reaffirm the existing order (with all inequities intact). Once again, as in Apt Pupil, he's used the Holocaust as a plot gimmick. I can think of no better image for the moral vacuity of this action--for its isolation from a real world, with real responsibilities--than the principal motif of the X-Men production design: Repeatedly, the film presents you with big, imposing sets that feature a geometric solid floating within an enormous void.