Hodgepodge, Mismatch, and Wild Disproportion

Hodgepodge, Mismatch, and Wild Disproportion

Hodgepodge, Mismatch, and Wild Disproportion

Dueling satirical films about white-supremacist America, and how not to be an imbecile when criticizing Star Wars.


What if potato chips were put on sale only once every quarter-century? Imagine the crowds lined up at convenience stores on the night of the release, the fans in imitation Ruffles bags waving high their replica spuds. Old-timers would reminisce for the TV cameras about their first taste of a potato chip. Middle schoolers would whisper that you haven’t really eaten potato chips until you’ve done it high. The New York Times would commission Brooks Barnes to write a front-page article reveling in the genius of Frito-Lay, which had faultlessly restored the luster to a once-proud snack-food industry. In the midst of such gaiety, only a fool would object that potato chips aren’t really that good for you. Only an imbecile would expect people not to gorge.

I don’t intend to be an imbecile about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But in keeping with the film’s motif of unmasking—its third-most-common image, after the sight of ranked storm troopers encased in white plastic armor that evidently doesn’t protect them from anything, and saturated orange fireballs exploding against backgrounds of deep-space indigo and gunmetal gray—I will uncover a layer of feeling that might lie hidden when Han Solo and General Organa (formerly Princess Leia) pop up again on the screen.

The audience cheers at seeing these old favorites restored to them. But try peeling back the calendar to 1977, when these figures first appeared. Only three years had passed since Richard Nixon had been chased from office, two since the North Vietnamese had driven out the world’s most powerful military machine and its proxy government. I can testify that many of the fans who flocked to the original screenings of Star Wars felt they had been a part of this history, helping (if only through their attitudes and beliefs) to strike a blow against the Empire—just like the youthful, shaggy rebels in the movie, with their cool machines and higher spirituality.

Now the raffish upstarts of that first Star Wars have grown gray and careworn—and according to the story dreamed up by J.J. Abrams and his team, Han and Leia have to refight the battle against the Empire that they supposedly won some decades ago. Nothing got better. Star Wars: The Force Awakens dazzles audiences with a surface of nostalgic fun made shiny new—but beneath that mask, if you care to notice it, lurks an abyss of futility.

* * *

Call me too weak, if you will, for the Nietzschean pessimism of Star Wars, but I would much rather watch David O. Russell’s aptly titled Joy.

Factual in the broadest of strokes, fanciful in detail, Joy dramatizes the career of Joy Mangano, inventor and peddler of the Miracle Mop and other useful household items. As a fable of home-workshop tinkering and improbable entrepreneurial riches, this is Preston Sturges material and is mostly handled as such, in a style that’s rapid, hectic, and studded with bargain-basement eccentricity. (At this point in his career, Russell even has his equivalent of the Sturges stock company, at a somewhat higher above-the-line cost.) But in tone, Joy is far removed from the gleeful cynicism that was so essential to Sturges, or for that matter to Russell himself in American Hustle.

Joy is incapable of condescension, in no small part because the heroine’s doting grandmother gets to tell the story. You feel that Russell joins her in his respect for Americans who live in tiny, heavily mortgaged houses and shop at big-box stores. He also admires the determination of one of those Americans to make something of herself, even if (or especially because) her tool for doing so is a mop. In many other movies, the means of advancement would have been a kiss. But when the heroine of this Cinderella story—Sleeping Beauty, too—comes face-to-face with Bradley Cooper, Prince Charming in a sport jacket, her mind is not on romance, but rather on 300 feet of continuous cotton loop.

Fortunately, Russell in his sincerity has his thoughts on the cotton and also something more: the possibility of being oneself and connecting authentically with other people, in a society warped by artifice. In other words, Joy stars Jennifer Lawrence.

By this point in her astonishing, still-young career, Lawrence has attained a significance of her own in the public’s eyes, whether she’s shooting arrows in the Hunger Games movies, kicking her way through award shows, or giving any journalist with a working microphone a piece of her mind. She’s the woman who wins without becoming hardened, the beleaguered yet victorious beauty whose righteous indignation comes with a throaty laugh. It’s fair to say that Russell has asked Lawrence to play herself here—but only in the sense that she always rings true, effortlessly and naturally, in everything she does. In Joy, this quality turns out to be the key to success.

To show you why, Russell indulges just a little of the wigginess that endeared I Heart Huckabees to audiences (well, a few of us), beginning the film with a demonstration of the shooting techniques of soap operas. There’s no explanation for this choice; but pay attention anyway, and you’ll see how a daytime drama’s staging, if viewed from a single head-on perspective, is as crazy as the plot, until it’s been transformed by camera placement and editing into an absurdity that audiences can pretend is real. Such tricked-up images, you soon learn, are the stuff of Joy’s engulfing nightmares—until she turns them into her launch pad instead, at the film’s moment of liftoff, by stepping onto a TV studio’s turn­table as the first nonprofessional pitchwoman on the QVC channel. The phone calls pour in—because Joy has dared to come forward as herself, a real working mother mopping the floor of a plywood kitchen.

So a mop—the symbol and substance of Joy’s subservience—becomes the magic wand that frees her. Joy is the tale of one woman’s refusal to become a victim of the family that belittles her and the businessmen who are sure they can push her around. For extra fun, it is also a holiday movie—played out mostly in Northeastern slush—in which the heroine at the climax turns her face to the sky and welcomes a fake snowfall. The flakes are scraped out of a machine installed above a shop window; their purpose is to convert a display of toys into a commercial delirium. But the artifice is pretty, the urge to delight children is real, and the woman who gratefully drinks it all in knows herself to be genuine—whether she calls herself Joy or Jennifer Lawrence.

* * *

Apart from Lawrence, the dominant figure in 2015’s year-end releases was either a bear (by far the liveliest thing in The Revenant) or Samuel L. Jackson. Stalking and growling his way through the western snow of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight wrapped in a long, black gunslinger’s coat, Jackson seems to have more than a little in common with The Revenant’s fateful bear. I like him better, though, when he’s styled up in a succession of pastel and neon outfits as the genial host of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq.

Spike or Quentin: You can choose your satirist of never-ending gun violence in white-supremacist America, but either way, you get Sam. He has a lot more scope to perform in The Hateful Eight—and yet scope turns out to be precisely the quality that Taran­tino denies you in his flagrant perversity. Although he’s revived the richest and most panoramic of all movie formats, 70-millimeter Ultra Panavision, for this tale of the post–Civil War West, he has kept the landscape shots to a minimum, confining the action to the cramped interior of a stagecoach and then the single room, tense and claustrophobic, of a travelers’ way station. The story he’s concocted is a directorial locked cage from which he springs with Houdini-like panache, meanwhile rejecting the Ultra Panavision key with an ostentatious wave of his hand—or rather a lift of his middle finger.

Some filmmakers would have brought back the wide-screen technology of mid-20th-century road-show movies out of love; but Tarantino knows those pictures embodied imperial America’s standard of good taste, and he treats them with contempt. Listen to the goofy voice-over narration he uses to disrupt the portentous mood. Or look at what he does with the orchestral overture that was a traditional feature of “quality entertainment.” He makes you stare at a title card for minutes on end while you wait through the least uplifting theme music ever composed: a chromatic, metronomic eight-note ostinato by the devilish Ennio Morricone, which repeats obsessively like someone scratching his flesh raw.

Into this travesty of yesterday’s semi-­official culture, Tarantino inserts the stock figures, albeit slightly more grotesque, through which moviegoers have understood American history. You see the gruff but honest bounty hunter (played by Kurt Russell in a broad imitation of John Wayne), the proud old Confederate general (a catatonic Bruce Dern, seemingly held upright by his uniform), the frontier bad girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh, grinning defiantly through old and new streams of blood), the sheriff with a dubious commitment to the law (Walton Goggins as a smirking, unreconstructed Southern racist). Tarantino’s quasi-novel twist—only quasi, because films such as Sergeant Rutledge exist—is to make the wandering Union veteran a black man: Samuel L. Jackson, in his deepest shrewdness and most towering fury.

Nothing good can come of it when these characters are thrown together, and sure enough, nothing good comes. Such is Tarantino’s vision of American history, as summed up in the last of the film’s chapter titles: “Black Man, White Hell.” Here are sadism, vengeance, and cold-blooded murder writ as large as the movies can get; and given Tarantino’s limitless ingenuity, you can’t look away from them till the last death spasm. The Hateful Eight is coherent, thoughtful, expertly constructed, and at times horribly droll. It’s also a nasty prank, foisted on willing suckers.

Chi-Raq, by contrast, has the centrifugal exuberance of a smoothie made in a blender with the lid off. That’s as it should be: In the tradition of Aristophanes, whose Lysistrata is its declared model, Chi-Raq belongs to the genre of hodgepodge, mismatch, and wild disproportion. It mingles full-throated polemics with lewd jocularity; it stages none-too-believable scenes, then punches through their surface with speeches addressed straight to the audience. Striding forth with a broad grin, Jackson does most of this punching as the on-screen narrator, or emcee, or maybe Greek chorus, whose patter (like the great majority of the dialogue by Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee) is written in rhymed couplets.

All this will no doubt make Chi-Raq easily misunderstood by people who don’t understand movies. For those who will be satisfied only with a documentary about gang violence in Chicago, allow me to recommend Steve James’s excellent The Interrupters. For people who might enjoy a rhyming, eye-popping, dirty-minded satire that’s so desperate to save black America that it’s willing to try anything, from a burlesque of middle-class men’s clubs to a full-scale church sermon, there’s Chi-Raq.

As someone who grew up in Chicago, I took great pleasure in Lee’s unerring eye for locations. Every exterior is characteristic and evocative. I also appreciated hearing John Cusack deliver the big sermon, in a role modeled after Father Michael Pfleger. When Cusack opens his mouth, Chicago comes out. To me, that’s about all the authenticity that had to be tossed into the blender. For the rest, you’ve got the superbly self-possessed Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata; a stern and witty Angela Bassett as her intellectual mentor, Miss Helen; Jennifer Hudson at full throttle as a grieving mother; and Nick Cannon, looking very comfortable in the role of the rap artist and gang leader known as Chi-Raq. They are served both chilled and hot.

* * *

People in Anomalisa are excited to see Michael Stone, a motivational guru for the consumer-service industry, and yet he is incapable of excitement. A middle-aged man of saggy-mattress physique, he flies into rain-soaked Cincinnati to speak at a conference, checks into a nondescript hotel, cracks open the minibar, and so forth, step by routine step. His actions, initially at least, are numbing, and the man himself seems dead—maybe because he’s a puppet. Everybody around him is a puppet too, in a creepy world of stop-motion animation where cracks are visible in people’s heads and the fabrics come complete with dust. The most depressing part, though, is that the puppets are all alike—until Stone finds one who is not, and his night becomes stranger and funnier.

Written by the ever-brilliant Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa is directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, incorporates a gorgeous musical score by Carter Burwell (who initi­ated the project a decade ago), and features the voices of David Thewlis, Tom Noonan, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The latter gives the most touching rendition I have ever heard of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” followed immediately by the most ridiculous, which then segues into the Italian version. Life, silly and hopeful, overflows from her, where no life had seemed possible. I’d recommend that you go enjoy it—which is more, sad to say, than Michael Stone can do.

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