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.
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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.