“That movie is so formulaic!” – Who cares?
Ah, the trusty excuse used by film critics to justify distaste for a movie. Web legend The Filthy Critic was merciless in his lambasting of the Vince Vaughn- Jon Favreau groan-fest Couples Retreat: “This time, they’ve made a flabby, formulaic romantic comedy that forgot the romance or the comedy. Also, an important lesson for director Peter Billingsley (yes, that Peter Billingsley)…is that married couples yelling at each other is not inherently funny. It’s something we can get for free.” Rotten Tomatoes stalwart Tony Macklin was not impressed by (500) Days of Summer: “…it’s as formulaic and calculating as the Hallmark greeting cards to which it feigns superiority.”
There are many reasons to dislike these films. Sure, one could gripe about the painfully boring dialogue, or the Adam Sandlered-out trope of “uncomfortable bro” forced upon us in the yoga scenes. But who cares? The highest crime of Couples Retreat is the complete ignorance about “the principalities” of co-star Faizon Love’s past breakout as Big Perm/Big Worm. The director could have based the entire movie around a scene where Vaughn looks over at Favreau, lights up a doob, and says, “I was just BULLshittin’. And you KNOW this, Man!” (Tell me that Lester Long from Clay Pigeons isn’t the “film noir” translation of Smokey). As for (500) Days of Summer, we can castigate the stupid parenthetical title (as if I have any room to talk) although I can support the meta-irony of a film steeped in musicality making a reference to the oft-used song-title punctuation technique, especially one embraced by the likes of Van Halen and New Kids On The Block. (I hear you: if we really wanted to reference Diamond Dave-era VH, it would be called (500) Days! Of? Summer!) There was some serious potential here – what music-obsessed guy hasn’t had daydreams of a kick-ass girl being drawn to you because of taste in tunes? However, director Marc Webb, who cut his teeth at the helm of videos from noted rock goddess Ashlee Simpson, makes the same mistakes as Billingsley’s Retreat – if you show a relationship in freefall, give them something with bite and wit to say. No one wants to be reminded of that time they fought with their spouse over placement of kitchen appliances.
Notice what wasn’t the problem? The formulaic nature of the films. Complaining about a film for being “formulaic” is as pointless as complaining about heroin for being intravenous, Boob Scotch for tasting “a little breasty”, Nirvana for constantly-arising bootlegs (Outcesticide 3 is my fave), and David Foster Wallace for excessive footnotes. I think you get the point. Take a look at your favorite films, and notice how many of them follow a trusty formula. High Fidelity, Say Anything and Better off Dead all begin with the boy losing his lady, examining methods at recapturing her affection, and eventually winning her back (or someone else). Oh, sorry, spoiler alert. Just because each movie conforms to the Cusack, as sturdy a formula as it gets, doesn’t make it less watchable. Consider the audio realm. Whether it’s Ringo’s Merseybeat or Bill Bruford’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, a song’s greatness is defined by so many factors that it would take an extremely lazy journalist to cite the simplicity/complexity of the drum part as their central criticism of the music. Now if Ringo’s on the ceiling (“look at him scoot!”) and can’t even drive you to Kenny Rogers’ house, let alone play a straight 4/4, so to speak, I see the logic in bashing the formula. But when someone is kidnapped, and all kinds of craziness ensues to obtain the ransom, and we are introduced to a mess of hilariously fascinating characters, it doesn’t matter if that mother-scratcher is Jackie Treehorn or Bill Parker. So in honor of the Urban Achiever in all of us, I present the list of my favorite components of tried-and-true movie formulae, which I will, naturally, refer to as “molecules”:
1. The long and winding road. You’ve seen it a million times, most notably in O Brother Where Art Thou, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Allison Anders’ gem Border Radio. We could drive all night – Smokey and the Bandit, The Getaway, Milo and Otis… Perhaps the movie molecule with the best hit-to-miss ratio, taking to the road is a damn fine way to create the undercurrent of tension and uneasiness without resorting to hack screenwriter clichés and clunky plot devices. When executed well, the tone is set for the reality of travel: memorable conversations, failed attempts to alleviate boredom, with the occasional bizarre interruption. Zombieland, prepare to become a midnight Halloween classic.
2. Our little baby’s all grows up! While it lacks the batting average of our first molecule, there are many great films that are based on the “coming of age” formula. Some of you youngsters might not believe this, but Vaughn and Favreau used to make quality films together. Swingers worked because of how well it reflected reality for post-collegiate guys in the late-‘90s – if a woman wanted to pull back the curtain to see how a tight group of male friends banter, argue, resolve conflict, deal with sadness, and just plain exist, they could do a helluva lot worse than to watch this movie. The film realistically dealt with the self-loathing and death-spiral that results from each successive romantic and career failure, especially when they are combined (Nicki pulling a Tim Russert on Mikey’s career by recalling his attempt at a job at her coffee shop, then responding to his cathartic repeat-messages by telling him to never call again). The redemption is handled even more realistically, with Mikey noticed that the population of Dumpsville was more than just himself. As their dance-revolution concluded, the confab with Lorraine did not lead directly to wah-pedals and saxophone solos, but a promising exchange of phone numbers. Admit it – as they walked past his car, you were thinking “Don’t screw this up, Favreau!”, which made the late-night pancake session even more gratifying. We might not have known how to throw women over our shoulders, or had access to places as cool as the Dresden, but we had our own versions of those things, and that’s why it resonated so strongly.
Rushmore is another standout “grows up” film, aided by well-timed blocked-shots, ambitious science-project fakery, and gratuitous smoking. The Slums of Beverly Hills gave us great lines like Marisa Tomei’s “Do you have anything for my nerves? You know, just laying around? Seconal, Demerol, Tuinal, Valium, Quaaludes, Percocet…Pot makes me paranoid!”
When I discuss films with friends, they’ll cite Almost Famous as a great example of this formula. Great movie, yes, but I can’t quite place it within this category, because William Miller’s “evolution” was more like the graph of a first-derivative. The declining maturity of everyone around him made it appear that he was growing up, when in reality, he ended the film as the same person he was before he stepped foot into the Ben Fong-Torres funhouse.
3. Two women who speak to each other about something other than a man. Also known as the Bechdel Principle. I made a list of all of my favorite movies that feature discussions about music, politics, architecture, films, books, gambling, or hell, anything that involves intellectual debate. In damn-near every case, neither participant in the conversations were female, and if one happened to be present, she was obviously secondary to the guys. When a female friend of mine asked “Where’s our High Fidelity, or Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach version)?” I couldn’t answer her, because I don’t think there IS an answer. Of films in the mainstream side of “indie”, Ghost World gets quite close, although I remember most of Thora Birch’s cultural commentary involved Steve Buscemi (her character’s most direct musical conversation with Scarlet Johansson: in response to Scarlett’s “boner”-creating dude’s request if either of them is “up for some reggae tonight?”, she makes the “Didn’t I tell you he’s an idiot” gesture.) Michael and George Michael Bluth were directly involved in Juno’s cultural moments where she was not by herself (her “honest to blog” friend wasn’t all that deep). Dazed and Confused had a very few brief examples. Mallrats missed out by having the one Claire Forlani-Joey Lauren Adams exchange entirely about Jeremy London’s “T.S.” character.
I know what you are thinking: what about Sex and the City? Despite the promising moments within the first season of the TV show, the film regresses into the same topics that writers find “appropriate” for women. While films such as Kicking and Screaming, Metropolitan and Barcelona all had guys talking about non-brainy things, the majority of Grover and Max’s bantering did not involve shoes, handbags, dresses or pube length. Hey filmmakers – how’s about remembering that women have brains, too?
4. Walking around a beautiful city. I’ve been able to sit through some garbage because of the use of urbanity as a character. James Howard Kunstler, a curmudgeonly fellow that advocates for a new appreciation of Jane Jacobs-style urban places, says that people who live within walking distance of (or near rapid transit to) the places where they work, eat, shop and play will be healthier and happier, not to mention better global citizens. You can add that these urban places can make awful movies tolerable, while good films are lifted even higher. Among the terrible is Down To You, which Ol’ Filthy himself says “Is not as much a ‘coming of age’ story as a ‘food coming back up the esophagus’ story.” But all the shots of late-1990s New York, even the midtown-douchenozzle bar scene, allowed me to hang on until Freddie Prinze Jr. tries to kill himself with shampoo. Oh yeah, spoiler alert. Which brings us to the good. Barcelona is an obvious choice, as is the even less-imaginarily-titled Vicky Christina Barcelona (which in case you forgot where they were, and the “Travel-Porn” of the Gaudi imagery coupled with the post-siesta wine didn’t remind you, the soundtrack features a perfunctory Spanish song that repeats the word “Barcelona” about 700 times). Any Which Way You Can is another movie featuring a picturesque city as a character, although you’ll need to replace “where two people walk around” with “where two ex-prizefighters beat the living crap out of each other”. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, coupled with a wig-bearing motorcycle gang that stops feuding with Clint Eastwood long enough to profit from his bare-knuckle skills – what’s not to like? I almost forgot to mention Ruth Gordon as the shotgun-toting mama.
5. The last day of magic. I lifted this title from one of my favorite songs of 2008, a noisy piece of pop from The Kills. “We’ve only got a day (or a week) before it all ends, so let’s make the most of it.” Before Sunrise and Before Sunset both encapsulate how a time limit can brutally accelerate the cycle of emotions between two parties intrigued with one another. This movie molecule provides a steady bass line for wild and unsteady conversations, misread body language, and gloriously-bad decisions. The Befores also benefit from the walking-around-a-beautiful-city molecule, too. Another great example is Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. Two friends (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) are assigned to escort a youngster to the “brig”. Instead of speeding him to his sentence, they spend his last few days of freedom by giving him lessons in how to make it in this crazy world. Before a young Randy Quaid is sent off, he gets in fights, downs some beer, engages in “it” (how tawdry!), and ends his teenage years with a smile on his face (Several years later, his teenage daughter introduces Audrey Griswold to the joy of marijuana. Ah, the circle of life).
Next week, I’ll get to the formulae and molecules that far too often result in a terrible movie experience. You’ve been warned.