One Night at McCool’s (2001)

Directed by Harald Zwart

I hate to be prissy about it, but I think there are certain things you do and don’t do in stories. And I think you often find artists struggling with this.

There is a tension between what artists want to say in order to reveal truth in their work, and what structure and genre demand. When they don’t conform you get a story that doesn’t work. At least not with most audiences. There is a sense of dissatisfaction.

This probably sounds a bit high-falutin when discussing a movie like One Night at McCool’s but this is the problem with the movie. A story is a partnership between the artist and the audience. In a sense, they are co-creators. So when a story fails to take the audience into account, it fails.

To be more clear, Shakespeare’s plays unfold a certain way – every time. If it is a tragedy, the story moves from order to chaos. (A nice, comfortable world goes to hell in a handbasket as the story unfolds to is tragic conclusion – like King Lear, Hamlet, etc.) With comedy (and the romances), the story moves from chaos to order. (A troubled, confused world moves to a happy ending, for lack of a better phrase, like Much Ado About Nothing.)

In addition, in order to get an audiences’ participation in a story, it must have characters to identify with. They can be flawed – in fact, it’s usually necessary for them to be flawed – but they have to have some emotional element the audience can attach itself to in order to carry them along and be involved with the story.

This is where One Night at McCool’s falls on its face. While most of the characters can make us laugh with their comic situations and actions, there are really no characters we can genuinely care about. The closest we come to characters like these are Liv Tyler’s character and Matt Dillon’s. But in the end, Tyler’s character proves to be a cold bitch. (This is a bit of a surprise since through most of the movie the performance suggests a kind of naiveté and innocence – apparently this isn’t what was suppose to come across.) With Dillon’s character, we see a chump who keeps getting kicked right to the end.

Which leads to the structure problem – the resolution fails to meet what an audience expects. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the Hollywood happy ending, but moving from chaos to chaos resolves nothing for an audience and leaves it feeling tremendously unsatisfied.

This is often a problem with satire which, ultimately, is what One Night at McCool’s is. This is also why I generally dislike satires. They’re too much about what an artist wants to say and not enough about telling a story well.

In McCool’s, everything leading up to the last 10 minutes is too comedic. It’s too light and funny to suddenly go south at the end like it does. It’s not surprising that the original “depressing” ending (see the DVD’s deleted scenes) was toned down. But it should have occurred to the filmmaker’s that the problem with that ending was not that it was “too depressing, but that it was depressing at all. Even toned down, it looks like something belonging to another movie, not to the movie the audience has been watching.

Compare this movie to a Garry Marshall film (Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries). You may find his films a bit light and frothy, but his sense for the type of film he is making (a comedy) and how it needs to resolve in the end, is perfect. The movie that McCool’s wants to be (based on its ending) has to begin with far less distress. It needs to build to that distress and have progressively darker moments leading up to its ending for an audience to feel the ending is “true.”

Also (as pointed out in Roger Ebert’s review), the kind of movie McCool’s seems to want to be (through all but the last 10 minutes or so) is a screwball kind of comedy, which needs lots of action. The artifice of the film, the several characters recounting the story to others, keeps bringing the action to a halt. In other words, the movie wants desperately to say something rather than to show something. This is not good in comedy.Or any story, for that matter.

So … One Night at McCool’s, despite some good moments, is an unsatisfying movie. It’s wrong-headed and there are too many elements that simply don’t work properly. To be the movie McCool’s seems to want to be requires a great deal more artistry and thought than what the film has behind it.

(And this doesn’t even touch on the movie’s dubious theme — men think with their groins; women are manipulative.)

© 2001 Piddleville Inc.

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