How one romantic comedy could have been fixed

It doesn’t seem right to call this a romantic comedy but that is how most would refer to it. Probably the most frustrating thing about it is that it could have been a good romantic comedy. It had the ingredients. It had the actors. So what went wrong? Continue reading

Music and Lyrics: It’s supposed to be light

The movie Music and Lyrics is a very light romantic comedy. That is all it aspires to be. Yet some of the reviews I’ve seen of it seem to dislike it for this very reason. I’m not sure why. What might their expectations be? Every romantic comedy will be The Philadelphia Story?

They’re dreaming if they expect that. I prefer to judge movies based on what they are and what they try to be.

There are types of movies I don’t like and only rarely do I enjoy films that fall into those categories. But disliking something and finding fault with it are two different things. I don’t particularly like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frankly, it puts me to sleep. But I’m not about to say it’s a bad movie. I know it’s a very good one. I just don’t like it much.

Not that Music and Lyrics is in the same league as 2001. But it doesn’t try to be. It’s just a light film. And I wrote a review of sorts of it:

“Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) use to be in a 1980s pop band that was briefly popular with a few hits. His writing partner, who wrote the lyrics, went on to be a solo star and Alex faded into obscurity until the inevitable revival came along. Now he lives off his former fame playing fairs, conventions and other small venues – though that, too, is now drying up …

There is more to the movie Music and Lyrics but this is the heart of it. It’s a light, romantic comedy – very much a Marc Lawrence kind of thing – and it’s great fun to watch. I think it’s one of Lawrence’s better films and also one of Grant’s better performances, though he basically plays Hugh Grant. But I tend to like that …”
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How do you make movies about nice people?

Having been the really big little movie of a year or so ago, Juno (2007) hardly needs another review and so, other than to say I liked it a lot and consider it one of the better movies of the last few years, I’m not going to review it.

But I’d like to muse a while on something Juno does that I think is very difficult to do and very uncommon. It’s a movie about nice people. In fact, to the best of my recollection, everyone in the movie is a nice person. How do you make a movie about a nice guy (or gal)? And how do you make one where every character is a nice person?

Bad guy roles are often the ones actors (and directors) like to get a hold of: it’s much more interesting and, I suspect, easier to play. There’s more to work with because there is more to explore, or so it seems. Not to take anything away from Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, but there are more ways into and more avenues to examine in a character like that as opposed to, for example, Victor Navorkski (Tom Hanks) in The Terminal.

So I have a fascination with movies that feature “nice guys” – at least, those where I think the movies, and particularly the roles, work. For example and comparison, look at one of the nice guy roles in a movie like The Core (2003), Bruce Greenwood as Cmdr. Robert Iverson. It’s about as colourless and bland as you could imagine. Yet with few, if any, opportunities, Greenwood makes him one of the more interesting and compelling characters in the movie. No, it’s not a huge role – the character is a minor one.

Now look at the thankless role Bill Pullman has as President of the United States in Independence Day (1996). In that case, the role is equally bland, there is just as little to work with and what ends up on screen is bland. In both cases the “nice guy” is supposed to be interesting because he’s heroic – and that’s just about all. Yet Greenwood manages, somehow, to find some shading to make his character a bit more than cardboard.

In most movies, nice guy heroes are pretty one dimensional. What goes on around them is what engages, if it engages at all, and often what surrounds them and grabs us is the bad guy, or at least the troubled character. Heroes are often, in these cases, “troubled” – they have some character flaw because, well, they’re darned boring otherwise (see Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard.

How, then, do movies like Juno or The Terminal manage to make good stories that feature nice people?

For one thing, they are romantic comedies. In those movies, while there may be a “bad guy” kind of character – a spouse, significant other, a boss etc. – the movie’s drama isn’t the conflict with “the bad guy” but situational, between two nice people. We want the conflict resolved so the two of them can get together.

But it seems to me that when a movie that features nice people works best it is almost always ensemble work. Yes, one or two characters are the focus, but the movie is hugely dependent on the characters surrounding them – almost always other nice people. (Think of those classic Hollywood movies like The Philadelphia Story or My Man Godfrey or Sabrina.)

As much as Ellen Page as Juno is the focus of Juno, and as good as her performance is, the movie is nothing without the ensemble – Paulie, Juno’s parents, the adopting couple, Juno’s friends. And they all share in common, with Juno, “niceness” and (for lack of a better word), quirkiness.

While we refer to it as quirkiness, however, is it really? I suppose so but, in the movies that work, it’s also character – there are reasons for the quirky behaviour. I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere not having distinct characteristics without being a blank slate.

Everyone we know has characteristics like this. Usually, the closer we are to someone – a friend, a family member – the more aware we are of their unique characteristics. It’s often what we love about them (and what we find annoying, at the same time). In movies, however, they are sometimes emphasized, or at least focused upon, because they lend themselves to humour and more importantly to character.

In a movie like The Station Agent (2003), it’s a small ensemble – just three, really. But that’s what makes the movie work – three nice people and each distinguished by their unique characteristics.

In a certain sense, you could say the successful portrayal of niceness is always (as far as I know) communal. While there are characters that are the film’s focus, it’s the community that supports them and the community – the ensemble – we’re drawn to, and this communal aspect is something romantic comedies do very, very well.

And it’s all so nice.

You can’t see the same movie twice

This is not an injunction to only watch new movies. It’s a reference to the old Heraclitus thing about the same man never being able to enter the same river twice: the river has changed and so has the man.

So it is with movies. You can watch the same movie but you won’t see the same movie. For one thing, you know how it ends. (That is, assuming you stayed awake through the entire film.)

Am I stating the obvious? Yes. But I do so in order to explain why I will watch a given movie more than once – sometimes many times. While it’s not true of every movie, some movies offer up something new with each viewing.

I know people who think it’s madness to watch a movie twice. In some ways, I agree with them. Some movies aren’t worth seeing twice. There just isn’t enough to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad movies, not worth watching. Many of them are, if only for the spectacle or humour or pacing. But once seen, they are quickly forgettable. It doesn’t invalidate the experience. It just means they aren’t memorable.

Some movies almost become entirely new movies when seen a second time. To take a rather extreme example, there is no way you can watch The Sixth Sense a second time and have the same experience. The first viewing is entirely dependent on not knowing the ending. The second time, when you know the end, it becomes a different experience. In part, you may watch with some detachment in order to see how you were set up for that ending. For me, part of watching The Sixth Sense more than once is to enjoy the atmosphere the movie creates. It’s a bit like a Polanski movie in the way mood is such an important element.

Of course, not every movie has such an ending. Others are much more about reaching an expected conclusion, as in a romantic comedy. You know how it will end. What makes it fun to watch is seeing how they get there (not to mention the performances).

The Philadelphia Story is a good example of that. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen the movie but I return to it again and again because it always makes me laugh, always makes me feel good, and always fascinates me by the exceptional performances of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn (individually and together).

Often, that is my reason for watching a movie two or more times. Something inside me wants to repeat the experience of that first viewing, even though I know it will never be the same. But in many cases, it’s darned close. (I love watching Legally Blonde for that reason. It continues to be delightful, although it had a surprise element the first time I saw it because I had low expectations and was completely taken off guard by its cleverness and charm.)

Some movies take on a nostalgic quality depending on how old they are and how old you are/were. Recently, I was showing a friend some of the DVDs in my collection and she was almost giggling with delight because she saw movies like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire. They were movies just old enough to be connected with her younger self, pre-marriage, pre-children, and were remembered as both good movies and as movies that held fond memories for her. (Sometimes people get a kick out of the hair and clothes of a particular period.)

I watch movies for a number of reasons and, usually, those reasons differ day to day because my mood is different from one day to another. Frankly, some days I just want to see a simplistic comedy or action film or spectacle kind of movie. Other days, I’m much more in the mood for something with a good deal more meat to it.

But to get back to the business of watching a movie more than once … There are any number of reasons for doing so, and movies (like us) change over time. No, not literally, not objectively. But we never see anything objectively. Everything we see is filtered through who and when we are, our experiences and moods. It is a subjective experience even though we may, sometimes, agree with one another about a film.

One last example … Years ago, probably around when it was first released, I watched and enjoyed Blade Runner. Not long ago, Blade Runner: The Final Cut was released, so I picked it up and watched it. I couldn’t tell you what the differences were with the first one, which I initially saw long ago. In many ways, it was like seeing a movie for the first time, though not really because I had a general idea of what the movie was about and had certain images planted in my head. Hell, I knew what a replicant was.

The point, however, is this: I absolutely loved it when I watched The Final Cut. That wasn’t long ago – maybe a few months? Anyway … I watched it again a day or two ago. And … it did nothing for me. I actually had some sense of anachronism – though a futuristic film, it seemed to have, if not an 80s look and feel, an 80s interpretation of what the future would be like.

Why did it play a bit flat for me this time? There could be a number of reasons. It might be as simple as, it was too soon after seeing it the first time (this latter, Final Cut, version). It might have been that I just wasn’t in the right mood for that kind of movie. Though playing flatly for me, I could still see all its strengths. It remains a remarkable movie. But I couldn’t surrender to it this time.

Though the same movie, it wasn’t the same movie. Both I and the film had changed.


My review of Jerry Maguire, linked above, is pretty lame. I’ve watched the movie a few times since, including just the other day, so I hope to update or replace that review with something a bit more … let’s say, substantial.)