Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wrestler/Frost/Nixon: 2 films, 1 problem

It's funny how* the two Oscar-nominated films hitting DVD shelves today suffered from, essentially, the same problem -- one that kept them in the good-not-great category (and, consequently, provided one more reason why 2008 was pretty eh as a movie year).

*/Life turns out/The odds of faith in the face of doubt/Camera one! ... Jeez, who else remembers that song from like eight years ago? Anyone? Just me? OK.

Those two are Frost/Nixon and The Wrestler, a Best Picture nominee and a critical darling (although F/N didn't do so badly with the scribes, either).

And yet ... consider me underwhelmed. Sure, the acting is great in both -- Frank Langella (F/N) and Marisa Tomei (Wrestler) both deserved their nominations, and Mickey Rourke (Wrestler) would have won Best Actor if the Academy hadn't been too busy playing politics.

But about that storytelling ...

Let's go with F/N first -- one that stirred my fellow journalists with its portrayal of a fluff TV guy who somehow extracted the Big Confession from Richard Nixon long after he left the White House.

(The Economist with the photo)

As a (semi) true story, it's fascinating. You really root for the David Frost character (played competently by Michael Sheen*) to beat the odds and get the bombastic Nixon (Langella) to offer much more than musings on his time in office. Also, Nixon is portrayed in an unusually sympathetic way -- which might not align with one's political leanings, but at least it's different.

*Not to be confused with Martin Sheen, not to be confused with Martin Freeman, not to be confused with Morgan Freeman, not to be confused with aging stock car driver Morgan Shepherd.

The issue, though, is storytelling. Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan breeze through the proceedings with little originality. All the narrative rhythms -- the highs, the lows, the scene in the backyard where Frost tells his crew, "If you're not with me on this, then leave!" -- all of it felt so ... ordinary. We know Frost will get the Big Confession, so why try to play with our emotions like that*? Why not eschew conventions, like a certain other TV journalist movie did?

*One more complaint: For God's sake, Ron ... KEEP THE CAMERA STILL. This is David Frost we're dealing with, not Jason Bourne.

And then there's The Wrestler ...

(/film with the assist)

Among other things, Darren Aronofsky's relatively straightforward movie about a pro wrestler seeking redemption (in his career, in his love life, with his estranged daughter), received praise for not being formulaic. I disagree.


Sure, the film's ending it's not the Hollywood happy one everyone might expect, but it's formula of a different kind. Instead of fairy tale, it's predictable tragedy. And almost every frame of the film points in its direction, seeming to follow a by-the-numbers story pattern. The conclusion, to me, seemed as calculated as Slumdog Millionaire's happy ending.

d. It is written.

And although some preceding parts are terrific -- the first (and less violent) scene in the ring was among the best in '08 -- several other elements are as familiar as pro wrestling is fake: The estranged daughter. The stripper with a heart. The day on the boardwalk. The take-this-job-and-shove-it moment. Been there, seen it.

Do they ruin The Wrestler? No. Nor did F/N's issues render it bad. They just needed something different, something more, to reach greatness. Instead, each took an easier path to make their points.

Really, that last sentence pretty much sums up (most of) the films of 2008.

Paging 2007 ...

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