The Peanuts Movie

Charlie Brown, stuck forever between diapers and pimples, is a symbol of unfulfilled childhood ambitions. The Charlie Brown I seem to remember, through an overabundant blur of Sunday papers and seasonally-aired TV specials, always strove for conventional happiness in a half-conscious sort of way that made him irreparably unconventional. Bill Watterson’s Calvin was a boy apart: an expat from the playground, living abroad in his own imagination. Charles Schulz’s Charlie was more like a refugee. His outcast status seems as much the result of a depressive temperament as it results in a depressive temperament—an ambiguity unresolved after 65 years.

If the blockhead were ever to grow a libido, it would probably come at the price of the thick waistline and high hairline of Louis C.K., whose FX show at its critical zenith was like a sequel to Peanuts set in the adult world. Its jazzy punctuation, and skittish tone and structure, all evoke Schulz on the surface, and it has the same heart. Yet in a sort of backhanded tribute, his legacy seems less apparent in media for children and young adults, which, both in its aspirational and apocalyptic strains, fattens its audience with the notion that each individual among it is special. Good ol’ Charlie Brown has no superpowers. He isn’t much of an athlete, or a brainiac like Linus, a musical prodigy like Schroeder, or a born leader like Lucy—say what you will, but she broke the glass ceiling of bullyhood. What he has is humility, grit, and a romantic outlook: none of which will get you into Harvard.

In a culture that panders to middle-class children—as proxies to the purse strings—the normal range of behavior, where they actually live, tends to get lost. A more vivid life is not the prize of a rich imagination—like, for instance, Snoopy’s—but a savior to be waited for, a secret gift intrinsic to our nature, an excuse to show our valor in an arena that the real world cannot provide. Unfortunately, these saviors often have ulterior motives. We have resigned ourselves to a world in which one’s fantasy life is the intellectual property of one corporation or another; that’s what The Lego Movie sought to destigmatize. Peanuts is hardly realism, but the scale of Charlie Brown’s victories and defeats is in synch with that of real kids, so it reads as a common language between generations. One never outgrows Schulz’s poignancy. And the glossed-over period that the Peanuts gang lives in—not enchanted or heroic but mythic in its simplicity—has become as much a modernist device as the elegance of Schulz’s draftsmanship.

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Blue Jasmine

If Woody Allen wasn’t behind Blue Jasmine, would it have ever been made? Had I been handed the script cold, I would have assumed its author was a precocious teenage shut-in who spent his days reading headlines and nights watching TCM while his axe to grind with “phonies” was taking swings at his brain. It’s not just that the rich talk like they’re out of The Bonfire of the Vanities (which could be plausible; they’re pretty out of it, too), but the poor are out of … who knows? The Postman Always Rings Twice? Actually—to slip into lingo that Allen might be hip to—it’s kind of a gas trying to locate the “period” of this dramedy’s present-day, at least if one is perverse like me. There’s a novelty aspect to it: Anybody else’s screenplay would have been workshopped before money was forked over, stars were signed on, and “Action!” was called. It’s like a sight reading in full makeup and costume.

For anyone with a sense of justice, there’s a primordial appeal to this story: the comeuppance of The Wife of Wall Street, specifically the spouse of a Bernie Madoff figure. After a nervous breakdown, and the dissolution of life on the mountaintop, Jasmine’s buried alive by debt: so low that she has to shack up with her sister, who gets by as a grocery clerk in that Mecca of the poor and dispossessed, San Francisco. Notice that, after a mere sentence of plot description, this movie already seems tone-deaf to 2013? Ginger, Jasmine’s peasant-like sister, mentions that her boys have “What’s it called? A.D.D.?,” and boasts that her boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) “has the hots” for her. In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the absence of plausible details about modern-day life could be excused because he had an allegorical vision, just as Allen’s hermetism could be forgiven in the fantasy context of Midnight in Paris and the rarefied air of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But not in Blue Jasmine. Despite his pretensions to realism, he fails to present characters whose motives would be believable in any period—Ginger’s dalliances with Louis C.K., absurd assignations that are brushed aside by her old boyfriend, are Allen’s most heinous lapses—and this failure is coupled with the moldiest, most convenient, “coincidental” dramaturgy. Alec Baldwin, seen in flashbacks as the Ponzi-scheming husband, walks out of his marriage as if he were late for a hair cut; and the big reveal, in which Jasmine’s rosebud is whipped out, betrays that Allen’s as knowledgeable of the law as he is of human life.

And on to apostasy. Cate Blanchett, favored for Best Actress as this Fake Housewife of Fifth Avenue, is somewhat inconsistent. She’s crafty when she’s full-blown Blanchett Dubois, but suffers from having nobody to play against since the other performances (and sometimes hers) seem to have all been recorded in one lazy take. However, at her hair-trigger best—when she babysits her nephews or has her final blowup with Ginger—Blanchett invoked, to my everlasting gratitude, Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. When she calls her nephews “boys,” in my mind she is saying “fellas,” as in Don’t fuck with me, fellas!” Like Joan Crawford, Jasmine’s “true self” has collapsed under the weight of antiquated blue-blood affectations. (Blanchett deserves a nod for Best Drag Performance of the year; Jared Leto beware.) But the real loser of the Blue Jasmine blame game is Allen, in a way that’s rather poignant.

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American Hustle

If the fashions of the 1970s indicate a culture that had given in, the fashions of the 1980s indicate a culture that had given in but was pretending not to have. In the ’70s, couched in disillusionment, people weren’t hypocritical about being hypocritical; Americans indulged in new freedoms that they hadn’t yet learned to be afraid of. This wayward decade seems to be the spiritual home of the director David O. Russell, who turned 16 in 1974: the year that American Hustle takes off. Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), whose chest hair garnishes a leisure suit which is open all the way down to the gut, are two fish grooving in this brave new sea, though their sense of class is informed by an even earlier period; they fall in love over a Duke Ellington L.P.

Russell’s take on the ’70s in America differs greatly from Tomas Alfredson’s view of England during the same era in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Britain’s finest hadn’t just given in—they’d given up. For small-time con artists like Irving, who bilks money out of other small fry by way of bogus loans, and Sydney, who assists him in the imperial guise of “Lady Edith,” this is a period of market expansion—until they get busted by Bradley Cooper in curls, an F.B.I. agent named Richie Di Maso. He takes a shine to Sydney—who still talks like Edith, even if her posh accent is less convincing than the Lady Eve’s—and decides to give the pair a break if they help him snare other criminals; they—Irving less willingly than Sydney—agree to help, and their con spirals out to the highest levels of the Mafia. To Irving’s way of thinking, however, it had gotten out of hand once the trap was set on Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, N.J., whose graft for the cause of a rebuilt Atlantic City reads as corrupt to Richie but, to Irving, looks like the long game fairly played. All the while, Sydney plays them both—and herself, too.

Though very different in style and tone, American Hustle is a caper comedy with quirk baked in like The Brothers Bloom. Both take the idea of con men to Samuel Beckett extremes, and do so with self-awareness plateauing at healthy levels. But, with its roots in social realities, and in movies rooted in social realities—Bloom popped out of Wes Anderson and Fellini; Hustle Altman and ScorseseHustle attempts something more daring: Russell doesn’t only want to make a movie in the style of the ’70s masters, he wants to zero in on the sensibility that formed them. As someone whose taste in movies was born in that golden age before my birth, I can’t help but be thrilled by the spirit of his attempt. The big filmmakers of the ’70s were primarily Catholics and Jews—Russell is half-Italian and half-Jewish—and the adoration of Mayor Polito smacks of a certain form of tribalism native to the period. If The Godfather showed that the American Dream was paid for in blood, it also showed an ascendancy from Ellis Island that the sons and grandsons of immigrants could take pride in. Like the student protesters at U.C. Berkeley, their forebears were anti-establishment—but anti-establishment because they had to be. In the flattening of wealth that followed World War II, the ethnic diversity of the middle class boomed; but the aspirations were still hunky-dory Protestant in manner. In Bonnie and Clyde, the youth of a generation said “our turn”; that sentiment then rippled through the generation’s ethnic pockets. This self-identification, which can alas get mawkish, turgid, or worse, gave movies like Mean Streets some of their verve. The American Dream was rewritten in the vernacular.

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The World's End

The world’s end comes, or gets averted, about once every two weeks. Apocalyptic fatalism is like one of the n billion common, everyday, household products that could potentially give you cancer; you can’t get away from it, like you couldn’t get away from paranoia in the late 1960s. We’re a bit more self-actuated these days—we like to delude ourselves into thinking that gun ownership or CrossFit training will save us from global warming—but we keep superheroes in our back pocket, just in case. If there are means by which we can hinder mass suicide, and I think there are, they aren’t “cinematic”; and if something can’t be reduced to a soundbite, a trailer, or a click, then it can scarcely be said to exist. Pop culture aims to herp-derp us out of existence. But if end-times tropes are to be critiqued strictly as tropes, there are few people better equipped to do so than Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost. I sadly missed the Apatowpocalypse, in This is the End, but The World’s End really delivers the cynicism that doomsday consumerism deserves. It’s not the trio’s best, but it is their most caustic.

A lot of filmmakers try to mingle Larry David-style social crabbing with surreal, genre-satire waggery, but Wright is head-and-shoulders above the rest—at least above the lot that specializes in comedy. His style is like MENSA Michael Bay, with American energy and British literalism; things pop in and out of the frame like they do in old Polanski, Spielberg, Bogdonavich, Welles. Because they are made to conspire with the visuals, the Tarantinoid aperçus lose their smugness in the rush, but sneak back and snowball in the end. Wright’s movies are built. I have little doubt that much of the writer’s-room credit goes to Frost and Pegg (the latter shares screenplay credit with the director); but without Wright, the material doesn’t sing. Perhaps he gets his edge from not treating the surreal casually when his peers are still contriving to show off their hipster blasé. Pegg’s Gary King treats extraterrestrial intelligence as N.B.D. in The World’s End, but his jadedness sets him apart from his friends. There’s both a satiric point and character logic to fortify the joke: Gary’s totally misspent whatever fucks he had to give.

Actually, the movie wouldn’t work if Gary weren’t so single-minded and delusive. As it was in The Descendants, his surname is a royal joke—all claims to glory are deep in the past. Gary’s is in a pub crawl through his provincial hometown that ended prematurely when he was in high school; his posse never made it to its final destination, a bar called The World’s End. He cons the gang back together, which, with the exception of his black-duster-clad self, is homogeneously composed of London professionals. Most wary of (and wounded by) his chicanery is Andy (Frost)—a Teddy bear in a tie. In Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the previous installations of the Frost / Wright / Pegg “Cornetto Trilogy,” Pegg played the straight man to Frost’s village-idiot lumpkin, so the turnaround is refreshing without violating the team dynamic. The warmth and potential that Andy’s nostalgia projects onto his old hero prevents the audience from taking Pegg’s beautifully heartless performance at face value. I don’t know how much of this comes from the two being besties in real life; but it makes perfect sense that, after the world has ended, it’s Andy at the campfire in Mad Max garb captivating the youngins with tales of Gary. The unrepentant alcoholic is the successful suit’s muse—his personal Peter Pan. Gary graduated with Andy and yet, despite his near global failure as a human being, succeeded in never-never growing up. Though they squeeze in some growing pains for Gary, it’s Andy who ultimately represents the filmmakers’ point of view—reluctant maturity.

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