The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys spells summer like a curly straw in a cocktail. Scrambling together private-eye tropes with the counterculture is, by now, an old and venerable sport for the brightest minds in the business. I wrote about the subgenre last year, citing the continuity of hipsterism from Chandler to Vietnam. The detectives are only cosmetically different from Humphrey Bogart and other forebears; it’s the world that is perceived to have changed. In the post-’60s ecosystem, the P.I. is the patsy, the Establishment is the perpetrator. Holding the Establishment accountable is like betting against the house. You might win the battle, but the war rages on.

Problem is, we’re coming up short on revelations. P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is this movie’s nearest neighbor, was a postmortem on clichés that are old enough to stink like truths. Groovy trip, but still a trip. It butt up against the Establishment only to reaffirm its unknowability. Shane Black, who directed The Nice Guys, isn’t looking for truths he couldn’t find, concealed as they are behind an Establishment firewall. Hippie grievances, for which there is little evidence that the filmmaker feels much sympathy, are sweetened into an anachronistic whine. (Even though we’re supposed to be in L.A., in 1977, those knucklehead protesters should know that we’ll fix the smog problem eventually.) For Black, the counterculture clichés are alive and wellto the point: they are alive. The movie doesn’t aspire to that level of thought that freezes fusty clichés into knee-jerk despair, so the whole thing melts in one’s mouth like a daiquiri. It’s a slurper.

Part of its sweetness comes from Black throwing another genre into the blender, the buddy movie. (N.B.: He wrote Lethal Weapon.) This probably seems like less of an adjustment than it is; having a partner sucks the bitter venom out of the gumshoe, the ur-loner of American cinema. The partners are Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, divinely paired and raising their own Nancy Drew (Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter, played by Angourie Rice). The plot is hardly worth mentioning—a genre staple, going back to The Big Sleep—though I’ll register my weariness at seeing the porn world thrown in, as it is whenever so much as a leisure suit is in wardrobe.

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Man of Steel

Man of Steel isn’t bad for a superhero blockbuster—which is to say that it does a good job of not being terrible despite the twin handicaps of having Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder attached to it. Their movie is a work of popcorn theology—supersized, with extra butter, and a couple pillars of salt; but, as its faith is as widely practiced and sanctioned as any in our culture today, its message is as worthy of scrutiny as that of a televangelist. It’s no secret that the ur-hero, who came to Earth from Krypton to save us from a fallen angel named General Zod, has been resubstantiated as a Christ figure. His conception was the opposite of immaculate: Kal-El is the first of his kind in centuries to be born of copulation rather than bred into a destiny like his scientist father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), and Krypton’s generalissimo Zod (Michael Shannon). When the advanced planet, starved of resources, blows up, Kal floats down the Nile to Kansas in his space bassinet, and is raised by a farmer named Kent (Kevin Costner) with a bumper crop of moral fiber. Kal (Henry Cavill), whose name is anglicized to Clark, has godlike powers in this new environment, but a hypersensitivity to it, too. His Joseph figure teaches him restraint for his own safety’s sake—humans aren’t ready for the Second Coming; we don’t even have a cross of kryptonite to nail him to. The way he hangs around truck stops during his post-high school years, if Clark wasn’t a closet superhero, I’d expect this saintly lumberjack to be a closet something else. But he’s essentially a free-agent Good Samaritan, without branding. When Zod and his junta, exiled from Krypton and thus its only other survivors, arrive on Earth, Clark has to save his adopted people from his bloodthirsty compatriots, who are angling to strip-mine our planet and turn it into a new Krypton. Like a transplanted sports fan, Superman is torn between home teams.

What Man of Steel makes clear, which previous iterations of this franchise (which dates back to 1938) may have glossed over, is that doing the right thing is a choice. Granted, I need to brush up on my Bible, but the immediate parallel that occurs to me isn’t in Scripture, but Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. When, way back in the Captain America period, Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, it was as much about choice as being drafted into World War II was. It was about duty. No questions asked. Virtually all superhero movies are about choice on some level, but the immaculate, unearthly Superman may be the only one for whom this solemn peroration is appropriate. Nolan’s Batman was a mortal in the real world, even if the director gave no evidence of familiarity with it; Nolan’s Superman is in a real-ish world, too—but, here, the setting is even less stylized than Gotham, and serves as a contrast between men and this god among them. Or at least it should. There is an idea behind Nolan and David S. Goyer’s conception, and that counts for something; but, as usual, it gets as worn down as the Metropolis skyscrapers that are battered by Zod. If the material were really to be brought up to date—and, on top of that, made intellectually respectable—Superman must guide his new neighbors down a path that allows us to avoid the self-destructive fate of Krypton. If that planet stagnated because its population was deprived of choice, surely it’s on the filmmakers to demonstrate how humans are saved by their capacity for choice—and not simply by a Caped Crusader: the deus ex machina of childish escape fantasies. Making him a Christ figure—even making him human—is an easy way out, because the humans aren’t compellingly human, but are mere pawns in a spectacle that is likely much more cynical than Goyer or Nolan anticipated it would be. Our foremost faculty, it is implied, is not our liberty but our helplessness. Marx’s line about religion being the opiate of the masses is often misunderstood, but the logic behind the misunderstanding clarifies why makers of blockbusters are now mining the Church for material: superheroes once provided escapism; they now stand for ritualized self-delusion.

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Les Misérables

The King’s Speech was begging to be a musical. (You can quote me on that; some craven producer will make it happen some day, with King George as Eliza Doolittle.) But Les Misérables was not begging for Tom Hooper to direct it. He cut his teeth on the sprawling John Adams miniseries, which brought the 18th century to life in the style of documentary realism. But his American Revolution wasn’t a windup to his French one. This theatrical form demands suspension of one’s disbelief; and this particular musical, enduring after four decades, has made millions upon millions downright revoke theirs. In the movie version, at least, everyone seems to be singing what they’re thinking; in real life, they’d be talking at one another. They are stating the obvious in ways that one can only really accept when stated musically, because that adds another layer of expression. (I think that’s especially crucial to keep in mind here in the jaded 21st century; how’s one to process long soliloquies when one is used to 20-character texts?) On the stage, everybody’s solipsism can be seen all at once; and the right kind of blocking can express the characters’ relation to one another. But Hooper is a full-blown closeup fiend, and when the lyrics are blatant, it’s as if the movie’s shouting at us. Add editing, and it’s like everyone’s taking turns with the conch.

Granted, it does work from time to time. I’ve heard tell that, if you listen to what she’s saying, Anne Hathaway’s big number (“Dreamed a Dream”) is to pity parties what “Gagnam Style” is to real ones. But, with those big eyes glistening like the specks of dirt on her face that complement its sweat like sparkles, the actress really sells it. Her hair’s been chiseled off, but she owns it; I began to picture her as Joan of Arc–and the shoe fit, given the Parisian setting. And certainly some of that sense of intimacy comes from the fact that her head is essentially floating in front of a black scrim that evokes a very different sort of theater: the emptied-out stage of minimalism. There are a few wide shots of the revolutionaries in their urban trenches that reminded me of the best of The Dark Knight Rises, which appropriated from this historical period (or at least its prelude); but all but the best C.G. landscaping underwhelms me, and there’s none of the pananche that drew me into the 1930s-Paris digiscape of Hugo.

Having never seen Les Mis on stage, or any musical on screen in years–since Sweeney Todd (from which this movie borrows more than Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, its two increasingly familiar comic reliefs)–watching this is rather like listening to a foreign language that I once learned but am now rusty at. It’s not just that the actors are talking at each other; there’s a frantic sense of momentum to this musically driven plot, in which very little happens that isn’t sung about first (or, frankly, sung about at all; it’s one bar short of an opera). I wouldn’t say it bothers me so much as it makes me feel less qualified to review it. (Though I would venture that if Victor Hugo were alive to see his sumo-wrestler-sized novel so manically condensed, he’d likely have a hissy fit; there is something discomfiting about a whiplashed muti-generational saga.) Russell Crowe, so gracefully like a Daguerreotype on the film’s posters, has the misfortune of living up to all the negative buzz. Fortunately, Hugh Jackman is a surprisingly robust Valjean, though a combination of the form and the role’s Christian conception take the edge off any personal complexity that isn’t writ in cosmic terms. (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.) The younger generation (represented by Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne) have kept as weak a grip on my memory, however, as their characters ultimately keep on the republican cause. (After one very moving song about being the sole survivor of his cadre after the army had blown it apart–“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” an anthem befitting any veteran–the insurgent Marius jumps back into the arms of the aristocracy he was born into.)

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Robin Hood

The Robin Hood legends give filmmakers a lot to shoot, but Ridley Scott is a rusty marksman. It’s an attempt to put a new spin on the myth: Robin Hood is a prequel to the glory days in the Sherwood Forest. But what’s the point of taking off from common knowledge if you’re going to weigh it down with footnotes? Maybe the exposition would’ve been smoothed out if the material were tackled by the Scott who shot Alien; his pacing was once virtuosic. Here, he starts with a bang—a fireball billowing up from Richard the Lionheart’s 1199 siege of Châlus, a 21st-century cliché invading the 12th—but proceeds to whimper, dawdling from scene to scene as we wait for the swords to swing. But they fail to cut through the crap.

Sherlock Holmes fared well when Guy Ritchie removed the detective’s deerstalker; but Robin seems naked without his tights. In the old days, he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor—the Tea Party’s worst nightmare. Coy as the allusion might be, it’s apropos to this adaptation, which muddies things up and makes the “history” denser, but keeps its ideals on a commercially duplicitous level. Robin soapboxes about liberty and rallies against taxation, but the taxes are levied to pay for the Crusades—a war in the Middle East. (Only socialists will be displeased with the film’s shifty politicking: The French are invading England and pilfering indiscriminately. One of the marauders, on the verge of raping a landowner, tells her, “Nobody should own 5,000 acres.” Staliniste! But the filmmakers probably aren’t worried about upsetting socialists; they don’t pay for tickets anyway, right…?) Sequences that should be rousing, if naïve, seem to have been manhandled by clammy appendages. Even the setting is too clammy. These mizzly medieval days can get so dour that I wished the Technicolor sunlight that Errol Flynn basked in would break through the heavy-handed clouds. Some of Jim Mathieson’s photography is quite accomplished—the firelit oranges twinkling on the midnight blues, the beads of water dripping from an arrow, its launch slowed down for us to savor. But Scott’s images no longer look as if seen through a frosty pane of glass, as they did in The Duellists; and they lack the dynamism of Sergei Bodrov’s in Mongol.

Scott is either above pumping testosterone out of his heroes’ pores, or he’s simply short on adrenaline; but he doesn’t replace the he-man cheerleading—à la 300—with a satiric counterpoint (which it probably deserves), or with the lighthearted warmth that made the old swashbucklers glisten. Their forces combined, this director, and the screenwriter, Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, Man on Fire), are as light as a hydrogen bomb. But Scott also isn’t the man’s-man filmmaker that Gladiator put him on the market to be; attempting to extract merriment from Robin’s men, he sputters like a shrimp lifting weights. He’s most comfortable when Russell Crowe’s Robin is schmoozing with a lady, Cate Blanchett’s Maid—er, Matron—Marian. These scenes are carried by a sweet and delicate charm, enlivened, from time to time, by Max von Sydow, that prestigious old coot. Marian wears the pants—she even slips into chain mail. (Not that this isn’t incumbent on women in every historical action picture these days—lest we think women’s rights have evolved over the eons.) Crowe, by shrinking into his bulky frame, dropping his eyes, and mumbling, is the right Robin for this conception. His muffled inflections are a peasant’s attempt at eloquence; he isn’t an extraordinary hero, but a likable common man, affected by injustice, and now elevated to a position to fight it. Crowe performs creditably; he’s human. But he’s a real person trapped in a dulled-out version of make-believe. This isn’t the extroverted Robin Hood who forsook the luxuries of high birth to champion those who couldn’t afford to fend off oppression; unlike Tony Stark, these filmmakers’ paladin fails to inspire a romantic grandiosity that is both tacky and fantastically appealing. And so does their movie.