Oscar Movie Reviews: Her, American Hustle, Wolf On Wall Street

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Every year, Gini and I try to see all ten nominees for Best Picture.  I don’t know whether we’ll get through it this year, as we’ve boiled it down only lacking the three smallest films – Dallas Buyer’s Club, Philomena, and Nebraska, two of which you can only see in theaters – but we did go on a run last week where we saw three of the big nominations.
Her
I was so excited to see this film – it’s by a director I love, it’s near-future SF, and it deals with AIs interacting with human beings (which is one of the things I continually write about).  So when I got to the theater, I was bouncing up and down in my seat.
So why didn’t I like it?
First off, the problem with Her is that it’s incredibly self-indulgent.  Yes, I know, it’s trying to create a sense of time passing, but there’s so many shots of Joaquim Phoenix wandering sullenly through melancholy rainbows that you could literally shave ten minutes off the film if you cut those wandering scenes out.  I get that he’s lonely and isolated.  But when you keep repeating that montage throughout the film, it adds flab.
Then there’s the other unfixable issue in that Her is trying to tell two character arcs – I won’t spoil it, but basically Her is two movies bolted together.  And by the time we got to the end of the first one, I was satisfied, and emotionally exhausted – and then it told a whole other side of that story, and I just didn’t have the energy for it.  And that other half of the relationship is entirely necessary, as it’s what gives the film its emotional depth, but it’s also got a heavily preordained conclusion.
Unlike the first half of the film, which has the potential to go in all sorts of unexpected directions, the second half starts with a heavy-handed foreshadowing of what’s going to happen, and then… that’s exactly what happens.  There are no surprises on this road to the end, just a repetition and deepening of the dilemma.  And so, when you’re already tired from dealing with the emotions stirred up in the climax of the first half, you’re watching a very on-rails experience in the second half.
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad film – I quite liked a lot of it.  I liked that the OS Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with very much has her own agenda.  She is not a passive construct, but something actively seeking, and the fact that she’s willing to contradict and baffle him is glorious.  I read a Twitter-review that said that the OS was all that was bad about women – a clingy, needy, bitchy girlfriend – but I think that says far more about the writer than the film, because the OS is a literal blank slate who is dealing with a man who purposely eats his emotions.  He’s actually kind of a schmuck to her, and the fact that people sympathize with him is actually somewhat of an issue.
But I liked that Joaquin Phoenix was lonely, but not isolated – he had friends, a small social life, a good job.  He wasn’t a stereotypical nebbish who no one liked, he was just sort of a disquietingly soft-spoken Man Of Awkward who could be nice in the right circumstances.  (A creepy guy who dated, via some combination of wish fulfillment, the most astoundingly beautiful women – his ex-wife is a heartbreaker, and his romantic tension is Amy Adams, for Christ’s sake.  That kept throwing me out of the film as I thought, “This mustache with this personality gets these women?”)
But basically, this movie is self-indulgent, taking over two hours to tell a story that could be told in 100 minutes.  It’s got some really nice stuff in it, but I wondered why it was crashing at the box office.  Now I know why.
American Hustle
Basically, at this point, I’m going to assume that Christopher Bale is magic in whatever he’s in.
American Hustle is a wonderful train wreck of a film where you take a bunch of clearly-defined dysfunctional personalities, put them in a paint can, and shake.  Basically, every time a situation could be solved easily, someone exacerbates it by acting in an entirely in-character and yet totally disastrous way.  It’s a ping-pong ball where alliances shift effortlessly as these idiots wound each other and take stupid revenge…
…and yet you actually feel sympathy for them.  They’re all in pain in some way.  And yes, they are taking it out on other people, but there’s a certain desperation in the way that none of them know how to be happy, and they want to be happy, and so they’re grabbing at other people like a drowning man clutching at a life preserver.  They’re making the absolute wrong moves, of course, but the genius of American Hustle is that even as you facepalm you can understand why they think this is a good idea.
They’re wrong.  They’re always wrong.  But American Hustle is a frenetic masterpiece of glory to watch, and cements David O. Russell as one of my favorite directors.
(Also – and I will be honest here – watching Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence slink around in revealing 1970s dresses is pretty easy on the eyes.  Sorry, straight ladies, you get the freakazoid hairstyles of Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper.  It’s really not fair at all.)
Wolf on Wall Street
I really did not want to watch this, as I’d had enough of three-hour indulgent movies.  Add that to the fact that it’s about bankers who make my skin crawl, and I thought it’d be like being locked in a party filled entirely with people you hated to talk to.
Yet Wolf on Wall Street is Scorcese’s funniest movie.  There’s several scenes – the quaalude scene, the discussion of midget acquiring – that could be straight-up raunchy comedy.  It’s as though Scorcese, who always admired gangsters and so never really made them look ridiculous, said, “Fuck it, bankers,” and decided to make them look as goofy as possible.
Don’t get me wrong: my ass wriggled for a lot of this film, as everyone in it is repugnant, and doing repugnant things, and I kept thinking, “Okay, Gini and I know that all of this hooker abuse and drugs are nothing anyone should aspire to… but after Gordon Gecko, I know the next generation of scummy bankers will be using this film as a checklist of things they want to do,” and that kept sickening me.  But I don’t know how you approach that.  I don’t know how you make a movie about excess that won’t actually cause some psychopaths to respond positively to it.
(I mean, you can, but then it’s so dreary that no one will want to watch it.)
So Wolf on Wall Street was like watching a training film for the next generation of assholes.  I know people will be citing this as an inspiration.  And that sickened me.
But the thing about Wolf on Wall Street is that it’s smartly indulgent.  Yes, an hour of this movie could be cut – but we’ve seen this story before.  Guy gets the joys of crime, gets the crown, overreaches, gets caught, winds up a schmuck.  If you’d cut it down, you’d make it less interesting, because all of the good stuff is literally the stuff that’s not important to the plot, but is hysterical.  In particular, the most memorable sequence in the movie (quaaludes, man) is a narrative dead-end that literally thumbs the plot to a pause for twenty minutes – but like any good anecdote, it’s worth telling.  Cut out the anecdotes, and the story is cliched.
So I liked it more than I thought I would.  And Jonah Hill is a surprisingly good actor.  Really, I’m more impressed by the dude’s narrow range every time – he doesn’t vary wildly outside of sad-sack, but he sure plays a lot of notes on that tiny violin.

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