15 August 2007

HEY, IT'S JUST LIKE SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, BUT WITH...

...Pride and Prejudice!

After playing two punishingly thankless roles - the less interesting wife in Brokeback Mountain and the foil for Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada - I imagine that Becoming Jane was meant to be a sort of coming-out party for Anne Hathaway, and insofar as she gets a major role without upstaging co-stars, I suppose that's exactly what it is.

Now, I know that the right thing to do is praise Miss Hathaway in all her button cuteness and good cheer and uncanny resemblance to a real-life Disney heroine (as indeed I did once upon a time: "one of the rare actresses who comes across as friendly and appealing without having to work for it" I said, and for that movie, it was true). Instead, I'm going to take a slightly different approach, and suggest that the Brooklyn-born 24-year-old is not nearly as incongruous in the role of a young woman of modest family in England during the Napoleonic Wars as you might have expected her to be, given that the scale for Americans with bad British accents bottoms out somewhere around Kevin Costner. But she still kind of sucks, and the movie she's in kind of sucks, too.

Here are the facts: Jane Austen, author of the beloved Pride and Prejudice, and five other books that nobody ever really talks about so they clearly don't matter even though two of them are arguably better, began writing at a young age, refused to publish until an advanced age, never married and apparently never came close. In the summer of 1796, Austen enjoyed a flirtation with Thomas Langlois Lefroy, an Irish law student, and when she began her second long work of fiction, she based the annoyingly famous Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in part upon this flirtation.

Taking its cue from this brief summer romance, Becoming Jane posits that Austen's life in that year was a virtual carbon copy of the events of Pride and Prejudice; or rather, a carbon copy of Pride & Prejudice, the 2005 film whose influence couldn't be more oppressive here if the filmmakers had simply taken that Keira Knightley vehicle and re-dubbed it, Tiger Lily-style. We have the same fixation on mud, analogous scenes filmed in essentially identical ways (the dance sequences are particularly egregious examples of this). Or, simply, this.

Of course, it's a slightly grubbier Pride & Prejudice, with slightly grubbier stars: Julie Walters as Mrs. Austen, James Cromwell as Reverend Austen, Maggie Smith as the "Maggie Smith character" (a sharp-tongued elderly woman who sits imperiously; compare the "Judi Dench character" of the other film, a sharp-tongued elderly woman who paces imperiously). All of these performers are fine - they kind of have to be, it's who they are. At any rate, all of them gratuitously out-act Hathaway, and they sound like real Brits, to boot.

Lefroy is played by James McAvoy, who spent last weekend shooting a movie roughly 4 blocks from my apartment, at exactly the same time that I was a forty minute train-ride away watching Becoming Jane. I felt you should all have a chance to enjoy that irony the way I did. Anyway, McAvoy is pretty much awesome at this point and surely [title of next film] is going to make him a star. Meanwhile, he has to be the poor man's Mr. Darcy, against an actress too charming to avoid stealing his spotlight, but not nearly comfortable enough in her character to give him anything interesting to work from.

I think the worst thing of all - worse than the rip-off factor, worse than Hathaway's empty eyes, worse than the mirthless television-quality direction that the television veteran Julian Jarrold brings to bear on the proceedings - is that Becoming Jane continues the trend of people who claim to love Pride and Prejudice failing entirely to understand what it's about. Austen was a satirist, not a romantic, and her books had an ironic approach to "let's all fall in love and get married!" that current pop culture totally ignores. But I want to keep that knife sharp for right now - I'll need it later. Instead, let me just sum up: Jane Austen did not live the life of Elizabeth Bennett, but even if she had, there was no reason to be this bland in presenting it. 4/10


...Tartuffe!

I don't mind admitting, being an American makes Molière seem better than it actually is, for two reasons: first, most of us haven't read any of his plays, or at most just The Misanthrope (I do not exempt myself), and second, the film is in French. Let's be honest, foreign-language movies tend to get a free pass: it's a lot easier to forgive strained dialogue if it's in subtitles, and who can really tell how good or bad the performances are, anyway?

That said, I don't believe anybody exists who could watch Molière and think to themselves, "that was a fine work of cinema, was that."

I don't know Tartuffe so I'm not sure how much of what follows is from the play (although I assume it's somewhere between Becoming Jane, "tell the exact same story only about the author" and Shakespeare in Love, "there was this blonde chick while he was writing Romeo and Juliet"): in 1645, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (Romain Duris), stage name "Molière," gets hisself into some terrible financial trouble, threatening the closure of his theater. Help comes in the form of M Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), an eccentric and very rich businessman, who offers to pay the actor's debt in exchange for acting lessons, all the better to impress a wealthy, intellectual widow (the frighteningly pretty Lidivine Sagnier). In order to keep this plot secret from Mme Jourdain (Laura Morante), Molière disguises himself as a clergyman named Tartuffe, falls in love with his patron's wife, and extremely traditional farce ensues.

It's all reasonably amusing, but in that very intellectualized sense of "funny," where you're not laughing out loud so much as nodding at the goings-on and thinking, "this situation is amusing convoluted. It brings good humor to me." In which respect it's a fairly honest adaptation of Molière, really. Director Laurent Tirard is a profoundly unimaginative man, and there's not a single moment that you haven't already seen in a different, better period film, but at least the energy remains high, compared to something as lugubrious as e.g. Becoming Jane. That one is a farce and one is a romance probably has something to do with that.

I also wonder if that goes at least part of the way to explaining how entirely false the story is. It's not just that, like Shakespeare in Love, it tells a story without any historic basis, it gets some very specific facts completely wrong, chief among them being that Tartuffe premiered in 1664, and not 1658 as the movie suggests.

It is, though, at least a little bit invested in the creative impulse, and the ways that life experiences drive art. Unlike the Austen film, which really has no goal in mind other than leeching off of the audience's affection for the source material, Molière makes a good faith effort to demonstrate how Poquelin's desire for artistic fame reflects upon the details of his life. As to the question, "is that effort succesful," well no, it really isn't. The film is very much just a farce, when all is said and done, and a very mannered farce. It makes one of the great comic authors of all time a wee bit boring, to be completely honest, and that's a curious sort of success that I think we'd all much rather be without, n'est-ce pas? 6/10

7 comments:

Cameron said...

geez... the comparison of those two posters really brings the amazingly lame quality of both films to light. however, if nothing else, Becoming Jane suprasses Keira Knightly's Crappy Pride & Prejudice in that James McAvoy is a whole hell of a lot cuter than the other Mr. Darcy. I can't remember his name and he doesn't really deserve a trip to imdb.

by the way, which books do you think are better than Pride and Prejudice? I have my own opinion of the best three (although I haven't read "Northanger Abbey"), but I'm curious as to yours.

Tim said...

I've read four of her books, and I'd rank them:
-Sense and Sensibility
-Pride and Prejudice
-Emma (hey, I said "arguably better," not "clearly better")
-Mansfield Park

It's probably a sign of my something that I'd rather read the Sanditon fragments than either Northanger Abbey or Persuasion. Or Mansfield Park ever again.

Cameron said...

hey, i like Mansfield Park! it certainly is different from the three uber-romantic ones, though (the other three you've read). i don't know what order i'd put them in, but i don't think Sense and Sensibility is at the top... i'm girlishly partial to Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

Rebecca said...

So in school, I read Tartuffe and not The Misanthrope, and without going back to jog my memory, I remember Tartuffe manages to blackmail a man's house out from under him and then there's a textbook definition deus ex machina (in the "oh, you have a rich uncle you never knew who just died and left you lots of money" sense--except here the King saves the day because they liked to suck up to him when he showed up at the theatre.

Will said...

I saw that this film got the farce tag and that excited me. Then I saw that this was a new tag, and there are no other farces, and this saddened me. Cinema needs a new farce! High time for a good adaptation of Neil Simon's Rumors, I say.

For the record, Moliere's own Scapino is a decent farce as well.

But playing with tags led to more playing with tags... and revealed that only one regularly used tag, the venerable "joyless mediocrity," leads only to films on the right side of the screen. Unfunny comedies, needless adaptations, Hell, even chick flicks are occasionally on the right side of the screen... and Knightly's Pride and Prejudice is one of the exceptions in many of those cases.

Which brings it all back home. One of the Airtalk reviewers gave a capsule review of Becoming Jane that nearly got me into a car accident, I laughed so hard. And while I can't recall the exact wording, it went something like:

"If you've been looking for an entirely reductive, antifeminist, intellectually insulting fictionalized view of Jane Austen's life set in some really lovely picturesque meadows, then Becoming Jane is the film you were born to see."

Like that, only funnier.

Bring on Rumors!

Will said...

the line should read:

Unfunny comedies, needless adaptations, Hell, even chick flicks are occasionally on the LEFT side of the screen...

Oh well.

Tim said...

Glad to hear that somebody is using the tags. I don't know why, but I assumed that they were just window-dressing.

A) You've reminded me to add "chick flicks" to this post.

B) "farce" is part of a soon-to-be-ongoing project to make the tags a bit more specific - "comedy" and "horror" are both too big.