Scott: On Friday, we ran a piece on the Worst Films Of 2013, and because we were looking for the absolute bottom of the barrel, the 15 movies selected were all received with varying degrees of toxicity. But there’s another breed of failure we need to discuss, Mike and Nathan: the high-profile disappointment. These are works by established filmmakers—or unjustly praised newcomers—that let us down, sometimes putting us at odds with the critical community, and at other times, letting us join a chorus of lament. I never like to play the game of “the movie you love sucked,” but there were a few cases this year where I was left scratching my head a little over rave reviews. Perhaps you gentleman can tell me why I’m wrong, and vice versa.
Let me start with Enough Said by Nicole Holofcener, because it may be the most heartbreaking of the year’s disappointments for me—not only because I admire Holofcener’s perceptiveness and wit, but because I think the plotting sabotages what might have been her best film. A brief primer for those who don’t know the story: Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a divorced masseuse who befriends new client Marianne (Catherine Keener) and starts dating a new man, Albert (James Gandolfini), without realizing until later that the two are exes. Rather than come clean, Eva listens to Marianne’s complaints about Albert, which make her start to question whether this guy she really likes is the right man for her.
I’m normally not the type to tell filmmakers what to do, but I’ll confess to imagining what Enough Said would have been like if Marianne had disappeared from the movie entirely, and the film were simply about two middle-aged divorced people entering a relationship with the tentativeness expected from people who are carrying this much romantic baggage. Because the film I’m imagining is one of the year’s best: thoughtful, funny, well-proportioned, beautifully performed, and full of specific insight into later-in-life relationships, shared custody, and the wisdom that comes with experience. And you can see the greatness in those scenes with Eva and Albert together over dinner or brunch, exchanging flirtatious banter that’s calibrated to their ages. They’re attracted to each other without showing the overeagerness of youth. But as much as Holofcener tries to chalk up Eva’s failures of disclosure to her desire to protect herself from getting hurt, I think it damages our sympathy for her and sets up sitcom scenarios where she has to duck behind the bushes to keep from being caught.
Nathan: Scott, I more than share your disappointment with Enough Said. Holofcener is one of my favorite filmmakers, and Enough Said is the first film of hers that I would not deem an unqualified success. I also would love to have seen a version of Enough Said without Marianne, who seemed to serve no purpose beyond continually pushing the film in the direction of sitcom shenanigans.
For me, this was a year when auteurs mostly knocked it out of the park: Nebraska, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Her, and Inside Llewyn Davis all gave audiences everything they wanted and expected out of new movies from Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese, Spike Jonze, and the Coen brothers, respectively. Three auteurs who failed to rise to the occasion, though, were Holofcener, Woody Allen, and David O. Russell. I was bewildered by the effusive response to Blue Jasmine, because to me it was a stiff, tone-deaf, wildly overwritten illustration of Woody Allen’s often very limited grasp on the psyches of women and the working class. I loved Cate Blanchett and her character, but everything else about the movie struck me as egregiously phony—though I came to like the movie more as a subjective representation of the lead character’s tortured mind, and not a representation of reality as it is lived on planet Earth by human beings.
I really enjoyed American Hustle, but found it spectacularly shallow and superficial, as well as derivative of Martin Scorsese, particularly Goodfellas and Casino, and marred by some pretty egregious miscasting, particularly Christian Bale. Bale can do just about anything, but playing a fat, balding, middle-aged East Coast Jew is beyond even his remarkable range. American Hustle is a film of enormous pleasures, but they’re all shimmering on the surface, and watching Wolf Of Wall Street not long after American Hustle dramatized the massive gulf in quality between expertly executed faux-Scorsese and the real thing.
Mike: That’s probably enough said about Enough Said, because I’m in complete accord with both of you: It’s a mostly terrific film hamstrung by its idiot plot. (As far as I’m concerned, though, Keener’s character can stay. I like the idea of a new relationship potentially being poisoned by the residue of an older one. It’s just the sitcom-style deception that seems hugely misguided.) And to continue the dogpile, I share Nathan’s reservations about Blue Jasmine, which can’t seem to make up its mind about just how mentally unbalanced its title character is. Blanchett is so immensely skilled that she’s able to make Jasmine seem coherent, but even that has a downside—she also makes the rest of the cast, talented though they are, look comparatively amateurish, as Allen just doesn’t know how to write credible working-class Joes. And to state an opinion nobody will agree with: I maintain that Louis C.K., while a brilliant stand-up comic and a creative genius, cannot act to save his life. I’m constantly wincing at his anxious self-consciousness; he perpetually looks aware that there’s a whole camera crew standing right… over… there.
Since I haven’t yet had a chance to see American Hustle as I write this, I’ll leave that one to Scott and mention my own most crushing disappointment: Only God Forgives. I hadn’t been a big fan of Nicolas Winding Refn prior to Drive, but that film suggested that he’d been a sleek genre stylist in waiting all along, capable of creating dazzling surfaces and engineering white-knuckle mayhem. And he seemed ideally paired with Ryan Gosling, an actor who can do iconic while suggesting untapped depths of feeling. Only God Forgives was among my most highly anticipated movies at Cannes this year, and it killed me to see that Winding Refn had reverted to the brutal, garish emptiness that pervaded his worst effort, 2003’s atrocious Fear X. I couldn’t even enjoy Kristin Scott Thomas’ deliberately over-the-top gorgon, because the performance, in common with the rest of the film, was too pushily grotesque to be any fun, and too ludicrous to be anything else. Defenders suggested that Winding Refn, concerned that Drive was perceived as a sellout (which is kinda silly, given that it completely tanked at the box office), was letting his “real” fans know where he stands. If this sort of lurid, sadistic crap is his true calling, they can have him.
And there were a couple more major whiffs by big-name directors I like, or at least admire. The Bling Ring, which also premièred at Cannes last May, is the weakest, flimsiest film Sofia Coppola has ever made, as much in thrall to glitzy surfaces as its vacuous young thieves are. Coppola empathizes so much with their yearning that she simply assumes viewers will find them fascinating, and instead, they come across like satirical figures in search of a satire. And I don’t know what most critics were smoking when it comes to Pedro Almodóvar’s I'm So Excited!, which is not just painfully unfunny (that, at least, is a matter of taste) but hideously offensive. The movie is set almost entirely on an airplane, and there’s a scene in which a woman from business class has sex with a man who, along with the rest of the coach section, has been drugged into unconsciousness. It’s meant to be uproarious and sexy, but had the gender of the two characters been reversed—had a man merrily screwed some unconscious woman—people would be clamoring for Almodóvar’s head, despite his long history as a sexual provocateur. Rape is rape, and while it might be theoretically possible to make rape funny, Almodóvar doesn’t even seem to recognize that there’s an issue. Men love sex, right? The so-called victim would probably be thrilled if he knew! Ugh.
Did either of you see I’m So Excited!, and if so, did that not trouble you at all? (I saw virtually no reviews, apart from my own, that even mentioned it.) And how did my two big bummers from Cannes strike you?
Scott: I’m right there with you on I’m So Excited!, Mike, though its sexual politics only bother me now that you’ve described them. (I recall Joyce McKinney’s line about whether she coerced her Mormon boyfriend into having sex with her without consent. She likened the idea to “putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.”) My main issue with I’m So Excited! is that I didn’t laugh very often, and there’s something particularly painful about a laughless farce, since the genre operates like a machine that produces comedy. And there’s probably not a better director at building such a machine than Almodóvar, who specializes in ornate constructions of soap-operatic plots. The film is a deliberate throwback to the wackier, pre-All About My Mother Almodóvar, which is not an unwelcome development, but everything here is just so strained, even though certain ideas (an airplane where the passengers are pumped full of liquor and mescaline; the stewards performing a full-on dance number to the Pointer Sisters song) sound delicious in principle. Maybe he’s simply evolved past doing movies like this, or perhaps he’s just a little rusty.
Looks like we’re all in agreement on Blue Jasmine, too, which continues a long string of late-period Woody Allen movies—Match Point and Midnight In Paris are others—that strike me as half-baked and overpraised. Though Blanchett’s character was conceived too broadly, along with all the other characters in the movie, Blanchett nearly salvages the movie on her own by hitting both the comic and tragic beats of a blueblood who’s been knocked from the perch and forced to operate in the humble world in which most people live. As you both point out, though, Allen himself isn’t terribly familiar with the world outside Manhattan’s elite, to the point where her sister’s San Francisco apartment, spacious and lovely and probably unaffordable at her income level, is viewed as a hovel. I did love Bobby Cannavale, who’s so effortlessly charming and natural that he makes even a working-class cartoon of a character named “Chili” seem legit.
We’re more or less in step on The Bling Ring, too, though it’s grown in my estimation since my initial disappointment. Coppola keeps making her variations on The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis, with characters walled in by their own privilege, but The Bling Ring flips the script a little, following young people who are scaling that wall. It struck me as slight at the time, but images and sequences have stayed with me, especially the robbery of Audrina Patridge’s glass house, captured entirely from the exterior, where we can all admire the conspicuous spoils of flash-in-the-pan celebrity. And speaking of images that stick, I feel like I must offer a semi-defense of Only God Forgives, which has been so battered by critics this year that its merits have been shamefully ignored. Not since Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void has there been such a gap between dazzling form and inane content, and I was drawn into the film and repulsed by it in roughly equal measure. You’re right, Mike, in finding it empty and garish, but Refn’s underworld achieves a noir-in-color effect that’s rare and rapturously beautiful. Refn has talked about approaching moviemaking like a “pornographer,” finding the things that turn him on, and there’s a sensual vividness to Only God Forgives that wasn’t properly appreciated, even if I can’t make a strong argument for the film’s merits as a whole.
Now that I’ve finished responding to your disappointments, Nathan and Mike, let me throw out another one of my own: Monsters University. For the longest time, Pixar had done well in avoiding mercenary sequel-making under the Disney umbrella, save for a Toy Story trilogy that justified its existence by finding deep, bittersweet melancholy in children growing up and their once-beloved toys coming to grips with it. Pixar held off 12 years before returning to the Monsters, Inc. well, and the prequel it devised is a reasonably clever riff on campus comedies like Animal House and Revenge Of The Nerds, but hardly powered by the strong creative rationale that brought the Toy Story movies or the original movies to life. There’s something depressingly symbolic about the characters going back to a less-enlightened time when they powered their world by scaring children, rather than by making them laugh. It’s regression.
Nathan: Mike, I did see I’m So Excited!, I did like it, and I found its jokey, glib attitude toward rape refreshing. No wait, I didn’t, but I’m So Excited! is also a featherweight trifle that breezed into my life, amused me for 90 minutes or so, then left my psyche completely. I can’t offer much of a defense for it except that I did find it funny, light, and full of inspired comic business. But the film aspired to do nothing more than amuse and entertain, and if you sat in the theater grimly waiting for it to end, I could see where it would leave you with nothing but creepy memories of repellent sexual politics. Hell, that’s how I felt about We’re The Millers.
I will also offer a more than half-hearted defense of The Bling Ring: The superficiality and relentless glibness seem both intentional and purposeful, though of the cast, only Emma Watson seems to realize she’s in a misanthropic social satire. In that respect, she’s like Neil Patrick Harris in Starship Troopers, but I would argue that the vapidity and emptiness of the performances and the utter dearth of characterization work within the movie’s context. The Bling Ring is all about the sublime ridiculousness of our plastic culture, so while Coppola clearly loves pretty, shiny things, I think she views her characters from a cold satirical distance that makes the film work as social satire as well as a glittering parade of eye candy.
I’m on record as being a big fan of Louis C.K. as an actor as well as a comedian, writer, director, and the greatest artist of all time. (Sorry, it’s hard not to get a little hyperbolic talking about him these days.) I concede that his acting is defined by the crippling self-consciousness you describe. (Acting like the camera crew is always present is a great way to describe it, though given the multi-tasking the man does, it’s also a little understandable.) But I feel like that works for the characters he plays, especially in American Hustle, where he’s a brilliant straight man to the comedy stylings of Bradley Cooper. (Seriously.)
Cars 2 was a game-changer for me in terms of Pixar. The film dipped so far beneath the company’s standards, and for such obviously commercial reasons that it caused me to lose a lot of faith. I consequently held Monsters University to a lower standard, but I agree it’s a disappointment. We have a right to demand greatness from Pixar, and Monsters University, for all its charm, fell short of that gold standard.
While we’re throwing disappointments out late in the game, I’ll toss in another: The Heat. I enjoyed it, for the most part, but I was hoping that for their follow-up to Bridesmaids Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy could come up with something fresher and funnier than a distaff version of pretty good buddy-cop comedies from the 1980s.
Ooh, one last colossal disappointment: Touchy Feely. I loved Humpday and found much to like about Lynn Shelton’s follow-up, Your Sister’s Sister, but I found Touchy Feely to be a real chore to sit through. It’s a short film, but I honestly had a hard time even finishing it.
Mike: As it happens, I just revisited Monsters, Inc. a week or so ago, and it was jolting: I suddenly remembered why I had loved these characters and this conceit. Whereas all I could do during Monsters University was wonder what had ever seemed appealing about either. It may seem an odd word to apply to something so strenuous, but University feels lazy—in terms of creativity, I mean. The gags are mostly stale campus-comedy bits with a thin overlay of “plus monsters!”, and the overall sensibility has Pixar striving to conform to audience expectations rather than puckishly challenge them. (The sad thing is that technically, Monsters University is my favorite animated feature this year, even though it’s literally 100 films deep on the ranked list I maintain. Not a good year for studio cartoons.)
I’m glad the two of you are putting up a little bit of a fight regarding Only God Forgives (in Scott’s case) and The Bling Ring, because the films we’re discussing here, even if they’re considered failures, are at least ambitious and distinctive. For various professional reasons, I saw more outright junk over the past year than I have in a long time, so my sense of what constitutes outright incompetence has been sharpened. At the same time, though—and this is a bit of a paradox—I still find that the movies I most strongly dislike are highly accomplished efforts by revered auteurs, not the misbegotten indies that show up in two theaters for a week after winning fourth prize at the third annual Podunk Film Festival, then vanish forever. There are exceptions, to be sure, but often it takes a truly talented filmmaker to make something that inspires anger or depression rather than just apathy. So while the idea here is for the three of us to vent our frustration about the year’s big disappointments, I feel like stamping the words “RECOMMENDED ANYWAY” on most of the movies we’re complaining about, just because they try so hard. (Monsters University didn’t, but that’s what prompted this thought in the first place.)
The Heat probably doesn’t fall into that category, but I didn’t see that one. (Well, I peeked at the first 10 minutes, but found Melissa McCarthy’s first scene so crassly unpleasant that I didn't stick around.) Touchy Feely certainly does, however. In fact, I’d say its problem is that it’s trying to do too much—to function as both a naturalistic, character-driven ensemble piece and a mysterious conceptual provocation. When the movie was over, I still had virtually no idea what Shelton was trying to say; the whole touch-transfer idea (in which Rosemarie DeWitt’s masseuse suddenly becomes repelled by human contact, while her brother, a dentist played by Josh Pais, develops a magical healing ability) seemed arbitrary, almost irrelevant. I Still think Shelton is a major talent, though, and I look forward to her new film, which was just announced for Sundance 2014 (especially if she’s returned to guiding on-camera improvisation, at which she’s a wizard).
Let me toss out one more thoroughly honorable disappointment: Side Effects. Lots of people enjoyed this one, and Steven Soderbergh’s formal control is as impressive as ever, but I was crushed to see the screenplay devolve from what appeared to be a smart, clinical look at pharmacological abuse into this generation’s Deathtrap. The second half of the movie, in which traps are sprung and twists revealed, is flat-out stupid, which would be fine if it also qualified as trashy fun. The material seems beneath Soderbergh, though, and his interest in it purely technical. I look forward to his eventual, inevitable return to feature filmmaking, but Side Effects made me feel like his decision to take some time off was perhaps a good one.
Scott: This is probably a topic for another day, but I feel like reviewing movies as a profession forces some perspective on both ends of the spectrum. Where people who only see the crème de la crème of cinema each year—acclaimed movies, auteur favorites, whatever they choose to see—can spout off about, say, the films of Alexander Payne as the ultimate affront to the culture, I’m thinking, “Yeah, go see Movie 43 and get back to me.” But filmmakers we respect stumble every year, so it’s good to have a space to talk about them without Worst Movie Ever hyperbole.
To that end, Side Effects definitely felt like a slight way for Soderbergh to go out, especially in contrast to the far superior Haywire, which struck me as a similar, far more rigorous exercise in genre deconstruction. But I nonetheless found it more clever than you did, Mike, and surprising in the way it dropped what appeared to be an anti-antidepressants premise in favor of a thriller that fiddles around with its own architecture. And while I liked The Heat more than you, Nathan, and enjoyed McCarthy’s raging vulgarity, Paul Feig’s total indifference to getting the action sequences right damaged the film significantly. If you’re going to reference 1980s buddy action-comedies like Lethal Weapon, then bringing the laughs alone isn’t going to cut it.
Can I express disappointment in not being disappointed more? I want to like every movie I see, of course, but the back half of 2013 was so loaded with riches that I felt like Homer Simpson in that episode where he’s a food critic and everyone gets fat because he praises every restaurant in town. Save for Alexander Sokurov’s Faust, which I found fitfully beautiful but tedious in the extreme, there was much to admire about the films of prestige season. We’re looking at a Best Picture race between 12 Years A Slave and Gravity. All in all, disappointment had a disappointing year.