Going "Into the Wild" to Live Deliberately; "Jane Austen" for the 21st Century
directed by Sean Penn
starring Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Jena Malone, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughan, Kristen Stewart
based on the book by Jon Krakauer
Midway through watching “Into the Wild,” I began to suffer racking stomach pains. No, it wasn’t the movie; more likely something I ate for dinner. But physical discomfort may well have colored my reaction to the movie. Curiously, it may not necessarily have been a negative impact: on the one hand, it did make “Into the Wild,” which runs nearly 2 1/2 hrs, seem interminable; on the other, it made me feel a keener empathy with the protagonist’s trials—especially those involving his stomach.
That sounds flippant, but flippancy had no part in what I was feeling as I left the theater. Based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller and directed with a kind of earnest sensitivity by Sean Penn, “Into the Wild” is a sober and sobering, yet ultimately sympathetic portrait of Christopher McCandless, a young man who abandoned his privileged middle-class existence to wander the remotest corners of America and eventually made it his goal to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll avoid the cardinal sin of spoiling the ending, but if you know anything about Krakauer, you can guess where the story goes. (Think of it as a darker My Side of the Mountain or Julie of the Wolves - for those of you who read Newberry Award-winning books as a child.)
The film begins with Chris (Emile Hirsch) graduating with honors from Emory University, under the proud eyes of his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and the more watchful gaze of his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone). But even on this day of celebration, it’s impossible to mistake his disinterest in his accomplishment and the logical life-trajectory that lies before him. Within weeks, he gives away all his savings and goes deliberately awol, hitchhiking and doing odd jobs across the country and eventually heading for Alaska. He travels light, moves often, and never again makes contact with any of his family.
This is a cruel blow, and Penn doesn’t try to soften its harshness. Even as he interjects childhood flashbacks and voice-over by Carine to suggest that the McCandless’ troubled marriage may have contributed to Chris’s alienation, the film provides equally revealing glimpses of the lacerating pain his disappearance inflicts on the people who genuinely love him. At the same time, it stops short of framing his quest as a simple act of selfish self-indulgence. The jury’s out on whether Chris was more a fearless seeker or a feckless spoiled kid, but Penn wisely steers clear of that debate, instead focusing on a youth struggling to instill new meaning into his life through experiences he’d never had or would have had in his previous life. The movie, in weaving back and forth between Chris’s past and his culminating present in Alaska, clearly, even schematically, structures his odyssey as a narrative of growth from innocence to experience.
Penn obviously shares the awe Chris must have felt in discovering the panoramic canvas of a country he’d lived in his entire life but only began to claim for his own once he began his solo journeying. Cities appear only in passing and in their dreariest light (Chris’s brief stopover in Los Angeles shows us only its skid row), while the camera dwells with leisurely romanticism (perhaps too leisurely) on the grand open stretches of the America that the developers haven’t yet gotten their claws into, from canyon deep to river wild, to the tune of original, almost comically earthy songs by Eddie Vedder. While the film acknowledges, occasionally quite graphically, that living “in the wild” is far too dangerous to undertake lightly, it’s still far closer in spirit to Thoreau and the Hudson River School than Herzog’s “Grizzly Man.” More than the narrative, it’s the visual and aural aspect of “Into the Wild” that betray where its sympathies lie.
As for the character at its center, he remains—and rightly so—an enigma. We’ve all known at one point or another members of his breed, incessant travelers or adventurers with an insatiable desire to explore the new and unknown—often accompanied by an addiction to risk and restless impatience with social constraints. To many if not most of these individuals, human attachments matter less than (and ultimately succumb to) their search for self-fulfillment. As portrayed by Hirsch, young McCandless is attractive, likable, even charismatic; the people he encounters respond to him, from a farmworker (Vince Vaughan) who hires him to a hippie couple (a wonderful Catherine Keener and first-time actor Brian Dierker) and a lonely older man (Hal Holbrook) who take him in, to a teenager (Kristen Stewart) who falls for him. But none of them can hold on to him, and even at his lowest point, one senses no regret on his part for deciding, in essence, to be alone. It’s a testament to McCandless’ vision, however misguided it might seem to others, and Penn’s respect for that vision, that the end of his story feels quietly, almost tranquilly inevitable. There’s a kind of integrity to his spirit that defies the most scathing criticism and that reaches, against all odds, transcendence.
THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB
directed by Robin Swicord
starring Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Emily Blunt, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smits, Marc Blucas, Kevin Zegers
Like the novel from which it’s adapted, “The Jane Austen Book Club” is a modest piece of entertainment, “pleasing, though by no means capital” (to quote Austen herself), with an appeal that’s not limited to Austenites but offers more layers of appreciation to those familiar with the Austen canon. The six major novels form the spine of Karen Joy Fowler’s: one book per meeting hosted by one member of the club. The club consists of five women and one man of varying ages and backgrounds, all residents of present-day central California. They read, they meet, and they discuss; and in between their reading and discussion sessions, they may not notice (but we do) that their own lives and personalities echo aspects and arcs of the novels they’re reading.
Some of the subtler echoes, which are quite cleverly crafted in the book, are dropped in the transfer to the big screen. The film overall, however, remains faithful to Fowler’s Austen-loving spirit and gentler wit. Plot-wise, it retains the placid, loosely episodic feel of the book, though screenwriter and first-time director Robin Swicord makes an ill-advised decision to inject drama by flirting with the possibility of a “Notes on a Scandal”ish affair between one of the book club members, a high school French teacher named Prudie (Emily Blunt), and a student (Keven Zegers, grown considerably studlier since “Transamerica”). Swicord does this by making Prudie much more deeply unhappy than the mildly discontented character she was in the book. The only result is that of all the story arcs Prudie’s feels the most forced. Thankfully, Blunt is a fantastic actress who almost makes Prudie’s brittle, cankerous misery sympathetic, and thankfully there are five other characters with more convincing plotlines than hers.
The cast of “JABC” is terrific, filled with actors who are either (like Blunt) stars on the rise or underrated veterans: Kathy Baker as Bernadette, the kindly, slightly eccentric eldest; Maria Bello as Jocelyn, the resolutely single dog breeder with a strong aversion to any kind of disorder or loss of control; Amy Brenneman as Jocelyn’s best friend, Sylvia, who discovers that her husband of twenty-plus years (Jimmy Smits) has been having an affair and wants a divorce; a surprisingly likable Maggie Grace as Sylvia’s beautiful, impulsive lesbian daughter Allegra; and an adorably geeky Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the Austen newbie who clearly has a crush on Jocelyn but whom Jocelyn tries to push on to Sylvia as rebound material. Never mind if you can already see how all the romantic entanglements are going to be resolved; never mind that most of the characters have been made about a decade younger than they were in the book. (I’d mind that more if I didn’t like all the actors they cast so much.) What matters, as in Austen, and what Swicord and the cast delivers, is the grace with which they reach their happy endings, and the smaller revelations and insights they uncover along the way. It isn’t quite on the level of Austen, but it’s a very palatable surrogate.