Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"3:10 to Yuma," "Nanny Diaries," and Other Odds & Ends

3:10 TO YUMA

directed by James Mangold
starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, others


directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
starring Scarlet Johansson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Donna Murphy, Chris Evans, Alicia Keys

The title of this post should be “When Mediocre Movies Happen to Great Actors.” Or maybe it should be “When Great Actors Happen to Mediocre Movies.” I’ve been ruminating on this topic since seeing both “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Nanny Diaries” this past weekend. The first I was eagerly anticipating; the second I’d had no particular interest in after reading a number of tepid reviews, but was persuaded to see with friends after a pleasantly leisurely Sunday brunch. Curiously, my reaction coming out of both was similar. I found “3:10 to Yuma” mildly disappointing, and “The Nanny Diaries” not as bad as I’d feared it would be—though by no means good.

“3:10” was the better film. But not by much. The problem is not so much one of craft—it’s well-made as far as it goes—as lack of imagination. As a remake of what was by all accounts a very good western, it doesn’t do much with the original material other than to amp up the action and add a few half-heartedly p.c. nods to the dark side of how the West was won (e.g., dispossessed and practically invisible Indians—no small irony there, given how little we see of them—and Chinese coolies to build the railroads). The story remains the same in its essentials: a notorious outlaw named Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is separated from his gang, captured, and escorted to the nearest railway stop to board the titular train to Yuma, Arizona, the site of a state prison, while his band follows close behind. The film focuses on Wade’s interaction with Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck rancher who agrees to help guard Wade and get him to the train in exchange for a badly-needed $200. It also deals to a lesser extent with Evans’ troubled relationship with his long-suffering family, especially his adolescent son (Logan Lerman), and the hot pursuit by Wade’s band, hell-bent on freeing their leader and wreaking bloody revenge.

Crowe and Bale are two of the finest actors under 50 working today, and they manage to burrow into their respective characters with their usual depth and conviction. Unfortunately, the characters themselves never end up feeling fully dimensional, maybe because we’ve seen these archetypes before—charming psychopath with flashes of humanity versus tightly-wound man of integrity weighed down by sense of failure—or maybe because their fates become blindingly predictable early on in the film. Rather more interesting is a nearly unrecognizable Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wade’s sadistic second-in-command, whose pathological loyalty to Wade is pitched to spark speculation about the feelings that lie beneath it. For the rest, “3:10 to Yuma” is a fairly by-the-numbers narrative that’s remarkable only for how much it strains even the most willing suspension of disbelief in its all-out shoot-’em-up climax. All I can say is that for a physically handicapped man, that Dan Evans sure can move. But so it goes.

As for “The Nanny Diaries,” though it belongs to a completely different genre (and viewing demographic) than “3:10 to Yuma,” it shares some of the same problems—the main one being that the scripting of the characters doesn’t do justice to the talents of the actors picked to play them. The movie ends up feeling like a warmed-over version of “The Devil Wears Prada”—duller, squishier, more earnest, and less entertaining. I haven’t read either book and therefore can’t really speak to the merits of either film as an adaptation. However, unlike “Prada,” which turned a one-note screed into an appealing wish-fulfillment-fantasy-meets-morality-tale constructed around an extreme yet believably nuanced figure of terror, “Diaries,” in trying to reshape its narrative into more of a coming-of-age tale, only ends up creating ultimately unconvincing central characters.

The protagonist, Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) is now a Jersey girl and recent college grad who’s Trying to Figure Out What to Do With Her Life—go for a job in finance, as her devoted single mother (Donna Murphy) anxiously urges, or pursue her interest in anthropology? Since I myself, nearly a decade out of college, am Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With My Life, I have much natural sympathy for Annie’s situation, and can even buy the farfetched premise that she might stumble into the position of nanny to a little Upper East Side tyke. What I can’t buy, and what the movie never sells me on, is the idea that Annie would become so emotionally invested in said tyke (although he is very cute) and his hellish family dynamics that she would stay on indefinitely, taking the constant abuse without even trying to figure out an alternative game plan, while hiding the whole misadventure from her attentive mother. Scar Jo has a tough job with this role, but she’s also frankly miscast; as someone who’s best when she plays a thoughtful and self-aware character, she can’t pull off the combination of comic pratfalls and maddening indecisiveness that comprises Annie’s character. Instead, she labors through the physical comedy and looks mostly vacantly ineffectual as Annie is faced with one reason after another to walk out, and doesn’t.

Laura Linney fares better as Annie’s boss and adversary, the Upper East Side mom dubbed simply “Mrs. X.” I adore Linney; she's one of the best actresses around, and was in fact the main reason I agreed to see "Nanny Diaries" at all. But while she ably evokes the pathos lurking just beneath the brittle polished surface and the fear of losing a privileged existence that hangs by a very thin thread (Mr. X, played by Paul Giamatti, is a repugnant boor who’s clearly having an affair), even she can’t rescue her character from its strong smack of caricature or its preposterous 180-degree turn at the end. The tribulations of Mrs. X in some ways seem as willfully self-imposed as Annie’s, yet it’s to Linney’s credit (and the film’s discredit) that we never entirely swallow the condescending suggestion that Annie is clinging to her post because she feels pity for Mrs. X as well as for her son. There’s a crisis moment in which Annie quite improbably lets this slip in front of Mrs. X, who retorts, “Who do you think you are?” and lights magnificently into her for presuming to think she understands what’s going on inside this family. I don’t think we were intended to sympathize with Mrs. X at that moment, but being thoroughly fed up with Annie by this point, I did. (Alas, the movie ends up vindicating Annie, or trying to, and in doing so rings totally false.)

It’s this moment, in fact, that crystallizes the movie’s failure in attempting to present Annie’s experience as an exercise in social anthropology. In itself, the anthropological angle isn’t a bad idea, even if directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("American Splendor") somewhat overdo the conceit, repeatedly freeze-framing different New York social types as natural history exhibits. The device, amusing at first, gets old fast (Edith Wharton this ain't), and is less effective than their bitingly funny evocations of some of the more bizarre social practices of the X’s circle, including a ridiculous patriotic-themed costume party where Annie is forced to dress up as Betsy Ross, and a nanny-mother mediation session where the (mostly minority) nannies are hypocritically encouraged to speak their minds to their implacably well-pressed, well-heeled employers. Yet at the end of the day, “Diaries” strains too much credibility in demanding us to accept that someone in Annie’s position could truly “go native” and, further, affect the society she infiltrates as much as she does. In this respect, "The Nanny Diaries" is far more of a fantasy than "The Devil Wears Prada." It's also far less diverting.

GRADES: “3:10 to Yuma” B/B-; “The Nanny Diaries” B-/C+


Miscellaneous notes:

The Toronto Film Festival is well underway. Day-to-day coverage is available from GreenCine Daily and The Film Experience.

I did not have a chance to commemorate the death of (yet another) childhood icon over the weekend, Madeleine L’Engle, so I’ll note it briefly now. I will not call her an author of children’s books, because I bristle at such reductive classifications of books that, like hers, were clearly meant for all ages. I will, however, say that A Wrinkle in Time was one of the most mind-expanding, soul-piercing books I read as a child, and remains one of my favorites today. I read the rest of that trilogy (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but the two sequels, while quite good, never matched the sheer emotional and imaginative power of the first.

Also recently laid to rest: actress Jane Wyman, former wife to former President Reagan. The only movies I ever saw her in were “The Yearling” and “Pollyanna,” but may the rest of her distinguished cinematic legacy live on.


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