Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Mad Men" Season 4 Finale: "Tomorrowland"

In the words of the great Peggy Olson: that's bullshit.

Me during the finale:

"Carla, don't let Glen go upstairs...ARRRGH!"

"Betty, don't get rid of Carla...ARRRGH!"

"Don, don't ask Megan to come to Cali...ARRRGH!"

"Harry, don't be slimy...GROAN."

"Don, don't use Anna's engagement ring to propose...ARRRGH!"

(Less aggravating: "Joan's totally still pregnant...yup.")

It didn't help that every one of these developments and their unintended consequences were clearly telegraphed just far enough in advance to make me squirm in unpleasant anticipation. (Well, except for Joan's aborted abortion, which we've seen coming from several episodes ago, and on which I remain neutral.) This was also the episode that finally, officially made me hate Betty - but it also made me hate Weiner and the MM writers for making me hate her. As for making me hate Don, that's just getting old. *He's* getting old, and pathetic, and more and more of the people who once respected him are seeing this.

Oddly, I don't bear any ill will towards Megan. She seemed genuinely shocked at Don's abrupt proposal, and I can understand his attraction to her as the anti-Betty (and, in a different way, the anti-Faye) - serene, tender, good with kids, yet harboring aspirations outside the domestic sphere. But he's not in love with her, he's in love with his fantasy vision of her and of their future together. Tomorrowland, indeed.

That said, there were some things I liked about the finale, even if I hated its overall trajectory. Among them:

-Peggy and Joan FINALLY bonding. Almost made Don's folly worth it. Almost. Men, watch out for these two.

-Faye cutting straight to the chase when Don calls her, and delivering the most spot-on assessment of his personal life we've heard yet: "you only like the beginnings of things." She's too good for Don, though that doesn't make his treatment of her any less caddish.

-Cosgrove refusing to milk his family connections. As he said, he's not Pete. Interesting, and probably honest, if a bit mean.

-The shot of Don and Betty parting ways in the darkened, empty Ossining house. An unexpectedly poignant and powerful image, especially considering how much I hated both of those two by that point.

Best line, after Peggy's calling BS: Glen to Betty - "Just cause you’re sad all the time doesn’t mean everyone has to be." Roger's response to Don's marriage announcement was pretty priceless, too.

(Pete also had a line about "approaching from the rear" that made the 12-year-old in me snicker. And of course only Pete would tell the others, “You don’t say congratulations to the bride. You say best wishes.”)

Worst line: Don to Peggy, re: Megan - "You know, she reminds me of you." That is *not* something you should say to Peggy, you fool. Twist the knife in a little deeper, why don’t you.

All in all, not the finale I was hoping for, and certainly not a patch on last year's ("Shut the Door, Have a Seat"). But it's sown enough seeds (or bombshells?) to bring me back next year, so I suppose I can't construe it as a total failure. May Peggy and Pete continue to steer SCDP into calmer waters, and may Peggy finally see Don for what he is.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.12: "Blowing Smoke"

Blowing smoke, indeed...apt title for this week's episode. Maybe I'm just tired, maybe I'm still disillusioned after some of the recent developments on this show (see last week's recap), but it's not been working its magic on me lately. So the question for me isn't whether Don's daring ploy will save our favorite upstart advertising firm or accelerate its implosion, but whether I still care.

I guess I do. Just not as much as I once did. I have little sympathy left for Don, none at all for Roger, and at the same time full faith that Cooper's anger will abate and that Peggy and Pete will succeed wherever they go. True, I'd be sorry to see Lane unmoored from his American haven and Joan thrown into even greater uncertainty than ever - but not sorry enough to weep if SCDP goes under. As for the others, we evidently haven't seen the last of Faye (at least not yet); Harry and Ken have enough dumb luck between them to find a soft landing; and I couldn't care less what happens to newbies like Stan and Megan. Actually, on second thought I would be quite happy to see Megan go; unfortunately I don't think we've seen the last of her, yet, either.

At any rate, that feeling of bright excitement, that infectious sense of expectation that lit up the founding of SCDP is now diminished, if not completely gone. And it's not just because the firm's teetering on the brink of dissolution. If anything, that should provide a jolt of adrenaline, and to some extent it does for Don. Still, it's telling that his one flash of creative inspiration can be traced directly back to his grim encounter with bohemian-turned-junkie Midge. I haven't quite decided how I feel about that interaction, which shifted quickly from vaguely disquieting to distinctly creepy to just plain sad.

The same might be said of Sally and Glen, though I couldn't muster up much enthusiasm for that storyline, either. I don't know that I blame Betty all that much for her reaction to seeing those two together, even if she was at least partly motivated by the kind of indefinable jealousy that only the good Dr. Edna would understand. I can also understand why Betty might cling to the latter like a life-raft even as she bats away the idea of seeing a "real" therapist of her own. Yet it irks me that her attitude once again plays so easily into the hands of Betty-haters, who are only too ready to see her as an overgrown child. Let's not forget that that was the assessment of Betty's *previous* "therapist," hardly a reliable authority on feminine psychology.

Ah well. There's still one episode left for Weiner & co. to bring back the mojo - and we all know what happened this time last season. Whatever happens, I hope this one, too, goes out with a bang rather than a whimper. There's been enough whimpering.

Best line: Again, can't think of one for this episode, which overall was a downer. But the best moment was the sight of Don smiling at Peggy's approval (her parting line about shenanigans was a nice throwback to the beginning of this season). Runner-up: Pete learning that Don paid his $50,000 share. Finally some real recognition for Pete. It was long overdue.

Monday, October 04, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.11: "Chinese Wall"

Oh, show. Just when it seems like you’ve put Don on the path to redemption, you have to (1) throw him into a crisis of catastrophe-level proportions (2) remind us what a selfish SOB he is when push comes to shove.

I’m not talking about the shagging of yet another secretary, disappointing as that was: count me among the naive few who really hoped and believed that the final shot last week of Don gazing at the comely Megan did not mean he was about to sleep with her. I stand corrected. I have to say, though, that I can’t quite figure out Megan’s game. Her seduction of Don seemed very purposeful—but to what purpose? Becoming the next Mrs. Draper? Or (more likely) the next Peggy Olson? Or some other, unknown motive? Whatever it is, please let it be something more interesting than boss-worship because I’ve had enough of women falling at Don’s feet. It's as if the writers are trying to make up for Don's dry spell during the first half of the season by having all the women now bend over backwards to please him.

Which brings me to what *was*, for me, the biggest disappointment of the night: that Don pressured Faye to give him inside info on poachable clients, and that Faye ultimately caved. Boooo! It wasn’t the first time Don’s tried to get her to breach that particular ethical wall. (Query: is “Chinese wall” still an acceptable phrase?) But he wasn’t so desperate before, and he didn’t push as hard as he did this time. I cheered when she initially told him where to get off, only to groan later when she appeared in his hallway. It was only too clear, even before she spoke, what was in that envelope: her professional integrity. And his. Check that – Don’s never had any integrity. He talks a good line about separating work from his personal affairs, but in reality he doesn’t do anything of the kind.

Still, if there’s anyone who makes Don’s failings pale in comparison, that would be Roger Sterling. Roger’s never been more pathetic than he was tonight, in the midst of SCDP's meltdown, from his charade over the loss of Lucky Strike to his whiny, self-pitying plea to Joan. I feel no sympathy for him, yet it was no pleasure watching him visibly deflate over the course of the episode. He also looked about ten years older by the end—old and tired and defeated, without a trace of his usual dapper nonchalance. Why do I have a sinking feeling that Jane narrowly prevented, or perhaps only delayed, an early widowhood, and that Joan’s carrying a baby that may never know its biological father? Maybe my fears are unfounded; Roger doesn’t strike me as the suicidal type. But he's never before been made to see with such brutal clarity the utter uselessness of his existence.

Meanwhile, as Roger skulked and sulked, his colleagues hustled in trying to keep the firm afloat—none more so than Pete. Even as his baby was being born, he was frantically trying to save his other baby (no, not Peggy’s): SCDP. But in so doing he had to confront the flip side of mixing family with business, and his reward—or punishment—for not building that particular firewall was that smarmy vulture, Ted not-spelled-Shaw. I’ll give this much to Ted: he knows to lay the butter on thick with Pete. I don’t think it’ll work, though. It didn’t when Duck had a try last season, and Pete’s got so much more invested in the new Sterling Cooper than he did in the old one.

The one drop of cheer in this cauldron of stress was, of course, Peggy’s radiant afterglow. It's cute to see her so genuinely into someone who's also genuinely into her. She’s not proving to be much better than her colleagues about keeping her professional and private lives separate, but the effect seems to be benign, at least so far. That is, if you discount Stan putting the moves on her. Now there’s a man who doesn’t know the meaning of boundaries. And yet for all his crude asshattery, it only amuses me that he so clearly has a thing for Peggy.

Best line: Uh, I can't recall any for this week. This was a pretty serious episode all around, Peggy's amours aside. Best cheap gag was the midget copywriter raising his hand to ask a question and being literally overlooked.

Random notes:

-Maybe it’s just because we (the audience) already knew what the score was with Roger and Lucky Strike, but his phony-phone conversation with Lee Garner, Jr. didn’t “ring” true at all (sorry, couldn’t resist)—it sounded as fake and stilted as...well, as it was. I’m surprised that Cooper didn’t notice him holding down the receiver. Is it possible Cooper did notice but didn’t say anything?

-First time we’ve seen Jane Sterling in a while. And for the first time, I found her rather endearing. Of course, what she meant as a sweet gesture—a vanity press printing of “Sterling’s Gold”—felt at that particular moment like a mockery of Roger’s entire life. It had to have stung. Almost do I feel sorry for the man- but no. He had every advantage in life, and he chose to fritter it all away. Cooper’s assessment was spot-on. How can anyone take a man seriously who won't take himself seriously?

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Kids are Not All Right in "The Social Network"


directed by David Fincher
written by Aaron Sorkin
starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, others

Is “The Social Network” a movie of our age, or for all time? Hard to say at this point without knowing the fate of Facebook, the network it depicts (though not the only one, and arguably not even the most important one). But whether Facebook really represents the zeitgeist of an entire generation, or something smaller and more transient, ultimately may not matter. At bottom, the “Facebook movie” isn’t really about Facebook at all, except incidentally. It’s about the building of an empire, and most crucially about the man who built it.

That man, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg, who as an undergraduate at Harvard created the prototype for the now (in)famous social networking site that presently boasts half a billion users. Originally restricted to Harvard students, it expanded first to other similarly toney schools and, eventually, to the entire world. It made Zuckerberg a billionaire in the process, but also embroiled him in lawsuits brought by his former friend and Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin, who claimed Zuckerberg forced him out of the company, and by fellow Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, who accused Zuckerberg of stealing the idea for Facebook from them.

Directed by David Fincher and scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the film shifts between the depositions of Zuckerberg, Saverin, and the Winklevoss twins (played respectively by Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Arnie Hammer) and their respective memories of the events at issue, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions. Not so much with respect to culpability; whatever the legal merits of the claims against Zuckerberg, everything we see indicates that he used these people and hung them out to dry. The core of the film is not what he did but why, and it’s this aspect that’s both deeply compelling and just as deeply problematic.

“The Social Network” has drawn some fairly lofty comparisons to other tales of empire-builders, ranging from “Citizen Kane” to “There Will Be Blood”; one critic has even called it The Great Gatsby for our times. Inflated analogies aside, the film does share some common DNA with these works. Like them, it’s a parable of ambition, driven by alienation, towards an ever more deeply entrenched alienation—one that manages to make a man with no discernible moral compass oddly compelling and, at the same time, fundamentally unknowable. The hallmark of the filmmakers, however, is unmistakable. Fincher’s spent much of his career depicting the nature and effects of obsession (most prominently in “Zodiac,” but also in films like “Fight Club,” “Seven,” and “The Game”), while Sorkin, albeit in a more comic vein, has written plenty about shakers and movers (“A Few Good Men,” “The West Wing”) and the neuroses that drive them.

With Zuckerberg, they strike the mother lode, creating a protagonist at once tragic and comic, inspired and myopic, and fearsome in his single-mindedness. From the moment he first conceives (or steals) the idea, Facebook is all he lives and breathes. Nothing else matters, and other people only matter to the extent they affect the success of Facebook. True, he does respond more spontaneously to the allure of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the wily, smooth-talking founder of Napster who swoops in on Facebook in its early days, dazzles Zuckerberg with seductive promises of unimaginable wealth, fame, and glamour, and persuades him to move his budding business to Palo Alto and go after big-ticket investors at the expense of old friends like Saverin. However, even Parker proves no more than a means to an end, and eventually falls prey to both his own fatal flaws and Zuckerberg’s ruthlessness.

But what spurred Zuckerberg’s quest for dominance? According to Sorkin, it wasn’t just an instinctual lust for power. While Zuckerberg’s precise motives remain opaque, two driving forces emerge early in the movie. The first is Erica Albright (Rooney Mara, making the most of her relatively brief screen time), the girlfriend who calls him out as an asshole and unceremoniously dumps him at the film's outset. The second is the kind of privileged social status, embodied in the elite Harvard fraternities known as “finals clubs,” that men with names like Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss take for granted, and to which Zuckerberg presumably would never be admitted. Zuckerberg essentially spends the entire movie creating Facebook to make Erica regret her rejection of him, thumbing his nose at the “Winklevi” for good measure—or, to quote his own words, showing them that “for the first time in their lives, things didn't go exactly the way they were supposed to for them”—and punishing poor Eduardo for being invited to join one of the much-vaunted finals clubs.

The problem with this narrative is that it has little or no basis in established fact. Sorkin’s script relies heavily on Ben Mezrich’s bestseller The Accidental Billionaires, which was based on Mezrich’s interviews with Saverin, articles from the Harvard Crimson, and a whole lot of speculation to fill in the blanks. Neither Mezrich nor Sorkin ever talked to Zuckerberg, and to the limited extent Zuckerberg’s commented on either the book or the movie, he’s predictably denied that he was ever interested in finals clubs or what they represented. That, of course, doesn’t mean he wasn’t, but there’s also no evidence—other than Saverin's say-so—that he was. And there actually is evidence that the Erica storyline is a complete fabrication.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood has played fast and loose with a supposedly “true story.” So why does it bother me in this instance? Maybe because it troubles me that the heart of the film, the part that viewers are likely to remember most vividly and digest as fact, is mostly fiction. Maybe because it lacks the usual indicators of an unreliable narrator, which makes it easier to accept as truth. Maybe because (full disclosure) I went to Harvard myself, several years before Zuckerberg, and even by then the old-money elite were such a marginal percentage of the overall population, and the finals clubs such a tiny sliver of the social scene, that their centrality in movie-Zuckerberg’s universe just doesn’t ring true with me. To be fair, at some level this is consistent with one of TSN’s overarching themes—that by Zuckerberg’s time, the old guard no longer wielded the power it once did, and could be all too easily sidelined by someone armed with talent and vision and unhampered by ethical scruples. (The point is underscored in a delightfully comic, if hammy, scene, in which the Winklevi attempt to convince then-President Larry Summers to take action against Zuckerberg.) Still, the idea that a student as brilliant and gifted as Mark Zuckerberg would be consumed by resentment towards those to the manor born seems at best implausible, at worst downright laughable. (One of Zuckerberg’s classmates has voiced a similar, though much stronger, objection to this aspect of the movie.)

None of this is to detract from the merits of the movie qua movie. It’s a gripping drama, fluidly filmed, sharply paced, and brimming with the kind of crackling dialogue that could only be penned by Sorkin. It features an outstanding lead performance by Eisenberg, who isn’t afraid to play Zuckerberg as an supremely unlikable little sociopath, yet at critical moments reveals subtle glimpses of a well-masked vulnerability. Garfield, too, is excellent, as his foil—as appealing as Zuckerberg is unappealing, but doomed to lag permanently a step behind—while JT is a hoot as the sleazy yet far-sighted foil to the foil, clearly enjoying the role of devil on Zuckerberg’s shoulder. As for the ultra-WASPy Winklevoss twins, they’re almost too well cast; it isn’t easy to take seriously an actor who’s a dead ringer for Prince William and who's himself a scion of the closest thing we have to an American aristocracy. (Arnie Hammer, as it turns out, is the great-grandson of tycoon and art collector Armand Hammer, a name familiar to anyone who’s ever visited the very fine art museum at UCLA.) Nevertheless, he acquits himself well, and just may walk off with the best line in the entire movie.

What this all adds up to is a smart, bracing piece of entertainment that’s more of a riff on actual events than a credible account of them. I just hope that everyone who sees it realizes that’s all it is. Otherwise, this may be one instance in which history wasn’t written by the victors.



And a few belated R.I.P.'s...

Quite a lot of entertainment-related celebrities have passed recently, but three stand out in particular: Tony Curtis, Arthur Penn, and Gloria Stuart. I've only seen each of them in one film - but each of them made a stronger impression with that one film than many an actor or director has over an entire career. I'll never forget Curtis as "Josephine" in the divinely comedic "Some Like It Hot"; Jack Lemmon may have been the funnier of the pair, but he wouldn't have been half so funny without his partner in crime - who also managed to maintain his very male sexiness even when in full drag. Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" - the original American answer to the French nouvelle vague and prototype for movies ranging from "Butch Cassidy" to "Natural Born Killers" - held me riveted from start to finish, and felt as fresh as if I were one of the first moviegoers to see it. And finally, the charming Ms. Stuart was quite possibly the only good to come out of the otherwise execrable "Titanic."

The three of them made other films worth seeing, of course. (Curtis made a baby worth seeing, too, aka Jamie Lee, with then-wife Janet Leigh. Now *that* was a handsome Hollywood couple.) But even if they hadn't, that one performance would have ensured each of them a place in cinematic history. And that's a legacy worth celebrating.