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Hollywood's Obesity Problem

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader


Every January, Entertainment Weekly publishes a comprehensive list of the best and worst reviewed movies of the past year, and though the 2009 issue hasn't come out yet, it's a cinch that the top-reviewed movie will be Up, Pixar Studios remarkably popular summer animation blockbuster. Up garnered almost unanimous praise upon its release in May, with many critics claiming that it was the best of all Pixar creations, better than the much-loved "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," and "WALL-E." The story of an old man's quest to fly his house to South America with balloons caught on with the public as well, and "Up" became a huge box-office success, earning nearly $300 million dollars, second only in Pixar history to "Finding Nemo" in 2003. This year, the Academy Awards are expanding the number of nominees for "Best Picture" from five films to ten, and it's certain that "Up" will be one of the finalists. An animated film has never won "Best Picture"--only Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" has even been nominated--but with no clear cut live-action favorite, "Up" seems to have a reasonably good chance to snag the top prize.

There's nothing tackier than a critic who takes an antagonistic position just to stand out, so let me say that my confusion with Up's critical reception has nothing to do with me being a contrary, misanthropic jerk. Truth told, I like Pixar films, and indeed, I liked the first thirty minutes of Up very much the montage sequence of man and wife is heartbreakingly sweet, and the moment of lift-off via balloons is thrilling, exhilarating in the way that only movies can provide. Problem is, though, after the house gets airborne, there's still another sixty minutes of over-stuffed plot to get through, and the endless machinations of the narrative detract greatly from what should be a simple parable. There is a kid. The kid has a backstory. There is a dog. The dog has a backstory. There is a Colonel Kurtz character. He has a backstory. There is a Werner Herzog reference. There is a protect-the-environment cautionary tale. There are a series of exhausting, cliff-hanger action sequences. The old guy has to have a Grinch-like change of heart and save the day. And on and on. Up has a running time on only 96 minutes yet it feels interminable.

Every review of Up I read mentioned the beautiful montage sequence at the beginning of the movie, and yet most of the critics paid scant attention to the rest of the story. What they're not saying by this, I think, is that "Up" should have been a short film and not a feature. But film reviewers (and film goers) have gotten so conditioned by over-saturated plots and excesses that they believe a film has to have a bewildering series of narratives and three or four emotional climaxes in order to succeed. But they don't. A simple story doesn't have to hit all the buttons in order to work. Up has many fine moments and a number of great sight gags, but it's too much. It's like many releases this past decade, from The Dark Knight to the intolerable Pirates of the Caribbean movies, movies intent on pummeling you with too much sound and fury.
I am reminded of the ancient entertainment adage that comedians still swear by--"always leave them wanting more." It applies to stand-up, but it transfers to movies and theatre as well. A first class work of art doesn't do all the work for you, it allows you the chance to fill in the blanks for yourself. You should leave the theatre with you mind engaged as you ponder all the things said and unsaid by what you've witnessed. Many Hollywood movies--especially the blockbusters--bludgeon you with so much plot and push-button responses that you exit the theatre exhausted, without a thought in your head.

Screenwriters seem to take personal the hoary Hollywood dictum of the one-line pitch "Schwarzenegger masquerades as a kindergarten teacher in order to find a drug dealer," etc. In response to this artistically offensive formula, screenwriters are now committed to packing their films with secondary narratives, back stories, labyrinthine structures, character reversals, multiple climaxes, cherished totems from the first act that are revealed at the end. The result is, you're left with a movie that won't give you a moment's peace. The Dark Knight made a billion dollars but I was absolutely exhausted by its two-and-a-half hour running time and the wholly unnecessary side plot with Two-Face and the near execution of Police Commissioner Gordon's kid. It seemed like The Dark Knight wasn't content to be merely an action picture, it had to be every action picture ever made. It's never pleasant to see a movie that has a gun pointed at your head.

I am interested in seeing "Avatar," which now looks poised to pass "The Dark Knight"'s box office total of $530 million, but two things have kept me away. One is the running time (two hours, forty minutes), which makes my head hurt just thinking about, and the other is the hysterical and hyperbole-laden reviews from the pack of film critics who've been praising the film. "The Greatest Adventure of All Time!" thunders one particularly insane reviewer, and I can't help thinking, I don't want that much pressure. I just want to see a movie.

I'm starting to think that the only safe choices at the Cineplex are the much-reviled Hollywood genre pictures. There's something to be said for a simple story told simply. Raymond Chandler wrote detective novels because he loved the parameters imposed by the formula--there's a dead body, a detective, some corruption, an action sequence, resolution. Yet within these limits he was able to make some trenchant insights about the human condition without bashing your head in. In an era of bloat and excess, he remains a master of simplicity.

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