I’ve seen all of the big holiday movies and I’m itchin’ to talk about them but right now I just want to briefly comment on the absurd “news” headline that’s been blaring at me from my computer for the past two days:
“Box-Office Battle of Exes Goes to Jennifer Aniston”
This is in reference to the two films that opened this past weekend starring former spouses Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Pitt and Cate Blanchett and “Marley & Me” featuring Aniston and Owen Wilson. The media mavens are falling over themselves to pit Aniston and Pitt against each other, as if the reception of their respective films is a referendum on their failed marriage. Looking at the box office receipts from the holiday weekend, Aniston has clearly won custody of America's pocketbooks. “Marley & Me,” the sentimental film version of the best-selling book about a couple’s marriage as seen through their ownership of a mischievous dog named Marley took in a whopping $37 million over the three-day weekend (plus an unprecedented Christmas day opening of over $14 million) while “Benjamin Button,” the epic tale of a man who ages backwards over the course of the 20th century, took in $27.2 million and is already trailing off. Why am I even commenting on this non-story? Because a) pitting Aniston and Pitt against each other in this way makes me want to puke, and b) I’m worried that the stupendous box office numbers for “Marley & Me” will send the wrong message to filmmakers and studio executives.
On Saturday, I went to see “Valkyrie,” the new Tom Cruise film about a failed 1944 plot by top German officials to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The big trend this Christmas season is movies about “good Nazis,” from the benevolent wife of the commandant of Auschwitz in “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” to Kate Winslet’s sympathetic former SS guard in “The Reader” to Cruise’s heroic but doomed Claus von Stauffenberg. Is our own culture imploding so fast that we now have to look to Nazi Germany for our feel-good nostalgia? I have my issues with Cruise and his acting style but I have to admit I enjoyed the film and its careful attention to the look and feel of this time period. Having all of the actors playing Nazis speaking in their own accents (American, English, German, and so on) could have ruined the film for me but thanks to a clever device at the beginning of the film that “explained” their use of English, I was able to get past it and even be grateful that they didn’t force British accents on the American cast members as directors often do when the characters are supposed to be speaking a foreign tongue (see the seven Americans playing the Von Trapp children in “The Sound of Music” for a bad example of that phenomenon).
The one problem dogging the suspense of “Valkyrie” is that we all know how it turns out. Obviously, the people who plotted against der Führer did not succeed—Hitler survived to cause far more damage throughout Europe until he took his own life in 1945. There’s not much back story to the characters here, and I wonder if the motives of the “good” Nazis were always as pure as depicted. The truth is, either you’re interested in this particular piece of history or you’re not. I was interested enough to stick with it.
I saw the film at the 14-screen cineplex at the Grove in Los Angeles. The films are usually scheduled to avoid sneak-ins—none of them are beginning as the other ones are ending. There also tends to be employees standing in front of each theatre checking ticket stubs. As I left the film, I noticed that the film in the neighboring theatre was about to begin. Hmmm, and no one checking tickets? How could I resist? The film was “Marley & Me.” I’d seen the preview and it looked sort of appealing. What did I have to lose? It would be a good antidote to the tensions of “Valkyrie” and help get me out of that terrifying time period.
My verdict? I’d rather be in Nazi Germany.
It’s been a long time since I saw a film that was so offensively bad that it caused me to audibly moan in the theatre. I know that “Marley & Me” is based on a true story and I apologize to the real-life author and his family but to my sensibilities there wasn’t a single authentic moment in the film. True, I did tear up briefly during the inexcusably manipulative ending but that just made me hate it more. I was so miserable watching this film that a man behind me took two calls on his cell phone during the film and I didn’t even bother to turn around and try to shut him up. I truly felt insulted by this test-marketed dreck.
Why all the venom? There are far more important things to rant about than this stupid film. What was it about this story that annoyed me to the point where I would have rather have spent two more hours in Hitler’s bunker than five more minutes in Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston’s set decorated house? The dog was adorable (well, all 22 dogs who played Marley at different ages), Wilson and Aniston have never looked better, and the film was populated by actors I usually like, but I just couldn’t get past the absence of any real emotion at its core. Is it the mediocrity of the film that angers me or am I more frustrated at the audiences for lapping it up so readily? When I got home and heard that “Marley & Me” was the #1 film in the country, I wanted to spit, especially when there are so many more worthy films out these days that will never get a following. I can see the studio execs now, green-lighting every treacly film full of artificial spoon-fed emotions while putting the kibosh on innovative projects that demand a lot more from their audiences.
Projects like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” I’m glad this ambitious film has the star power of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett behind it because such a sweeping historical epic that clocks in at almost three hours is going to be a way tougher sell than “Marley & Me’s” Readers Digest date-night appeal. We saw “Benjamin Button” Sunday night and were transfixed by its unique plot (bearing no resemblance to the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) and by the mesmerizing performances of both Pitt and Blanchett. I’m going to be careful not to give any critical plot points away here so I can’t discuss the story in any detail but suffice it to say that it’s fascinating to see both of these excellent actors playing characters far younger and far older than they currently are. It’s not a perfect film but it forces you to think about mortality in new and interesting ways and for me it had the same haunting effect as the final ten minutes of the series “Six Feet Under.”
Wisely, the trailers for “Benjamin Button” go easy on the images of the wrinkled, wizened Brad Pitt and focus on the star at his hunkiest. Thanks to the state-of-the-art special effects and the excellent cinematography, we see the best aging effects ever produced on screen as well as Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as they would have appeared about twenty years ago, when Blanchett was still wowing theatre audiences in Sydney and Pitt was heating up Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in “Thelma and Louise.” The supporting cast is terrific. In addition to the leads, I think that Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, and Taraji Henson are shoo-ins for Oscar nominations. Compare that to the painfully bad supporting performances in “Marley & Me,” from an intolerable Eric Dane doing a badly written parody of his McSteamy character from “Grey’s Anatomy,” Alan Arkin parodying Alan Arkin, and worst of all, the fabulous Kathleen Turner in a monstrously ugly and surprisingly small role as an unpleasant dog trainer. Sigh.
Oh God, I’ve fallen right into the trap set by Entertainment Tonight and the E! Network—comparing these two films as if it makes any sense to do so. Would you compare a complex French cassoulet with Chicken McNuggets? I guess I sound like a horrible snob but it’s not that I’m against so-called “chick flicks,” God knows, or even films with paper-thin plots. Last night I saw “Last Chance Harvey,” a film that had no right to be any good at all, and I loved it thanks to the sheer charisma and talent of Dustin Hoffmann and Emma Thompson and their ability to convey authentic feelings. There may have been some plot oddities in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but Brad Pitt was able to portray a range of difficult emotions that served the film beautifully. Suffice it to say that in my book, Pitt wins the Battle of the Exes hands down.
I admit that the huge box office success of “Marley & Me” helped to ratchet up my disgust. The last time I hated a film so much was exactly three years ago and it wasn’t nearly as successful as this one, but…oops…it did star Jennifer Aniston. I seem to have a history of evoking Nazi Germany when discussing her films. Commenting on her relationship with Mark Ruffalo in the awful “Rumor Has It,” I said that “the chemistry between the two of them is so poor I would have been more turned on by a romantic comedy starring Hitler and Eva Braun.” Yikes. I swear I have no vendetta against Jennifer Aniston. I loved her in “Friends,” I thought she was great on a recent episode of “30 Rock,” and in films, I thought she did a wonderful job in “The Good Girl,” but that was way back in 2002. If I could give the mega-star any advice (and of course, now that I’m trashing her #1 film, why wouldn’t she come to me?), I’d say she should do whatever it takes to find some interesting parts that do not focus on her beautiful and bubbly exterior. I heard that she was up for the part of Marianne Pearl in the film “A Mighty Heart.” Now that would have been fantastic for her career. But in the end that part went to…um…Angelina Jolie. Gulp. Sorry, Jen!