Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The crash of the Wedding Crashers

All right, I'm convinced.

Brokeback Mountain ain't mush.

Lots of very persuasive comments on this post and this one, but my mind was pretty well on the way to being changed by the very first comment from Stefanie. She focused on several themes she saw in the movie, one of which was class, which she says "percolates" (love that word!) through the lives of all the characters:

It's one thing to consider throwing caution to the wind when you know where your next meal is coming from, but desperation breeds caution and the habit of desperation ultimately limits imagination. There's a line toward the end where Ennis tells Jack, "you forgot what it's like to be broke all the time." (or something to that effect)

But, she writes:

To me the central point of the film is that the societal imperative to police homosexuality ensures that *everyone* pays a price for that-- not just Ennis and Jack, but their parents, wives, kids, and everyone else they encounter.

A point seconded by Our Girl in Chicago, who asks in her comment, "Can a movie so unrelentingly steeped in pain be called mush?"

Which leads me to an idea that came up again and again in all the comments, that the difference between a great romantic movie and mush is that in the great romantic movies there is something more important at stake than whether or not the couple gets together in the end.

In dramas this can be serious societal or psychological issues.

Sometimes, as in romantic comedies, it's just the jokes. In other movies, as Exiled in NJ pointed out was the case in Hitchcock's romantic thrillers, it's what Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the simple plot device that is the cause of all the mystery and mayhem that surrounds and threaten the romantic leads.

Let me think on it, and I'll come up with some romantic comedies in which love is both the McGuffin and the basis for the best jokes.

Movies with plots in which nothing more is at stake than LOVE are mushy.

There are mushy romantic comedies and mushy romantic thrillers, some of which have good jokes and cleverly constructed McGuffins. But the scripts and/or the director don't take the jokes or the McGuffin seriously. The movies aren't made as if the jokes and the McGuffin matter more than the kissing.

I haven't come up with a satisfying dictionary-style definition for mush. My working definition is that mush assumes that what the audience wants to see most of all is the couple locked in a clinch at the end. So this would mean that any movie that ends with the expectation that we will cheer at the couple smooching or any one that ends pushing us to weep at the fact that the movie is ending and the couple won't be able to smooch is mush.

Bringing up Baby doesn't end when Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn smooch. It ends after the smooch, with the dinosaur skeleton collapsing and Grant despairing at the task of putting it back together ahead of him.

And at the end of Casablanca we're glad Rick and Ilsa won't be smooching anymore because it leaves Rick free to go win World War II for us.

But I think that even more than this, a mushy movie is one that doesn't include any grown-up expectations about the consequences of the couple's falling in love.

There's more ahead of every couple who fall in love that vague, rosy dreams of marriage and children.

The movie ought to be able to give us a good sense of what life as a couple will be like for these characters.

The best way to do that is to show why these two people are made for each other.

Plenty of movies attempt this in the most simple-minded ways. She can't cook, but he's a gourmet chef. He can't program his VCR, but she's a computer whiz. Or he's a danger freak and she's a cop. Or she's artistic and he loves jazz. And then there's the perennial he's repressed and stuffy, she's a kooky free spirit. Fever Pitch tried a gender bender on that one. This one is cheating and often ends in mush because the movie makes the mistake of having the stuffy one "cured" by love. The couple's future life together will be one of nonstop madcap hilarity.

Bringing Up Baby and its lesser but still funny homage/remake, What's Up, Doc? both end with the assumption that for Grant and Hepburn and Striesand and O'Neill their future will be a long string of misadventures and disasters brought on by her continued kookiness and his timidity.

But most movies don't even bother with trying to establish any actual compatibility between the lovers. The couple belong together because they are in LOVE!

Usually, it's presented as a case of one of the two longing all movie long for the other---most often the guy longing for the girl---so that the focus isn't even on their future happiness as a couple but on that one character's future happiness as a gratified narcissist.

I was thinking I could do a better job of explaining what I mean with an illustration and I came up with an alternative version of His Girl Friday.

In His Girl Friday the two dynamic main characters are a pair of successful journalists who belong together not so much because they're in love but because they make a great team. The movie is quick to bring them together as a team and in fact never shows them as lovers---I can't remember if they ever even kiss. Poor Ralph Bellamy, much as he loves Roz Russell, can't compete with Cary Grant, but not because he's Ralph Bellamy and Cary Grant is Cary Grant. Ralph just has nothing else to offer Roz except his love. They have no future together that goes beyond him looking adoringly at her across their suburban living room while she loses herself in resentful daydreams about the life she gave up in order to be adored.

A mushy movie, recognizing that Grant's character Walter Burns is a selfish jerk, would turn this triangle around, because there is nothing as important as LOVE. Burns doesn't love Hildy the way she deserves to be loved. Ralph does. So a mushy movie would make Ralph the hero and Burns the villain from whose clutches Roz needs to be rescued. The fact that Ralph would be rescuing Roz from her career wouldn't figure into it or if it did the movie would either show that career to be not worth her time and talent or find a way for her to continue it on a lesser scale that would leave room for Ralph to adore her in.

I came up with this plot last week and then Saturday night the blonde and I watched The Wedding Crashers and son of a gun! That's exactly the plot of the Owen Wilson half of the movie.

Quick review: Lots of funny moments, most of them in the first half hour of the movie. A better movie wouldn't have dropped the wedding crashing plot so quickly---or even at all. It would have found a way to work out its twin love stories at a wedding or at least at a string of them. But Vince Vaughn is a riot and his character's love affair isn't the least bit mushy because it meets the requirements: The jokes that arise are more important than the smooching, their love is the McGuffin, because both of them are seriously deranged and how two people who should not be allowed off the leash can possibly form a stable relationship is every bit as suspenseful a question as did Raymond Burr really chop up his wife and can Jimmy Stewart prove it, and once they do get together it's possible to imagine their future together---mind-boggling, as it will involve lots of kinky sex and at least a couple of Brazillian girls, but possible.

On the other hand, Owen Wilson and the girl he's in love with, played by Rachel McAdams, have nothing in common and no reason to get together except that he LOVES her and she's engaged to a dork.

As a matter of fact, Wilson's character is a dork too, which the writer and director seemed to have realized but not been able to fix. The only way they could think of to give us a rooting interest in his prying her away from her dorky fiance was to make the fiance dorkier and dorkier and then finally turn him into a sociopath.

But this didn't have the effect of making me root harder for Wilson. It had me thinking she was an idiot for tying herself to that guy to begin with.

To give the movie credit, while Vince Vaughn and Isla Fisher wind up happily married and looking forward to their life of bondage games and bisexuality together, Wilson and McAdams are left at a wary distance from each other. They go off together with Vaughn and Fisher, but as sidekicks to them not as a fellow pair of lovers, and we're left to wonder if they ever will be lovers.

But from the moment Wilson spots McAdams across the dance floor at her sister's wedding reception until the (PLOT SPOILER although if you don't see it coming from the moment he finds out she has a fiance, you are 8 years old and just haven't seen enough movies to recognize a cliche bearing down on you like a runaway train) big confrontation where he declares his love before all the world, it's all mush.


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