April 14, 2011

MOVIE: James L. Brooks filmogrphy

My estimate of How Do You Know based on its marketing was that it was a bland romantic comedy that aspired to be decent, and that Paul Rudd was cashing a paycheck. So usually, this one would've been a skip for me, but the fact that Paul Rudd, national treasure/best comedic dancer, was in it was enough reason for me to check it out on DVD. I remember taking fleeting glances at reviews for this movie, and that they weren't that great. When I sat down to watch it though, I was surprised to find an enchanting cast of characters. Rudd and Owen Wilson do great character work, whilst also being directed to do what they do best. Reese Witherspoon gives an inspired and layered performance, and even Jack Nicholson tones it down for, whatelse, a small but crucial part. After I finished the movie, I went through my usual ritual of reading multiple reviews, and had an aha moment as I realized, of course, this is a James L. Brooks movie!

The movie isn't a masterpiece by any means- it's far too cutesy and sitcommy, and the denouement definitely feels rushed. It's an observation that can be made about any number of Brooks's movies. (Brooks came from a sitcom background, being exec producer behind some of the greats like Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi.) But at the same time, I find his movies beguiling- they're full of razor sharp insights about how people interact and communicate, and he has a knack for highlighting the little lost moments in life. It's a body of work that requires you to "go with it" a bit in order to get past the contrivances, which seems to lead to his movies being either overpraised (As Good As It Gets), or unfairly maligned (Spanglish).

I've actually been meaning to write about Broadcast News for a little while, because when Morning Glory came out, everyone compared the two, which irked me. I have not seen Morning Glory, and do not feel the need to see it to have an opinion on it. As far as I can tell from the trailer, Rachel McAdams plays a smart ambitious young lady with moxie! Which is all fine and good, but it simply doesn't match up to the complexity and nuances of Holly Hunter's character. Broadcast News, suffers from the familiar trappings of James L. Brooks's sitcom tendencies. There's much banter between Hunter and Albert Brooks that would fit right into an episode of Will & Grace, and not in a good way. But it's such a thrilling story in the way it deals with modern issues of working women. There's so many aspects to this movie, and it can't be reduced down to just one thing. But one thing in particular about this movie, that really speaks to me, is the question of "What do you do, when your libido betrays your code of honor?" How many directors can we think of who would ask questions like this, and present it through the prism of such a well drawn female perspective?

In the current climate of extreme Love it/Hate it pop culture verdicts, directors like Brooks tend to get overlooked. I do understand why some would find his work polarizing and even grating. Téa Leoni's character in Spanglish was pretty challenging to sit through to say the least, but I think it's a shame that more people didn't enjoy that movie as a whole, given that it had a lot of good moments outside of that one character. (I'm also constantly surprised at the amount of vitriol that people muster up for unlikeable female characters. Characters are not always there to be likable!!!)