Ever since Hollywood gave up in the late 70s on even trying to make films that aimed at anything more than profit maximization there’s been a perceived gap to be filled. And rather than doing anything as insane as watching something not in English or made outside established studios there’s been a steady trickle of films masquerading as, let’s be blunt, “art”. This can account for much of the careers of folks ranging from Alexander Payne to the Coens to Darren Aronofsky to even Spielberg when he wants to pretend he’s more than an entertainer.
Young Adult (Jason Reitman 2011) – Take Reitman. Juno would have been noteworthy if made by 14-year-olds but alas it wasn’t so all we could do is hope Reitman and crew did better next time. And they partly did since In the Air wasn’t completely horrible though much of that was due to Clooney’s watch-the-mask-slip performance. And now Young Adult, featuring again a name star and a rising one. The film looks like another one of those driven-career-person-learns-the-value-of-small-town-life outings though apparently conceived as more a character study of a delusional, end-of-her-rope loser. It opens with no non-diegetic music, Theron looking wasted, a messy apartment, packaged dinners and some backstory delivered by email so altogether you know it’s gotta be serious. Theron skims through an underwritten part – apparently the screenwriters felt that having the novel she’s writing comment on her actual experiences meant they didn’t have to do anything else, not even give much substance to her delusion. Oswalt though provides whatever life is in the film and their scenes together are really its core. Still the most striking element is when it appears that Theron’s character is going to Learn a Lesson somebody else just confirms all her original thoughts about small towns, leaving no clue where she will continue on a downward spiral or start new in whatever small way. I think we’re supposed to take away some respect for small towns and just getting on with your life but really with its looks at packaged consumer culture, sterile chain restaurants, oblivious locals and cheap hotel rooms Young Adult seems more like a Hollywood version of Hell. And if Reitman &co could have extended that ending ambiguity (intentional or not) through the previous 90 minutes then maybe there would have been something here.
Moneyball (Bennett Miller 2011) – If anything this has even less to brag about. Basically it’s an excessively over-long misfits-win sports film though with so much of the sports left out that you might miss that. And the crowning disgrace is that it has a teenaged girl sing the moral. No you didn’t read that wrong – her song tells us exactly what the film was about (“follow your heart” or some such nonsense). Many reviewers claimed it’s hard to make a film about statistics, clearly missing the point completely – the story is actually about competing ways of thinking and that has been a main thread of art going back to, what, Antigone? The Iliad? In fact if anything there’s not even a stab at statistics in the film and this competing ways of thinking conflict barely clashes. We’re just left to assume that the analysis is right and all the outdated fuddy duddies are wrong. But then there’s not much of a stab at anything. Nearly all the characters are just a trait or two (in particular Jonah Hill’s is almost completely undeveloped), there’s not much about why the new method is any better, not much about how the team works or didn’t, not much of anything really. Moneyball also seems to have been designed as more or less a character study but the scenes attempting to fill in Pitt’s character are easily the weakest, most poorly executed in the film. Y’know he doesn’t particularly like his ex-wife’s new husband, wow. He loves his daughter, wow. He has a temper, wow. And that’s about it. Doesn’t help that Pitt just coasts through with a decent-guy smirk and those outbursts to show he’s Acting. Too bad Philip Seymour Hoffman was stuck in a supporting role instead of the lead or that Miller isn’t a more competent director of actors. Miller is instead developing moody long shots with quasi-ambient blues so everything should be real real serious.