Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part XXI: Stop saying "Casablanca"


ALLIED

Emptier than it has any right to be, considering what it wants to be about, Allied is a misstep from a master.  And while it's effortlessly watchable, because the only Zemeckis live-action joint that wasn't watchable came out almost four decades ago, it's still pretty close to the least-good good movie he ever made.

2016
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Steven Knight
With Brad Pitt (Wing Commander Maurice "Max" Vatan), Marion Cotillard (Marianne Beausejour), Lizzy Caplan (Bridget Vatan), and Jared Harris (Frank Heslop)

Spoiler alert: mild


Back in May, I completed a retrospective on the whole filmography of Robert Zemeckis.  Now, Zemeckis is a capital-G, capital-D Great Director (indeed, a God Damned Great Director, if you want to double your pleasure), and nothing will ever take that away from him.  He could make a dozen more Christmas Carols before he died, and that title would still be his, because it's his forever: it can sullied, but it can't be stolen, and it sure as hell can't be surrendered.

But when it came time for my concluding thoughts, my unspoken assumption was that, after the debacle of the Motion Capture Years, Zemeckis had returned to the land of the living more-or-less unscathed, ready to get back to the work of filming real human beings doing real human being stuff—or, more to the point, doing the wacky, cartoonish stuff that Zemeckis had always had his human beings do when they were in front of his cameras.  Two pretty great movies in a row reinforced my assumption.  I played a little coy, and didn't overtly declare that his third live-action film since the turn of the 21st century, Allied, was going to be yet another great movie, too; but you know darned well that I didn't think anything else was really possible.  Add in the fact that Steven Knight, the writer-director of Locke, was coming along the ride, and I can hardly see how anything less than greatness was possible.

At this point it may be unnecessary to say that it was.

Making matters even more disappointing, the premise was always bound to be a whole metric ton's worth of thriller dynamite.  And that premise goes like this: it's World War II, and Max Vatan, a Canadian spy working for British Intelligence, is dropped into the North African desert.  After a hike to Casablanca, Max meets his Resistance contact in Vichy Morocco, a certain Marianne Beausejour—and she's beautiful, and vivacious, and all that.  Together, they pose as husband and wife in order to get close to the German authorities.  But somewhere in the middle of their scheme to assassinate the Nazis' ambassador to Petain's France, they actually do fall in love.  And so, not three weeks after they make it to safety in England, they get married, for real.  It looks like they're going to live happily ever after, and so they do.

...That is, until the day that Max—riding a desk ever since Morocco, and occasionally helping Marianne raise their infant daughter—finds himself called into the dungeons below British Intelligence, where he is told, point blank, that his wife is, and always has been, a Nazi spy.  His angry protestations naturally come to nothing in the face of his superiors' certainty; and, besides, they have a plan to flush this mole out into the open.

They will call him that night; he will write down what they say in a place where Marianne will see it; and if this false intelligence makes its way into the hands of the Nazis, then they'll know for absolute sure; and then Max will be called upon to put a bullet in his wife's head, or else both of them will share a final dance on the end of a pair of ropes.

Altogether, it's such a good premise for a down-and-dirty spy thriller that you could, theoretically, forgive it for being so preposterously stupid.  If it were a significantly better movie—that is, if it were the movie it wants to be, and the movie which, unfortunately, I think it thinks it is—there's half a chance you wouldn't even notice.  But alas, Allied is not that movie.  Indeed, if it were that movie, it seems extraordinarily likely that the script would've been able to figure out some way to get this crucial information into Max's hands without lazily resorting to Max's superiors simply telling him, which, of course, is something they have every reason in the whole damned world not to do.

Naturally, those reasons will be explored in due course as the plot unfolds, when Max, ordered in no uncertain terms not to make any investigations of his own, goes ahead and makes many investigations of his own.  (I am also rather positive that the standard procedure for dealing with enemy spies, even during the darkest moments of WWII, was never "compel their spouse to execute them by their own hand," an act that proves not a damned thing about loyalty, and could only serve to turn an asset into an enemy.  Then again, it never occurs to anybody that Marianne, even if she were the Hitler-fuckingest Nazi on Planet Earth, would nevertheless be at least as valuable to the British war effort as a channel for misinformation as she would be for filling up a grave.)

But I said it was a solid grounding for a thriller; and a solid thriller is indeed exactly what we get—but, of course, since it's a thriller as determined to be as dry and as dour as it could possibly be, the bulk of the movie is left with an enormous amount of plot-related nonsense that it can't sell, cluttering up the scenery until it gets to its very final reveals.  Or, rather, its very final reveal—emphatically singular; not plural at all.

The movie, once we're back in Britain, is single-minded to a fault—the question is whether Marianne is a spy, or not, and that is it as far as this mystery's onion-like layers go.  (There are suggestions that Max, being sized up for a promotion—and with a wife under suspicion of espionage, yeah right—is being tested in some way.  This potentially interesting complication entirely lives and dies within the space of the few lines of dialogue that establish it, and, in the end, it comes to nothing at all.)

I will say this, however: those last five minutes really do have some kind of power.  Zemeckis the sentimentalist was waiting this whole time to spring his trap, and it works: for a moment, you really can pretend that the movie was building to this, making all that lead-up worthwhile.  Sadly, this moment does pass soon enough.  Sure, Allied is admirably full of stuff—bloody gunfights in ballrooms, babies birthed during air raids, secret flights back to France to check on buried leads, lesbian relations played with basically one-note by Lizzy Caplan, for reasons that appear to go no deeper than "let's half-assedly acknowledge lesbians' service to the war effort, in a way that wouldn't be too much more anachronistic if the movie had George VI show up to perform services at their marriage."  But none of this accumulation of incident ever adds up to any serious involvement with the film's machinations, except in the very, very end.  Essentially, it wants to be Hitchcock, only without the set-pieces; and, God almighty, does it ever want to be Casablanca, only without the performances.  And more on that in just a moment, for it ties in with what I need to say about its director, too.

And what's absolutely impossible to figure out about Allied is what Zemeckis saw in this screenplay, or what made him ever believe that this was a movie for him.  In eighteen feature films, spread across forty years, Allied is by an enormous margin the least characteristic of all.  Obviously, this is some kind of objective disappointment just in itself, considering that it sees Zemeckis reteaming with most of his ancient crew from before the mo-cap years; of the major department heads, only production designer Rick Carter is missing.  Still, let's be clear: Allied is handsome as anything.

But it's sure as hell not Zemeckian.  It is his least funny film by far, and so unwhimsical it's almost painful.  (Moments of sub-whimsy come and go, like distant echoes.)  Now, to the extent Allied's "kill your wife, or we'll kill you both" material does not seem to support either comedy or whimsy, I'll happily point out that it wouldn't seem like Zemeckis' addiction melodrama or Zemeckis' alien first contact procedural could support either of those things either; but Flight really is out-and-out hilarious, whereas even sober old Contact is still very noticeably a Zemeckis joint.  And not just in its technique, either, but its heart and soul, for it is a film strikingly bound to a singular point-of-view, and that's "Serious" Zemeckis' biggest talent, pinning a film to a single character and making it work, no matter how epic and out-of-proportion everything around that character seems to get.  I never needed Allied to be zany—that would've been all wrong—but I did need it to have the kind of boundless energy that propelled Contact, and every other film Zemeckis has ever made.

But maybe we accidentally stumbled across the answer to our own question a few sentences earlier, for on paper Allied is exactly such a work of first-person point-of-view, and I suppose Zemeckis believed that he could invite us to see the world through the increasingly-warped lens of Allied's hero.  (However, I cannot, with only one viewing, confirm that Zemeckis is anywhere near as formally committed to Max Vatan's perspective as he was with Forrest Gump, Ellie Arroway, and Chuck Noland.  I would hazard a guess, and it feels like this anyway, that it's a lot more like the de-rigorized POV of Claire Spencer in What Lies Beneath, which is his only other pure thriller—not to mention his only other attempt at ersatz-Hitchcock.)

Either way, it doesn't totally work, but that's not Zemeckis anyway—that's his cast.  If Zemeckis popped out of the shadows and yelled, "Gotcha, motherfuckers!", and it turned out that Allied was actually a secret motion-capture cartoon all along, well, I'd certainly have to really reevaluate what the film means, but I can't say as I'd actually be surprised; after all, Polar Express can plausibly boast of less stiffness in its performances.  This is far more Brad Pitt than Marion Cotillard, but Cotillard does not escape unscathed; despite representing more-or-less a physical ideal, she is about as seductive as a wet rag in this movie, and when the only important dimension of her character, until the very, very end, is that she's supposed to be seductive (and beautiful, and vivacious, and all that, remember!), this isn't exactly the good news we were hoping for.  Cotillard, in my experience, has two major modes: painfully chilly, and enjoyably nuts.  Here, of course, she goes all-out for the former.  It's a reasonable choice, and it bounces off against her co-lead like a snowball.

So then there's Pitt, who appears to have been Benjamin Buttoned again, only this time by surgeons rather than CGI, and while it is never a good thing when an actor can't move their facial muscles, you'd think he could still manage to communicate some smoldering or something.  It is, all in all, a dire miscasting—the most egregious miscasting of the usually-great actor in a lead role in years, in fact—because when you cast Pitt, you presumably want bluster and machismo and something right on the edge of crazy; when he is great, it's because he's great in his niche, not because he has any kind of range, and "slow unraveling" is not his strong suit.  A raveled Pitt is not a Pitt it's fun to spend time with.  And when you combine all that with a lack of any real simmering chemistry with his co-star, you have a second performance, out of the only two that matter, that doesn't do much of anything.

It is not an outright bad movie, despite everything bad I've had to say about it; it's too well-made, in the classical sense, to be actively bad, or even actively boring.  Zemeckis knows how to shoot any scene, frame any object, and put any pair of moments together so that they flow, even if it's almost against their will.  There is almost always something interesting happening in Allied, even if "being interesting" almost inevitably means that it's extrinsic to the characters themselves.

Zemeckis' mistake was a strategic one in this case: rather than doubling down on the mechanics of his mechanical thriller, he opens up the film, in nearly every scene, to let it breathe—apparently as an act of generosity to his performers, which was not repaid in kind.  So, believing he was making a sweeping romance, we do get the form of one, only without any of the substance; yet on occasion form really is enough.  (A sex scene in a sandstorm is fine, fine work, even if it's ludicrous, maybe especially because it's ludicrous—it is Zemeckis actually being Zemeckis, and trusting the emotional truth of an image over anything as feeble as mere rationality.  In fact, now that I consider it, the first act of Allied is actually quite serviceable, at least outside of its mismatched leads and the undersold spark that's supposed to have lit between them; a version of Allied that never left Morocco, compressed its story, and recast Pitt—well, that might have really been something.  Then again, I can already rewatch Casablanca whenever I want.)

Taken as it is, however, Allied only springs to life completely when the two modes of the film, paranoid thriller and epic romance, actually smash completely into each other.  And, by then, it is so close to too little, too late, that there's hardly a dime's worth of difference between the good movie it finally becomes, and the not-exactly-good movie it had been.

Score:  6/10

2 comments:

  1. French Resistance Barbie comes with Wing Commander Ken - twice! What a tedious movie.

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    1. Sounds about right--especially since Barbie, for all her plasitcky faults, still appears to have a little bit more personality than poor Ken.

      On the other hand, "tedious" connotes a more painful experience than I had with it--a 6/10 is a very mild recommendation, after all--but I don't think I could honestly begrudge anyone who found it *completely* worthless.

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