FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE
When last we encountered the many heroes and villains of J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts series, the screenwriter/producer's pre-Harry Potter assemblage of wizards and Muggles was … . Um. I'm sorry, but does anyone recall what was going on with these people at the end of their 2018 film? More to the point: Does anyone care?
Honestly, I'm not trying to be combative. But over the three-and-a-half years that have passed since Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – a title so clunky and unmemorable I had to look it up – have any movie-goers been legitimately pining for another fantasy adventure featuring middle-aged Dumbledore and his grumpy ex-boyfriend and that tic-laden geek who talks to animals? I know plenty of adult fans who still talk about the Harry Potter book and film series with reverence, as well as a handful of their kids who became enraptured over the decade following that screen franchise's 2011 finale. Yet beginning with the 2016 release of Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, I haven't met a single soul who admitted to loving Rowling's middling attempts to re-capture her Potter magic in 1920s and '30s milieus – nor anyone, really, who had anything kinder to say about director David Yates' effects-heavy period projects than “Well, the beasts were sort of cool.” Still, these things evidently make money regardless, so now we have Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. I'd argue that of the three FB efforts to date, this one is the most disappointing, but that would imply that the others stayed in my brain long enough to be remembered.
For those of us who've stuck with this franchise out of either mild curiosity of professional obligation, the good news is that we're over the hump, as Rowling and Yates have stated that their series was designed to be five movies long. The bad news – some of the bad news – is that it's getting increasingly difficult to determine who these works were designed for. Sure, kids might get a kick out of the CGI critters with the silliest names since the heyday of George Lucas: the Niffler; the Bowtruckle; the Qilin. (That last one, introduced in the most recent film as a beast with an instinctive ability to recognize inner decency, is pronounced “chillun,” as in the Maude Flanders quote “Won't someone please think of the Qilin?!”) But will those youths warm to the dark, foreboding Secrets of Dumbledore narrative that's essentially a barely veiled re-imagining of Hitler's rise to power in pre-war Berlin? And while grown-ups will likely be aware of, and intrigued by, the plot's intentional evocation of Nazism, will that be enough to sustain them through a textbook's worth of uninteresting characters, ill-timed scenes of slapstick, and the sight of Eddie Redmayne undulating like a hind-legged crab?
Adding to the question of “Who is this for?” is another, more potentially vexing query: “Who is this about?” I caught the film with a friend who, until earlier that morning, hadn't seen the first Fantastic Beasts, and who didn't have time enough to watch Crimes of Grindelwald before our afternoon screening. For understandable reason, she was largely confused about what was going on. (As was I, and I didn't have her excuse.) But when, after the movie ended, she asked who the film's star was supposed to be, I realized I didn't have an answer for that, either – and it was a good question, because it addressed an issue far deeper than billing.
Jude Law's wizard is name-checked in the title, but he vanishes for large chunks of the film, and a significant point is made of the fact that, due to a supernatural blood pact made with Grindelwald, Dumbledore literally can't battle his power-hungry ex. Mads Mikkelsen (replacing Johnny Depp) is given juicier material as the malevolent despot who wants to eradicate all Muggles in existence, but we're hardly meant to root for Grindelwald, even when he climaxes a violent skirmish against fellow wizards with a plaintive, “I'm not your enemy. I've never been your enemy.” (Then what the hell was all that fighting about?!) Redmayne's “magizoologist” Newt Scamander was the unquestionable protagonist of the first two Fantastic Beasts. Yet as delighted as I was to see less of Redmayne's twitchy, aging Oliver Twist, Newt is weirdly sidelined through most of the movie – though not nearly as much as his girlfriend Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is only seen in photographs before the series' former female lead makes her first speaking appearance five minutes before the film ends.
There's nothing inherently wrong, of course, in a movie having no discernible star presence. The Secrets of Dumbledore ensemble, however, isn't employed as a cohesive “all roles are equal” unit like in Spotlight, or as a series of showcase turns à la The Right Stuff. Basically, everyone here just feels subservient to everyone else, and with Steve Kloves assisting Rowling on the screenplay this time around, no character has been written with enough inner life or complexity to evince our empathy, or even much of our interest. Dan Fogler is still lovable as the bumbling Muggle Jacob Kowalski – brief though the visit is, it's a treat watching him interact with some students at Hogwarts – and despite the plotting not allowing her many opportunities to smile, Alison Sudol's Queenie Goldstein continues to be the ravishingly vibrant yet delicate figure this series desperately needs. (Why on earth doesn't Sudol get more film roles?) But as Newt's brother Theseus, Callum Turner again comes off as the most boring actor to ever be signed for a Rowling; Ezra Miller – who added some previous fire as the nefarious Credence Barebone – comes off as the most seemingly bored actor in Rowling history; and even such topnotch performers as Jessica Williams, William Nadylam, and Victoria Yeats fail to make significant impressions. Not that, with cinematographer George Richmond apparently going for a mood of incessant funereal gloom, you could adequately see the castmates even if they succeeded.
Giving credit where it's due, I applaud the filmmakers for not merely coyly alluding to the romantic heartbreak that sets events in motion; when Dumbledore tells Grindelwald that he made a youthful decision “because I was in love with you,” the moment is shocking – especially in the service of “family-friendly” entertainment – for its casually up-front honesty. And as with Yates' other two Fantastic Beasts (the first of which won an Oscar for its costumes), this new production is unerringly handsome in its design, with composer James Newton Howard providing an effectively whimsical and melancholy score. No one involved, though, seems to be having any fun with the purportedly magical experience they're presenting, and as my friend and I later agreed, the only things that kept us from conking out during the interminable midsection were the sounds of presumably unengaged kids running up and down the auditorium aisles. Heavy-spirited, repetitive, and dull even when devoted to thwarted assassination attempts, The Secrets of Dumbledore is a blockbuster-scaled snooze, and it's telling that the one scene I really wanted to witness – the only scene, in truth, over three entries thus far – took place discreetly, and unfairly, out of sight. Why waste a few minutes on joy, I guess, when there's all this misery for we Muggles to muddle through?
Mark Wahlberg hasn't been nominated for an acting Oscar since he was cited, and should have won, for 2006's The Departed. And he appears to be striving for two or three Academy Awards at once in Father Stu, debuting writer/director Rosalind Ross' inspirational true-life tale in which Wahlberg plays a punch-drunk professional boxer (like De Niro in Raging Bull!) who becomes a struggling Tinseltown presence (like Pitt in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood!) who becomes a devoted acolyte for God buried under mountains of prosthetics (like Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye!).
All told, it's a mess of a movie that doesn't adequately blend its sequences of profane comedy and sincere emotionalism, and the awkwardness is compounded by our never having a handle on who the real Stuart Long – who passed away in 2014 – might have been, given the sitcom blitheness with which his alternating passions are revealed and explored. Still, it's a relief to see Wahlberg actively attempt a performance given all the paycheck appearances of the Uncharted school clogging his résumé, and Ross' offering is certainly livelier than four-fifths of the faith-based entertainments that get released. Best of all, the movie provides quite a bit of strong material not only for Jacki Weaver, who's enjoyably tough-minded and salty-mouthed as Stu's mom, but for – and I swallow hard in writing this – Mel Gibson, who plays Stu's estranged, alcoholic father with more fervor and electricity than he's delivered in ages. It's a colossal Hollywood injustice that Gibson should still be so wildly charismatic so many years after falling out of public and professional favor. But I found myself jazzed every time he showed up … though I probably wasn't as stoked as the man at my screening who watched the actor for an hour-and-a-half before Stu's dad, newly clean-shaven and sober, appeared at the end. “Is that Mel Gibson?!” asked the amazed audience member to the chuckles of those of us nearby. Considering that Gibson spent the first 90 minutes of Father Stu behaving like an ambulatory version of his mug shot, how that patron failed to recognize Mel is a mystery for the ages.