WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING and MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS
Against all logic and expectation in this – again! finally! – blockbuster-heavy summer, this past weekend saw the debuts of not one but two adaptations of beloved novels with female protagonists: the marshland mystery drama Where the Crawdads Sing, based on Delia Owens' massive bestseller from 2018, and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a take on the 1958 Anthony Fabian page-turner whose success inspired three sequels. You probably won't be shocked to learn that this embarrassingly lax English major hasn't read either book. Yet barring only a few minor plot twists and one major (terrible) one, I certainly felt as though I had read them, considering that both movies come off as under-imagined page-to-screen transfers terrified of alienating their fans with anything approaching spontaneity, surprise, or the intrusion of real-world complexity. Only in the case of one film, however, does that prove to be a deal-breaker.
As I'd like to scoot the whole sad experience behind me as swiftly as possible, we may as well start with Where the Crawdads Sing, which feels like what you'd get if John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks had a baby and promptly dropped it on its head. I have friends who swear by the greatness of Owens' North Carolina Gothic, and they can't be alone; with more than 12 million copies sold over the past four years, this literary phenomenon must exude some kind of magic. What director Olivia Newman and screenwriter Lucy Alibar deliver, however, is about as far from magical as could be imagined – a hackneyed collection of tired clichés and melodramatic tropes almost exclusively employed in the service of misery disguised as empowerment.
Living in a remote marsh cabin in the mid-1950s through late-'60s, Kya Clark (played as a child by Jojo Regina, and as an adult by Daisy Edgar-Jones) certainly has it rough from the start, first abandoned by her mother, then by her three older siblings, then by the abusive, drunken father who drove them all away. With only a kindly pair of shopkeepers (Michael Hyatt and Sterling Macer Jr.) to occasionally look after her, Kyra grows up alone and unschooled, but filled with practical know-how and a gift for drawing. Those qualities don't help the grown-up Kya much, though, after local boor Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson) winds up dead at the foot of a woodland fire tower, and his romantic history with the young woman whom the townsfolk vilify as that strange “marsh girl” leads to her being accused of his murder. Toss in Taylor John Smith as Kya's like-minded beau Tate, David Strathairn as a courtly defense attorney, and so many postcard-pretty images that the movie's poster should be the new North Carolina flag (even though filming actually took place in Louisiana), and Crawdads would seem to have all the makings for the cinematic equivalent of a breezy summertime beach read.
In the end, sadly, the makings are all we're left with. At one point, the minor character of Tate's dad makes a passing reference to Puccini as the composer of an opera he's listening to. I bring that up because, over the course of Crawdads' 126 minutes, it was literally the only moment in the movie that felt remotely unrehearsed. There's a special kind of dead air that permeates certain literary adaptations – an oppressiveness suggesting that the words being said are being recited from the novel verbatim, with none of the endearing, sometimes awkward rhythms of real-life conversation. And while there are gifted actors in Newman's film, among them Garret Dillahunt and Ahna O'Reilly (an exquisite physical match for Edgar-Jones) as Kya's parents, none of them, here, appears capable of delivering dialogue without making it sound like capitalized Dialogue. Every line that's related to the plot – and beyond the Puccini mention, Alibar's script is solely lines relating to plot – is uttered with stilted portentousness, and the lack of variety and nuance winds up making the characters sound inhuman. I didn't care about Kya's fate, or anyone else's, because I never believed that the people on-screen were genuinely alive.
Admirers of the book may well disagree, especially considering that its heroine is (mostly) played by the ravishingly lovely, empathetic Daisy Edgar-Jones. Yet although she's an arresting screen presence with more natural fierceness than most ingénues, no one could overcome the Hallmark-movie blandness of Newman's staging and pacing, and Edgar-Jones' luminous beauty further kills any sense of realism, given that there's no way a young woman raised on a strict diet of mussels and grits could boast skin and teeth this flawless. (Dazzling talent though she is, I'm also looking forward to Edgar-Jones getting a break from victim roles, given that this year alone, she's been prey for a kidnapping cannibal in Fresh and a murderous Mormon in Under the Banner of Heaven.) Its lead's radiance, however, is practically the least of Where the Crawdads Sing's problems, with added lows including offensively servile roles for Hyatt and Macer; courtroom testimony – particularly that of Chase's mother – that's pure camp; a laughably unconvincing rise to literary fame and fortune; and an ending nearly jaw-dropping in its narrative ludicrousness. Oh yeah, and for whatever reason, we don't get to see any crawdads. They're hardly the only things missing from this depressingly unsatisfying offering.
Meanwhile, director/co-writer Anthony Fabian's Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is just as predictably diagrammed, morally simplistic, and void of real-world believability as Crawdads. But it doesn't matter – or rather, doesn't matter much – because copious charm is its own reward. Lesley Manville plays the title character, a widowed house-cleaner in 1950s London who falls in love with a Christian Dior gown, saves her money to purchase one, and winds up charming the pants off every single soul she encounters in Gay Paris. It's like a super-sized Ted Lasso episode if Ted were played by Mary Poppins. It's also, I feel compelled to add, pure Brit-com hogwash, with every character either unassailably decent or outlandishly awful, and the awful ones eventually overcome with warm fuzzies due to the pluck and spirit of our tenacious charwoman. In lesser hands, this might have been unbearable. Beginning with Manville's, lesser hands are absolutely not in evidence.
Along with my dad and a dear friend of 38 years, I was able to catch Fabian's entertainment with my mom – the movie's ideal demographic. After viewing and loving it, she asked what else she might have previously seen Lesley Manville in, and knowing her disinterest in low-key British dramas and period pieces by Paul Thomas Anderson (and completely forgetting that Manville was one of the fairies in Disney's Maleficent flicks), I couldn't think of a single title. But it's entirely possible that Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris will lead to a late-career, Judi Dench-y ascent in familiarity and popularity, because the British marvel is absolutely delightful here: offhandedly yet confidently funny; deeply moving without resorting to melancholy; and so resplendent in her extraordinary “ordinary”-ness that it makes perfect sense when potential suitors played by Jason Isaacs and Lambert Wilson go gaga over her. (For a sampling of Manville's fearsome range, it would be a kick to pair Mrs. Harris in a double-feature with her Oscar-nominated turn as Daniel Day-Lewis' spiky sister in Phantom Thread … or juicier yet, the terrifying Montana matriarch she became in 2020's Let Him Go.)
Yet Manville is given a lot of support in her full-scale charm offensive: from Ellen Thomas as Mrs. Harris' devoted friend and fellow cleaner Vi; from the almost distractingly gorgeous Alba Baptista as a delicate Dior model who longs for a life of the mind; from Lucas Bravo as the handsome, friendly Dior employee who looks like Clark Kent with glasses on and Superman with glasses off. Even French legend Isabelle Huppert, exuding a tight-lipped shark smile as a bitchy Dior executive, proves to have a secret heart of gold. And although I personally could have done with a slightly shorter haute couture montage and fewer breathless camera pans up and down the cherished Dior frocks, I'll readily concede that those scenes weren't meant for me. They were meant for my mom, and the numerous others like her at my Chicagoland screening who chuckled at this feel-good trifle's gentle humor, reveled in the adversaries' comeuppance, and discreetly sniffled upon the arrivals of many, many happy endings. I will neither confirm nor deny that I was one of the snifflers. But I was the guy who sobbed at the sight of Miss Piggy wearing a wedding dress in The Muppets Take Manhattan. So you do the math.
PAWS OF FURY: THE LEGEND OF HANK
Better movies have been released this year. Lots of better movies. Yet I'm predicting that none of them – not even the glorious Everything Everywhere All at Once – will prove to be a stranger 2022 movie than Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank. In general outline, at least in terms of an animated comedy about talking animals, there's little that's remotely strange about it, with the film telling of a canine samurai-wannabe (amusingly voiced by Michael Cera) who's grudgingly recruited to save a town of cats from the sinister machinations of a feline land developer (an agreeably tart Ricky Gervais). But while it's already weird that a film originally earmarked for release in the spring of 2017 would finally be making its debut more than five years later, nothing might prepare you for the end-credits title card that lists, among those responsible for the script's inspiration, Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor. Because Paws of Fury isn't just a lighthearted, family-friendly shogun adventure. It's a lighthearted, family-friendly shogun adventure adapted from freaking Blazing Saddles – perhaps the one comedy above all others I never thought would lead to a release targeted toward pre-teens.
Then again, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, considering that Blazing Saddles was an unapologetic cartoon to begin with. And it's not like Paws of Fury is slavishly faithful to its source material: there's no overt racism; no “I Get a Kick Out of You”; no Lili von Shtupp. (He said mournfully, forever missing Madeline Kahn.) In truth, if you had no awareness of Brooks' problematic classic from 1974 and simply took this outing by directors Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier, and Chris Bailey at face value, there would be no reason to think it was based on anything aside from innumerable other mediocre kiddie flicks featuring an overabundance of action set pieces, shrieking, and celebrity voices. (The celebs on aural display here include Samuel L. Jackson, George Takei, Gabriel Iglesias, Djimon Hounsou, Everything Everywhere's Michelle Yeoh, and Mel Brooks himself, who nods to his iconic History of the World: Part I reading with “It's good to be the shogun!”)
But if you do have instant access to the Blazing Saddles that's forever swimming in the recesses of your brain: Wow. There's a spoof of the movie's Oscar-nominated title song. A narrative involving a town of cats horrified to find their new leader a dog. A routine in which someone sees Hank approaching from afar, and his cries of “The shogun is a – !” are consistently interrupted by a ringing bell. A Mongo figure who punches a horse in the face. (Here, a whole row of horses tumble after the first one gets a sock in the jaw.) A villain who asks hypothetical questions into the camera and then asks, “Why am I asking you?” A plethora of reminders that the movie we're watching is, in fact, just a movie. And, because this is a 21st-century family entertainment, an elaborate re-creation of the notorious eating-beans-'round-the-campfire scene, but with more toots, if that's even possible. I feel no particular need to see Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank again. But I'm now a little antsy to catch Blazing Saddles again, if only to see what other comic bits its animated offspring may have appropriated. Unlike with Paws of Fury, however, the eight-year-old who accompanied me to that screening – and seemed to have a terrific time – will absolutely not be joining me for this one.