UNBROKEN, THE IMITATION GAME, and BIG EYES
Among other titles, Christmas Day brought with it the area releases of Angelina Jolie's Unbroken, Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, and Tim Burton's Big Eyes. Each of them opens with a title-card variant on "This is a true story." Each of them ends with a series of title cards informing us what happened to characters after the films' narratives concluded. And each of them, for occasional better and more frequent worse, feels absolutely, 100-percent Hollywood.
This is most damaging in the case of Unbroken, director Jolie's long-hyped passion project based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, & Redemption. As its millions of admirers can tell you, Hillenbrand's book recounts the life of Louis Zamperini (who passed away in July at age 97), and while I haven't read it, I'll readily admit it's a hell of a story. The oft-bullied son of Italian immigrants, Zamperini went on to set high-school and college speed records in track; race for America in the 1936 Olympics; serve with honor in the Air Force; survive a plane crash and 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean; endure years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps; suffer more years of post-traumatic stress disorder; find religion and the ability to forgive his former tormentors; tour the country as a Christian motivational speaker; and run a leg in the Olympic-torch relay, in Japan, at age 80. All this plus a marriage of more than a half-century, a begrudging handshake with Hitler, a guest spot on The Tonight Show ... . Who wouldn't want to see this movie?
Unfortunately, judging by what's on-screen, the only movie Jolie appears truly interested in is the one that finds poor Zamperini suffering, and suffering, and suffering. There are passing nods to his early glories and eventual homecoming, yet for the vast majority of its 137 minutes, Unbroken is like a PG-13 Passion of the Christ with a less divine, but equally sanctified, lead. It would be impossible, of course, for any film to successfully convey the breadth of Zamperini's experiences in feature length, even with a script credited to a quartet of Oscar-winning and -nominated screenwriters (Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson). But I would've at least liked to see one try; what Jolie and her A-list scribes give us instead is a greatest-hits package in which the hits are generally ones to the face.
At the screening I attended, you could feel the audience connecting to Unbroken from the start, and there was every reason to. The opening scene of Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) under attack in his B-24 bomber is staged with thrilling, frightening immediacy, and the man's instinctual heroism as he deals with wounded allies and bullet holes in his aircraft is presented with no overt arm-twisting; his swiftness and professionalism under duress make Zamperini an easy figure to root for. Even when the flashbacks to the man's childhood and Olympic path begin, and the script begins churning out homilies by the bucketful ("A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory" is dropped in with particular awkwardness), you initially give the movie the benefit of the doubt because of O'Connell's inherent sweetness and Jolie's obvious good intentions and sincerity. It's all very Seabiscuit - another Hillebrand adaptation about a champion speed demon - but to an extent, and probably specifically for the Greatest Generation demographic, it works.
Yet once the film begins punishing Zamperini, it begins punishing us, and the punishment never stops. First, there are those 47 days with Zamperini existing on a pair of life rafts alongside two fellow officers (Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock). Minimal supplies, sunburn, dehydration, near-starvation, shark attacks - this segment is certainly harrowing. But lasting a full half-hour of screen time, it's also deathly repetitive and dramatically inert. During these travails, the script gives us no insight into Zamperini's character and no sense of what pushes him beyond a basic survival instinct and a desire to taste Mom's homemade gnocchi again; his unwavering stance against nature's and fate's abuse is impressive, to be sure, but considering our limited understanding of who Zamperini is, it isn't moving.
And things get worse, or at least longer, in the POW camps, when Zamperini becomes the immediate fascination of a sadistic corporal (Takamasa Ishihara, a.k.a. Japanese pop star Miyavi, fey and unconvincing throughout). For more than an hour, our protagonist is shackled, humiliated, slapped, beaten with bamboo sticks, and, in one exhaustingly protracted sequence, forced to withstand one POW after another, under the corporal's orders, socking him in the jaw. Again, Zamperini's endurance is hugely admirable. Yet why are we watching this? What are Jolie and her overqualified writers trying to say? On the life raft, Zamperini makes a pledge to devote the rest of his life to God if he survives his ordeal at sea. But after he does, God's presence is never referenced or even hinted at again until the closing credits, when the "Redemption" of Hillebrand's title is finally, briefly, addressed. Did this Zamperini really perform feats of superhuman resiliency - plus execute the poster's Christ-like lifting of a heavy wooden plank - just because as a kid, his big brother once told him, "If you can take it, you can make it"?
Maybe these endless scenes of brutality could have worked cinematically if Jolie were tougher-minded toward her subject. But cinematographer Roger Deakins lights even the most hideous atrocities with postcard-ready handsomeness, the images so artfully composed and self-consciously gorgeous that you can practically see the words "For Your Consideration ..." stamped across the screen. And Jolie, who has been trotting out the "triumph of the human spirit" card in interview after interview, appears so mired in her (perfectly legitimate) hero worship that she doesn't seem to realize that the hero she and her collaborators have presented here is a thunderously uninteresting figure - Zamperini simply takes it, then makes it. (With nothing to play but tenacity, O'Connell winds up emerging as a moderately charismatic blank.) With nearly every shot looking like a still from a David Lean epic, nearly every Alexandre Desplat music cue shoving the sentiment down our throats, and nearly every line of dialogue sounding like something you'd read inside a fortune cookie - I can't fathom what contributions the Coens made to this thing - Unbroken doesn't need to win the Best Picture Oscar. It gives the trophy to itself dozens of times over.
Appearing equally awards-hungry is director Morten Tyldum's The Imitation Game, which tells of the efforts of a British team - led by the brilliant eccentric Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) - to crack the Nazis' seemingly uncrackable intelligence code Enigma and help win World War II. That's my grossly simplified synopsis of an infinitely more complex story. And Tyldum's movie, with its script by Graham Moore, is rather grossly simplified, too, at least in terms of playing by the Hollywood rulebook - which, here, is more specifically the A Beautiful Mind rulebook. (I guess that's as good a way as any to secure Oscar nods.) Again, a tortured genius with some vaguely explained, Asberger's-like malady and a habit of alienating everyone around him. Again, a team of fellow intellectuals who scoff at our hero's unconventional methods before finally warming to him. Again, a pretty woman (Keira Knightley, filling the job requirement nicely) who infiltrates the boy's club and a place in our hero's heart. Again, much mental anguish over the inability to successfully solve a vexing puzzle. Again, a scene set in a tavern in which a flirtation ritual unfamiliar to our hero provides him with his long-awaited "Eureka!" moment.
Yeah, I was a little surprised, too, at what an obvious Beautiful Mind steal that last bit was. (Perhaps it actually happened in life; it plays like nothing but a screenwriting conceit.) But for all of its clichés, Ron Howard's Best Picture winner is really entertaining, and thankfully, Tyldum's and Moore's effort is, as well. It helps that this tale of bureaucratic espionage is so inherently gripping that it can handily withstand its rather blah visual treatment; the production design is perfectly competent, but nothing about the film's presentation suggests anything more than a tony TV movie. Yet it's briskly paced and the flashback-upon-flashback structure is handled with elegance, and even though their characters never expand beyond two dimensions, expert character actors such as Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Rory Kinnear, and others keep things humming along. Knightley, somewhat surprisingly, does even more for the movie; she may be stuck playing The Girl, but I'm not sure she's ever before been this luminous, quick-witted, or effortlessly appealing. And although the film treats his character's closeted homosexuality as little more than a plot device, Cumberbatch sneaks fascinating hints of self-loathing into what Goode's researcher deems Turing's "irascible genius routine," all the while flooding his interpretation with prickly personality, forcefulness, and those ridiculously mellifluous vocal cadences that make the actor a constant screen pleasure. British bio-pic or not, The Imitation Game is as Hollywood as they come. (I couldn't help but chuckle at how many times Moore employed that hoary device of having characters surreptitiously enter rooms just in time to drop biting bon mots, as when Cumberbatch says of his invention "This is not a toy!" and the previously unseen Goode chimed in with "It looks like a toy.") But it's good Hollywood - juicy material handled so impeccably and enjoyably that you're hardly fazed by how frequently phony it is.
I'm guessing that won't be the reaction of most patrons of Tim Burton's Big Eyes, the bio-pic on artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), who painted popular, kitschy representations of saucer-eyed waifs in the '50s and '60s, and her second husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), who made a fortune claiming credit for her works. To be fair, there is some impeccability in the film's pop-art décor and period outfits, and some enjoyment in Burton's more outré flourishes. (For a time, everyone with whom Margaret comes in contact looks, to her, like one of her paintings, staring at her with enormous, accusatory orbs that mock her complicity in the lie.) Yet considering that Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski never get a handle on the movie's tone - which keeps vacillating, oddly and uncomfortably, between slapstick farce and Lifetime-TV empowerment saga - you wind up never believing a word of it. Adams lends lovely, naturalistic shadings to her role, but given that Margaret hasn't been designed as much more than a friendly patsy, she seems flummoxed about the purpose she's meant to serve here. And while I was grateful for his natural nuttiness and (give or take the random Green Hornet or Horrible Bosses 2) the constant performance joy he exudes on-screen, I must ask: Exactly whose idea was it to cast the Austrian-German Christoph Waltz as a native Nebraskan of Danish and Irish descent? Burton's? Satan's? Big Eyes' deck is already pretty neatly stacked, and for good reason, against the notorious plagiarist Walter Keane. But from the second Waltz shows up, hitting on Adams in that diabolically hypnotic sing-song of his, you know that absolutely no good will come from their union; Waltz wears his villainy here the way others wear aftershave. (At one point, he hisses to Margaret's young daughter, "I think I hear the ice cream truck!" with a grinning malevolence that should've left the traumatized girl screaming and quaking under her bed.) By the film's courtroom climax, which is hysterical in all the wrong ways, both Waltz and the movie itself have thrown all semblances of realism and subtlety out the window, and you're left slack-jawed at how initial miscasting could have led to a performance this astoundingly ill-conceived. Big Eyes may be "based on a true story," but the only truth you're really left with is that this kitschy movie may be the best that Burton is still capable of.