The seven days following the announcement of Oscar nominations should be designated “Disgruntled Critics Week.” I confess, I often count myself among the soured when it comes to considering what was (and wasn’t) nominated by the Academy. After finally seeing all of 2011’s “Best Picture” nominees, I can say I have some problems. I don’t want to unjustly belittle, though. It’s not all bad by any stretch. Among the nine “Best Picture” nominees, one is my favorite film of the year (The Tree of Life), two are currently firm fixtures in my favorite ten films of 2011 (Hugo 3D and Moneyball), and I enjoyed two others (Midnight in Paris and War Horse) well enough that you won’t hear much griping from me about their nominations, though they wouldn’t make my short list.
That leaves Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, The Artist, and The Descendants. My reactions to these four range from “Huh?” to “Pretty good, but overrated.” This isn’t to say that I’m surprised that the Academy made puzzling or questionable selections. Highly questionable nominees are a yearly affair, so I decided to consider if there was a unifying characteristic with these films that would best explain my disappointment at their nomination. What sticks out among them all is the defining quality of reaching for cheap emotional reactions, catharses, or resolutions without earning them.
The first two — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Help — are less “controversial” for me to criticize because both films left most critics questioning, if not surprised by, their selection. They could both be described, with no intent to sound elitist, as “populist” favorites. And what these two films specifically — and perhaps damningly — have in common is that they take an immensely serious and relatively recent historical violence and put tacky band-aids on the wounds.
Extremely Loud is guiltier of this charge from an aesthetic viewpoint. An adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s popular novel, Extremely Loud is about a nine-year-old boy named Oskar who is searching for a key to a lock that was left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Two issues come to mind regarding the film’s emotional manipulation. First, the film beats viewers over the head to bring us to tears. The film features several answering machine messages that Oskar’s father recorded just before his death. Their inclusion is well expected and necessary, but they are returned to and drawn out exhaustively. Second, there are too many unimportant and uninspiring “reveals” from Oskar, i.e., built-up dramatic tension with no worthwhile release that is only exacerbated by repetition. The film’s kitschy theatrics lead to an ultimately disheartening and underwhelming resolution for an event such as 9/11, something akin to “just keep living.”
The Help — Tate Taylor’s 1960’s civil rights tale about an aspiring white author who writes a tell-all about the hardships that African American maids endure while working for white families — suffers from a similar problem as Extremely Loud. Some critics have faulted the film for glossing over the issue of racism in order to make a “feel good” movie. While it is overstated to call The Help immoral on this basis, I do think The Help is just a bit too cute and its villains just a bit too caricatured. As Roger Ebert put it, The Help is a “feel-good fable” that “deals with pain, but doesn’t care to be that painful.” True, and I think part of the reason is that we’re invited to hate unflincingly the white “Stepford Wife” antagonist, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard). And, in an indirect way, caricatures and cuteness seem to undermine the film’s laudable depiction of racial reconciliation via friendship.
The second pair of films — The Artist and The Descendants — are more beloved by both the Academy and critics. The Artist received the second most nominations behind Hugo, and is, by most accounts, the “Best Picture” frontrunner. The Artist is an enjoyable little movie that is remarkably accessible for being a “silent” film. And, yes, it does have some lasting scenes and images (George Valentin losing his self in the mirror is especially memorable). Yet I don’t know that we can take too seriously a film that doesn’t take anything all that seriously. This is not to say that a pleasant charmer — what some have called a “trifle” — is disqualified from “Best Picture” consideration. But if a film asks its viewers to sympathize with a protagonist, then he’d better give a damn about his failed marriage before a romance fit for Hollywood is our resolution.
Jeffrey Overstreet is one of the few critics I’ve seen give voice to this problem. Overstreet describes The Artist’s treatment of the failed marriage as causing him to feel “out of step” with the film. Which is exactly how I would describe my experience when I realized that George’s wife’s ignored plea that they needed to “talk” was going to be the last we heard of it. I suppose George’s wife is just unpleasant enough to excuse her husband’s eye for Peppy. But more to my main point, the film asks us to celebrate George’s return to stardom without doing much to earn our sympathies for him.
Finally, the film that people seem most passionate to defend (and understandably so): The Descendants. George Clooney is considered the “Best Actor” favorite, and the film is still considered to be in “Best Picture” contention. I wanted Descendants to be a powerful film about family, responsibility, and inter-generational stewardship. These themes are there but they’re not quite profound or powerful. Ultimately, the film fancies itself to be about something profound or emotionally powerful. Slate‘s Dana Stevens captures well my biggest problem with Descendants in one word: “underwritten.”
By the film’s end, I don’t know Clooney’s Matt King well at all, and this is a problem if his contribution to marital failures underscores his wife’s cheating. At times, the film even felt like it was piling on his comatose wife. Descendants spends too much time ineffectively straddling the line between comedy and tragedy (a line that Alexander Payne usually straddles well) while Matt and his daughter (played admirably by Shailene Woodley) are hunting for the man who slept with his wife. If the film is about family, relational stewardship, and developing fatherly responsibility, I need a better sense of how Matt was a failure, and how this is different from what he’s doing in the film’s second half. Scenes that could’ve been wonderful — like the one with he and his daughters reminiscently overlooking their plot of land or the final shot of them on the couch together — fail as catharsis because the tension has not been built well.
I may sound harsh toward movies with “feel good” endings, but I’m not implying that such endings are inferior. Rather, it’s a call to better earn them with narratives and character development. A cheaply earned emotional catharsis perpetuates dishonesty in a way. The films we celebrate should better support moments where we naturally feel good, and not manipulate us towards that end.
Besides, there were plenty of well-crafted films to feel good about in 2011, such as The Muppets, Hugo, Winnie the Pooh, The Tree of Life, Win Win, Attack the Block, Buck, Moneyball, War Horse, Super 8, and Warrior. All these and more come to mind when listing “feel good” movies that we can appreciate without having to swallow them uncritically. And I wonder if the phrase “feel good” isn’t one we should dispense with altogether. I’d rather feel truly bad than falsely good, which is why you’ll find Meek’s Cutoff, Tuesday, After Christmas, and Martha Marcy May Marlene hovering around my top ten. Ironically, a film that truthfully depicts the hardness of life is better than a film that’s dishonest with life’s softer moments.
Ultimately, I hope my criticism of these four films helps deal with the common tendency of many moviegoers to want movies that usher in resolutions — for both the characters and themselves — a little too easily. It’s where this disgruntled critic wants to step in and, like a teacher, encourage the appreciation of films that work a little harder to earn redemptions both large and small.