Most Hollywood movies remind me of Hugh Kenner’s definition of conceptual art: Once described, it need not be experienced. Nice middle-class white ballet student transfers to an inner-city high school, where she meets a bright young black dude who knows all the latest hip-hop moves. Need I say more? As soon as you’ve heard the premise of Save the Last Dance, you know everything you need to know about the finished product, including how you’re expected to feel after you’ve seen it. So why bother seeing it at all—or making it, for that matter? You might as well eat prechewed food.
Not coincidentally, movies such as Save the Last Dance start life as “pitches,” summary catchphrases blurted out by desperate writers in the hope of seducing a producer. Sometimes one of those pitch lines actually pops up in a film’s advertising campaign. (The slogan used to market The Replacement was a pitch line: “Pros on strike. Regular guys get to play.”) But even if I hadn’t seen a single ad for Nancy Meyers’s What Women Want, I could have deduced the pitch ten minutes into the movie: Mel Gibson plays a politically incorrect advertising man who suddenly acquires the power to read women’s minds.
From this high concept, all else flows like toothpaste from a tube, just as smoothly and just as predictably. Of course there’ll be lots of lame jokes about faked orgasms. Of course the president of the agency (Alan Alda) will bring in a romantically frustrated career woman (Helen Hunt) to be Gibson’s boss. Of course he’ll start out trying to get her fired and end up falling in love with her, and of course he’ll metamorphose into a thoughtful, sensitive dream man (sort of like Alda, in fact, only butcher). Every bit of this was as implicit in the initial pitch as your fingerprints are implicit in your DNA.
I hasten to acknowledge that pitching wasn’t invented by the baby boomers; it’s a practice as old as Holly-wood itself. Why, then, do commercial movies seem more predictable than ever? Partly because…well, because Americans are dumber than ever. I happened to catch All About Eve on TV not long ago, and I was struck anew by how intelligent it was. Chekhov it isn’t, mind you, but Joseph Mankiewicz’s crisply witty script still presupposes no small amount of cultural literacy on the part of the average moviegoer. Yet All About Eve was a huge hit, one of the most profitable films of 1950. Were a similar movie put into wide release today, it would tank in two weeks, no matter how expensive the cast.
But it isn’t just a matter of dumbed- down audiences. I can think of any number of classic movies that arise from fairly simpleminded premises. Another part of the problem, it seems to me, is that Hollywood has lost its knack for craftsmanship. A movie like What Women Want could just as easily have been made a half-century ago (though it would have been a lot less vulgar), but it would have been done with infinitely greater skill.
Early in the film, Gibson comes home after a hard day at the office, pours himself a drink, puts on Frank Sinatra’s recording of I Won’t Dance, and starts hoofing around his apartment Astaire-style. The first thing you notice is that he’s amazingly light on his feet. The second thing you notice is that the scene falls flat. It’s supposed to simultaneously charm your socks off and shed light on Gibson’s character. What would the scene have looked like if What Women Want had been made in 1950? Back then, the studio would have gotten somebody on the order of Hermes Pan to choreograph the dance, and the director would have shot it with flair and grace. Today, Gibson has to make all the magic himself. That’s one of the biggest differences between commercial movies then and now: In the old days, directors knew how to show off a star.
That Gibson is a star goes without saying, but the surprising and partially redeeming thing about What Women Want is that he also turns out to be a natural romantic comedian. Who would have guessed that this Australian action figure had a touch of Cary Grant in his soul? Or that this rigidly formulaic movie would stir to fitful life about halfway through? For once the mind- reading gimmick has been hammered into the ground, What Women Want abruptly shifts gears and makes something believable out of the budding romance between Gibson and Hunt.
Again, it’s almost all in the acting. The script is as subtle as a deodorant commercial, but Gibson is terrific, and Hunt is utterly real. She even looks like a real person, and almost against your will, you find yourself caring a little bit about these two construction-paper characters.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, none of this has anything to do with art. Art is about truth, and if Hollywood had to borrow a highbrow motto, it would be T.S. Eliot’s “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Yet it is impossible to make a successful commercial movie that is totally unreal. Moviegoers will not respond to a film unless they can see themselves in it, fulfilling their unacknowledged wishes in a way that is not altogether implausible. More often than not, the teaspoonful of plausibility necessary to engage a mass audience comes from very good acting, which is why Gibson and Hunt get the big bucks: We can’t look like them, but they can act like us.
Alas, ordinary folks don’t go to the movies to see life as it is. They get too much of that at home. Hence the “realest” movies that come out of Hollywood are genre pictures, which put believable characters into stylized situations.
Genuinely realistic movies do get made, however, usually in other countries but sometimes by independent or quasi-independent American writer- directors who think small and work cheap. A couple of years ago, I wrote in this column about The Dreamlife of Angels, a haunting French film about two down-and-out young women that got glowing reviews and made no impression whatsoever on American moviegoers (it did not receive a single Oscar nomination).
Kenneth Lonergan’s masterly You Can Count on Me resembles that miraculous film in its straightforwardness and lack of pretence, though it also reminded me of Tender Mercies, another rare example of an American movie that accurately conveys the look and feel of small-town life. Every foot of You Can Count on Me is real.
Lonergan’s directorial debut also has in common with The Dreamlife of Angels and Tender Mercies a novelistic richness that defies the simplifying art of the pitchman. To say that it is about Terry, an immature drifter (Mark Ruffalo), and Sammy, his stay-at-home older sister (Laura Linney), both orphaned in childhood and desperately lonely as young adults, is to convey nothing of the moral complexity of Lonergan’s script, which pays the viewer the compliment of not making his mind up for him. Terry is never romanticized, and Sammy is never treated with condescension: They are both treated as human beings, deeply flawed but not without virtue, seeking to make their way in a postmodern world that no longer has much to offer in the way of certainty. Lonergan himself plays the small but pivotal role of an Episcopal priest so afraid of being “judgmental” that he is visibly reluctant to assure Linney that the adulterous affair in which she is engaged is endangering her immortal soul. (“Well, it’s a sin,” he says uncomfortably, “but we try not to focus on that right off the bat.”)
Smaller isn’t always better, of course. The night after I saw You Can Count on Me, I made the mistake of going to David Mamet’s State and Main, a Woody Allen-type pseudo- satire in which an all-star cast (brilliantly led by Philip Seymour Hoffman) vainly attempts to enliven an all-cliché script about a Hollywood film crew shooting on location in a Norman Rockwell-type Vermont village. The dialogue rattles along briskly in the bang-bang Mametian manner of Glengarry Glen Ross, but I realized within 15 minutes that nobody was saying anything funny and spent the next hour and 15 minutes squirming. The trouble with Mamet is that he thinks he’s smarter than the pampered boobs he’s satirizing. Not so—he just talks faster.