Film: Unanimously Wrong

As Americans have been forcibly reminded of late, 50 million Frenchmen can be wrong, and almost always are. Likewise the 92 percent of American film critics who believed, according to the invaluable Web site rottentomatoes.com, that Far From Heaven was a good movie. Not so. Far From Heaven is, in fact, awful in so many different ways as to have caused me some embarrassment, since I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud in all the wrong places.

On the other hand, I should also note that I saw Far From Heaven in an art house across the street from New York’s Lincoln Center, the sort of neighborhood where so egregiously stupid a movie would be viewed in awestruck silence. For Far From Heaven is stupid in a way uniquely characteristic of art-silly America-haters, a pigeonhole into which a great many of my Upper West Side neighbors can be comfortably crammed.

To begin with, Far From Heaven is not an independent artwork but a painstaking hommage (as those 50 million Frenchmen might put it) to the films of Douglas Sirk. And who, you ask, is Douglas Sirk? A Hollywood hack who specialized in such sudsy Technicolor melodramas as Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, and All That Heaven Allows, filmed in the sort of heaving, heavy-handed manner one would expect of a German émigré with Danish parents. His movies long ago vanished from the best-of lists, though they’re still admired by a band of fanatical cinephiles (the normally sensible David Thomson being one of them).

All this being the case, what on earth possessed indie filmmaker Todd Haynes to write and direct this portentous pastiche, in which Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), a hard-working Manhattan executive, and his too-too-nice wife, Cathy (Julianne Moore), discover that the comfy life of their picture-perfect family is built on sand? One reason is that Haynes, like so many of his postmodern brethren, clearly prefers making films about film to films about life. Another, more important reason is that he just as clearly believes old-fashioned family values to be a snare and a delusion. Hence Far From Heaven, ostensibly set in 1957 but obviously meant to be interpreted as a savage indictment of Life Under Bush.

The conceit of Far From Heaven is that it is an honest version of a Sirk soaper, meaning that it tells all the awkward “truths” Sirk had to snip out in order to pass muster with Eisenhower-era censors. So instead of being, say, a secret alcoholic, Frank is… a closeted homosexual! And Cathy, spurned by her husband, seeks solace in a clandestine relationship with… a black man! Naturally, all the neighbors sympathize with Cathy when they find out about Frank’s little problem—up to the moment when they find out about her not-quite-affair with Raymond, the family gardener (Dennis Haysbert), at which point she, too, becomes an unperson. Did I mention that everybody in Anytown, U.S.A., is narrow and bigoted and has a lousy sex life?

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: Far From Heaven has the same smug attitude about middle-class life as did the no less widely praised American Beauty. It takes for granted that Frank and Cathy cannot possibly be anything other than shallow and inauthentic simply by virtue of the fact that they are paid-up members of the bourgeoisie. Nobody gets a break except for Raymond, the most laughable example of the “noble Negro” I have ever seen in an American movie, a secular saint who goes to museums, knows all about abstract art, and never even so much as kisses Cathy. Everybody else is a jerk, a gargoyle, or, like Cathy, a pathetic fool.

Todd Haynes being the very model of a postmodern filmmaker, it could be that the unreality of Far From Heaven is meant to be ironic—but if so, Haynes is trying to have it both ways. If the film’s palpable absurdities are a criticism of Sirk’s shaky grasp of suburban life, then why should we take them seriously as a criticism of the society they fail to portray in anything remotely approaching a believable way? No, I think we have no choice but to take Far From Heaven at face value, in which case it’s just plain silly. Among countless other impossibilities, Frank divorces Cathy and sets up housekeeping with a sullen-looking teenage boy. OK, these things do happen, even in Connecticut, but how does this tarnished paragon of rectitude contrive to hang onto his job now that everybody in Anytown knows he’s gay?

The critical success of Far From Heaven is far more explicable than its plot. Just as popular movies tell audiences what they want to hear, so do critically successful movies tell critics what they want to hear—in this case, that America is irredeemably corrupt from snout to tail, save for a few fine folk on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—and that without the shedding of inhibitions, there is no remission of liberal guilt. Is it any wonder that it racked up glowing reviews?

I can’t even begin to tell you how much more I liked Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, even though it isn’t very good. Good enough, I guess, since I didn’t fall asleep or throw popcorn at the screen, despite the fact that this allegedly light and charming movie is 140 minutes long. Spielberg is supposed to be a great entertainer, so what possessed him to make a light, charming movie that is 16 minutes longer than Jaws and an hour longer than your average Marx Brothers farce?

Stephen Sondheim once claimed that Leonard Bernstein had fallen victim to an acute case of “importantitis,” and I suspect Spielberg has caught the same bug. Catch Me If You Can is the more or less true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), a troubled teenager who contrived to pass himself off in quick succession as a teacher, an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer before being captured by FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). It’s a slight tale onto which Spielberg has grafted all his painfully familiar obsessions: kids are wise, grownups threatening, adulthood mysterious, ho hum. A lesser director would have chucked the obsessions and brought the film in at well under two hours, but Spielberg, being a Certified Genius, has to go through the laundry list yet another time.

The two best things about Catch Me If You Can are Christopher Walken, who brings a touch of genuine mystery to the well-written part of Frank’s father—a jaunty ne’er-do-well who can’t make his life work—and John Williams, whose superb score is by turns stealthily jazzy and harmonically oblique. (I saw the movie in the company of several musicians, all of whom were astonished to discover that Williams had written the music—it doesn’t sound like him at all.) Tom Hanks is good, too, but he’s coasting, doing his Jimmy Stewart nice-guy imitation without the dark shadows that made Stewart much more than a run-of-the-mill movie star. As for DiCaprio, he’s all right, nothing special, much like the rest of Catch Me If You Can.

If you want to see a real movie, go to Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, though I must warn you that this deeply disturbing tragicomedy of loneliness and sexual obsession is not for the faint of heart or easily shocked. It is, however, less surrealistic and more linear than most of Almodovar’s previous work and thus a good way to make the acquaintance of a director who, unlike Todd Haynes and Steven Spielberg, has powerful things to say about the complexities of the human heart.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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