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A few weeks back, I felt a burning desire to see a movie about a person with deep psychological problems who is sometimes given to violent episodes, whose marriage is a complete disaster, and who has trouble finding the right medication to deal with these assorted personality disorders. It was one of those long, grey, miserable afternoons where you just know at some primal level that seeing a movie about a deeply disturbed human being will make you feel better about your own sad little life. This, after all, is what movies are all about.
Unfortunately, I arrived at the multiplex too late to see Bradley Cooper weave his special magic in Silver Linings Playbook. So instead I caught Side Effects, in which Rooney Mara plays a person with deep psychological problems who is sometimes given to violent episodes, whose marriage is a complete disaster and who has trouble finding the right medication to deal with her assorted personality disorders. The only difference between the two films is that Silver Linings is set in my hometown of Philadelphia, an industrious but largely inept municipality that lends itself readily to depressing movies, whereas Side Effects is set in New York, the perfect backdrop for a movie about a sleepwalker who tends to get a bit frisky with the cutlery in the dead of night. (While Gotham may be the City That Never Sleeps, it most assuredly isn’t The City That Never Sleepwalks.)
I loved Side Effects. I especially loved director Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant decision to kit out Catherine Zeta-Jones with a pair of gigantic glasses, thereby making her look more convincing as a brilliant, high-powered shrink. It was the most inspired use of ophthalmological props since David Frankel used a pair of generic specs to make Anne Hathaway look dowdy and plain in The Devil Wears Prada. And casting the ethereal Mara as a weird, listless, scary but mostly ethereal urban headcase was also a stroke of genius: The Girl Who Played with Fire Extinguishers. Talk about casting against type.
Around that time, I also wanted to see A Late Quartet, a touching film about simmering conflicts between a bunch of ageing musicians, the crippling weight of unfulfilled ambitions, the merciless onslaught of a mentally debilitating disease, and the impending spectre of death. My snooty friends had been going on and on about this Philip Seymour Hoffman vehicle for months. But by the time I worked myself up into the mood to see it, it was no longer playing.
Luckily, I did get to see Quartet, the touching Dustin Hoffman film about simmering conflicts between a bunch of ageing musicians, the crippling weight of unfulfilled ambitions, the merciless onslaught of a mentally debilitating disease and the impending spectre of death. That film was a cracker. And yes, for the 50th time, Maggie Smith played an irascible, self-involved old coot who makes everyone around her feel uncomfortable. I mean the 50th time this year. Look, folks, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I had a similarly rewarding experience when I went to see Argo, the Oscar-winning, fiercely patriotic movie that deals with a top-secret CIA operation in the Middle East and has been criticised in some quarters for deviating somewhat from the truth. Unfortunately, I was too late to see Argo, so instead I bought a ticket for Zero Dark Thirty, the Oscar-nominated, fiercely patriotic movie that deals with a top-secret CIA operation in the Middle East and has been criticised in some quarters for deviating somewhat from the truth. It was even better than Argo, thanks to a gutsy performance by Jessica Chastain. Or at least I think it was. Like I said, Ben Affleck’s movie was sold out the day I wanted to see it. So I’m going on hearsay.
I really like the double-whammy approach Hollywood now seems to have adopted. If tickets for The Last Stand, an inane bloodbath in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an ageing tough guy duelling with a pack of psychopathic miscreants, are sold out, you can walk down the hall and see Bullet to the Head, an inane bloodbath in which Sylvester Stallone plays an ageing tough guy duelling with a pack of psychopathic miscreants. If you miss A Good Day to Die Hard, or Die Hard 5, or A Die Hard Day’s Night, or whatever they are calling the latest in this cataleptic series in which Bruce Willis plays an over-the-hill tough guy who blows up everything in sight, you will soon be able to see GI Joe II, in which Bruce Willis plays an over-the-hill tough guy who blows up everything in sight. And if you’re too late to see that new film in which the White House comes under attack by mysterious ne’er-do-wells (Olympus Has Fallen), you can see that other new film in which the White House comes under attack by mysterious ne’er-do-wells (White House Down).
I’m not sure why Hollywood is doing this, or where it is all leading. There are lots of years when a bunch of films released are vaguely similar: some variation on Dangerous Liaisons or Pride and Prejudice always seems to be percolating somewhere, as does a Jason Statham film involving vehicular mayhem. But it’s rare for Hollywood to release, almost simultaneously, two films that seem to have been drawn up on exactly the same template.
A few years back, there was a spate of movies about architects having a midlife crisis. Mercifully that passed (Woody Harrelson, in Indecent Proposal, was especially unconvincing in that role). There was also the year that saw not one but two movies about Truman Capote. And back in the early 1990s, there were two different postmodern horse operas about the sagebrush legend Wyatt Earp. The first, the surprise hit Tombstone, was enlivened by Val Kilmer’s unforgettable turn as a foppish, Latin-spouting Doc Holliday. The second, Kevin Costner’s inert, extraneous Wyatt Earp, was enlivened by nothing.
The movie industry is so small and generally unimaginative that it is hardly surprising that similar movies should emerge at the same moment. A while ago, everyone in a movie seemed to be named Lily. Then someone decreed that every film should contain at least one puking scene, no one in the industry having noticed that what was once shocking and affecting has now become a dreary visual cliche. Perhaps we should just get the star to empty his stomach while the opening credits are still running and get the upchuck out of the way early.
I’m not suggesting that every movie released this year has a celluloid doppelganger lurking out there somewhere. So far, Django Unchained seems to be a one-off. Ditto Anna Karenina and The Hobbit and The Great Gatsby. But a few weeks ago, when I suggested to my wife that we see a deeply affecting movie set in Europe that features a female musician who is rapidly losing her memory and starting to be a burden on everybody, she said: “I thought we already saw Quartet.” To which I said: “No, I meant Amour.”The Guardian