Friday, November 18, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.7: Steven Spielberg's Always/Hook

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Today’s focus is on two fantasy films that deal with growing up: 1989’s Always and 1991’s Hook.

Always Grade: 9 (D-)

Way back during the filming of Jaws in 1974, Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss bonded over their mutual love of the 1943 film A Guy Named Joe, in which a World War II pilot (Spencer Tracy) dies in battle and serves as a guardian for a new pilot…one who happens to fall in love with his girl. Spielberg and Dreyfuss constantly quoted the film to each other, and they talked about remaking the film. They got their wish in 1989 with Always, the worst film in Spielberg’s filmography.

Aerial firefighter Pete Sandich (Richard Dreyfuss) fights wildfires. He works with his girlfriend/dispatcher Dorinda (Holly Hunter) and his best friend, fellow pilot Al (John Goodman). Dorinda worries about Pete’s recklessness as a pilot, but he doesn’t pay any mind. On one particularly dangerous mission, Pete risks his life to save Al. It works, but Pete is killed in an explosion. When Pete awakens as a spirit, angel Hap (Audrey Hepburn in her final role) explains that he is to work as a guide to aspiring aerial firefighter Ted (Brad Johnson). But things get complicated when Ted falls in love with Dorinda.

Always gets off to a terrible start right from the concept: aerial firefighting might be an important job, but it isn’t nearly as important as fighter pilots in World War II. From the beginning, this is a low stakes remake. Spielberg’s update isn’t much of an update; similarly, the film is a remake of a kind of melodrama that went out of fashion while Spielberg was still a kid. Spielberg’s admiration for Old Hollywood has always been clear, but it’s usually combined with New Hollywood aesthetics (Jaws, Close Encounters). Here, there’s no re-imagination; it’s a cover song of outdated material.

The opening minutes of Always are dire; Spielberg tries to establish the inherent danger in Pete’s job by making him run out of fuel, but Pete and Al yuk it up all the same. When the two touch down, they inhale helium and sing in high-pitched voices to an irritated Dorinda. Spielberg uses overlapping dialogue, but there’s no sense of who anyone is or why they’re doing anything. That doesn’t improve: none of the characters have a clear motivation. Dreyfuss’ is a daredevil for the sake of being a daredevil. Hunter’s sudden fear of Dreyfuss’ death seems completely arbitrary, as if she’d never noticed before what his job was and how he works. Goodman’s anger towards Hunter in a later scene is completely inexplicable. Johnson doesn’t have a character trait beyond “blandly handsome”.

The comedic scenes in Always are similarly poorly defined. Spielberg’s films are often very funny (E.T., the Indiana Jones films), but only when the comedy is used to move the action forward. Here, there’s no through line and no point. Spielberg has Dreyfuss and Goodman goofing around for the sake of having them goof around. It doesn’t establish anything about their characters or their friendship. Goodman’s material is particularly bad: every gag involves his gross eating habits (drinking Twinkie cream though a straw, dipping a chicken leg in beer) or getting oil or paint smeared all over him. Goodman’s too good of an actor to deserve such embarrassing material. The film makes the same mistake as 1941: everyone’s a buffoon, and there’s no reason to care about any of them. Worst of all: everyone’s laughing at their own damn jokes. Among the other unfunny gags: Dorinda making shopping lists in her sleep, Dreyfuss holding clean towels out for dirty men only to find them black with soot, Johnson accidentally ordering a root beer with an olive in it.

Is the relationship between Hunter and Dreyfuss any better? In a word, no. The two aren’t the least bit convincing as a couple: Dreyfuss plays Pete as a smug, cocky, condescending jerk, while Hunter’s natural folksiness is overplayed (she isn’t helped by her terrible mullet). Their banter is labored. Their romance would have seemed cornball in 1943: Dreyfuss can’t say “I love you” until right before his death, and his call is drowned out by his engine. Oh, please. The two have no chemistry and no stakes in their relationship; it’s difficult to see why Dreyfuss would come back from the dead, except by the will of the script. When Dreyfuss does return, he seems abusive and possessive. His objection to Johnson and Hunter’s relationship, a cry of “That’s my gal!”, is especially callous.

But what about the flight scenes? Aren’t they exciting? Nope. Spielberg can’t distinguish any of the firefighting scenes from one another, can’t establish the much-needed life and death stakes, and can’t clarify why anyone would want this dangerous job in the first place (John Goodman’s sanctimonious speech isn’t going to cut it). He can’t establish a consistent rhythm or tone in any of the scenes: everything is strung together without much rhyme or reason, and the material, whether “heartwarming” or “sad” or “funny”, is all similarly tone-deaf. It’s telling when late scenes involving unnamed firefighters have higher stakes than anything in the main plot. The late Audrey Hepburn provides the sole note of dignity as a cheerful yet sad-eyed angel guiding Dreyfuss through the afterlife. Her material is cornball and ill-defined, but at least she’s not embarrassing herself.

How does this charmless film fit into Spielberg’s filmography? Spielberg’s past three films were all, in some form, attempts at maturity. The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun were his first attempts at “serious” movies, while Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade grappled with Spielberg’s “absent father” theme in a grown-up fashion. With Always, the director attempts to deal with love and death in an adult fashion. Admirable, but everything’s as hollow as John Williams’ strangely unmemorable score. Spielberg grew up watching A Guy Named Joe with his father, a WWII pilot. His reasoning behind remaking this childhood favorite doesn’t seem to be anything more than empty nostalgia. 1941 was a fascinating disaster, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a well-constructed but ugly mess. Always is junk.

Hook Grade: 22 (D+)

Spielberg’s follow-up, 1991’s Hook, has a long and troubled history. Originally envisioned as a high-concept musical starring Michael Jackson as Peter Pan (make your own joke) or as a straight adaptation of the Peter Pan story, Spielberg abandoned the project after declaring his “adulthood” with Empire of the Sun (itself a bit of a Pan retelling). But Spielberg’s young son drew a picture that gave him an idea: what if Peter Pan grew up, and what if Captain Hook lived?

Peter Banning (Robin Williams) is a lawyer. He’s married, with two children: Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott). Peter is an absent father, often too preoccupied with work to pay attention to his children. While visiting his wife’s granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), Jack and Maggie are kidnapped. Wendy insists that she’s the Wendy from the Peter Pan story, and that Peter is the Peter Pan. He doesn’t believe her, but a visit from Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) brings him back to Neverland, where Captain James Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and his sidekick Smee (Bob Hoskins) hold his children hostage. Peter doesn’t remember his past, but Tinkerbell makes a deal with Hook: wait for Peter to train with the Lost Boys, led by tough-guy Rufio (Dante Basco), and they’ll give him the war he wants. Only through finding his inner child can Peter save his children.

Hook gets off to a rough (and I mean rough) start. The opening scene, involving a grade-school stage production of Peter Pan, isn’t a terrible idea, but Spielberg uses the laziest, most clich├ęd signifier of the inattentive parent: the fucking cell-phone. He follows it up with Peter missing his son’s all-important baseball game because he’s too busy with work.  It’s not a good sign when Steven Spielberg, an artist known for realistic, believable relationships between parents and children, lays it on so thick. The film’s opening fifteen minutes pile it on further: Peter frequently uses phrases like “my word is my bond” with his ten-year-old son and demands that he “stop acting like a child”. Spielberg isn’t above heavy-handed irony, either (Peter’s afraid of flying/heights). It all culminates in a terrible scene in which Peter screams at his children to shut up, as he’s on the phone call of his life. Spielberg’s usually a master of treating children like adults and making adults feel like kids again. The film’s opening fifteen minutes talk down to everyone.

Spielberg’s Old Hollywood influences show up again: the Howard Hawks “man on a mission” feel, a scary Hitchcockian kidnapping scene, and a clear love for both Disney’s Peter Pan and for the old Errol Flynn swashbuckling films. But too often Hook cannibalizes old Spielberg films: E.T. was already a strong retelling of Peter Pan, and the kidnapping scene, while effective, is too similar to the home invasion scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with objects flying around and doors opening on their own.

Spielberg being Spielberg, he manages to create some indelible images and scenes: early scenes of Peter at Wendy’s house have a strong mix of reluctance and curiosity, and some of the comedy between Hook and Smee is strong. But too much of the comedy involving the heroes is overly whimsical or manic (a training montage, a terrible scene involving imaginary food), some repeated jokes are intensely unfunny (watch for jokes about grown orphan Toodles’ “marbles”), and the final showdown ping-pongs between overly goofy fights (there is no reason for the Lost Boys to fight with eggs and paint) and poorly choreographed sword fights. The biggest shock: Neverland, from the pirate’s ship to the Lost Boys’ home, looks shockingly cheap. Some of the locales of the Indiana Jones films were certainly weathered, but they weren’t the ugly eyesores on display in Hook. Sometimes it looks like Spielberg’s going for a storybook feel. It doesn’t work.

The conception of Peter Pan growing up isn’t a bad idea, and for a while, Robin Williams is surprisingly effective. Williams can be a gifted dramatic actor (his comedic acting too often relies on Williams riffing), but sometimes sappy scripts bring out the mushiest qualities in the actor. But Williams begins the film as a conflicted man: one who wants desperately to please his family but is too focused on his work. The script doesn’t meet him, but for a while, he’s just fine. As Pan reaches Neverland, Williams overplays the ADULT PETER aspect. As he begins to realize what he’s missed and what really matters, Williams gets drippy and sentimental. When he finally finds his inner child, he’s less mugging than usual, but it’s still a disappointment compared to where he started.

Hoffman and Hoskins fare slightly better as Hook and Smee; they’re silly, unthreatening villains, but at least they’re more fun to watch. The children, meanwhile, are virtually indistinguishable from each other: the only Lost Boy with any personality is the irritating Rufio. and most of them are lousy actors. Young Amber Scott is overly precious as Maggie (she gets her own terrible song to sing). Korsmo is fine as Jack, but he’s used very badly (more on that later). And Julia Roberts is irritatingly manic as Tinkerbell, without any of the firebrand qualities that made other incarnations of the character so interesting. They all reflect a faltering in confidence from Spielberg: Hook and Smee can’t be too frightening (never mind how scary even E.T. could be). The children are stereotypical, undeveloped, and often gross. Tinkerbell and Peter’s inner child are both sickly sweet, manic, and as over the top as possible.

When it comes time for Spielberg to develop Pan’s back story, things get especially rocky. Apparently Peter ran away from home as an infant because he was afraid he would die. How could he run away as an infant? And how did he grow to a teen in Neverland? He then returned to real world after falling in love with Wendy’s granddaughter Moira. Except that he didn’t meet her so much as he saw her sleeping in a creepy scene. Things get creepier in a subplot involving Tinkerbell’s love for Peter; this was implicit in the original story, but here it’s both explicit and poorly developed.

Peter’s fatherhood is part of a long line of absent fathers in Spielberg’s films. Hook is the first Spielberg film that doesn’t handle it well. Peter lost track of what’s really important (his fatherhood) after he focused on his work. But Hook doesn’t treat parents with the same respect that Spielberg had in past excursions (Jaws, E.T.). Peter works too hard and that’s that. Never mind that he’s working hard to provide for his family. The relationship in Hook is oversimplified; the worst bit comes not from Williams’ Pan, but from a scene in which his son, Jack, vindictively smashes his father’s watch while yelling about all the times when his father wasn’t there for him. Never mind that this is the simplistic scene Spielberg avoided in Last Crusade. This is a distressingly ugly scene that plays to the narcissistic side of children: everything’s about Jack, and in a relationship this simple, no one could argue with it (Spielberg explored the dark side of childhood more knowingly in Empire of the Sun and A.I.).

Spielberg no doubt saw some of himself in Peter Pan. A wunderkind, the director had found smashing success at a young age, often with films celebrating childhood innocence. But everyone has to grow up: The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun marked a change in Spielberg’s career. Suddenly, the safe (mostly) carefree adventures and smart-aleck humor didn’t have the same appeal. Spielberg’s next two films, Last Crusade and Always, attempted to deal with adult themes through the prism of adventure (one more successfully than the other). Perhaps workaholic Spielberg fretted that he spent too much time working and not enough time as a father. Perhaps he felt that he, like Pan, needed to regain that childhood innocence that everyone had loved so.

He didn’t give himself enough credit. Many parents worries they don’t do enough for their children, but Spielberg’s strong history with children suggests he worried too much.  Hook doesn’t have the same feel that E.T., Close Encounters, Jaws or the two strongest Indiana Jones entries have. It’s too calculated a regression, and only John Williams’ fantastic score hits the right notes. Spielberg was growing up; it was time to move on.

Saturday: We wrap up Spielberg’s classic adventure films with Jurassic Park

1 comment:

  1. I didn;t like Always but I love Hook. You're only right about the magnificent Williams score, but I find the rest also magical.

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