Sunday, August 01, 2004

Movie: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

John Huston didn’t see the point of remaking of good movies when there are bad ones waiting to be improved. Sound advice from the man who had the third crack at THE MALTESE FALCON. But Hollywood is first and foremost a business. A little pre-sell never hurts.

I came to terms with the idea of a new CANDIDATE for two reasons. First, the 1962 version, directed by John Frankheimer and adapted from Richard Condon’s novel by George Axelrod, is so peerless that comparing any movie to it is inherently unfair. And second, God knows there’s enough going on in the world to give the story relevance.

So it’s purely on its own terms that Jonathan Demme’s remake is an utter failure.

As the lights went down, I realized that I hadn’t seen one of Demme’s movies in the theater since PHILADELPHIA over ten years ago. It’s as if the impact THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had on audiences frightened him. That film’s writer Ted Tally has said that he turned to Demme after an early screening and asked why all that power and craft couldn’t be put in service of, say, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Demme seems to have taken the question to heart. Every movie since has been crippled by the director’s oppressive good will. (A deleted scene included on the DVD of THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE proves the point. One of that film’s poorly defined villains gets shot – by accident, natch – and we see her dying vision of her mother waking her up. Any filmmaker who would even consider using this moment has no business directing suspense, even of the romantic comedy variety.)

There’s a new heavy in the 2004 CANDIDATE. The brainwashing is now being done by the evil conglomerate Manchurian Global. It’s a hackneyed idea, for starters; as Jamie Weinman points out on his blog, corporations are the standard villain in most Hollywood movies now, primarily because Hollywood movies are made by them. It’s an easy way to avoid offending any segment of the public. What’s worse is this plot twist is completely nonsensical. Manchurian Global, we’re repeatedly told, already has the ear of those in charge. Why muck about with implantable microchips and assassinations when you’re landing every government contract? Why own the presidency when it’s cheaper to lease?

Manchurian Global’s muddled plan also drains the movie of suspense. It’s hard to get worked up over a conspiracy that can be unraveled via Google.

WARNING: political rant approaching.

Having a corporation be the villain is just another example of the movie’s lazy, left-wing bias. Casting Al Franken as a TV reporter is not only not funny, it’s a way of tacitly telling half of the potential audience, “You’re not welcome here.” Other prominent liberals turn up as pundits. The film’s idea of being inclusive is having Meryl Streep play a Gorgonized version of Hillary Clinton; it’s funny, the movie says as it elbows us in the ribs, because we all know our Hil isn’t really like that.

I want to avoid comparisons to the original, but the 1962 version had a darkly comic take on politics that was only slightly exaggerated from the era’s Cold War hysteria. Demme’s version is tone-deaf when it comes to the subject. Tossing in references to faulty touch screens and the American incursion in Indonesia does not mean you are engaging with the vital issues of the day. Even the little things are wrong; no Presidential candidate, not even Reagan, would sign off on a poster that has his face appearing on Mount Rushmore. (If it’s intended as satirical, it’s too little, too late.) And the idea that Raymond Shaw (Liev Schrieber) would be named running mate is totally implausible. A two-term Congressman? Representing New York City? Who hasn’t had a long-term relationship in his adult life? And you thought Dan Quayle was an easy target.

For the most part, the new CANDIDATE has gotten positive reviews. It currently has an 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (I know, it’s far from scientific. But I work with what I have.) Maybe the critical establishment is giving Demme’s film a pass because they genuinely like it. Maybe they want movies to matter the way they did in the ‘70s, when pulp thrillers like CHINATOWN and THE CONVERSATION spoke to the tenor of the times. Or maybe Demme’s movie plays to their own politics enough to blind them to its evident flaws. (Jesus. I sound like Bill O’Reilly.) I have my staunchly-held beliefs, too. I’d like to think that they wouldn’t prevent me from doing my job, whether that’s making a thriller that includes a few thrills or calling out a once-favored director when he doesn’t.