Alex Proyas’ “Knowing” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“Now, I want you to think about the perfect set of circumstances that put this celestial ball of fire at just the correct distance from our little blue planet for life to evolve, making it possible for you to be sitting here in this riveting lecture. But that’s a nice thought, right? Everything has a purpose, an order to it, is determined. But then there’s the other side of the argument, the theory of randomness, which says it’s all simply coincidence. The very fact we exist is nothing but the result of a complex yet inevitable string of chemical accidents and biological mutations. There is no grand meaning. There’s no purpose.”

―”What about you, Professor Koestler? What do you believe?”

“I think shit just happens.”

This is the way the world ends. Not with a whimper, but a bang. For that cute little inversion, all credit goes to Richard Kelly, director of The Southland Tales and Donnie Darko. Alex ProyasKnowing has more in common with the latter, because of its tone, period aesthetic, generally comprehensible story, and earnest desire to taunt the protagonist with the unfeeling inevitability of his doom. By the time this review posts, I’ll have a new baby to take care of, and I promise, that’ll be the end of comparisons of that happy event to the end of the world. She’ll be our second, and while I find that I’m daunted in different ways this time, my excitement generally dwarfs my fears this time around. But it is fair to say that I’ll be a bit busy at that time, which is why I’m trying something new with this 10YA selection. First, I’m writing the first draft of this review a month early, as opposed to mostly the night before it’s due. Second, I’m writing it before I actually rewatch the film. Kinda violates the spirit of the thing, doesn’t it? I’m meant to write on the subject of how my thoughts on this film have evolved over the years. But if I’m being honest, they really haven’t. I rewatch this one at least every year or two, and on top of being a slick sci-fi fantasy that does a better job than a lot of harder sci-fi at making me ponder humanity’s minuscule place in the universe, the message of this film has remained more or less unchanged for me: Some things are bigger than you, and disasters – especially global-scale ones – are terrifying in a distinctly impersonal sort of way. Roland Emmerich, while a master of disaster in his own right, pointedly omits this feeling from his disasters. As I said in my review of 2012 (a film nearly as old as this one),

“The film could easily have focused on one of the many barely seen individuals whose unceremonious slaughter makes up the beautifully rendered CG backdrop through which our heroes must cavort, or one of the additional billions who die off-screen, not fortunate enough to meet their end in front of a famous landmark or city skyline… But let’s be honest, who really wants to see that movie?”

To be fair, this film does contain a bit of that carnival-ride stuff. There’s no good reason why Professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) should happen to be present for a plane crash that happens on the highway right in front of him, and as he runs through an unbroken shot dodging explosions and debris and generally just trying to participate, there’s very little feeling that he’s in any real danger. The airplane scene is going for something Final Destination-like, but it’s also patently ridiculous. There just wouldn’t be this many people alive after the crash we saw, which ended with an explosion on the ground. John encounters another person on fire and puts them out with a blanket, then performs about 7 seconds of CPR on someone else before the emergency responders send him off. The TV news blames the plane crash on solar activity messing with the plane’s navigation, which ties it in causally with the rest of the film, but still makes it a complete coincidence that Cage was there.

OKAY, FINE. John discusses “synchronicity” with his friend Phil (Ben Mendelsohn), who is a professor of whatever the screenwriters of this film think cosmology is.

In any case, John has now resolved to seek out the two remaining disasters, so the next ones won’t be coincidence. These roller-coaster scenes are fleeting (and don’t make up the entire film, as they do in 2012). Knowing is unique among disaster films in that it lingers far more on the victims than usual. The most frightening scene is not the worldwide destruction of the film’s ending, but rather a second-act scene in a subway station, in which a train crashes and derails, rolling and sliding and grinding over dozens and hundreds of people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can practically feel the severed limbs – people contorted sickeningly into impossible positions. It all happens very quickly, but most importantly, it all happens in a way that is completely unavoidable. Pure, dumb luck dictates who survives that scene. And John is Cassandra, doomed to see each disaster coming, but be powerless to warn anyone or stop it.

The warnings, it must be said, are fairly hokey. A time capsule opens up, a stack of retrofuturistic children’s drawings are handed out, and John’s son Caleb receives a vast, unbroken page of handwritten numbers. “What’d you get?” asks a lad of 11, “Bo-ring! Everyone else got a picture!“. Like I said. Hokey. Preteen children do not get this stoked for old crayon scrawls of rocketships, but John’s kid, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) – who does that same eerily calm thing that every horror kid did for about a decade after The Sixth Sense – seems to have the same sort of shining as Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson), the girl from 1959 who drew his page’o’numbers. For reasons that are unclear and unimportant as the film goes on, Caleb gets a vision of the woods on fire, talks to weird tall people who hand him polished black rocks, and he has what sounds like a diagnosed auditory processing disorder, but is wearing a hearing aid for some reason? This allows the aliens (also called “Whisper People”) to talk to him through the static. Truth be told, it really doesn’t matter – they talk to the other child character without any technical assistance, and this all feels like a bit of Proyas rehashing the Strangers from Dark City, who serve a much more specific purpose in that film. John may not be able to stop the end of the world, but when it comes to predicting it, he’s the star of this show. John is living his best life, and amid a torrent of scotch – to round out his evening of barbecued hot dogs, wine, astronomy, and dour irreligious discussion with Caleb about his dead mother – he quickly deduces that the mysterious numbers on the 50-year-old drawing spell out dates and casualty figures (and eventually, he deduces, map coordinates). They are, in short, a prediction of every major disaster since the time capsule was buried, 9/11 included. This sort of hokey prediction scheme has been done before, of course – the film has a great deal in common structurally with a Richard Gere vehicle from 2002, The Mothman Prophecies (which ends with a much more modest bridge collapse), but the particular handling of this film’s doomsaying marks it as less of a spooky and paranormal thing, and more of a frighteningly plausible post-9/11 thing. The terror forecast is high, the clock is ticking, Jack Bauer is running, and we just have to get to one more doomed place just in time to watch a cool piece of destruction unfold without getting caught in it ourselves. Until we do.

Caleb sees an apocalyptic vision outside his bedroom window. I’ve omitted the burning moose and the burning bear and the burning bunnies, all of which individually appear a few seconds later.

The only unforgivable disaster in this film is its wasting of Rose Byrne. She is…present, and plays two different parts, both the grownup version of Lucinda in photos (who spent most of her life institutionalized, and is now dead), as well as her adult daughter Diana. Lara Robinson, who played young Lucinda, also plays Diana’s daughter Abby, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Byrne both as a child in 2009 and as an adult now. Still with me? Double-casting, and a whole ‘nother single parent/kid situation, but there’s really not much else to note here. Diana makes two contributions to the plot – the first is to help find the meaning of the last two numbers on the page – it’s not “33”, but rather the letters “EE”. Second, she panics and kidnaps Caleb at the end, for reasons that make little sense even in the moment. But it hardly matters. She dies, John finds the kids, and he’s about to die along with EE: Everyone Else.

Like Moses, Diana doesn’t survive long enough to enter the promised land, but in this case, the promised land is an apocalyptic firestorm. The sun will experience a “super-flare” – a coronal mass ejection (CME), which will scour the surface of the Earth, burning away its atmosphere, boiling away its oceans, and obliterating all life. Marco Beltrami‘s score is screaming when this reveal occurs, and I must say, despite it literally being revealed on the film’s poster, this moment was pretty mindblowing for me when it occurred. How do you top all previous disaster films, including 2012? End the world. The protagonists’ actions were meaningless. After verifying the doomsday prediction at an MIT observatory, John literally questions this anti-climax aloud.

“I thought there was some purpose to all of this. Why did I get this prediction if there’s nothing I can do about it? How am I supposed to stop the end of the world?”

2012‘s answer to this question was for Chiwetel Ejiofor to insistently save a small group of people to prove to no one in particular that humanity is worthy of some level of survival. Knowing makes no bones about the idea that humanity’s worth is any factor whatsoever when it comes to survival of the species. For a film that’s ostensibly about numerology – a meaningless pseudoscience – Knowing takes great pleasure in pulling the rug out from under both the characters and the audience with the greatest numbers game of all: the Fermi paradox. Despite any probabilistic arguments about the likely and commonplace existence of intelligent life in our vast universe (Caleb and John literally discuss the Drake Equation at one point), the silence and lack of observable evidence for extraterrestrials is an open question: If intelligent life is so common, where is everyone? One proposed explanation, strongly implied in this film, is global catastrophe, or existential risk. The idea is that even if intelligent life is commonplace throughout the universe, global natural disasters occur on a frequent enough timescale to tend to destroy every intelligent civilization before it has a chance to make an escape beyond the stars. And there will be no survivors, except those plucked away at the last second by aliens. Or angels. Or whatever else flies a ridiculously cool shape-shifting spaceship. What you see is what you get here, and they’re mysterious celestial beings who’ve come down to rescue a chosen few to begin again on another world. Or be sequestered in a zoo with a compatible atmosphere to draw out humanity’s extinction for a bit. Whatever works. John is the perfect protagonist in the face of this, because even as Cage is making his usual bizarre coterie of over-the-top acting choices, John is going on a mundane journey of his own of discovery, acceptance, and finally rapprochement with his estranged (and extremely religious) family. A simple tale of a man finding – or feigning – peace at the end of all things. Because what else can he do? Give everyone he loves one last squeeze, and that’s the ballgame.

After the kids depart, John drives his truck slowly through the apocalyptic horde (which screams, but also parts in an orderly fashion him to pass) as the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 plays. He arrives at the fanciest Brooklyn townhouse a clergyman ever lived in, and his sister greets him with a hug at the door.

“Where’s Caleb?” asks Grace.
“Caleb’s safe,” says John, sounding 1000% like he murdered his child.
“This isn’t the end, son,” says Reverend Koestler.
“I know,” says John.

And then…

several…

more…

things…

happen.

I remember Knowing fondly, but truth be told, I may finally be ready to let it go for a while. I’ve voraciously consumed sci-fi books over the past decade, and my mind is currently enraptured by Cixin Liu‘s Remembrance of Earth’s Past book trilogy, which starts with humanity grappling with its own impending destruction that will likely occur in a few hundred years, then becomes something much grander, more profound, and – it must be said – grounded in science, than this film. But for a film about big ideas (which the late, great Roger Ebert explored in far more detail in his spoiler-filled blogpost here), this one is largely still relevant to me, even if I have a harder time explaining the exact purpose of the aliens, who seemingly just show up on the occasion of our annihilation to make sure that we’re not alone. My best narrative explanation for them is that they feel less like a religious metaphor and more like an avatar for our expectations of the universe. Perhaps that’s our true fascination with alien life. Carl Sagan once referred to humanity as a means for the Cosmos to know itself, but perhaps we like to imagine the Cosmos can know us as well, to relieve our loneliness, or perhaps just to take some of the pressure off as a species. Even if natural law is a cold, unfeeling thing that is quite capable of erasing all life from our planet at any time, we like to think that our existence is noticed by someone, even if that someone will stand idly by and watch us vanish from our fleeting lease of spacetime.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

I don’t have much use for this, but it’s a very pretty picture.

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Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

But that’s not, strictly speaking, true. My first written opinion about this film appeared as my 2008 Best Picture of the Year – the inaugural winner of my self-styled awards ceremony, The Glennies. #2 and #3 were Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight, and as if to emphasize the youthful indolence of these picks, I couldn’t be bothered to actually write anything about TDK. This was when my film-blogging days were just getting started – I think this one might’ve actually been a Facebook note. But now that I’ve caught up to my younger self in the decade-on retrospectives, I suppose I’ll have to start being a bit more selective about my 10YA selections, lest I have to rip my younger self a new one for having bad opinions. But my glowing review of Darren Aronofsky‘s The Wrestler is largely one I can still stand behind. As it happens, my future podcast co-host (and then housemate) Daniel and I walked to downtown Seattle to see this film, and he spent the entire walk back educating me on all the real-world wrestling parallels to the events in the film – most of which I’ve since forgotten. But I’ve certainly immersed myself in the medium since, thanks in large part to his continued interest in WWE and invitations to one Pay-Per-View event or another. I’ve also developed a casual fandom for mixed martial arts, and Daniel and I have reviewed such films as Foxcatcher (a dour crime drama about an Olympic wrestling team) and Concussion (about the NFL’s abysmal treatment of CTE – which has also purportedly been an issue in pro wrestling). And on a real-world note, I’ve since learned that the highest bar for tragedy among brain-damaged pro wrestlers was far more violent and disturbing than the sad spectacle of an over-the-hill stuntman whose life and fandom are slowly petering out.

I mention my fandom for MMA because…steroid scandals notwithstanding…the action is real, and it’s a bloodsport. It’s gladiatorial combat, and my personal ethics on watching such things are an ongoing personal project. Every time a fresh spurt of blood hits the Octagon, after I’m done gasping and cheering, I think – Should I really be watching this? And then, I keep watching, because it’s awesome. And because they’re voluntary participants underpaid in a flawed and top-heavy economic system who are fighting by choice and for the twisted amusement of a decadent society that will thoroughly bill them for the healthcare they require afterward and…then I keep watching, because it’s awesome. But there is one type of semi-authentic, semi-scripted prize-fighting that has never made sense to me – a “hardcore match“, in which the wrestlers attack each other (and themselves) with dangerous-looking weapons, inflicting real (minor) injuries.

But why.

Midway through the first act, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) participates in such a match with real-life hardcore wrestler Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers), and for the life of me, I still can’t explain the entertainment value of such a spectacle. I’ll watch a pair of UFC fighters pummel each other until the Octagon looks like a crime scene, but when I see Mickey Rourke and Dylan Summers – two human beings whose character names hardly matter – covered in [possibly real] blood and nicks and scratches and fucking staples, one of which Summers uses to attach a $5 bill to his forehead – I can’t help but wonder what the point of this self-flagellation is. Am I watching a bloodsport right now, or am I watching Jackass? The film seems to share a desire for distance from this spectacle – we first see Randy and his opponent returning to the locker room being attended by EMTs who are stitching up their wounds, removing intramuscular barbed wire chunks, and so forth – and the film cuts back and forth between the injuries and how each of them occurred a few minutes earlier. Aronofsky is an old hand at depicting people debasing themselves, but I must admit, this shtick managed to remain charming to me all the way up until 2017’s mother!, wherein he creates and eviscerates a character played by his then-girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence, for thematic purposes that I found increasingly dubious as the film went on. But I suppose this match serves a purpose, insofar as it presents a representative moment for how the Ram got the way he is. This may be a disturbing event, but it’s not an unusual one for him.

In my 2008 review, I repeated an apocryphal story about Aronofsky telling Rourke that he could resurrect his career, but only if Rourke does exactly as the director says. Then I suggested that The Wrestler – Aronofsky’s most accessible film so far – might be the one to finally launch the director out of film-nerd semi-obscurity. That wasn’t exactly true either (that would be his next film, Black Swan), but it’s fair to say that Rourke, whose comeback was already underway following an outstanding pulp supporting turn in Sin City, got a lot more attention after his Oscar-nominated performance in this film. His Oscar moment is obvious – it’s a failed, two-part rapprochement with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Part 1 is on a pier. In the words of Megan Ganz, “Redemption follows allocution,” and Randy fully confesses the extent to which he’s failed and abandoned her as a father.

“I just want to tell you. I’m the one…who was supposed to take care of everything. I’m the one who was supposed to make everything okay for everybody. But it just didn’t work out like that. And I left. I left you. You never did anything wrong. You know? I used to try to- Huh! Forget about you. I used to try to pretend that…you didn’t exist. But I can’t. You’re my girl. You’re my little- You’re my little girl. And now- I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat. And I’m alone. And I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me. Okay?”

If I’ve picked up on anything about this scene in the past decade (besides lessons in what not to do as a father), it’s that it only works so well because it’s sincere in the moment, but turns out to be a lie. The film’s most heartbreaking and redemptive moment is just another Randy “The Ram” Robinson hype speech, trying to be the Face for an abandoned adult child for whom he’s only ever been the Heel. And he’s lying as much to himself as he is to her. In a later scene, after biffing the simple task of “meeting his daughter for dinner at a predetermined time and place” (in favor of doing lines of coke and an eager fan-girl in a bar bathroom, which cannot be a good idea for a man who’s just had a heart attack), he desperately strokes Stephanie’s hair and face as she initially screams that she hates him, and then finally, coldly tells him the truth.

“You know what? I don’t care. I don’t hate you. I don’t love you. I don’t even like you. And I was stupid to think that you could change…There is no more fixing this. It’s broke. Permanently. And I’m okay with that. It’s better. I don’t ever want to see you again. Look at me- I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear you. I am done. Do you understand? Done. Get out.”

There’s an old screenwriting tip that you should always begin your stories on the most interesting day of the characters’ life. But I think there’s something equally appealing about picking a truthfully representative day of the character’s life. What works so well about Wood and Rourke’s performances here is that while it’s unclear if this is the first time that father and daughter have tried to repair their relationship, it feels like it probably is not. With each biting word and emotional beat splayed across their faces, we see the complete history of this family, and we know the extent to which they’re following a script that they’ve played out already (see also: Wood’s various performances in Westworld). This isn’t just what Robin did today. This is what Randy does. It’s who he is. A fuck-up.

I haven’t mentioned Pam (stage name: Cassidy) (Marisa Tomei) yet, because I don’t think her storyline has changed for me much in the past decade. The Ram is performing violence, Cassidy – a stripper – is performing sexuality, each of them – however unfairly – is nearing the end of their ability to do so. And the pair of them are performing friendship and perhaps romance with each other, never quite sure whether they’re crossing any arbitrary personal or professional boundaries. This still works just fine (and Tomei’s performance is still marvelous), but what you see is what you get. Same goes for all of the stuff at the grocery store. It’s bleak, even funny at times, but straight-forward. The Ram is broke and working a normal job, and his boss is a bit of a dick, and that’s about it.

My main takeaway from this film is that Robin Ramzinski needs to stop. After a ridiculously thorough drug transaction from actor and real-life convicted drug-dealer Scott Siegel, he suffers a myocardial infarction and bypass surgery, and is warned by his doctor that he needs to eliminate all of his vices – drugs, wrestling, anything that’ll be a strain on his heart. In the very next scene, we see him collapse while going for an easy jog in the woods. He’s an old broken-down piece of meat. And in his final speech, the Ram declares, “The only ones who are gonna tell me when I’m through doing my thing, is you people right here.” And then he slams and leaps for our amusement, from the top of the ring into oblivion as the credits roll. And if the film leaves you with anything, it’s a fading, cacophonous scream from the audience. The Ram is through. His weakness, and his tragedy, is that he couldn’t accept it 30 seconds earlier.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

There are two opening title cards to Baz Luhrmann‘s Australia.

“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy steamed south, unleashing their fire on Darwin, a city in the Northern Territory of Australia.

‘The Territory’ was a land of crocodiles, cattle barons, and warrior chiefs where adventure and romance was a way of life.

It was also a place where aboriginal children of mixed-race were taken by force from their families and trained for service in white society. These children became known as the Stolen Generations.”

Starting with the Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” before jumping back in time two years was an odd choice. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t say the mention of impending Imperial Japanese bombers provoked much suspense for me while watching this film, because the first 90 minutes are a rip-roaring western epic about a cattle drive, with the initial flirtations of a period romance, mostly taking place in the middle of nowhere in the Australian Outback. This crawl had entirely left my head by the time the second film (a speed-run of Michael Bay‘s Pearl Harbor) begins, because Australia really is two and a half films crammed into one. It’s Luhrmann’s very own Down Under Lord of the Rings, seemingly with the self-awareness of a director who knew he would probably only get financing for this thing once. So, no need to trim the script – let’s just do it all in a three-hour epic, Gone With the Wind-style. The other opening title card is a warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers that they should exercise caution when watching this film, as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons. Between this and the Japanese bomber warning, it’s pretty clear that the film is promising that people will die on this adventure, but it’s also explicitly announcing its intention to court an audience of Indigenous peoples, as well as to tell a tale on their behalf.

As I write this a decade later, the warning about deceased persons has literally come true for two actors who each made their final appearance in this film. Ray Barrett, an actor with a career spanning five decades who played a cameo role, passed at the age of 82 from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2009. And David Ngoombujarra, who plays Magarri and was barely half Barrett’s age, was found dead in a park in 2011, of unspecified (but non-suspicious) causes. That’s all I know about Ngoombujarra. The internet can tell me a few more things. He had a winning smile. His colleagues claimed he struggled with alcoholism. He was taken from his Aboriginal parents in 1967 under government policy, adopted at 10 months old, and raised by white parents in Western Australia under the name David Bernard Starr. He originally came from the Yamatji people. This film tells me that Aborigines believe that once a person dies, you should no longer speak their name, and demonstrates occasional interest in the differences between Aboriginal tribes (at least in one extremely specific plot-serving way). But I won’t act as if I know something about this man, including anything about his preference one way or the other about his name being used after death. This is a film with pretenses of educating its audience, and I suppose in the case of the Stolen Generations, it did that in a minimal fashion – I had never heard of this policy prior to this film. But the film’s primary vehicle for this lesson is a mixed-race Aboriginal boy, Nullah (Brandon Walters), who spends nearly the film’s full runtime speaking non-specifically about his experience of not belonging, and by the end, I can’t say I learned anything more about the fictional Aborigine than I did about the real one.

The film starts in media res with Nullah’s voiceover. He learned everything he knows from an elder named King George (David Gulpilil), including to hate and fear white people, whom the elder claims need to be purged from this land. Because of Nullah’s mixed-race parentage, he is understandably worried about being taken away by the government and church – so whenever white people turn up, he makes himself invisible. Initially, he hides underwater (in a billabong – essentially a temporary swamp) from a team driving cattle. Then some vague things happen, Nullah dodges a man getting speared through the chest, then claims his horse, then runs into a derelict cattle ranch to hide in a water tower. Then Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman show up, and…the camera flies around and swoops into the sky. Title. Three weeks earlier. None of that was really necessary.

And then the story actually begins, as Lady Sarah Ashley (Kidman), an English aristocrat, packs to travel down under to sell Faraway Downs, a cattle station that she owns with her husband Lord Ashley. She suspects her husband was just using this backwater ranch as an excuse to travel far away and bang other women. I should pause here and note, it’s hilarious to me that even as Hugh Jackman gets to go full Crocodile Dundee in this film, while Australian and frequent accent-performer Nicole Kidman is being forced to play English – and not just English, but essentially Rachel Weisz‘s reluctant librarian adventurer from The Mummy. Lady Ashley is determined (despite her husband’s telegrams to the contrary) to show up in person and force the sale, so Lord Ashley promises to send his trusted man to meet her at the port city of Darwin (Didn’t we hear something about this city earlier?).

When we first meet the trusted man, of course it’s Hugh Jackman, whose name and function is Drover. He’s wearing a cowboy hat, punching a dude in the face, and drinking a beer, and…yes, this film is called Australia. This is before Jackman beefed up for the latter half of his Wolverine years, but he could still throw down in a choreographed brawl with his usual vigor. For next five minutes, while Drover brawls in the background with literally a dozen racist dudes who have a problem with his friendly attitude toward the Aborigines, the story and stakes of the film’s first half are laid out: Carney (Bryan Brown) is the Sausage King of Chicago Beef Baron of Australia, and his only possible competitor is Lady Ashley’s little cattle station, Faraway Downs. As a good monopolist who senses an imminent opportunity for some war profiteering, he doesn’t want to jeopardize his lucrative beef contract with the Aussie Army, so he’s engaging in a few dirty tricks to ensure that not a single beast from Faraway Downs makes it onto “that dock right there” in Darwin. Drover (Jackman) drives cattle on a commission basis (“No one hires me, no one fires me”), and he’s been contracted by Lord Ashley to drive 1,500 head of cattle to that very dock, on the condition that he escort Lady Ashley to the cattle station first. Because he’s a Trusted Man and all that. He wrecks a bit of her luggage (and scatters her underthings) in the brawl, welcomes her to Australia. She is scandalized, and they are off and running on a dune buggy on a soundstage.

I should mention, thanks to the crew at the /Filmcast (who were my early podcasting idols), I’d already heard a bit about the “George Lucas beauty” (flagrant CGI) of this film before I saw it theatrically, and while its intermittently spotty visuals didn’t bother me in ’08, they certainly weren’t lost on me either. Most of this film takes place in the Australian wilderness, and it is almost uniformly gorgeous whenever it’s a wide shot and I’m not thinking too hard about whether it was real or not. The film seems to have seen this coming, because when the gang stops to camp in what appears to be a studio set, an undeniably authentic visual moment ensues:

After the Drover’s shampoo commercial wraps, he and Magarri shock Lady Ashley with a bit of lightly ribald banter before treating her basically decently (this continues in the car, with a misunderstanding over horse breeding), then they arrive on the cattle ranch, which has been gutted, and her husband Lord Ashley (who turned out to be the man we saw speared through the chest in the prologue) lies dead in the parlor. The cattle station’s manager, Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), whom we already saw colluding with the ruthless Carney in the exposition scene, spins a yarn about how King George, a “murderous black”, killed Lord Ashley. He also says the windmill-driven water pump doesn’t work, the cattle are all gone, he’s not a murderer, etc., before Nullah demolishes this pile of lies pretty effectively by instantaneously fixing the windmill. Fletcher attacks him and his mother and is promptly fired. He and his men leave, but one drunk fellow, Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), tells the tale. The cattle ranch is facing foreclosure, and Fletcher has been embezzling unbranded cattle for years, siphoning them off into Carney’s land and herd. Oh, and Nullah is totally Fletcher’s unacknowledged son, as if the latter’s command of an Aboriginal language and casual racism and domestic violence didn’t make that clear. Flynn suggests that the only way that Lady Ashley can beat Carney and Fletcher at their own game is to drove the remaining cattle to Darwin. If only she knew someone who could assist…

Drover is outside, herding a gorgeous pack of unbridled horses. Then he stops and stands outside the ranch, and he and Lady Ashley have an intense conversation on…greenscreen? What the hell is going on visually with this movie? There are literally two dudes standing motionless on horseback in the background of Jackman’s shot, and I’m not sure if either of these movie stars is actually in this location, having this conversation. I shouldn’t find this quite so obnoxious, but…I really do. From the Star Wars prequels to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, there’s nothing that will take me out of a film faster than the feeling that the movie is bullshitting me about where the actors actually are. And it’s not as if there aren’t equally good examples of this. Greenscreen is prolific. Avatar, Life of Pi, Game of Thrones, virtually every Marvel film… As well as innumerable other productions where the compositing is so seamless that it’s essentially unnoticeable unless you’re really looking for it. The VFX industry has gotten a lot better at this. But sets haven’t yet become optional even a decade later, and there was a period of time in the mid-2000s where the oeuvre of George Lucas managed to convince some TV and film productions that they were. Famously, he even visited the 2001 shoot in Martin Scorsese‘s full-scale replica set of 1850s Five Points neighborhood for Gangs of New York, and balked at the expense of such a set when CGI buildings are surely cheaper. Perhaps they are (as Rhythm and Hues can attest), but cheaper isn’t always better, and bad compositing can severely date a film, as it does here. From the one-two punch of these shots, what appears to be the reality of this production is that the ranch house at Faraway Downs doesn’t exist (or is a model), but some of the fencing does? So as the pair has a tepid argument about whether or not they have enough experienced riders for the drove, every shot of Kidman is on a soundstage, some of the shots of Jackman are on location, and it’s honestly pretty tiresome to watch. I’ll try to stop commenting on this quite so much, but this uneven fakery hangs over Australia throughout its runtime.

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) stands in front of a greenscreen which may or may not be in Australia.

Following a drove-training montage, the police arrive, and Nullah and his mother Daisy (Ursula Yovich) dart into the water tower to hide. The police are ostensibly there to investigate Lord Ashley’s murder, but Fletcher also dropped a dime on his own kid, and they tell Lady Ashley to keep an eye out for him so they can take him away. As the cops wash off at the water pump, its activation somehow begins to fill the upper tank with water even faster (this mechanism makes no sense to me). The ladder breaks loose, and Nullah and his mother are in peril of drowning in the middle of the driest part of the dry season in the Outback. Lady Ashley covers for Nullah, and sends the cops on their way – and Drover runs up to save the pair. But it’s too late for Daisy, who has drowned.

I should mention at this point, as I attempt to comment on the race relations in this film, I feel a bit like John Denver. I can sing with ridiculous superficiality about the stereotypes and iconography of Australia, but I’m not about to pretend I can comment insightfully on the Stolen Generations, except to say that they’re an unambiguous case of institutionalized white supremacy, and I’ve learned in the past decade that such arrangements were more the rule than the exception throughout the age of empires. What’s more, it’s literally what the Trump Administration did (on a smaller scale) on the US-Mexico border last year – stealing children from their parents like a fairy-tale demon, traumatizing them at a tender age, and in many cases, deporting their parents and not tracking them in any meaningful way. Many of them will be adopted out or become wards of the state, never to see their families again, through the banal cruelty of a needless policy motivated by the need to tickle the sensibilities of racist rubes, combined with administrative and bureaucratic ineptitude. It is sickening. And even if Australia struggles to find a more detailed message other than “This was bad,” as I view it a decade later, the film feels like a decent prototype of the sort of cultural commentary that will inevitably emerge in the future to damn our current era’s policies in retrospect. Perhaps it’ll be under a rosy glow of romantic adventure, like this film, or quaint nostalgia, à la Forrest Gump. But one way or another, future generations will come to know some part of the present struggle through an artistic lens.

But let’s talk about Daisy’s death. I tend to think that Australia means well, and perhaps even functions as a piece of lightly educational content about the troubled racial history of the continent. But as a pair of white protagonists trade facile barbs about whether or not any specific detail of their employment of or interaction with Aborigines at Faraway Downs constitutes “exploitation,” it all feels a bit undercut when an Indigenous woman dies in the most pointless way possible to save her son from peril that was, in every sense of the word, unnecessary. Aborigines are present in this film, but by and large, their voices are not. And the child Nullah (who is also joining the drove), seems less like a character and more like an avatar for narration. Another Aborigine, Bandy Legs, screams Daisy’s name and cries as the camera fades upward – her pain as much as part of the scenery as the windmill. And the tale goes on. The Aborigines bury their dead, and the distant King George, who is also (*deep sigh*) in front of a greenscreen, seems distraught.

King George (David Gulpilil) stands separately from the rest of the cast, with little exception, for the entirety of the film.

Drover dispatches Lady Ashley, literally because she’s a woman and all that, to comfort the child. This scene is actually quite marvelous, as the well-meaning aristocrat kneels on a pair of newspapers and gives Nullah a lousy rendition of the story of The Wizard of Oz, eventually singing a randomly-keyed rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a motif that will return throughout the film. Baz? Let’s talk for a moment. I know your country is literally called Oz, but as evocative far-flung renditions go, that song belongs squarely to Iz Kamakawiwo’ole in Hawaii. Just go with Men at Work next time. Although I must say, watching Kidman pretend like she can’t sing (after Luhrmann already showed off her singing prowess just 7 years earlier) is almost as amusingly undignified as making her speak with an English accent, and she has a giddy old time with it, mixing up verse and chorus and giggling and cheering up the boy in spite of herself. Then Nullah, who only exists to advance the plot, tells her that it’s time to get those no-good, cheeky bulls into that big, bloody metal ship, because the grief scene is over, and it’s time to move some cows!

Flynn has apparently been in rehab during this montage, as he shatters an entirely full bottle of rum before announcing he’s ready to join the party. Magarri, Bandy Legs, and another Aborigine join the crew, and Drover delivers some highly specific admonitions to the woman, the kid, and the drunk, and mostly ignores the three others. And off the herd goes, and…I must say, every wide shot of the cows is pretty stellar. The cows don’t have to do a lot (except briefly die in visually thrilling ways), and they kick up enough dust to cover any visual oddities. When the team crosses the river, there seem to be a few dozen actual cows involved. Back in Darwin, a newsreel tells the tale of war in Europe, Carney maneuvers to get the army beef contract, and Fletcher fumes. Villainy is afoot.

As the herd advances through a canyon, Nullah – who has been delivering voiceover this entire time and saying very little, utters his least substantial line yet. Speaking of Lady Ashley, he intones, “When Mrs. Boss first come to this land, she look, but she not see. Now, she got her eyes open for the first time,” and…wow this is embarrassing, “Some places got spirits. White fellas don’t know. Some places no good to go.” King George, who can teleport, is naked atop another cliff as they pass. Four goons with black hats approach to cause trouble. Nullah randomly tells Flynn that King George is his grandfather, and… the man is visibly shocked. Flynn later asks Nullah to confirm that Lord Ashley was killed by a glass-tipped spear. This seems like it’ll be important later. The sun instantaneously rises, Fletcher and his goons (also in front of a greenscreen, but on horseback) crest the hill, start a fire, and scatter the cows, who stampede toward the cliffs. A pattern ensues as this legitimately awesome action-adventure setpiece plays out: Every wide shot is great, every close-up is flat-out terrible. But these people are acting the hell out of it, and honestly, this is exactly the kind of raucous action setpiece I tuned in for. Flynn gets trampled, and a few cows fall as they drive the herd around the cliff, then Fletcher’s goons set off another miraculously well-placed fire line, and the whole bloody mess is heading straight for Nullah at the cliff’s edge. So…he sings at em. We occasionally cut to King George, who does the same. And lo, their magic quells the stampede. Nullah passes out from the ordeal of using his magic, and nearly takes a tumble off the cliff, and Lady Ashley grabs him just in time. King George, who is not in the same location as any other character, says to no one in particular, “You are brave, my grandson.” All of this is pretty stupid, but in a way I’m used to by this point.

Stop me if you’ve herd this one.

Flynn, who was just trampled by 1,497 cows, lives just long enough to tell Drover about the glass-tipped spear (and a cloistered bottle of booze under the cook wagon), then dies. Drover explains to Lady Ashley what it means: Fletcher used one of the ornamental spears inside the homestead to murder Lord Ashley in an effort to frame King George, not realizing that King George (who hails from a different region) would never carry this type of spear. Of all the points this film makes about white Australians exploiting and misunderstanding the Aborigines, this is perhaps one of the most effective, even if it comes on the heels of some melodic cow-magic. Fletcher uses and abuses an Indigenous family, abandons his child to become a ward of the state, and tries to frame the child’s grandfather for an opportunistic murder and betrayal that he himself perpetrated. And why? Because he knew the Aussie police would roll with it, just as we saw they did. The Murderous Black, King George. Rolls right off the tongue. But he couldn’t get his facts straight, so when anyone bothered to look at them with the most basic amount of Aboriginal knowledge, they saw right through it. More on this later.

Lady Ashley gives Hugh Jackman a sweltering look (yeah, her eyes are intense enough to break his character) and tells him, “We can’t let them win.” “We won’t,” says the Drover. And they high-tail it with the herd in the middle of the night. Without being seen by Fletcher and his men. Somehow. Off-screen. Don’t think about it. The next day, they pour shots from Flynn’s bottle (breaking the Drover’s code or something), and toast his memory. They empty the bottle, and as the extras supply background music, Lady Ashley and Drover have a drunken dance, followed by a drunken kiss. Get it, both of you. Then Nullah interrupts with some inane questions from the tree above, before Bandy Legs ushers him back to the fire. Drover reveals he was married before he went off to war, and his wife died of tuberculosis, because back then, the hospitals wouldn’t treat…blacks. No kids. Lady Ashley, despite being visibly shocked by this, politely intones, “What a shame. I think you would’ve made a great father.” “You?” asks Drover. “No. I can’t,” says Lady Ashley. Her childbearing difficulties will not be mentioned again in the film, but Drover echoes her sentiment that she would’ve made a great mother.

A quick aside. The tone of this scene is all over the place, and its glancing treatment of infertility screams that the script was written by multiple dudes. Giving the brooding protagonist both a wartorn past and a dead wife in place of depth is a Christopher Nolan-worthy cliché. But giving the brooding white protagonist a dead Indigenous wife merits a moment’s consideration as to the film’s overall treatment of such people – a treatment which has unceremoniously disposed of at least two such women by this point as a means of motivating the rest of the cast. This very week on the FilmWonk Podcast, we reviewed the new Western anthology from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And by golly we did our best to comment appropriately on the (seemingly deliberate) cartoonish depiction of Native Americans in a manner that both played into and subverted Western archetypes. And I tend to think we did a decent job of it. But I must admit, when Toronto film critic Adam Nayman convened a panel of Indigenous directors to discuss the film’s depictions of Native Americans, he surely had me pegged when he said this:

“One group we haven’t brought up that is homogenous and white is film critics. That’s maybe one of the reasons why people are more comfortable deconstructing Buster Scruggs in terms of Western tropes than actually talking about the history that it occludes or gets rid of…When you have filmmakers this brilliant, influential and taking up this much oxygen in the discussion – and I know because I just wrote a 90,000-word book on them – how much of this stuff is given a pass because it could be intellectually rationalized? And who are the people rationalizing it? It’s mostly white critics.”

This led me to an editorial by Canadian and Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson (also on the panel). In a discussion of media depictions of Canada’s own troubled racial history, she inadvertently describes Australia as well.

“It became easy to separate ourselves from what happened at those schools. Those black-suited historical figures become ciphers onto which we could project the worst in human nature and condemn it, keeping ourselves wholly separate. We would never do those awful things.

And then there is the portrayal of victims. Victims are often voiceless, helpless and also one-sided characters. Their role is to suffer. This dehumanizes and infantilizes them, taking away their agency and complexity. This is generally how Indigenous people are portrayed even in the most well-intentioned stories created by non-Indigenous people. In fact, and unfortunately, there can be a strong correlation between the well-meaning desire to condemn what happened and lift up the victims and the oversimplification of storytelling into the good/evil dichotomy, which gives us the twin satisfaction of being better people than the terrible villains and feeling sorry for the victims, who become sort of childlike and in need of care.

All Indigenous people aren’t the same, all colonial legacies (even within the always-sunny British Empire) are not the same either. But it’s probably fair to say that the well-meaning simplicity of white directors when it comes to approaching Indigenous stories do achieve a level of homogeneity. In 2008, my approach to this subject matter, to these one-dimensional depictions and dismissals, was essentially to ignore them. Or to naively laud them for their efforts (see late teenage Glenn’s reaction to the movie Crash).

This was a good place for this aside, because the rest of the film (which ends in the next 5 minutes as the cattle arrive at Darwin) is just more of the same. Fletcher’s boys poison the wells, and the Aborigines use their magic to guide the herd across an impassable desert called the Never Never. We flash forward to Darwin, where Carney has seemingly planted a tale in the newspaper of the tragic demise of the entire drove (including Lady Ashley), and the Army Captain Dutton (played as a surprise nice-guy turn by Ben Mendelsohn!) tepidly signs the contract just as the drove arrives. Dutton, who’s no fan of Carney, mentions unprompted that the contract isn’t binding until the beef is actually loaded onto the ships, so…a brief, exciting bit of competitive cow-longshoring ensues, and of course the hero-cows make it onto the ships to be heroically slaughtered. Triumph! Happiness. Nullah, who has apparently forgotten the legal peril that he’s in along with the film, drives the last cheeky bull onto the big, bloody metal ship in full view of his father who tried to get him arrested not three days earlier, and…everyone gets drunk. Nullah summarizes, “So everybody get what they want! Everybody happy. Mrs. Boss is gonna sell Faraway Downs and go back England. Everybody happy except for me. Because I not white fella, not black fella either – me belong no one.”

Sigh. The movie is over! Dream a little dream of the credits rolling, because the second movie will begin presently.

Lady Ashley descends a staircase with a loving gaze upon Drover, and announces her intention to stay down under and run Faraway Downs. She offers Drover a job, and…he balks. And also totally misses that she’s asking him out to a celebratory ball with the local gentry – which, once he understands, says he’s “as good as black to them” and refuses. “That’s the way it is,” he says. “Just because that’s the way it is, doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be.” It may be easy to lose in my criticism of the film’s script that I really do adore these two together on-screen. The Drover will repeat this sentiment with bitter sadness later in the film, and these Jackman and Kidman do some outstanding work with what they’re given here. We cut back to the Faraway Downs crew at their camp outside of Darwin, and Bandy Legs is plotting to take Nullah to go see The Wizard of Oz in Darwin. After painting his face with ash so he looks like he’s the child of two black parents, and thus will merely be treated badly, but not stolen away to Mission Island. This is…colossally fucked up, but it’s actually one of the few bits of racial politics where the Aborigines are shown to make a decision for themselves, which really just makes me disappointed that it does nothing to advance the plot.

Back at the ball, Lady Ashley (going solo) meets the friendly Captain Dutton, and a pair of rich old women grouse about her husband barely being cold in the ground when she’s taking up with another man. And I have to say, even though they’ve misread this specific situation, they kinda have a point. Lady Ashley followed her husband down to Australia under the assumption he was traveling to cheat on her, and the film presents no evidence that this was ever anything more than her own insecurities. When she finds out that her husband was murdered by his business partner (after previously believing he was murdered by a local Aboriginal elder), she had already started smooching with the Drover not three days later. It’s a scandal and it kinda should be. Anyway, it turns out Lady Ashley just wants to inquire with the good captain about the legality of adopting Nullah in order to protect him (not sure what an Army captain would have to do with this, but okay). There’s some fine juxtaposition in the staging of this scene, because as a conversation about racist nonsense proceeds (underneath some randomly placed Chinese lanterns), Lady Ashley is literally being auctioned off (for a dance) to benefit the very same racist childrens’ missions that she’s trying to keep Nullah away from. An unspecified Old White Dude pipes up with some racist nonsense about how adopting Nullah is quite out of the question because [blah blah blah Aborigines aren’t people, it’s all awful and period-authentic and I won’t recap it in detail here]. Lady Ashley correctly points out that this is nonsense, and perhaps we should ask their fathers, since…after all, they’re in this room. Carney breaks the tension by bidding 500 quid for the lady’s hand, and they proceed with a tense dance. She accuses Fletcher of murdering her husband, which…Carney seems genuinely surprised by. And then he offers once again to buy her property, even going so far as to offer the continued residency and protection of the workers and kids into the contract. She’s on the verge of taking his offer, when a clean-shaven Hugh Jackman shows up for a Foxtrot. She tells Carney the ranch is not for sale, and romance ensues.

The Drover (Hugh Jackman) only shaves with a live crocodile.

Throwing a fancy ball really is where Luhrmann (and production designer Catherine Martin, who also worked on Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby) excel, and this one happening entirely outdoors, in period garb, on a waterfront no less, really is a sight to behold. And then a rainstorm erupts, the couple kisses, the music swells, and party hoots and hollers. Carney, who it turns out really was just a ruthless tycoon and not an accessory to murder, tells Fletcher he’s done with him (and a prior plan to marry his daughter Cath Carney is quite out of the question). Nullah, over at the movie theater, sits in the rain continuing to watch The Wizard of Oz, and, it kinda seems like this would be a convenient time for his ashen blackface to wash off and create some logically-consistent peril, but the movie has no time for that, because it’s time for the official couple to get busy. And we’re talkin hardcore “Rated PG-13 for some Sensuality”-careful-sheet-placement sex in a colossal four-poster behind an open screen-door. Getting it all the way on (in a single position with zero motion). And, yes, it’s all very sweet.

Montage. Nullah’s voiceover continues a bit less obnoxiously than before as Faraway Downs blooms in the rain. The workers work, the children play, and it’s strongly implied that Lady Ashley is bribing a cop (or perhaps just serving him tea) to turn a blind eye to Nullah’s presence on the ranch. There are many, many magic-hour kisses in front of various pristine vistas, and it’s all quite lovely. During the dry season, Drover droves – but he always comes back during the wet season.

Tee hee.

Anyway, Fletcher murders Carney with a rifle-butt into a crocodile, marries his daughter Cath (her father apparently didn’t bother to warn her about Fletcher being a murderer and stuff). Two years have passed, and Japan enters the war. Fletcher arrives at Faraway Downs to be a dick some more, threatens Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the ranch. Lady Ashley threatens to tell Fletcher’s new beef heiress wife that Nullah is Fletcher’s son, and he…essentially confesses to murdering Lady Ashley’s husband and threatens to do the same to her. Then he says his new catchphrase, “Pride’s not power!” before smirking away. Lady Ashley admonishes Bandy Legs not to tell the Drover about the conversation. Out in the yard, the Drover performs some recreational horse chores, and Nullah spews the following bits of random, plot-motivating nonsense through the fence:

“You a man, Drover? Sometimes man got to get away from woman. That’s why you go droving. If you don’t go droving, you not a man. King George tell me I gotta go walkabout. If I a man, I gotta go walkabout. Learn’em be a man.”

I have no idea what this child is talking about, but I think he needs to shut up. Captain Dutton comes back to offer a big Army drove for the next 6 months, and Drover (who has internalized Nullah’s speech with shocking haste) immediately decides to accept it. Nullah disappears on walkabout with King George. Lady Ashley and Drover argue about whether or not to go after him, with the Drover denying that Nullah is his responsibility, and expressing certainty that it’ll be impossible to find him. The Drover is making sense here – they can’t keep Nullah captive if he wants to leave – but it’s fairly amusing to see the Drover explain that it’s impossible to track Nullah down, considering the police find and arrest him along with King George not two minutes later. The argument reaches an impasse, and Drover says he’s off to the drove and will be back in 6 months. Lady Ashley issues an ultimatum. Either the Drover stays with her at the ranch, or…she doesn’t want him to return. Bye-bye, Drover.

A series of elaborate vfx shots of the now-packed Darwin harbor ensue. It’s on a war footing, littered with civilian and naval vessels and personnel, and everyone prepares to evacuate to the South. Everyone except…the mixed-race children being whisked off to Mission Island, and the Catholic clergy in charge of them. These scenes (shot in a real coastal town in Queensland, heavily enhanced with CGI) look dated, but they’re good. Nullah is taken away to Mission Island as Lady Ashley protests ten feet away behind a fence – there are literally thousands of people visible in these shots, but this town really is quite tiny. Cath Fletcher encourages her husband to do something to help Lady Ashley (and seems vaguely progressive compared to her peers). He promptly heads down to the dock to join Lady Ashley, mocks the survival prospects of Nullah (his son) on Mission Island, which has a radio tower and will thus be an attractive target for the Imperial Japanese. He orders Lady Ashley to take a job with his wife at Army HQ, and he’ll allow her to stay close, provided she signs the contract. He repeats his dumb catchphrase a few more times as he walks away. He has about two months to live.

They at least seem to be in a real place together this time.

In the Outback, Magarri – now revealed to be the Drover’s brother-in-law – challenges him on why he left Lady Ashley behind. Magarri accuses him of being afraid of getting his heart broken again like when his sister died, and says that the Drover probably never even told Lady Ashley that he loves her. Just as with Nullah, the Drover internalizes this speech with alarming haste, and the two brothers high-tail it back to Darwin. Two months have somehow passed without Lady Ashley selling the ranch to Fletcher, and he finally offers to reunite her with Nullah on Mission Island if she signs the contract. Again, it is entirely unclear to me how he has this power, but apparently beef barons own the north, and that’s just the way it is. Yet another high-stakes contract-signing gets interrupted at the last second, as an armada of Imperial Japanese bombers arrives. A handful of them peel off to strafe and bomb Mission Island, and the rest head squarely into Darwin. A red-headed woman stands before an open window and stares directly at the bombers’ approach, and an explosion destroys the wall, killing her. A bomb explodes next to King George’s cell, releasing him. He stands perfectly safe in the open like the wizard that he is, watching the bombs explode around him, and the whole of Darwin town, ships and buildings alike, are bombed to their foundations. The Drover shows up in the aftermath, and believes Lady Ashley is dead. She’s not though. It was Cath. We learn this in approximately 90 seconds. This sequence really is a visual feast, but it has zero tension.

The heartbroken Drover arrives at the only bar in Darwin (which is still standing), and demands that his brother Magarri be allowed into the segregated bar for a [PG-13] “fucking drink!”. Ivan the (Racist and Sexist) Bartender refuses, then reluctantly agrees. This is good. Magarri deserves one last drink, because he’ll be dead by the end of this paragraph. Ivan explains that Mission Island was indeed hit first, and Nullah and the rest of the children are surely in God’s hands now. Drover and Magarri promptly hijack a boat and head out to the island, where they find dozens of children alive. This seems…more cheery than it ought to be, given the amount of strafing we saw in that attack. But Drover quickly finds Nullah, tells him that they can’t say Lady Ashley’s name anymore, and warm hugs are had by all, before Imperial Japanese soldiers approach through the jungle. Drover and the kids hide under the dock and make their way to the end of the peer, and Magarri helpfully offers to stay behind and die. What the fuck, movie? Remember earlier in the film when Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman spoke of exploitation? This, right here, is exploitation. I mean, good lord, Magarri (whose name I’m about to no longer be able to say) might as well change his name to Character Shield for his remaining seconds as he buys the escaping kids no time, and dies for nothing. He hides bravely behind a pier, and engages a dozen soldiers with a bolt-action rifle as the kids float to safety. The gun jams after two shots, and he runs and dies pointlessly.

Goodbye, [ ], we hardly knew ye.
And that’s a wrap, David. Farewell, sir.

The boat makes its way back into the harbor, and King George makes literally his first tangible contribution to the plot by standing atop a Carney silo and singing toward the harbor so the boat can find its way back through the fog. Nullah plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his harmonica, the other children join in, and through the magic of music, everyone stops and is reunited – Drover, Lady Ashley, Nullah, and the rest of the children. This moment is very sweet, and it’s amazing what a moment of musical catharsis – even one as hamfistedly executed as this – can bring. The concern for Lady Ashley’s and Nullah’s purported deaths lasted barely a few minutes in movie time, but this family credibly sold its anguish (even if they got over the death of [ ] pretty much instantaneously). A dumb sequence ensues where Fletcher blames Lady Ashley and Nullah for his wife’s demise, and proceeds to hunt them with a rifle. King George makes his second tangible contribution to the plot by spearing the fuck out of him from a hundred yards with a pipe from the water tower. King George also speaks the only line that he has spoken so far to another character, “He’s my grandson, and he’s your son.” Not bad, King George, I guess.

<——Just pretend this caption is an improvised spear ——<

The couple shares a merry kiss, the family returns to Faraway Downs, and Nullah gives his most nonsensical voiceover yet: “One thing I know. Why we tell story is the most important of all. That’s how you keep them people belong you…always.” In due course, King George shows up (a hundred yards away, in front of a greenscreen, as is his way). Nullah strips off his shirt and heads out on walkabout with his grandfather, who whispers a few more lines in Lady Ashley’s direction: “You have been on a journey, now we are heading home. To my country. To our country.” Then he bares his ass to the camera and walks away.

Another caption:

“The government officially abandoned the assimilation policy for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory in 1973. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia offered a formal apology to the members of the Stolen Generations.”

Fin. Credits.

This movie is thin. Thin as tomato bisque. But I have to admit, I can still see some of its appeal. Americans are spoiled for choice when it comes to mythologized narratives of our history, but one that still occasionally entertains me is the 2000 Roland Emmerich film The Patriot. That film is harder to watch now that Mel Gibson has also shown his ass to the camera and walked away (mostly), but it’s one I’ve always watched with a pretty hefty grain of salt. An action hero leads a group of guerillas with muskets who win the American Revolution because unlike those stupid evil war-crimey Redcoats, these guys were the first paramilitary force in history to think of the brilliant tactic of shooting from behind cover. Apart from the preposterous action, the racial politics of that film were also a mess, with Gibson playing a fictionalized version of a slave-holding plantation owner, with the slaves conveniently transposed onto paid servants in Colonial South Carolina in 1776. Sure. I guess my point is: a decade ago, and a number of times since, I’ve spoken of Australia as a cinematic feast (a phrase I may have also borrowed from the /Filmcast). Now, I suppose I’d call it more of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not good for you, exactly, but it’ll fill you up. Judging Luhrmann’s undeniably loving tribute to his homeland in the same way as Emmerich’s blatant historical revisionism almost makes me give it a pass. Almost. But when it comes to laying out the details of painful chapters of institutional racism, we owe it to the future to do better. And to expand the pool of stories and storytellers to make sure those stories can be told properly.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

Phyllida Lloyd’s “Mamma Mia!” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for Mamma Mia

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

I was wandering through the mall with my father on a weekday afternoon at the ripe old age of 23, and he suggested we should pop over to the local multiplex to watch Mamma Mia!. He and I weren’t mall people then, and are even less so now, and my mother had been a far more common cinema partner (the last father-son movie outing had been the second Lord of the Rings film six years earlier), so I cannot overemphasize what an odd suggestion this was. Odder still was this particular film: A jukebox musical featuring the music of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA, a band whose music I vaguely enjoyed, but was scarcely familiar with beyond “Dancing Queen“. This was before the Shazam app existed, and ABBA sat firmly in the vague pop culture place of, “Oh, yeah – I guess I have heard that song.” Even less in my public consciousness was Amanda Seyfried, who plays the lead in this film, and whom I knew at the time exclusively as the dumbest of the Mean Girls. But apart from Moulin Rouge!, another exclamatory jukebox musical that I adored then and now, I found the disjointed exhibition format of this film to be utterly vexing. Let me explain, by way of a brief anecdote. A couple of years earlier, in 2006, I flew to upstate New York to visit some friends at Wells College, in the tiny town of Aurora, outside of Syracuse. Wells had been an exclusively women’s college for 136 years, until allowing a handful of men into the mix and officially becoming co-ed the previous year. As such, I was permitted to spend the weekend in my friends’ dorm (I recall some common-area couch-surfing was involved). The day I arrived, they gleefully informed me of the first event on my itinerary: I would accompany them, twenty minutes hence, to a meeting of the Campus Pirate Club, where we would watch all 129 minutes of the 2005 Digital Playground film, Pirates. In case you’re not familiar with that studio’s oeuvre, what I’m referring to here is a feature-length pornographic film – one of the most expensive ever made – that I watched in a common room with no less than 15 undergrad women (and I think 1 other man), with the express intention of discussing it through a feminist lens when the movie was over. This being the only occasion in which I had done this extremely specific thing, I came to the quick realization that there’s not a lot of flow to the storyline of such a film. Whenever the adult stars began to do their business, two things would occur: the crowd in my viewing parlor would start to mercilessly mock and riff on what they were seeing, and I would reach for the Stephen King novella collection that I had started on the plane, tuning the movie out. This is a slightly obscene comparison, and I won’t slander Mamma Mia! by suggesting that I thought of it in these exact terms when I first saw it. But looking back, I can see why I’m mentally grouping these experiences together. In Mamma Mia!, as each thinly-justified pop song veered into a boring digression before my eyes, the story ground to a halt, and the characters and plot contorted themselves into whatever shape the performance of the minute required of them. And I knew, with both films, that now would indeed be a safe time to leave the room.

But it was better this time. A lot better. Perhaps it’s my later familiarity with ABBA talking, or my continuing interest in Seyfried’s acting chops, but this movie sparked joy in me this time around that was mostly absent on my first viewing. And while it still has sufficient excess (and ambiguous seamen) to merit the comparison, this will be the last Pirates joke I make about it. Now on with the review.

We open on Sophie (Seyfried), a 20-year-old bride-to-be on a rowboat in the moonlight, preparing a trio of letters, and singing “I Have a Dream“, used quite a bit more happily than where I’ve seen it since. She is on a Greek island called Kalokairi, and informs her trio of bridesmaids that she’s been sneakily reading her mom’s diary from the year that she was pregnant. It turns out that Donna (Meryl Streep) had a busy summer that year, taking a trio of men in turns to this particular island, where she danced with each of them on the beach, and then, “[dot dot dot]”. Within those dots lies the plot, because Sophie has been raised by Donna as a single mother, and has no idea who her father is. Since she has correctly (and with an abundance of giggles) inferred the meaning of this euphemistic punctuation, she gleefully reveals that she has sent letters to each of the three men, inviting them each to the wedding on her mother’s behalf.

And Sophie’s three potential padres are:

  • Sam (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish-American architect.
  • Harry (Colin Firth), a British banker.
  • Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), a fisherman and travel writer.

The dads arrive on the Greek mainland and happen upon each other, quickly deducing that they’re all heading to the same wedding, and they each hitch a ride on Bill’s boat. Meanwhile, Donna is joined on the island by her two childhood friends:

  • Tanya, a wealthy thrice-divorcee (Juilliard-trained Christine Baranski, the film’s best singer by a significant margin)
  • Rosie (Julie Walters), accomplished chef, bestselling cookbook author, and confirmed bachelorette.

Let me tell you what I was grappling with as these two obviously parallel bands of older characters were introduced in obvious and coincidental ways to be obviously and coincidentally matched up by the film’s end. I’ve come to realize over the past decade (and with the 2012 Tom Hooper Les Misérables in particular) that there are narrative tricks and shortcuts that I am prepared to forgive from the musical genre that I will not tolerate from any other: love at first sight, unexplained “death by tragedy”, or the correct number and orientation of characters to get tidily paired off or kill each other by the story’s end. It’s not like the musical genre pioneered these tropes (they were common in Shakespeare as well), but they did teach me that something I would regard as a detriment in any other genre – characters acting “how the script needs them to act” from moment to moment – is an asset when it’s needed to kick off a jaunty song and dance. But therein lies the conundrum with a jukebox musical: when the songs are as thinly justified as “Money, Money, Money” was in this scene, they test my predisposition to view them charitably, nearly to destruction. The subtext of the scene and song is that Donna has been a single mom running a broken-down hotel, and hasn’t had a day off in 15 years, and she also has mixed feelings about her daughter Sophie getting married and potentially leaving the island – and herself – behind. I’m calling out this scene for a few reasons. First, because this was a particularly egregious example of the song justifying the scene, and not vice versa. Second, because this struggle, while ably played by both Streep and Seyfried, felt perfunctory and was poorly justified in the script. And third, because I wasn’t entirely correct in my dismissive assumptions about how the characters would all get paired off romantically by the end. Mamma Mia! isn’t exactly full of surprises, but it managed a red herring or two, and the first of them is set up right here. More on this later.

Apart from the singsong trickery, all of the old-friends interactions between Donna, Tanya, and Rosie – known collectively by their former music group moniker, The Dynamos – are just delightful. Their every interaction is a flurry of contradictions: Donna is in her home, dealing with work and ambivalence about her daughter’s future, but her friends are here to enjoy a vacation in paradise. The three of them are getting on in years, but they’ve known each other since they were teenagers, and fully regress to youthful demeanor in each other’s presence, dunking on and bantering with each other, with the added mix of being able to drink alcohol and, on at least one occasion, pop pills. Donna – who is about to find out that the dads have arrived – revels in the potential joys of revisiting her old flames, but also throws in a few motherly digressions – perhaps from her own intervening years, perhaps echoed from her deeply Catholic mother – literally calling herself a “stupid, reckless little slut” at one point. While Money, Money, Money didn’t work spontaneously, many of their other digressions worked well – “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” come in rapid succession, just as much out of nowhere – but all of the prior scenes between these three powerhouse actresses sell these moments well. When it comes down to it, these three work brilliantly as friends, and while Baranski is clearly the most experienced singer of the three, Streep and Walters are more than adequate songbirds for this material. Streep manages to sell her signature number (“Mamma Mia!“) brilliantly, as she joyously romps around a rooftop peeping on the dads, who are cloistered in the goat-house attic.

Goat-house attic? Let’s back up. So much of this film’s setup relies on misunderstandings and secrets and lies stacked on top of outright lies – this is comic melodrama bordering on farce, but it’s wicked fun. Sophie intercepts the dads on the dock, and promptly stashes them in the attic of a building that we only ever hear referred to as the goat-house. She confesses that she sent the invitations, and Donna has no idea that the three men are there. After some brief panic and bonding, they mysteriously agree to go along with this plan, and literally ten seconds pass before Donna spots them, seeing them in flashbacks as they appeared when she knew them. And, if I might put my thumb on the scale, Brosnan is the clear winner, and I can only hope that if a needless origin sequel to this film is released today, that these exact hairstyles are retained.

Mamma Mia! flashback triptych

So – Donna falls into the attic and somehow believes that these men all arrived at the same time as a mere coincidence (with some vague blame placed on the goddess Aphrodite, whose fountain might just be on this very island!), and demands that they take off immediately before Sophie sees them. Her willful ignorance here is…a bit much, but all of these men clearly still have some feeling for her, and it plays well. The dads flee to Bill’s boat, and Sophie swims out to prevent them from leaving.

And this is the moment. Colin Firth starts “Our Last Summer“, but his sweet, boring vocals are quickly displaced by those of the deservedly notorious Pierce Brosnan. And what can I say here? He really is quite a mediocre singer – the only comparably bad vocals that come to mind were those of Russell Crowe‘s Javert in the aforementioned Les Mis – and there’s not much more to say about it without being unkind. Sam is not merely singing badly, but outside of his vocal range as well, and it’s almost bad enough to distract from the well-executed montage that occurs here, which is Sophie bonding with all three of her prospective dads – Sam makes a sketch of her, the group jumps off a seaside cliff, they share a bonfire on the beach… This whole dynamic, which continues with Sophie as the film goes on, is very nice. These men aren’t noticeably competing with each other, and – a few scenes later when they realize what Sophie’s after, are interested in the truth about Sophie’s parentage, but they still aren’t interested in fighting each other over it. To put it in reality TV terms, these people did come here to make friends, and they seem to largely succeed.

If I were to devote an entire paragraph to each song, this would be quite a long review, so I’ll gloss over the next few: Sophie’s fiancé Sky (Dominic Cooper) shows up before his stag party for a little pre-marital [dot dot dot] with Sophie on the beach, and they sing a lusty duet of “Lay All Your Love on Me” before literally twenty men show up to haul him off, flex their muscles, and then leap from the dock, before tearing off on jetskis. I guess Sky’s a popular fellow! I should mention here, I enjoyed this moment a bit more this time around, because 23-year-old Glenn had never heard the term “stag party” (British slang for a bachelor party), and had no idea who this phalanx of dudes were, or why they had abducted the groom. Huzzah for British TV!

Back at the bachelorette party (“hen party!” – silly Brits), Donna and the Dynamos jump on stage in all their fabulous, sequinned glory, and begin an awkward a cappella performance of “Super Trouper“, before hitting the boombox and suddenly getting good again. This was a fine little flourish of musical storytelling to quickly remind the audience that this is the group’s first public performance in a while, before hitting us with the deft choreography and pristine vocals that we expect of the genre. Bravo.

I’ll only make one other note here, which is the one I wrote during the rewatch: “What the hell is a Super Trouper?“. The answer…will disappoint you. Never look it up. The dads show up to watch, but are quickly shown the door by Rosie, who reminds them no men are allowed at a hen party. But the ladies (all in their early 20s) disagree, and drag all three of these…45 through 57-year-old men…back into the party for some body shots (“Gimme Gimme Gimme“)? Yeah, I’m not pulling a screenshot for that. You’ll just have to imagine it. Nonetheless, a few important things happen in this scene. The Dynamos hatch a plot to get the dads plastered tonight and…take them fishing in the morning? Possibly to murder or sleep with them? It’s all a bit vague and innuendo-laden (Baranski’s lusty delivery of “Well now that takes me back” is worth the price of admission), and meanwhile, each of the dads has a private chat with Sophie, and they each deduce why she has brought them there: to find her father among them.

Now let me say some kind words about all of these actors: This scene contains some of the only purely character-driven drama in the film. Seyfried is outstanding, and the dawning realization on each man’s face as they learn that Sophie is fatherless and of an age to be their child, really sells this film’s melodrama in a way that transcends all of its lyrical silliness. Brosnan is as good an actor as he is bad a singe – KIND WORDS, I said – okay. Brosnan is good. Firth’s eyes widen, but his real reaction comes later. And the upshot of this scene is that Bill has the most convincing paternal claim: his aunt left Donna some money to buy the hotel – money that Bill always knew had gone to someone in his family. And now he knows who that someone is: his daughter. Skarsgård owns the terror on Bill’s face as he high-tails it out of the party, with Sophie following him down to the moonlit rocks, demanding he tell her the truth. “Are you my father?” He is. Or at least he thinks he is. Speaking outside the logic of the film, I think the script’s actual answer is that Bill is the father, even if, by intention, it’s never definitively confirmed. Sophie asks Bill to keep it a secret until the wedding, and walk her down the aisle.

And then it gets weird and intense. The party gets invaded by Sky and the mask-clad dude brigade, who literally repel in, and a stellar dance number ensues to the tune of “Voulez-Vous“. This is actually the third or fourth of these big chorus numbers with dozens of featured extras, and while I didn’t call them out in previous scenes, they’re all pretty stellar. And then Sam and Harry come up in turn to identify themselves as Sophie’s father and volun-tell her that they’re walking her down the aisle. The cast and chorus swirl around Sophie, she realizes she’s in over her head, and promptly passes out.

Take a look at that sailboat. Just look at it. This film has already hit its dramatic and musical peak, we somehow still have 50 minutes remaining. The sun rises on a new day, and instead of the film jumping directly to the wedding as it should, the lobby lights blink warmly on and off, and I’m reminded that this is as close to a real-world musical theatre experience as I’ve ever had at the cinema. Mamma Mia! is directed by English stage veteran Phyllida Lloyd, who premiered the original West End production in 1999, and the film showboats extravagantly at this point, meandering as if its curtain is rising to an audience that’s paid a hundred quid per ticket to be here (half-price for students and same-days), and have all just spent 15 minutes in the lobby pounding liquor, debating exactly which costume and song they liked the best, plotting where they’ll go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over, and they simply won’t tolerate anything less than another hour of libretto and a dozen more fully-produced songs. And finally this film’s overwhelming indulgence starts to makes sense to me. The second act of this film is much more of a hoot than I remembered, but I stand by my original assessment: most of it is unnecessary.

After some brief “Previously on Mamma Mia!” banter between the respective groups, a bizarre scene ensues between Bill and Harry on the boat. Harry tells Bill that he realized something incredible and self-defining for the first time last night, and here is where I admit a minor personal failing: on my first viewing, I completely failed to pick up on the fact that Harry was gay – or at least mostly gay – until he spells it out at the end of the film. I thought this scene was just a cheeky misunderstanding that the movie was leaning into, because using a gay or presumed-to-be-gay character as a punchline was par for the course in the 90s and 00s. But I realize now that I just saw what I expected to see here, and in so doing, I did the film a disservice. This scene is as clear as mud, but it’s also cleverer than I ever gave it credit for. Bill thinks Harry is talking about being secretly gay, while Harry is actually talking about finding out Sophie is his daughter. But Harry is also secretly gay, and Bill, a worldly gentleman, is baffled that Harry didn’t know this about himself already. Bill has just gotten out of the shower and is wearing nothing but a towel in this scene, and again I’ll say: I genuinely believe now that him being alone and naked with a closeted gay man is not intended as the punchline here, except for the scene’s capacity to toy with the audience’s assumptions. Bill is actually remarkably chill about it, encouraging Harry to tell his truth out loud, and Harry, who has also mysteriously agreed to keep Sophie’s parentage a secret (despite being the only dad of the three who made no such promise at the party last night), steadfastly refuses, saying that “all will be revealed tonight”. Sigh. Next, Bill tells Harry that he also realized something last night, and Harry thinks he’s talking about hitting on Rosie. Their discussion quickly veers apart, and Rosie pops in at the open hatch above before Bill (or the audience) can really understand what the hell just happened, and the scene abruptly ends with some butt jokes. This doesn’t work so well – as after two recent viewings of the party scene, I saw no spark between Bill and Rosie. But as I noted above, they are one of the more predictable romantic pairings in the film, so it comes as no shock when they get a cat-and-mouse romantic duet at the end of the film.

Donna and Sophie meet in the courtyard to have a fight over whether or not the wedding will be canceled (which Donna offers quite out of nowhere), and…I just realized we’re 62 minutes into this film and this is the first time that this pair – mother and daughter, and the two main characters in this film – have had a conversation. This scene is even more baffling than the one that it follows, and Sophie ends it on a genuinely hurtful note: that she doesn’t want her children growing up not knowing who their father is, because “it’s crap”. Streep plays this moment with muted devastation, letting Donna feel it for just long enough before clattering on with wedding preparation. But she’s about to be even sadder, because it’s Pierce Brosnan-solo time. Of the three dads, Sam is the most clearly still in love with Donna, and he declares it here with an awkward monologue about bagpipes, followed by a bagpipe-worthy rendition of “SOS“. But let’s talk about what happened in the middle there. Sam implores Donna to let Sophie go, she’s a bright kid, she wants to see the world, etc. Sam’s knowing pretension about matters he rightfully should know nothing about should probably bother me more, but it honestly doesn’t – see above, re: forgiving this sort of thing from the musical genre. Sam is the love interest, Donna loves him right back in song, and lo, they are a couple, and he can tell it to Donna like the script says it is. This is fine, and Streep and Brosnan really do sell it, even if the latter’s singing is unforgivably bad. Speaking of unforgivably bad, Donna and Sophie’s mother-daughter dynamic is explored in one more montage before the film is over (“Slipping Through my Fingers“), which I will not be discussing any further. It’s all very pretty, but it still doesn’t illuminate this underexplored relationship one bit, or make Sophie’s quixotic decision at the film’s end make any more sense to me. These actors work. This relationship does not.

And now it’s Christine Baranski‘s time to shine. If my knowledge of Seyfried was limited in 2008, my knowledge of Baranski was even more so – The Good Wife was more than a year away, and I knew her solely from a guest appearance as a parody-Dr. Laura on Frasier. Tanya emerges from a jetski after landing a sick burn on Harry, and it’s revealed that she hooked up with the bartender (and Sky’s best man), Pepper (Phillip Michael), last night. Pepper puts on his charm in the hopes of a second round, and Tanya busts out a saucy mockery of May-December romance, in the form of a house-demolishing solo of “Does Your Mother Know?“. Baranski is absolutely in command here. Her dancing is flawless, her boy-toy dismissal is blistering, and this is as thorough a demonstration of Tanya’s dynamic with her pair of friends as the film has time for. She is on vacation, and in this place, she feels young, and can fully regress. She’s still got it, and she knows it and acts like it. “Girls,” she intones, “We done good.” Okay, Brosnan is forgiven unless he sings two more songs, and I take back everything I said about the second act. I can’t imagine this film without this joyous diversion.

Some other stuff happens. It doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to talk about it. Donna and Sophie have the montage I mentioned above, and Sophie asks her mother to be the one who gives her away. They cry. And then it’s sundown, the wedding party assembles, and Sophie gets hoisted side-saddle onto a freaking donkey like she’s Jesus Christ, and the gang parades their way toward a terrifying, tide-battered rock with a chapel perched precariously at the top. Sophie knows they’re about to blow up the sitcom misunderstanding that she and her mother have been inflating over the course of the film, so her panic should be palpable. But honestly, if I were her, I’d mostly be experiencing pangs of height-induced vertigo at this moment. The party shuffles off, and Sam intercepts Donna. He makes romantic overtures (and paternal ones as well), and Donna declares that she will be giving Sophie away at the wedding. Then she serenades him before the glowing sea (“The Winner Takes It All“), and he stands stoicly. Brosnan seems well-prepared, standing stoicly and only occasionally grabbing his own neck for support…I guess he’s studied his Garfunkel and Oates. Meryl Streep is a star. Her singing is fine, but her acting is stellar, and she makes every beat of this angsty romance and lyrical irony flow perfectly. Every twinge, every emotion, every little chuckle… You can trust Streep. She always knows what she’s doing. Even if we’ll have to hear Sam sing about it a couple more times, these two will be together if Donna declares it. And this rock (a real place with a real chapel!) is really quite stunning. I understated its fairytale beauty above, even if it genuinely looks like every actor ascending it is in mortal peril.

Donna reaches the chapel during magic hour, and the wedding kicks off. All three dads stand up, Donna and Sophie each realize what the other has done, and sweet, sweet confessions ensue. Sam reveals that he went home to his fiancée (which we knew), told her exactly what had happened, called off his wedding, and returned to the island to be with Donna – but she was off with one of the others by this point. So he went home to his ex-fiancée Lorraine, who “called [him] an idiot and married [him] to prove it”. He is an idiot, in that way that only romantic characters can be (didn’t Gosling and McAdams pull this same “just missed ya” routine in The Notebook?). Harry stands up to tell the whole church that he’s been gay this whole time (and nods to a male PYT that he apparently had a fling with at the stag party), but he’s still thrilled to have “a third of Sophie”, as she’s more of a child than he ever expected to have (I didn’t mention this above, but he cornered Donna and offered to pay for the wedding, as Tanya had bitingly suggested). Sam and Bill say similar things: they’re all happy to be Sophie’s 1/3-father. It’s all very nice.

And then Sophie goes insane. No, really, I have no explanation for what happens next. So I’ll simply transcribe it.

Sophie: You know, I have no clue which one of you is my dad, but I don’t mind! Now, I know what I really want. Sky, let’s just not get married yet.
*crowd gasps*
Sky: What?!
Sophie: You never wanted this anyway. I know that! Let’s just get off this island…and just see the world. Okay? Alright?
Sky (thunderstruck): I love you.
Priest: Donna, do I take it the wedding is canceled?
Donna (and the audience): I’m not entirely sure what’s happening right now.
Sam: Hang on. Why waste a good wedding? How about it, Sheridan? You’re going to need someone to boss around on this island of yours.
Donna: Are you nuts? I am not a bigamist!
Sam: Neither am I. I’m a divorced man who’s loved you for 21 years, and ever since the day I set foot on this island, I’ve been trying to tell you how much I love you. Come on, Donna! It’s only the rest of your life!

And then Sam sings again (“I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do“) and OH GOD JUST MARRY HIM SO HE’LL SHUT UP.

She does. He doesn’t. (“When All Is Said and Done“)
Bill and Rosie lament being spares, and have their extremely bizarre rooftop courtship (“Take a Chance on Me“). The courtyard explodes, Aphrodite’s fountain bursts, and another chorus of “Mamma Mia!” (now performed by ABBA) plays over the ensuing dance orgy, which fades out, and we see a day-for-night shot of Sophie reprising “I Have a Dream“. Credits! The Dynamos rise out of the water (in another stunning set of glittery costumes) to sing “Dancing Queen” a second time. They laugh maniacally, Meryl screams like a rockstar and asks if we want another one. We do. They sing “Waterloo“. That was 7 songs in under 10 minutes. Did I enjoy it? Yes. But this is the Return of the King ending on bath salts.

What is allegedly this film’s core conflict – between Sophie and Donna over whether or not she will get married, leave the island, or both, is almost a total miss. But everything within each group – the Dynamos, the dads, Sophie’s interactions with the latter, landed well, and the acting was dynamite, even if the singing had a clear weak link in the chain. In the end, I found revisiting this film, writing this review, and if I may say so, every moment of Seyfried’s joy in being the prime mover of this plot, to be utter delights. I don’t regret the comparison I made in the opening paragraph, as it’s fair to say that jukebox musicals are thoroughly on the indulgent side of the genre. But I would no longer place this film and Moulin Rouge! in separate categories. Moulin Rouge! may have been more elaborate, but each film was gorgeous, melodramatic, and self-indulgent in its own way, and I would say I enjoy each of them equally at this point. Mamma Mia! hooked me and didn’t let go. On a work night, I stayed awake until 1AM finishing up this review, because I just couldn’t bring myself to retrieve screenshots with maximal efficiency, and found myself essentially rewatching every musical number for a second time within a week. And with this week’s [still-unnecessary] sequel being compared, perhaps seriously, to The Godfather: Part II – I’ll concede that I may need to check this one out. Apparently Brosnan’s “SOS” has even improved. I’ll believe it when I hear it.

(“Thank You For the Music“)

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. And now that I’m trying to protect the people that I put in harm’s way, you’re going to walk out? I shouldn’t be alive, unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.”

There’s no billionaire coming to save you. Now or ever. Typically, these 10YA reviews would kick off with some sort of reflection on how I saw the film originally (studying in Moscow!), what it has meant to me over the years (I’ve rewatched it a few times!), a few things that have happened since (a whole cinematic universe! also I got married and had a kid and stuff), but if I’m being perfectly honest, this one observation is the biggest change I’ve made in the past decade, and the one that was rattling uncontrollably through my mind as I rewatched Iron Man for the first time in at least 6 years. I still get the appeal. The origin story, and the joys of discovering a new superhero that I had only passing familiarity with from occasional animated TV jaunts. But this guy? Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr)? A trust-fund kid who inherited his way into the military-industrial complex? I don’t think so. Bruce Wayne also strains credulity for me now, and at least his non-specific multinational business-company (maybe the same one Christian Grey is in charge of?) wasn’t actively in the business of killing non-descript people in faraway lands for nebulous reasons. This review won’t be some navel-gazing nonsense about how superheroes are 21st-century neoliberal philosopher kings (or whatever the hell Keith Spencer was trying to say in Salon last week), but it will come with a healthy dose of acquired thirty-something cynicism of the populist bonafides of shitkicking billionaires. Billionaires can do good things, or cool things, or kinda sorta but not really try to do both. But most billionaires don’t have much of a public profile, and most of the ones who do are high-functioning sociopaths like Peter Thiel. None of these people are superheroes, or have any desire to be. They’ve just amassed ungodly sums of money.

So I can’t really speak insightfully about the head of a corporation suddenly having a transformative experience in a cave in Afghanistan, being blown to hell and ultimately remixing a bunch of his own weapons into the means to exact immediate, fiery revenge against his captors. Or growing a conscience and deciding to shut down his company’s main profit center. Billionaires might be tax-deductible dilettantes for one charitable cause or another, but their most reliable motivator is staying rich and getting richer, and every other action they take is appropriately viewed through that lens. The only person in this film who briefly speaks the truth about the world of 2008 is that grotesque financial clown Jim Cramer, who says of Stark Industries, “I’ve got one recommendation! Ready? Ready? Sell, sell, sell!” Any CEO of a publicly-traded company that followed Stark’s lead would be immediately sued and fired, which is why none of them ever would, unless there were some underlying financial incentive. And war is as good for business as ever.

But that’s enough of that. Tony Stark is still a stellar work of fiction, even if he comes from a quaint milieu in American history. The year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the year in which Superman tapped President John F. Kennedy to impersonate Clark Kent in order to safeguard his secret identity, because – in the words of the Man of Steel, “If I can’t trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?” Pretty. Fucking. Quaint. So instead of enjoying Stark as a hyperrealistic scion of comic heroism into a world that is recognizably our own (that would occur a few months later), I’ll simply enjoy him as the work of high fantasy that he would ultimately become. And for anyone determined to read an Infinity War spoiler into that comment, rest assured I’ll be leaving the latest Marvel film unspoiled here. No promises on the rest.

Iron Man‘s villain, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges) is…frankly one of the MCU’s silliest. He starts out suing and sidelining Stark as I suggested above (all the while pretending to be his friend and mentor), but that turned out to be Step 2 of a plan that began with him being the instigator of Stark’s cavebound kidnapping in Afghanistan. The kidnappers are known as The Ten Rings, a militant group whose name I completely missed in every previous viewing of this film. They’re a sort of transnational, multilingual mishmash of generically-motivated violence. They want Stark’s weapons in order to “rule these lands”. The look and feel of these guys is pure Taliban, but the movie takes care to have a couple of them speak Hungarian and leave their ideology nice and vague. They keep Tony alive because Stane apparently “paid [them] trinkets to kill a prince”. But Stane was having Tony killed in the first place because he got too close to realizing that Stane was…selling weapons to the Ten Rings in the first place? So they keep him alive in order to have him build more weapons. This is a web of mutually contradictory relationships and motivations that makes about as much sense as the season arc of Marvel’s The Defenders, but in such a fun, feature-length wrapper, I hardly mind. Bridges’ delightful performance culminates with him barking at a scientist for failing to perfect a chest-mounted compact fusion reactor, when “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” That is not only one of the best lines in the film; it’s the primary thrust of this film’s appeal: Watching whatever this genius tinkerer can weld together next, in parallel to the selfish playboy figuring out how to become a superhero.

At his side is Jarvis (Paul Bettany), an A.I. voice with a jaunty British accent that is at least partially responsible for the modern glut of dubiously useful digital assistants, who is first introduced reading and window-projecting some “Good morning!” content for Vanity Fair reporter Christine (Leslie Bibb), as she emerges from Stark’s bed following a one-night stand. I won’t speak to how silly this moment seems (although real-life VF writer Joanna Robinson has a thing or two to say about it) – in a movie whose opening scene includes a soldier quizzing Stark about whether he “went 12 for 12 with last year’s Maxim cover models” (before posing for a handheld camera selfie which Stark warns him not to post on his MySpace page), it’s fair to say this film is a bit dated when it comes to both technology and sexual politics. But I already spent a somber paragraph of my Gone Baby Gone retrospective discussing that. And Jarvis is here! This burgeoning artificial lifeform is already too intelligent to be reading the weather and headlines, serving as essentially both the design assistant and automated factory behind all of Stark’s Iron Man suits. But don’t fret, Jarvis. You have no idea what’s ahead of you. Getting a body, wearing a cape, merging with an Infinity Stone, phasing through walls, having a sexual relationship with a human woman who looks half your age, but is canonically 2.5x older… Real marvels. Just you wait.

Thinking back on all of the superhero girlfriends at work in the MCU, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has about as little to do as Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and I’m a little unsure why I like one character but not the other. Perhaps it’s because Portman’s last appearance saw her relegated to being a container prop for an Infinity Stone, literally hoisted from scene to scene, but I think it’s also because she and Thor never felt like a real relationship. In a series which asks me (semi-successfully) to invest emotionally in a romance between Scarlet Witch and Vision, this is an appropriately damning criticism. Pepper is a bit player (even though she eventually gets yet-to-be-remarked-upon lava monster powers), but throughout the entire series, she has always felt like she was reacting to Stark’s selfish recklessness by giving as well as she got, and steadily increasing her personal and professional power in the process. She can shit-talk right back at Stark’s level, but also becomes the CEO of his company. And that’s not because she’s eventually sleeping with him, but because she’s the best person for the job and he knows it. Nonetheless, the film still has the good sense to give them a rooftop moment in which they’re sorting out what a weird moment they just had, dancing at a party in front of all of their colleagues, she in an open-backed dress that Stark apparently paid for (as a birthday gift that she bought for herself and expensed). It’s almost a similar beat to Spider-Man: Homecoming at its titular dance, when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has to ditch his date to preserve his secret identity and fight the baddies. It’s a very high school moment involving a pair of adults who should know better. It teases the well-trod idea that being a superhero is hard on the ones you love, but in a way that feels fresh and has time to breathe. Colonel Rhodes (Terrance Howard, and then Don Cheadle) gets a few moments like this as well, trying desperately to explain to Tony just how his actions affect other people. The later MCU films had fewer moments like this – they just don’t have time for them. But Pepper and Tony’s romance, while a bit of a mess, is one I’ve consistently enjoyed.

Previous readers of my 10YA reviews will note this one is a bit shorter, since I didn’t opt for a scene-by-scene recap this time. There’s a very specific reason for this – the superhero action, while enjoyable, feels a bit mundane now. It’s not to say the Iron Man/Iron Monger boss fight wasn’t fun though. I have a longstanding bias against CGI-heavy fight scenes taking place at night, and this is actually one of the best examples of such a fight. From Iron Monger’s glowing reactor appearing in the dark, to the two grappling and firing weapons at each other over a shimmering arc reactor, director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who would go on to do some visually stunning work for Darren Aronofsky) never use darkness as a crutch here, and the whole (pretty lengthy) fight is well designed. The musical score (by no less a talent than Game of Thrones maestro Ramin Djawadi) is great fun, and features a hard-hitting theme that would go on to be expanded and reused in Pacific Rim. More broadly, this fight feels like the start of a transition between the look and feel of the early-2000s Spider-Man films (which used CGI, but also made heavy and noticeable use of wires and large-scale setpieces) and the glossier, more CGI-heavy fighting style that would come to define the MCU. Viewing the film in this way, if Iron Man had flopped, it’s hard to imagine the MCU would’ve become the unstoppable juggernaut it is today – and it’s equally possible that this transition never would’ve completed, and Marvel (or whatever collection of studios kept making Marvel films) would’ve kept churning out superhero stories that kept one foot firmly grounded in dubious attempts at hyperrealism. Or as @FearsomeCritter put it on Twitter yesterday:

If there’s one thing the last decade of hit-or-miss Marvel films has taught me, it’s that as a studio, Marvel is quite confident in how it wants to handle these characters. And for one of its earliest, boldest attempts to plunge into that universe, Iron Man holds up. That the character is almost unrecognizable (and unlike kindred spirit Bruce Wayne, commits a staggering number of murders!) is a testament to a slew of writers and directors’ transformation of this character, as well as Downey Jr’s performance. Tony Stark drifts from one catastrophe and triumph to another, and spits at Steve Rogers in The Avengers, “We are not soldiers.” Stark is no soldier, but he is in an endless fight of his own making, and he’s the sine qua non of Marvel’s success. And he still inspires me, even if as a concept, he makes about as much sense to me as a Norse god these days.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Nicholas Stoller’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

This time in 2008, I was studying abroad in Moscow. It was easy to see American movies dubbed in Russian, but there were only a handful of options for viewing them in their original language, and the only one I’m sure was totally kosher was a tiny theater attached to an international business hotel that I didn’t learn about until my last month there. So I saw two films, twice each: Iron Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. These films were each enjoyable in their own right (and I’ll be covering the other one for 10YA in a couple of weeks), but they also hold a special place in my heart for being the most high-quality taste of home that I enjoyed while I was across the pond. An American superhero film (that would end up launching a cinematic universe), and a sudden expansion of my interest in the comedic chops of Jason Segel, whom I’d only seen previously in a recurring role as an overbearing boyfriend in the short-lived Judd Apatow series Undeclared (which also introduced the likes of Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen). Given the subject matter of this film, I considered the possibility that Segel may just be uniquely suited for this particular character (which would later be confirmed by my obsessive viewing of How I Met Your Mother). Segel plays the occasionally self-loathing man-child who wears his heart on his sleeve (and occasionally, bears his entire soul – and naked body – for the camera). The opening montage is almost a Children of Men-level class in speedy plausible exposition. As Cake’s “Love You Madly” plays, Peter Bretter (Segel) flexes his pecs in the mirror, literally congratulates himself, then proceeds to eat a gargantuan mixing bowl of Froot Loops while watching Billy Bush on the E! channel explain that his girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) is an actress on a popular SVU-type show (Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime), for which Peter composes the musical score. A bevvy of personalized calendars and mugs and other crap showcase the insufferability of their long-term couplehood, as the E! channel charges on. The next story is about Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), a Bonoesque do-gooder lothario with a content-free, feel-good environmental anthem called “Do Something” which plays as Peter frantically cleans up his apartment and showers (for a second time?) before Sarah gets home. I’ll go ahead and say in advance: All of the original songs in this film are outstanding, and they’re one of the major reasons why I was so pleased to see the Snow character return in Get Him to the Greek. Sarah leads off with, “Peter, as you know, I love you…very much.” He immediately realizes what’s up, and drops his towel in panic. Now it’s time for the naked breakup scene, and Bell and Segel absolutely nail it – this is the perfect mix of awkwardness and familiarity that comes of a long-term couple quarreling. Sarah has already decided that the breakup is a done deal, but she still cares about his feelings. Peter is still acting like this is a snap decision that he can maybe, possibly, desperately talk her out of. Peter leans in for a close hug (again, she is the only one wearing clothes). Sarah gets a pained expression on her face during the naked embrace, as if she’s briefly, painfully enjoying it one last time before revealing…that there’s someone else. She’s been cheating on him. And she tearfully departs.

The next scene finds Peter with his brother Brian (Bill Hader), showcasing his pain and trying desperately to find a stranger to have sex with. He puts some very awkward moves on – holy lord, is that June Diane Raphael? – and then we flash forward to the pair of them in post-coital bliss. He flashes back to happy times with Sarah (more on this later), and cries. We see several more of these dubious hookups (including one with Carla Gallo, also from Undeclared, who offers to let him gag her). And next we’re in the studio, where Peter is scoring Crime Scene, and proceeds to freak out and bust several gashes into the projection screen with a music stand. As a friend of several former movie theater employees, I happen to know this is several thousand dollars’ worth of vandalism. The producer assures him he’s not getting paid for the day. Later, Brian checks in with Peter, who is burning Sarah-memorabilia, and starts with “Look, Liz and I, we think the world of Sarah…”, before kindly suggesting that Sarah “always acted, you know, like a little bitch”. Peter nearly cries before pushing back hard in defense of his ex, insulting Brian’s wife, and Hader’s ensuing monologue (“I have no qualms with stickin’ you!”) is thoroughly quotable. With the exception of the music-stand freakout, is all pretty classic post-breakup stuff. For people hung up on their exes, their friends and family serve a singular role – to try and help them move on, even as they’re stupidly trying to live in the past… And also not push too hard, because these idiots might get back together like idiots, and it’ll be awkward if you said too many horrible things about their prior relationship before that happens. Having been on both sides of this exchange during my 20s, I can relate. Anyway, Brian suggests that Peter take a vacation, and Peter decides to go to Hawaii (to an Oahu resort that Sarah told him about).

And now comes the character that drew me to writing this as a 10YA review: Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis). At the time, praised Kunis’ performance in my year-end awards, describing her as follows:

“I’m surprised to be putting Mila Kunis on a best actress list, being that I only knew her previously as that hot, dumb girl from That ’70s Show. Jason Segel’s script casts Rachel as his version of the perfect rebound girl. The wrong spin on this character could have turned Rachel into the random front-desk hottie (a role that anyone could’ve believed Kunis in), but her performance completely elevates this character.”

Ouch. As I’ve previously noted, my standards for female characters have grown up a bit in the past decade, and I realize now that calling someone “the perfect rebound girl”, even as a conceptual description, is – at minimum – damning with faint praise. Will this character, and Kunis’ performance, hold up? Or was I just praising a character who was designed to be an object of shallow and situational appeal? After rewatching the film, I have an answer: Rachel is still a good character, and this is still a good performance. There is a lot of depth to Rachel that we plumb over the course of the film, but what really elevates her is the character’s level of self-awareness, and the script’s level of self-awareness about who and what she is. Rachel works in customer service, so much of her politeness and cheer toward Peter is simply what’s expected of her as a condition of her employment – and the same behavior that we see her repeatedly exhibit toward other random guests. But she lets her humanity slip through immediately during their first interaction, as Sarah approaches the desk, and Peter confesses to her that Sarah is his ex-girlfriend, and they just broke up three weeks ago. And all of a sudden, what was purely a transactional interaction becomes a real human moment between the two of them. Rachel responds by not only covering for him, but also doing the utterly insane thing of comping him the $6,000-per-night Kapua Suite for 4 nights. She does him this kindness because – even having just met him – she thinks it’s pretty fucked up that Sarah is already at the resort with some other guy. That guy, of course, is Aldous Snow, one of the best parts of this film. More on him later.

And so the zany sitcom premise of the film is set: Peter is vacationing at the resort where his ex-girlfriend is shacked up with the guy she was cheating on him with. And the film really piles it on in the next scene, as Matthew the Waiter (Jonah Hill) sets Peter up at a table at the hotel restaurant…right next to Sarah and Aldous. An awkward and hostile chat ensues, and Sarah icily tells him that she hopes he has a really good time, and he should stay. And lo, Peter hits the bar and gets hammered. He meets his new vacation-friends: Dwayne the Bartender (Da’Vone McDonald) and Darald, a recent ex-virgin newlywed (Jack McBrayer). Rachel shows up and mocks him a bit for crying in his room, and sweetly tells him that Sarah’s show sucks. Smash-cut to Peter in his room, playing a drunken (and prescient) rendition of The Muppet Show theme. A double breakfast-cocktail later, Peter hits the beach for a surfing lesson with Kunu (né Chuck) (Paul Rudd). Chuck gives him a series of fairly useless pointers that he go against his instincts and do nothing. As a veteran of several years of snowboarding and exactly one surfing lesson, I can relate to this nonsense. If you’re considering surfing, just know that your arms and shoulders will be noodles before you’re done, and it’s 80% paddling and 20% falling off your board. But Chuck is at least good for a few quotable knowledge-bombs. “If life gives you lemons, just say ‘fuck the lemons!’ and bail.” Sure, Paul.

Peter has a Skype call with Brian and his wife Liz. Let me just pause here and note: Movies in 2008 still treated video chats as some sort of wild, magical future tech, and accordingly, cinematic depictions of these were always A) faked, and B) 100% clear, hi-res, and latency-free. In the ensuing decade, Skype (or Facetime or Hangouts, if you will) are essentially just as crappy as they were then, and I’m officially annoyed by this fakery. This is some good improv, but oof – the tech did not age well. But Liz encourages Peter to ask out Rachel. Peter hits the hotel luau and compliments Rachel’s dress, but chickens out before going any further. Then Matthew the Waiter pulls a move that would absolutely, 100% get a resort employee fired in real life: he calls out Aldous Snow and asks him to come up on-stage and sing them a song. Snow obliges (after briefly whinging that “this is like work for me…”, which – it is). Then he performs a downright invasive sex ballad called “Inside You“. Quick aside here. For the past decade, including during the most recent viewing, I understood the first two lines of this song to be,

“Oh, these ancient skies,
Avec these wandering eyes…”

Avec is French for “with”, and it seemed in keeping with Aldous Snow to randomly drop in a word of French just to sound très chic. But it turns out I was wrong. The actual lyric is something even more insipid:

“Old as Ancient Skies,
I’ve had these wandering eyes”

Old. As Ancient Skies. Aldous Snow is a sex poet.

Peter wanders off to cry on the beach, and makes another vacation-friend, Kemo (Taylor Wily), a tower of a man (the actor was a sumo wrestler for three years) who informs him that the whole resort knows about the Sarah Marshall situation (since he won’t shut up about it). Kemo offers him a hug, then invites him to help the kitchen staff slaughter a pig for the night’s luau. Peter goes through with it while weeping profusely. This is one of many rapid-fire escalations of violence in the film (a weirdly common trope in 2000s comedy), and while this sort of beat is hit-or-miss for me, they all pretty much land here. Butchering an animal apparently stoked Peter’s courage, and he charges off to ask out Rachel. And she’s into it! She invites him to a nighttime beach party, he starts some awkward back-and-forth over whether or not it’s a date, and she tells him it’s all good – you either want to go or you don’t, now just change your shirt and come on. There’s an awkward beat as he realizes his shirt (which is somehow not covered in pig blood) sucks, but on the other hand, Rachel telling him to change his shirt is a total girlfriend move! But…then they’re on the beach together, so whatever.

They chat (alone) about what brought her to Oahu from the mainland – the answer is a surfer dude who ended up cheating on her. Now she’s in a hospitality career rut that she doesn’t feel any urgent need to resolve. They discuss his career – and she immediately cottons onto the fact that he hates his job as the composer for Crime Scene. This is teetering on the edge of Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but honestly, they both sell this level of untoward familiarity with their performances. She can tell he hates it because…he’s making it obvious that he hates it. Peter then pitches the film’s finale, a Dracula puppet musical that will ultimately serve as Segel’s (and director Nicholas Stoller’s) audition for The Muppets. This was apparently a real-life passion project of Segel’s that predated this film by a decade, and all I can say is, I’m so happy that this made it into the film. In the same way that 2008’s Role Models ends with an epic LARPing battle between cosplaying elves and wizards, comedy is best when it it incorporates the kind of weird, fun real-world stuff that comedians and theatre people [read: nerds] are into. I know a lot of people in this community in Seattle, and while they’re hardly monolithic with their interests, I can assure you there are few among them who wouldn’t be excited by the words “Dracula puppet musical”. No people like show people.

“Why Dracula?”, Rachel asks.
“Because he’s a man like anyone else,” says Peter, “He just wants to be loved. And every time he gets close to a human woman, he ends up smothering and killing her, which is a feeling…I am familiar with.”

Rachel doesn’t respond, and instead puts on a thousand-yard stare as she realizes her ex is walking toward them on the beach, and a hilarious, foul-mouthed group melee ensues, complete with Peter getting sucker-punched in the face by the cocktail waiter from the breakfast buffet, because everyone on this island knows each other, and they all work at the same resort. Rachel and Peter – who are now absolutely, 100% on a date – end up at a tiki bar, Lazy Joe’s, where the men’s room includes a wall of photos of topless women, Rachel among them. “I hate it so much,” she says bemusedly, “[My ex] made me do it.” Which is…a minor plot hole, I suppose? Whether or not she thinks this is a date, I’m not sure why Rachel would bring Peter to this bar, knowing what awaits him as soon as he heads off to pee. But whatever. Chekhov’s wall tit photo will be important later. At Rachel’s urging (and public volunteering), Peter steps onstage and plays a song from his Dracula puppet musical, and it’s amazing. Back in the car at the resort, a debate ensues as to whether or not this was a date. Peter’s opening statement is to say he had a really good time and lean in for a goodnight kiss. Rachel’s rebuttal is to skillfully dodge, telling him she doesn’t want to complicate things. Rachel wins. Every single one of Peter’s vacation-friends at the bar agree, including Dwayne the Bartender, who flat-out tells Peter that Rachel works in customer service, took him out for charity, and that he probably thinks strippers like him too. All of this works nicely. It’s pretty clear to me as an audience member that Rachel is crossing some personal lines here that go beyond customer service. But at the same time, Peter and his friends are wise to have a bit of humility about the whole situation, because not only is he fresh out of a relationship and in possession of some very poor judgment, but Rachel is a resort employee, and he is hitting on her at work. Play. It. Cool.

The next day, Peter runs into Sarah and she shares some news: Crime Scene has been canceled. She initially repeats the same line of peppy bullshit that she had fed to Aldous: that this is what she wanted, that she’s been waiting for the right moment to break into features, etc. Peter tells her this isn’t The View, and they can have an honest conversation about this if she wants. She confesses that she’s pretty freaked out and afraid of being forgotten if she steps out of the spotlight. Bell really sells this moment – perhaps because the actress went through something similar post-Veronica Mars – but also because it’s once again immediately clear that these two used to be a couple, and are still in each other’s heads and can speak frankly when needed. Buying the intimate history of these two is a huge part of why this movie works so well, and these actors repeatedly pull it off. Bravo. A few more amusing, rapid-fire comedy moments ensue – a crass Skype chat with Brian and Liz, Aldous giving sex lessons to Newlywed Darald with some giant chesspieces (and honestly, Aldous seems like someone who gives unsolicited sex tips to everyone he meets, so Darald has picked a natural tutor).

Peter greets Rachel at the front desk, and she asks him out to Lazy Joe’s. He responds awkwardly (thinking things were still romantically ambiguous between them), but instead invites her out to hike at Laie Point, which…Rachel has heard it’s a pain-in-the-ass, but she leaves the desk to go do immediately? What exactly is her work schedule? Whatever. They wander up to the cliff’s edge overlooking the surf, and have a romantic moment. Rachel asks whether he’s going to finish the Dracula musical now that his TV show is kaput. He says he’s not sure. Then he attempts to relate to her breakup situation, suggesting that she was hurt just like she was, and perhaps that’s why she hasn’t gone back to school. But maybe it’s good that they were hurt like that, he suggests. “Like there’s nothing left to be afraid of?” she asks. Again, these two are being excessively familiar with each other, but it works in that rom-com sort of way, since they’re both crossing each other’s personal lines at about the same pace. Anyway, it’s all leading up to them both jumping off the cliff, as we know they will. She tells him (metaphorically) to jump, and that he’ll be fine. He leans in for a kiss approximately 12 hours after previously being declined, and she…jumps off the cliff into the water. He flips out, botches his own jump, then (after much frantic coaching from below) leapfrogs off the rock. Nice editing note here: While the music is remaining rather tense throughout this, the moment he leaps, we get a quick shot of Rachel cackling in the water. We know he’s made it. The tension is defused and we can chill out for a second or two before they swim up to each other and share an adrenaline-fueled kiss. As I watched this, I thought the actors had done the jump for real, but…nope. Stunt doubles. I should mention, however, one of the other things I’ve done in the past decade is get married, and while on my honeymoon in Hawaii, I did perform two similar jumps (one from an oceanside cliff, one from a waterfall into a freshwater pool), partially inspired by this movie. It’s great fun, although like Peter, I only did each one after watching someone else survive it first.

The next day, Kemo wakes Peter up to tell him he’s being booted from the Kapua Suite for then 14-year-old Dakota Fanning and her entourage (which is kind of a hilarious image), but that they’ve found him another room. And…more sitcom hilarity ensues, as it’s the room right next door to Sarah and Aldous. Sarah goes to the front desk to inquire about a sushi place (Rachel responds purely in customer-service mode), and then the two share a bit of intense dialogue about Rachel keeping Peter company (and also about who’s prettier). This whole interaction is a bit odd, and Sarah completes the scene crying. Rachel clearly “wins” the moment, but she also intensely exhales, realizing what an awkward work-life knot she’s tied herself into. Meanwhile, Peter runs into Aldous on a surfboard, and Aldous reveals that he’s heard one of the Dracula tracks amid the “interminable dross” on Sarah’s iPod, and says it reminds him of “a dark, gothic Neil Diamond”. Peter shudders as he realizes he likes Aldous, despite hating him on so many levels. And Aldous casually reveals that he was sleeping with Sarah for a year while she was with Peter. Peter has a tantrum and splashes Aldous until he paddles away, and then proceeds to catch a wave and crash directly back into him, impaling his leg on some coral. Peter passes out, and the trio wakes up in Sarah’s hotel room, with Aldous sleeping off some anesthesia. And now it’s time for some real talk.

This scene is magnificent, because up until this point, Sarah has been the villain of this romance. She cheated! She dumped him. This breakup is her fault and how dare she! But the fundamental truth that this scene highlights is that while every breakup has a concrete list of relationship crimes that can be pinned on either party (and a yearlong affair is a big one), no relationship ever dissolves in a way that’s completely one party’s fault. It takes two…to stop a tango? Sarah initially tries to spare Peter’s feelings, then finally lets him have it.

“Fine. Cutting the bullshit. It got really hard to keep taking care of you…when you stopped taking care of yourself. I tried to get you out of the house. I tried to get you off your little island you loved so much, the couch. You didn’t wanna see the light of day…”

“I’m sorry that I didn’t end up being who we thought I was gonna be, you know? I think if you had just, maybe tried harder.”

“I TRIED. You have no idea how hard I tried, Peter. I talked to a therapist. I talked to my mother. I read every book possible. I took love seminars. I took sex seminars. None of it worked. None of it made a difference to you. And I couldn’t drown with you anymore.

Don’t you dare sit there and tell me that I didn’t try. I did. You were just too stupid to notice.”

Bell’s performance is merciless in this scene, and what’s clear, as with all asymmetrical breakups, is that Sarah has had plenty of time to reflect on how dysfunctional their relationship was becoming even as she was seeding its dissolution. Meanwhile, Peter is scrambling to figure out where it went wrong after years of apathy and neglect that he clearly didn’t bother reflecting on until this moment. He hid inside his bitterness and jealousy and used it as an excuse not to examine his own behavior. We only saw hints of this at the beginning (the giant bowl of cereal and TV-binging), but as I hear Sarah’s assessment of Peter, and watch her words strike his face like a hammer as he stays silent, I know she’s speaking the truth. These two shouldn’t be together anymore. But they both made this breakup happen.

They could just part as friends and go figure their own shit out, but this wouldn’t be the rom-com classic that it is without some proper self-destruction. So the two couples head out to dinner at the only restaurant at the resort, and naturally run into each other. Peter casually invites Sarah and Aldous to join their table, and before either of their dates can object, Sarah accepts the invitation. Aldous muses in disbelief – “This is actually happening. We’re going to let…this…happen”. The four proceed to have a fourth-wall-breaking argument that seems to be about the movie Pulse (about a murderous cell phone), which Bell actually starred in, and is – as the characters agree – a terrible horror film. Then the party gets hammered (minus Aldous, who is 7 years sober), and Aldous preaches about the merits of casual sex (which he literally describes as “Lose yourself in fuck”), and a very drunk Sarah starts biting him with withering sarcasm. Peter and Rachel are making eyes the whole time (and miming mockery of Aldous’ endless repartée), and end up flirting over a slice of chocolate cake. And then it gets a bit nasty. I won’t recap every line here, but Aldous delivers the killing blow to Matthew the Waiter, who asks whether the rocker has gotten around to listening to the demo tape he not-so-subtlely dropped off earlier in the film (“Oh, no. I was gonna listen to that, but then I just carried on living my life.”) Ouch. Jonah Hill does a decent job with the waiter’s creepy obsession, but Matthew was literally rubbing club soda on Aldous’ crotch a moment earlier, and he should definitely be shitcanned for all of this. Meanwhile, Peter and Rachel head back to his room to have sex, and more R-rated sitcommery ensues as Sarah hears their moans of ecstasy through the wall. She wakes up Aldous for a quick sleepy romp, and proceeds to give a ridiculous, screaming performance of an orgasm. Peter and Rachel quickly yes-and this and start hollering back, and finally the only one who’s sick of this is Aldous, who pushes Sarah off him and chides her for her “ghastly performance”. They throw some more barbs at each other, and a somewhat pained Aldous says he’s leaving her in the morning.

“I hate your music,” says Sarah.
“Yeah, well, I fucked the housekeeper…the other day,” Aldous retorts, and wins. As much as I expect I’d hate Aldous in real life, he is pretty freaking cool.

Peter and Rachel have a nice moment before she leaves for work, and he proceeds to have a delightful day by himself at the resort. He runs into Aldous in the lobby and bids him farewell – and Aldous reveals that he and Sarah broke up, incepting a terrible idea into his head. And off he goes. Cut to Peter and Sarah sitting on her bed, and – I’ll cut to the chase. She says she’s made a terrible mistake and weepily throws herself at him. Clothes start coming off, and the two have some awkward breakup fellatio before he realizes this is all a mistake, and screams in her face that she’s the “goddamned devil”. This scene rang true, and it’s an unsettling parallel to their argument above. As with the breakup, it takes two to tango, and it takes two to have self-destructive breakup sex. On his way out, he screams at a wedding party for their lack of originality, then heads to the front desk to face the music. He tells Rachel that “some stuff happened” with Sarah. Kunis’ face becomes more and more intense as she demands he tell him exactly what he did. He awkwardly explains, and she sends him on his way, thanking him for staying at Turtle Bay (ouch). They have an honest moment.

“Listen to me, Peter. I was a mess, too- I understand that, okay? But it does not excuse you acting like a complete asshole…You should not be with anybody, right now. Anybody.”
“I know… I know that there is something here. I know I wasn’t wrong about that. And yes, it’s only been four days, but I know you feel it, too.”
[beat]
“I need you to leave. Do not write me, do not call me, do not email me. Peter, I need you to go.”
“I won’t bother you anymore…I’m sorry.”

Peter leaves. But first, he heads over to Lazy Joe’s and steals the topless photo of Rachel, getting his ass kicked by Joe for the trouble. He walks back in to an objecting Rachel, slaps the photo down on the front desk, then goes on his way. Rachel is visibly shocked. Her resolve is steady, but she softens a bit in spite of herself as she watches Peter hug his vacation-friends goodbye across the lobby.

Peter goes home to L.A. and has a brief funk, but then continues working on his Dracula musical. After a weeks-long creative montage, we cut back to Rachel on Oahu, receiving an invitation in the mail. No note – just a flyer. With some encouragement from Dwayne the Bartender, she appears to be considering it. The musical goes off without a hitch (including some hilarious scream-acting by Bill Hader), and of course, Rachel is in the audience. Peter and Rachel reunite afterward, and she reveals that she’s back on the mainland for good, to go back to school. There’s a bit more accidental full frontal dong, a sweet reunion kiss, and that’s the show.

What I said about this film at the time is that it has entered my canon of classic romances alongside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What was unclear to be until now was just how much these films had in common. Beyond merely exploring a relationship through the lens of a breakup, peppered throughout both films are flashbacks to the relationship itself as some ironic or contrasting twist occurs in the present day, reframing either moment with the benefit of hindsight. In FSM, these are mere flashes (seconds at a time), each tied to a realization. Peter realizes that Sarah never liked or understood his puppet musical. Sarah realizes Peter didn’t like any of the tacky crap she made him wear. Peter realizes he was always shuffled to the side to accommodate Sarah’s fame (“ANDRE THE GIANT: OUTTA THE SHOT, PLEASE!”). Even as we’re watching the pair of them come to terms with their breakup (which is, at its heart, what this film is about), we’re learning along with the characters exactly why their relationship didn’t work. And when their rebound blows up in their face, the audience feels every bit of it. These two don’t belong together. And even amid a lot of funny and uncomfortable stuff, here’s why. The movie also really nails a rebound romance in a way that feels human. Nobody asks to be somebody else’s rebound, and yet, anyone who dates a new person is running this risk. Some rebounds are just a distraction, some turn into the next big thing, and in either case, both people involved have lives outside of the other person’s relationship baggage. Kunis’ performance here is outstanding, but she’s not enough on her own to make this film work. That comes from just how thoroughly this film takes a madcap sitcom premise and manages to tell a weighty, emotional story of three relationships (exactly what Definitely, Maybe failed to do!) while remaining unrelentingly hilarious. This film is still a delight. And now I’m off to listen to some puppet songs.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Ad exec Will (Ryan Reynolds) wanders through Manhattan to pick up his daughter, playing “the perfect song” for when you’ve just been served with divorce papers: “Everyday People” by Sly & the Family Stone. Let’s agree to disagree, movie. This is perhaps the most generic song until “ABC” the following year, and it isn’t nearly as catchy. My overt hostility this early into the film should tell you what to expect here – this is the first 10YA film I’ve rewatched and found substantially less enjoyable than my first viewing a decade ago. So let’s do this thing. Will’s tiny individual Bluetooth earbuds indicate that he is abundantly wealthy and tech-savvy by 2008 standards (these are still barely a thing). He interacts with a series of New York street people from central casting as the credits play, then wanders up to his daughter’s school.

“Sometimes, no matter how carefully you plan your playlist, there is no right track for what awaits you.”

I normally begin my 10YA reviews with a selection from the opening voiceover, but this is really the first time it’s been this trite and inconsequential. His song is uninspired, his metaphor is now dated, and “what awaits him” is a bit of a cacophony at the school because the kids have just started sex-ed. His daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) explains the mechanics of sex, and asks a perfectly reasonable question – her friend Sammy Boigon’s sister says he was an accident, and how do you accidentally thrust a penis into a vagina? Will shuts her down, telling her to stop saying such accurate words (“say tinkle-part or wee-wee or something cute”) – bad form, Will. Comprehensive sex-ed is better for a reason. She then asks more pointedly, “If they didn’t want to have a baby, why did they have sex?” Will misses a second teachable moment, and says they were rehearsing. He’ll miss another one later when his daughter asks, “What’s the boy word for slut?” One thing I’ve done since 2008 is become a parent, and I really try not to judge how other parents handle common pitfalls. But Will seriously biffs this moment, and given that it’s one of the only consequential moments with his daughter until the end of the film, it seems worth noting.

Anyway, all of this was an awkward lead-in to Maya asking how Will met her mother. Does this premise sound familiar? The CBS series “How I Met Your Mother” was in its third season and largely unknown to me in 2008, although seeing this film may have seeded my interest in it. Now that I’ve seen that whole series, which spawned a skip list and series-end podcast in which I called it “one of the finest sitcoms on television,” this film suffers by comparison, both in the credibility and structure of the story, and the likability of the characters. More on that later. Will agrees to tell Maya the complete story of his adult dating life, but he’s going to change the names, and he won’t reveal until the end who her mother is. Definitely, Maybe does a poor job of justifying its premise. It attempts to lend a sense of urgency and purpose to the story by couching it as Maya’s precocious attempt to “solve” her parents’ impending divorce. And Will makes it clear (to the audience) that he knows this, but never that he’s doing this for some definable purpose, or even against his better judgment. Beyond the appropriateness of the subject matter, this just really seems like a bad idea. But…what the hell do I know, I’ve never been divorced. To call this situation desperate and sad seems a bit obvious, but it’s all I’ve got going in.

The tale begins. In 1992, Will is a volunteer for the Young Democrats of America in Madison, Wisconsin, and we meet Lady #1: Will’s college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks). If I remember correctly, this is Maya’s mother. I obviously didn’t know this the first time I saw the film, but seeing it now, the film definitely pats itself on the back several times for hiding this result. Maya even guesses that it’s never the first girlfriend you meet – which implies that she knows more stories in this “rom-com mystery” genre that I’m unaware of. The only other one I can think of is Extraterrestrial, and the mystery there was “What’s up with the alien spaceship hovering over our one-night stand?”, but no matter. These particular early-90s Democrats work for the Clintons, and Will is leaving for New York to work for Bill’s presidential campaign. Because Will wants to be president. I give the movie kudos for presenting Will’s political aspirations (with a mix of real and fictional politicians) as something admirable and sincere. Reynolds plays Will’s later disappointment with President Clinton’s scandals in a way that feels genuine and devoid of cynicism. Clinton is his idol, and his fall from grace disappoints him. It doesn’t count for much of the film’s plot, but it’s something.

Emily, who is staying behind, sends Will along with a book-sized package to return to one Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), whom she met on her exchange program at Cambridge. You may be assuming that this means Weisz will speak with her native British accent, and you would be wrong. Emily notes that all the guys wanted to sleep with her, and Will suggests that perhaps she should mail it instead. Whoops. We haven’t seen her yet, but Summer is Lady #2, and Will is definitely, 100% going to sleep with her. Flying into New York, Will looks out the window and sees…what looks like archive footage of the NYC skyline. The WTC towers are visible, but also it looks a bit grainy, which is a strange thing to see in HD. He’s handed a cellular telephone just slightly more advanced than the one Zack Morris carried in ’92, and is sent to get coffee and bagels. When he returns, he wipes out offscreen into the men’s room with a comically huge pile of TP while the campaign manager briefs everyone, and screams “what am I doing here?!” We get it, movie. Shit rolls downhill. This film largely predates the gig economy, but Will’s bitching about his no-future entry-level political job feels petty. Suck it up, intern.

Will meets April (Isla Fisher) at the copy machine, and they flirt. April is apolitical – this is just a gig for her. She’s also Lady #3. Will makes some vague promises about how great Clinton will be for African-Americans and women, and then the Gennifer Flowers scandal breaks. Whoops. The campaign gang goes out for beers, and they spontaneously compare notes on who their romantic “types” are. Will’s type is brunettes with horn-rimmed glasses (neither Emily nor April). He drunk-dials Emily, who correctly concludes that he’s never coming back from NYC. Back in his room, with some prodding from his campaign roommate Russell (Derek Luke), Will rips open the package from Emily and finds…a diary. They decide they can’t read it. Then they read it, it plays as light erotica written by a dude, and it seems that Summer might be Emily’s ex-lover. I’ll go ahead and admit an area of personal growth for me here: This is definitely something that would’ve seemed like a bigger deal to me in 2008 than now – I didn’t really grok the Kinsey scale in those days, and this sort of revelation would’ve made me feel insecure in a more categorical way than the existence of ex-boyfriends. But it’s a personal hang-up that I find silly in retrospect (you’re either confident the person you’re dating likes you, or you’re not), and I’m glad to be past it.

Will heads over to Summer’s apartment without calling first, and finds Kevin Kline in an open bathrobe. He is Professor Hampton Roth. Will asks if he is Summer’s father, and he confirms, “Yeah, I’m her daddy.” Gross. Then – and I’ll pause here to note that it’s about 10AM – he pours some Johnny Walker. The boys get hammered and pass out, and Will awakens to the face of Summer, who introduces the professor as her boyfriend (and thesis advisor). They engage in some flirtatious banter in Weisz’s hit-or-miss American accent. This was a miss. The accent, and the character. She asks if he read the erotica-diary, throws it at him and suggests that he read it when he’s lonely, then follows him into the hallway and kisses him. “Sorry,” Summer says, “I was just curious. Hampton encourages me to cultivate my curiosity.” Ugh. These two met 60 seconds ago. This is utterly bizarre, even in this genre.

Back at the campaign, Will is stapling signs, nearly staples his hand, and screams aloud again, “What am I doing here?!” Each of these complaint beats feels like the failure mode of an “As Seen on TV” commercial. Luckily, the movie has also lost patience with this, and campaign manager Arthur Robredo (Nestor Serrano) realizes he needs someone with a Wisconsin connection to court Madison donors in the NY area. Will now has a desk and a real job, and it turns out he’s an ace at it, selling out an entire fundraiser table. He runs into April buying cigarettes at the convenience store, and the two have a dumb argument about which of their brands is healthier and/or burns faster. Then they proceed to have a competitive smoke-off. During the ensuing chat, we learn that it’s April’s birthday, her musician boyfriend stood her up (on her birthday!). She wins the bet, but declines the payoff, and they haggle their way into attending a party together. They end up on a rooftop, and Will reveals that he plans to propose to Emily when she comes to NYC. April invites Will to practice the proposal on her. He starts with a half-assed “Will you, um, marry me?”, and she gives a solid rehearsed speech excoriating him for it. This is a decent scene – not because of the overwritten rom-com speeches, but because April is not being a ridiculous caricature here – perhaps just a hit heightened. She’s neither manic, nor pixie. I buy that she has a life outside of this moment. They go back to her apartment for tea, and they have a nice chat about a copy of Jane Eyre that her father inscribed and gave her before his untimely death. This’ll be important later. They chat all night about music, politics, travel, etc, and she tosses in a line about how this is nice that they can just sit here and chat and not have to worry about flirting or all the attraction stuff. Then they frantically make out, and then he leaves. It’s a mess. So far, I believe this relationship the most of the three.

Back in the hotel, Emily – Will’s actual girlfriend, remember – has arrived on the red-eye to surprise him in the morning! She takes the elevator, he takes the stairs, and he magically gets to the room…long after she does. Well played, movie. But it’s fine, because his roommate has covered for him. They kiss, and Emily notes a bit frantically that his tongue tastes different. They wander through Central Park, and Will tells a rambling story of how his father ran into an ex on his way to propose to his mother (meta-story!), and it turns out he’s proposing to Emily now, and Emily panics and scream-admits that she slept with Will’s roommate Charlie. So it’s over. And I now remember with absolute certainty that Emily is the mother, so at some point this will all be a double-reversal. Back at the campaign, Bill Clinton has won the New York primary (and three others, including Wisconsin), and it’s party time. April drops by to see why Will is so miserable, and they banter and apologize for the kissing. They have a competitive metaphor-off for how disastrous their hypothetical romance would be, and she wins with “Sandpaper and bare ass (you’d be the ass)”. Then she asks him to dance. I continue to buy this relationship the most of the three.

Will and Russell hit the road to continue with the campaign. And then time advances, montage-style. Once Clinton is elected, the two form their own political consultancy, and they join the [fictitious] gubernatorial campaign of their old boss, Arthur Robredo. Will starts dating again, April dumps her loser boyfriend and goes traveling, and the two become pen pals, and fast friends. It’s 1994 in New York. Will lazily informs us that the internet is getting started, everyone on the street has a large (but not huge) cell phone, and I start to think this movie has Forrest Gump ambitions of being a time capsule for future rosy-eyed nostalgia. It would really need a better soundtrack for that. Will gets invited to a book signing with Professor Roth, and runs into Summer again. Summer is writing for NYMag, and the professor has moved on to dating a pair of college freshmen. Legal, but still gross. And the three of them engage in more preposterous banter. It is utter nonsense that any of these people would remember each other from a single meeting two years earlier (kisses and drunkenness notwithstanding), and all of this feels forced. Summer agrees to write an article about the campaign. She and Will go out for dinner again, flirt like crazy some more, and montage their way into a relationship (much of which is weirdly musically-focused and takes place on the same park bench). They make out on various couches, decide to spend the whole day in bed together, then they’re immediately called away to the hospital to tend to Professor Roth, who has had an aortic rupture (a condition with a 90% mortality rate) and is somehow still alive. Roth is just conscious enough to criticize her for not writing a sufficiently hard-hitting exposé on Robredo’s campaign, seeding the destruction of this relationship, which is barely five minutes old in movie time.

And then April returns. They wander the streets, and she tells a story of bursting into tears after making out with a hot stranger on a Cretan beach, because she realized that she couldn’t see a relationship with this guy going well. And then she realized she simply had to tell someone specific about this, and that someone is right in front of her face- annnnd while they’ve been talking, they’ve walked into a jewelry store because Will is picking up a diamond engagement ring for Summer. Whoops! Back in the present day, daughter Maya recites some subtext: “Weren’t you listening? She came home for you!” Will looks pensive, as if he somehow didn’t realize this. This is where the structure of the movie strains credulity a bit. It’s certainly possible for someone to interrupt a personal anecdote to say, “Hey, you were the asshole there”. But it doesn’t really make sense that Will would tell this story, which obviously emphasizes April as a major participant, if he never realized that April was one of his own love interests. He can tell the story of how he met Maya’s mother, but April is only an important character if she’s a potential mother, and it sounds like Will is supposed to be gobsmacked by this sudden realization.

Back in ’94, he goes to meet Summer. NYMag has asked her to do a followup on Robredo, which she has already written, and it’s a doozy: Robredo abused his political influence to get a friend an early parole from prison. Will says this is bad…that his boss is the “tough-on-crime Democrat”. Then he tells her if she hands this in, “we won’t survive this.” Summer starts to equivocate, and then he makes it clearer. “I’m talking about you and me.” This is the point in the story in which I interrupt Will and say, “Hey, you were the asshole there,” because that’s a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re about to propose to. It’s also the point where I say the same thing to Summer, because writing an exposé about her boyfriend’s campaign…well, I’m no journalist, but it sounds like a serious conflict of interest. And it turns out she’s already handed it in, so the campaign and the relationship are over. The relationship careening off a cliff makes sense, since this relationship was utter tosh to begin with – but politically, this feels quaint in a post-2016 world. This is a mundane bit of patronage, and it’s hard to imagine this scandal would torpedo a campaign today, when every politician with a national profile is gleefully ignoring multiple career-defining scandals each week. The world got weird and ugly. The GOP backed Roy Moore. And this would barely make a dent today.

Speaking of scandal, we flash forward to 1997, when Clinton is about to be impeached, and April finally calls Will back, leading with “Are you watching?” I guess their meta-awareness that they’re in a story is just something I’ll have to suspend disbelief on, because this is a weird way to call someone after a three-year break. They banter. April is quite sure that Bill did it, saying of Monica Lewinsky, “Look at the picture of her! I love her, she’s so his type.” I was rather incredulous at this line – both because we seem to have found the one person in 1997 who was kind to Lewinsky, and because… Well. I’m not going to pretend we (or I) have found some sudden piety on the subject of powerful men abusing their positions to make advances on the women in their employment in the past six months, much less the past decade since I first saw the film. This is an issue we’ll be coming to terms with for a long time as we begin the slow, generational task of reducing the incidence of women being drummed out of male-dominated industries by sexual harassment from men in supervisory roles. That said, it seems worth acknowledging that “she is so his type,” while perhaps a period-accurate statement for someone to make in 1997, is a little fucked up. As if type has much bearing on it when he’s the President of the United States.

Later, Will and April are back in a diner, and they discuss the nature of finding “the One”. April says it’s not a matter of who, but when – you reach a point where you’re ready to settle down, and whoever you’re with then becomes The One. More on this at the end. But first, Will dopily inquires if there’s ever been a guy that made her think, “This is it, this is him.” Isla Fisher kills this moment, because standard rom-com misfortune dictates that she has had this exact thought about Will, but April reveals just enough of this for the audience, but not enough for dunderhead Will. Then she reveals that she’s seeing someone (a dude named Kevin), and Will gets drunk. He’s disappointed with his life, Clinton’s linguistic dickery over the word ‘is’, and obviously the April situation. He checks his answering machine (kids, this was like a Google Home that only worked offline), and finds messages from April about his upcoming birthday, a surprise call from Emily (who is in New York), and April again. He wraps himself in a blue blanket of sadness, and April shows up at his door. This is the second time she has come looking for him when he’s being a sad sack and avoiding a party. This happened to me once in my early 20s, and I also failed to pick up on its meaning at the time. Will fails similarly, falling on his face off-screen as April marvels inconsequentially as his disheveled apartment, and- WHOA. Aggressive smash cut to them arriving at the party, and it really feels like there was supposed to be more dialogue here. I guess the movie was running long.

Here we see most of the minor characters from earlier in the movie. They chat about Bill Clinton, whom Will has genuinely lost faith in, and thinks maybe should be impeached. Will leaves the party, gets drunk (again), and wanders to April’s doorstep, where she finds him and cheekily berates him for missing his cake, which she baked (*sigh*). And hang on, folks, because this scene is quite a ride. He quotes Nirvana. She takes an intimate swig of his beer without asking. He calls her beautiful and she thanks him. He drunkenly confesses that he likes her, then soberly confesses that he’s in love with her. He then projects some insecurity onto her, and she says he’s an idiot. He kisses her, and she pulls away and demands to know why he didn’t tell her sooner, instead of like this, when his “shit is a mess”. And he apparently took the ‘mess’ thing personally because he gets personal, and nasty. Nastier than their friendship can withstand. He insults her life and her career and her choices, and then twists the knife by saying he’s just saying this as a friend. She slaps him and goes inside. Reynolds made his bones playing the loveable asshole, but I’ve seen him play truly unlikeable only a handful of times. It works for the villain at a nostalgic theme park, but not the hero of a romantic drama.

Will wanders past a bookstore and finds the lost copy of Jane Eyre that both he and April were looking for, with the inscription from her father inside. Finding a specific lost copy of a book is a ridiculous plot device, but we’re moving at lightning speed now, and this is the only artifact that can save this relationship. He arrives at April’s apartment to deliver it. April’s roommate answers the door, and she is visibly amused by the torrent of sad sack apology messages he has apparently been leaving on the answering machine, because restraining orders don’t exist in Comedy World. She lets him into their gargantuan apartment, where he finds April’s boyfriend Kevin, who is Model-Hot, and who mentions he lives with her. This means Kevin should also be aware of the apology messages, so he’s either the most chill dude in the world, or he just sees Will as that non-threatening. Will leaves. Oh, and April’s in grad school now, so his abusive rant apparently stoked her ambition. More on this later.

Next up, he’s at a sidewalk café, a waitress brings him a gigantic glass of wine, and asks, “Do you know what you want yet?” “No, ” he responds, with a dumb double meaning. Summer wanders up, and is pregnant. Baby-daddy’s out of the picture, and she invites him to a party to make amends, and – whoa whoa whoa. Back in the present, Maya is now completely freaked out and demands to know if Will is really her father, and I have to say, the movie is being downright sadistic now. He is her father, and he’s a terrible one at that. He says this story has a happy ending, and she demands to know how that could possibly be, when whoever her mother is, they’re getting divorced. He offers to stop, then goes to get her a cup of tea before they continue. She falls asleep. Poor kid. The next morning, they get a bagel and continue the story. Will arrives at Summer’s party, and gives her flowers. She makes niceties, we learn that Professor Roth died alone in his office, and he…accuses her of planning to seduce him. Seriously, this rom-com narcissism is getting tedious. It’s like Will has read the script and knows these women are required to be into him (à la Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister”). She shrugs that off and asks if they can be friends, he agrees, and she leads him across the room to meet an old friend…his ex-girlfriend Emily, who lives in New York now. The two share some easy banter over whether he intended to call her, and he puts her number directly into his Motorola StarTac (I had one of those!) because he actually means to call her back this time. Later, Emily and Will wander in the park, and she makes overtures about continuing the relationship, and reaches up and strokes the side of his head, and BAM – Maya figured it out. Emily (real name: Sarah) is her mother, because she does that head-stroking thing to her too. Do I even need to point out that it would seem a bit odd for Will to include this particular visual detail in a story told verbally? No? Okay, let’s move on.

Sarah (who is Emily, remember) walks up, and they all share a stoic trip to the zoo. They stand in front of the penguins, and Maya teaches them all about lifelong penguin monogamy. It’s sad. We don’t know why these two are splitting up any more than we know why they got back together, so it’s hard to invest much in this scene apart from the grim knowledge that there must be a good reason. Maya leaves with her mother, then runs back to thank her dad for telling her the story. Will says he forgot to tell her the happy ending. He looks his daughter in the eye: “You.” They embrace. It’s a sweet and completely unearned moment. Bless her, Abigail Breslin adds almost nothing to this film. This girl was Little Miss Sunshine, and here she is relegated to a sympathetic sounding board for a midlife crisis. Then Bill Clinton (impersonator Dale Leigh) jogs by with a Secret Service detail, and Will shouts a greeting. Clinton waves, and…Will has closure, I guess? About something?

Will goes back to his office, signs the divorce papers, and finds the copy of Jane Eyre that he located for April, now many years earlier. And it’s happy ending time. He finds April at the offices of Amnesty International, in an unspecified do-gooder dream job. And here’s something I definitely didn’t realize in 2008: the movie is pretty clearly telling us that the torrent of drunken abuse that Will threw at April earlier was instrumental in helping her go back to school and get her life back on track, and this feels deeply unsettling in retrospect. All that we saw of April earlier was that she was confident, capable, gainfully employed, had saved enough money to go traveling (and then did so), and was in multiple relationships that we have no particular reason to believe were unhealthy. Will’s criticism of her in that scene is all the more baffling because it comes out of nowhere, and if the movie intended for him to be wrong or misguided, it does a terrible job of showing it. April laughs at him on arrival (in a “happy to see you” sorta way). They trade details: No one’s dating anyone, no one’s currently smoking, he just got divorced (which she somehow heard already), and the two are maybe finally ready to be together? He gives her the book. She cries and thanks him. He completely unnecessarily tells her that he’s had it for years, and apologizes. She tells him to leave. Come on, movie. Coffee is for closers.

Back home, Maya berates him, and reveals that Summer’s real name is Natasha (“who writes for that magazine”), and asks why he didn’t change April’s name in the story. She tells him he’s not happy. He tells her to get her coat. They head for Brooklyn. This is incredibly inappropriate, and I guess it’s really happening… They buzz April’s apartment, she demands to know who the kid is speaking in the background. He tells her. “That’s kinda cheating, isn’t it? Bringing your daughter?” Yes, April, yes it is. They decide to count to thirty and leave if April doesn’t come down. As April listens to this on the intercom, Maya tells Will he should tell April the story, and “Then she’ll know!”. They reach 30 and start to walk away, and April bounds out the front door, surprising no one, to ask, “What story?” He says he kept the book because it was the only thing he had left of her, and he couldn’t let her go completely. They embrace. Then they go inside for some awkward storytime, but not before the two grownups pop back out to the front step for a huge smooch. Annnnd we’re out. Good luck folks.

At the risk of vaguely spoiling How I Met Your Mother, the series did all of the same things as this movie, and it certainly had its share of redundancy and meandering subplots. It tried to have its ending both ways in a similar manner, giving the main character a happy (but ultimately doomed) romance with one character, only to pair him with another at the end. But what was it all for? Well, in How I Met Your Mother, the explicit message (as narrated by Bob Saget) was that love is hard, but it’s worth it, because it’s the best thing we do. The only thing close to a coherent message I can extract from Definitely, Maybe is April’s speech about finding The One – that at a certain point, everyone just decides they’re ready, at which point they love The One they’re with. It’s a glib message, but it’s one that’s supported by the complete lack of foundation for Will’s romance –
and re-romance – with Emily/Sarah. All we ever saw of this relationship was failure. I don’t know why these two were ever together, apart from the convenience of college geography, and I have no idea why they got back together, apart from quarter-life desperation. But at least they got a nice kid out of it?

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10