It’s a Big Summer Blockbuster, people! It’s a prequel to Alien! And it asks the most fundamental philosophical questions known to man: who are we? where did we come from? why are we here?

As a result, one cannot discuss a film like Ridley Scott’s Prometheus alone — so one again I sit down with blogger extraordinaire JustMeMike of The Arts. Beginning last spring, we’ve discussed a number of films in depth beginning with White Material, Miral, Larry Crowne, David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Whistleblower, and The Hunger Games.


To recap the film’s plot setup: it follows archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) who discover a series of primitive cave paintings and ancient art portraying early humans flanked by giant figures who point to a specific star configuration in the heavens. Believing this to be a star map, and believing further that those giant figures represent aliens who may be the creators of humankind, Shaw and Holloway set off with a scientific team on the starship Prometheus, funded by the Weyland Corporations, for the outer reaches of space to locate the aliens (whom they term “The Engineers”). The plan: to get those fundamental questions answered.

The ship is staffed with what, to Alien fans, will be a familiar group: the creepy robot David (Michael Fassbender); Meredith Vickers, the forbidding head of the expedition who’s got secrets (Charlize Theron); Janek, the ship’s captain qua cowboy (Idris Elba); and a ragtag/ unpredictable group of other crew and scientists whose motives remain to be uncovered. When they land and find a planet seemingly empty of creatures, they begin to explore an enormous ancient building complex … only to discover that perhaps it’s not empty after all.

 In classical myth, the god Prometheus created man out of clay, and later gave him the technology of fire after stealing it from the other gods. Will the latter-day crew of the Prometheus find a similarly benevolent race of creators? Or will they meet a nightmarish fate similar to that in the Greek myth: punished by being chained to a rock, destined to have his liver eaten by an eagle every day, only to have the liver grow back overnight?

More important: if this is a prequel to Alien, how exactly will it set the stage?

Here’s my prediction: wherever Ridley Scott decides to take us, it’ll probably be interesting.

NOTE: We’ve decided to start with general conversation about the film and only about midway, when we’ll warn you when you need to stop.

*****

JustMeMike: Watching Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley race against time, as well as the implacable killing machine/ alien, was a searing, visceral experience. So I brought that thought with me to a packed theater and settled in to watch Prometheus. Before we break down the film, what were your thoughts as you settled into your seat?

Didion: I’ve been trying to keep myself ignorant of films before going in, so that I have fewer expectations — you know how high expectations can ruin your experience of a film. But it was hard to escape the enticing notion of an Alien prequel, not to mention that the script was co-written by Damon Lindelof, one of the co-creators of the TV series Lost.

So I have to say, I enjoyed this movie! On the whole I walked out thinking it was worth the $11 to see this super-duper spectacle on the big screen, especially for the creepy anticipation and the horror elements. How about you, Mike: if someone trapped you in a corner at a cocktail party and asked, “Should I see Prometheus?” what would you say?


JMM: I believe one can recommend it despite the flaws, problems, issues, errors, and vague disappointment I had AFTERWARDS. Make any sense? Like it was two films. The one that played before my eyes, and the one that played in my head ever since.

Didion: I know exactly what you mean. So maybe we can try to figure out first why it seems to work so well going down, only to settle uneasily afterward. I had the same experience as you: I was completely absorbed by the progression of the tale — and I must say, by the spectacularly audacious question of whether these humans might discover their creators. Tell me: why does this film feel so well-constructed at least as you’re experiencing it?

JMM: The Ridley Scott DNA! The man is skilled in filling a cinematic canvas — of this there’s no doubt. I mean, if he’s the “engineer” of the film — wait, that’s not correct either — he’s the pilot — then it will look, sound and feel great. But it was relatively short — just a bit over two hours — and the questions are so big that the film really needed more time and depth.

Director Ridley Scott with star Noomi Rapace

Didion: I love the characterization that Scott “knows how to fill a canvas.” The film’s whole first half, the setup, is so terrifically creepy and methodically paced, and we have no idea where it’s going … fantastic. Sci-fi is so rich as a genre because unlike so many other narratives, the theme of exploring new worlds is one that can go anywhere — and Scott’s a master of vivid visual imagery.

Let me also say that Michael Fassbender is the real star of this film, even though he’s not the hero. As David, the ramrod-straight robot with a fixation for Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence of Arabia, he even dyes his hair blonde to replicate O’Toole’s and recites some of the best lines from that film, as if to practice being more cocksure and independent than he was intended to be. His character evokes the creepy robot from Alien (and maybe every other creepy robot in film), ultimately bringing up the film’s essential questions: why were we made? I’d like to offer that Fassbender’s acting goes far to make this film so creepy and watchable.


JMM: Fassbender’s performance was nothing short of amazing. Clearly I agree: he’s the real star of the film. However, I’d go further and say that he’s the only star in the film. There’s a fascination with him — he runs the ship without a soul to talk to for the two or three years it takes to get there — so he’s not bothered by the isolation. But yet he seems to relish the contact with the humans. So you feel he’s creepy and watchable. Interesting. Which of those two terms is more apt?

Didion: I couldn’t choose — he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. He’s both creepy and watchable because despite being created to work for humans, and despite having no feelings, he has motives that most of the Prometheus’s crew doesn’t know about.

Here’s a problem I’m having: even just in our brief conversation so far, I can’t help but think about all the ways this film seems to be an apotheosis of Ridley Scott. David the robot reminds us of the robot in Alien, but it also reminds us of the ones in Blade Runner. Did I enjoy this film partly because I kept seeing mystic chords of connection to those earlier films? Did you think about this?


JMM: Actually, I kept thinking about Alien and not Blade Runner — maybe because Blade Runner was set on earth. But when I made comparisons with Alien they were negative or less enjoyable — because I invariably thought Alien was better.

Didion: Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen Alien that I compared the two films less — and maybe as a result I found the parallels to be evocative rather than disappointing. Maybe it’s also because the questions he uses to frame the film are so large, so audacious. It felt like a film made by an old genius who can’t stop returning to the same themes.

I’ll confess my biggest disappointment: Noomi Rapace is fine, but not enough so. She actually received top billing for this role — a stunning achievement considering her relatively thin English-language career — but in the end she doesn’t have the charisma to take the bare bones of this character and flesh it out to take charge of this film as its protagonist.


JMM: Wow! You just dropped a couple of bombs on me. So here goes: I think this shouldn’t be thought of as Scott’s career capper. I think a sequel is in the future. A sequel to the prequel. I think that I do like the the concept of the old man returning to his favorite themes. I’ll hold off on Noomi for a moment. Let’s talk about the themes. Have you considered whether Christianity is a large theme in this film? First we have the opening (a form of sacrifice) then we have Shaw wanting to know of David where her cross is …. Am I looking for something that’s not there, or do you see something similar?

Didion: To be precise: the opening shot in the film shows a strange, human-like, highly muscled figure (an Engineer) drinking a mysterious black liquid, which destroys his body — and as he collapses into a massive waterfall, his body seems to seed the earth with DNA as a massive star ship leaves him behind. It’s a fascinating scene because we have no idea why it’s taking place. Meanwhile, several dozen millennia later, Elizabeth Shaw finds no conflict between her Christianity and her scientific pursuits. Even if she manages to prove that the Engineers created mankind, she points out that we will still not know who engineered them.

I think Scott inserted these themes to ask whether that initial sacrifice by the Engineer was a noble one or motivated by other darker reasons — and I didn’t find the quasi-Christian themes terribly overt. Maybe the most fundamentalist will complain about the film’s setup, but overall the film’s basic themes are more general than religious.

JMM: It could be a sacrifice or it could be something else. It could be the Prometheus of Greek mythology: cast out and punished. The figure seemed to be alone, left behind … why does he drink the fluid? These questions aren’t answered.

Then there’s Shaw’s attachment to the cross.


Didion: It felt to me as if Scott felt he could not avoid questions of God and/or the ultimate creator if he were going to make a film that asked questions about where we come from. Yet despite touching on those themes, and turning Elizabeth Shaw into a believer (a fact the robot David finds odd and fascinating, to the point of wanting to toy with it), the film seems primarily concerned with humans’ relationship to their more immediate creators, the Engineers. I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of Shaw’s faith — her attachment to the cross is as much evidence of her love for her father as for her religion, right? The cross becomes an almost superstitious symbol rather than what most Christians would believe: that the material symbol itself is less important than the faith behind it.

JMM: Yes, we can’t really make too much of the cross. It could be as easy as a family heirloom, or it could be more.

Back to Noomi as Shaw — you mentioned that she was fine, and she received top billing despite being less well-known for English-language viewers, but that she didn’t do more with the role. On this I disagree. I think she did as much as she could — meaning the problem wasn’t her performance but lack of character development. She starts as a scientist and ends up taking on a heroic role more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, yet we aren’t given enough information about her to care more the way we care about Weaver.

Did you notice in the opening on the ship, when the crew is gathered for Shaw and Charlie to explain the mission: Shaw describes finding the star constellations on early cave paintings, and a crew member asks, “Like a map?” and Shaw looks at Charlie first, then says, “No, more like an invitation.” I wondered why she looked at Charlie first. That’s what I meant that character wasn’t developed — seems like she could have answered directly. This was just the first flaw in the character rather than the actress.


Didion: You’ve put your finger on it: she’s portrayed relationally. For the first part of the film she’s quite oriented to her partner/ love interest, Charlie; we also learn how attached she was to her beloved father when she was a child, only to lose him to disease. We learn that she can’t bear children, and that this is a source of pain to her. She looks to Charlie during that scene because we need to see her as a character who is, perhaps, very smart but not possessed of the inner strength to face what’s coming.

Maybe my problem was that between the director’s and editor’s choices about later scenes, I never quite cathected to Shaw the way I did to all of Ridley Scott’s prior heroes, especially Ripley. Now, that’s a tall order, I realize — but despite watching Noomi undergo some spectacular feats later in the film, I just … well, didn’t care so much about her, as if she were always one of the secondary characters. A more masterful actor would have taken the reins and given the audience someone to cheer for.

Talk me down from the ledge, JMM! Am I being too harsh?

JMM: Sorry you’re out on that ledge — but there you will stay. At least about Rapace. I still contend that she was limited by the script. As you put it — she’s a secondary character. Also slotted into secondary roles are Janek and Vickers — the ship’s Captain, and the Weyland Corporation’s watchdog Vickers (Charlize Theron) — now there’s a one-note character we grow to hate quickly.

So in the end re: Noomi’s performance, I’ll leave you in your position, and I take the contra — I wasn’t disappointed.

*** Spoilers to follow! ***

*** The following is best for those who’ve already seen the film! ***

Didion: So, JMM, is it time to enter into the spoilers section of our conversation? Is it time to address some of those WTF? issues the film raises?

JMM: Thought you’d never ask!

I found myself disappointed by the fact that the film started with great questions but then degenerated into an action movie. So they land on that planet and head for that huge structure. Right away we begin to feel a sense of dread. I don’t think that this feeling was unexpected — in fact we were eager for it. Am I right? Did you grip your arm rests a little tighter as they headed out and we and the characters were facing the unknown?


Didion: Those scenes of exploring the planet’s mysterious structure — with its weird holographic ghosts and strange locked rooms that David seems to know how to open — it was all great, at least at first.

But then as the mysteries keep snowballing, they become convoluted. You’ve already put your finger on three of the film’s most serious limitations:

  1. The film is too short to do justice to the plot
  2. The film becomes an action film too abruptly
  3. The film ultimately becomes simply a placeholder for the sequel, which means that a lot of its mysteries get postponed till the next film

I hate to sound as if I’m jerking our readers around on my attitude toward the film, but this is the truth: I both enjoyed the whole thing, and walked out saying, “Wait a second, WTF?” about all those weird incomplete plot points. I want a film that can just stand alone! I don’t like seeing films that spend the whole last reel setting up a franchise!

JMM: Bingo! You’ve got that right. Amen.

We have a plethora of inexplicable items that we could toss out there. I’ll start with one of minor importance yet which made no sense at all. Why did they mislead us about Weyland? We meet him early on via a holograph — and he says something like “As you watch this I’m long since dead” — only then he turns out to be alive — but only for a short period! That’s a real WTF for me.

Didion: Okay, I’m going to beg that you indulge me for a moment in waxing on a theme. Because this is the part of the film I found absolutely crazy:

This film isn’t just about the question of who made us, or why we are here. It ultimately seems to say that our creators had ambivalent or even hostile motives in creating us, and that they are working against us. And that means that the relationship between those “parents” and “children” becomes hostile, and they try to kill one another.

I’ve never seen so much patricide/ infanticide in a film. It’s crazy!


Which brings me back to your Weyland question: Weyland is the exemplar of the ambivalent creator. He’s David’s creator — and thus when he suddenly appears halfway through, it might help to explain some of the robot’s motives (is David messing around with all those mystery fluids in order to find an elixir of life for Weyland?). But he is also Meredith Vickers’ father — a fact that makes neither of them very happy and explains her icy coldness and antipathy for the whole venture. “A king has his reign, and then he dies. It’s inevitable,” she tells her father, with iciness in her eyes.

Okay, Mike, you’ve indulged me in my thematic wandering — are you willing to go there with me, or am I being a classic academic over-reader?

JMM: No, I’m not going there, and no, you’re not being a classic over-reader. Yes the killing of parents is a theme, and yes the killing of the children is also a theme.

These could be outshoots from Scott’s personal life. A falling out with his children or earlier with his own parents. Or it could be stuff tossed in without rhyme or reason. What does it amount to? So Weyland is Vickers’ father. So what? I thought it was totally unnecessary, and didn’t shock. I think that was the intent to shock, but it failed.

Second, David and the elixirs. If David wanted to extend Weyland’s life, why does he discuss (abstractly) the killing of parents? And on another level, why do the Engineers want to create a map/ invitation leading humans to their location? To come and be destroyed? Or to bring back to earth the very items that would lead to the destruction of humanity?

Maybe there are good Engineers and bad Engineers. The one living (in stasis) Engineer that they find, and resuscitate — what does he do after the brief conversation with David? rips off David’s head, then kills old man Weyland. At this point I was completely puzzled. These events came out of nowhere — and make little or no sense.


Didion: It’s crazy! it can take the story nowhere if humans and their Engineer creators are at war with one another!

Yet the theme of patricide/ infanticide is so prevalent — between David and Weyland, Weyland and Vickers, Shaw and her long-dead mother, Shaw and her evil monster spawn baby. When was the last time an abortion — a self-administered abortion! — became so prominent a plot point in a summer blockbuster? Damn! It’s crazily fascinating, though … especially if part of your appreciation for the film comes from its subtheme of Ridley Scott as a creator. This film evokes at least subtly so many of Scott’s other films that it seems to position him in one of those father roles — and yet with this manic plot it’s as if he’s creating the conditions for his own doom.

Let me ask about something far more specific: we find early on in the exploration of the planet’s big structure a whole lot of dead bodies of Engineers — bodies decapitated, as if undergoing a battle with other forces. Immediately nearby are the tanks full of an eery, oozing substance, as if that substance is itself an unbeatable foe for the Engineers. Yet it later turns out the Engineers were planning to take armories full of that ooze to Earth to kill off the very humans they created all those eons ago. Please explain.

JMM: Good Engineers and bad Engineers. That’s my guess. An internecine battle or disagreement amongst the Engineers themselves. I’ve no basis for that other than the bodies being piled up. Beyond that — who might the opponent be?

Backing up for a moment — you mentioned the self-administered abortion. Of course it was an abortion, yet when Shaw entered the facility, she asked for a Caesarean. That’s peculiar. Also peculiar was Shaw’s recovery from surgery — but we’ll leave that on the side for the moment.

Wasn’t Scott going around in circles in one sense — from the birth of humankind to the birth of the Alien at the end — and from who or what did that birth come from — was that the result of the snake like monster killing the Engineer — or was that a rape? The snake tentacle goes into the mouth of the Engineer which takes all the fight out of him. Does the Alien birth stem from that?

So we have a conception, an abortion, a birth, and a rape all in one film. Scott is one complicated dude, isn’t he?

Didion: Exactly! if we think of Prometheus as an origins tale, it is the nastiest, meanest, most morally ambivalent tale of origins ever!

The genealogy for the alien at the end was half ooze, half Charlie — impregnated into Shaw. Then Shaw’s aborted evil monster spawn baby mates with one of the Engineers, resulting in: Alien! Remember that creepy egg on the original poster for Alien? No eggs at all along the line here.

I’m convinced you’re right: perhaps a intra-Engineer war that took place many centuries earlier. But I’ve got one more WTF question: aren’t we supposed to think that the planet was left in the condition it was in order that humans — the Engineers’ “children” — ultimately return and set off that chain of dominoes that would lead to the destruction of humanity? Otherwise why the trail of clues — the cave paintings, the mysteriously locked rooms, the sole body trapped in stasis the same way Weyland’s body (and the rest of the crew) had been preserved for the long interstellar voyage?

This is why I find the open-endedness of the film’s conclusion so aggravating — I don’t want to have to wait another year or more to have the film’s most basic questions answered!


JMM: I’m betting that the sequel won’t answer the questions — there are too many of them. Think about the the timelines of the film: when Earth was just a planet without humans, the Engineers cast off one of their own to seed the planet. His DNA in the ocean would have evolved into humans over millennia. Then eons and eons later, when we humans were still in our caveman era, the Engineers came back (?) to visit the earliest human collectives in various places on Earth to issue the invitations.

Then millennia later humans attain the power to understand the invitations and reach the Engineers — how come there were no intervening visits? If the engineers on the planet were killed by aliens how come we didn’t meet any? The engineers have to have been killed by other engineers. Have to be.

But you are right that the open-endedness is frustrating and aggravating. I think also sloppy filmmaking — unless as you said — the purpose it to hype the sequel.


Didion: Argh! exactly. That whole two-visit question bothered me for hours afterward. (And by the way, JMM, you’ve now helped to raise my hackles all over again: if you’re right and the sequel has no answers, I’ll be furious! On the other hand, if it’s nothing but explanations I’ll also be annoyed, because I love the opaque themes and crazy action of a Ridley Scott film!)

I mentioned before it seems strange that the film’s kooky/ nonsensical plotting and ugly, patricidal origins story didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it as I watched — it only started to bug me as we walked out (and later, obviously). And I think it’s because the film’s CGI is so good. Know what I liked the best? David’s little computerized airborne probes that create a 3D architectural plan of the structure remotely. I just geeked out during those scenes.

JMM: The technical aspects of the film were superb. That’s why we liked the film as we watched — the visuals precluded thinking about its problems — or postponed them. But even those probes were just Scott’s homage to The Matrix, just as he paid tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In The Matrix, there were the probes — but they were mechanical. In 2001 we had the transition — the ape throws the bone in the air, and it becomes a space ship. Here we had the Engineers’ DNA launched into the ocean which leads us to Shaw in the caves. Even the old man Weyland connoted the aged Keir Dullea character from 2001. Paying homage to excellent films of the past just added to the allure of this film. Speaking of exceptional — what else did you like?

Didion: This film brought together two of my favorite things to watch in film: the “don’t go into the haunted house!” kind of storyline, as they enter the structure and encounter the ghostlike apparitions of the now-dead Engineers; and the “last man standing” theme that was so obvious in Alien but also in various westerns and other sci-fi movies. Those earliest scenes of exploring the labyrinthian structure are so vivid and wonderful. And from the very beginning you meet the ship’s crew and start to wonder in what order will they fall — will the characters engage in battle against one another? which ones will turn out to be cowards? LOVE the creepy anticipation of those dual themes.

How about you, JMM? What else worked for you — or, conversely, didn’t work?


JMM: I loved the heroic captain who knew what he had to do. Janek was at once stereotypical and yet he wasn’t just another good guy who gave up his life to save the world. I liked Charlize Theron’s work in the film but detested the character.

But you know what? I wanted to be terrified way more than we actually were. Alien was unsurpassed in terms of terror when it was released, and still is. Prometheus isn’t terrifying at all. We get a sense of dread and we know that bad stuff will happen. But it really isn’t that scary is it? Wriggling worms on the floor of the rooms with the storage containers. Sticky substances? Even at the end, the birth of the xenomorph which was the beginning of the Alien monster we saw thirty three years ago for the first time seemed not as terrifying as we knew what it would become.

But here is the one thing that was truly terrifying. We knew David would poison Charlie. And we had to watch it happen without knowing why, since David’s motives were still somewhat unknown at the time — this was very scary. With that move he became a character to fear, but we didn’t know the reason? What is your take on that?

Didion: You’re probably right that in terms of terror, we got more mileage out of anticipation than we did in scary battle scenes. The film had more gross-out horror than thrills — I mean, that abortion scene! Which is entirely appropriate given what we know about these monsters and their eagerness to kill humans in order to implant their creepy monster babies.

That’s perhaps why David becomes such a pivotal character in the film. Why does he do it? It’s an impossible question to answer if we can believe him that he feels no human emotions. I read it as an issue of his being loyal to his creator, Weyland: David needs someone to experiment on as he searches for a means of keeping Weyland alive, and Charlie is convenient (and also not crucial to the crew of the ship). David’s utter moral ambivalence is riveting.

I love it that you brought up Janek, played nicely by the charismatic British actor Idris Elba. At some point early on I paused in watching the film and thought, every single one of these major actors is affecting a false accent!

Charlize Theron (South African) affects American accent

Noomi Rapace (Swedish) affects British accent

Michael Fassbender (Irish) affects very clipped British accent

Idris Elba (British) affects Southern US accent

Guy Pearce (Australian) affects American accent

Which, to be honest, gives the whole thing a very ersatz vibe!

But now that I’m making comments like this, I’m wondering whether it’s time to wrap up. JMM, do you have any final thoughts, quips, nifty conclusions? You’re clearly better-versed in the Ridley Scott/ sci-fi genre than I am!

JMM: Gee thanks. Now I have to be nifty? You do a great job of discussing the impact of the characters, and you’ve covered a lot of territory in examining the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Okay back to nifty — hmm — I think I’ll reference my early remark about Ridley Scott being an artiste in the sense of filling up a cinematic canvas. However the downside of this is the craziness of the story. It takes me back to something I mentioned earlier — that this felt like two films in one, the one that unfolded as we watched, and the one we thought about afterward. I believe we could spend hours more picking the film apart, and I also believe that we could spend hours more discussing the things we liked in the film.

But we won’t. I’m ending my part of this talk by thanking you, and by thanking AMC for letting me see the film for six bucks on Friday morning. My final thought is that the film disappointed me as well as gave me two hours of fun.

Didion: I agree! many thanks, JMM. This chat reminds me that Ridley Scott’s biggest questions — which I can sum up glibly as, who’s your daddy? and why are we here? — may not be answered by Prometheus, but they’re always going to be interesting. And no one is left chained to a rock to have his liver eaten by an eagle — so hey, why not spend two hours enjoying the thrill ride?

Following our earlier chats this spring about White Material and Miral, the critic/blogger JustMeMike and I decided to choose more mainstream material this time: the big-release Larry Crowne, the film directed and produced by Tom Hanks and co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). As with so many romantic comedies, we approached this one wondering whether we’d be charmed and delighted, or feel abused by its commercialism. Read on to find our unexpected answers!

JustMeMike: Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts or Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks — might this be the next big pairing or as some have decided: America’s newest screen sweethearts? I mean Hanks and Meg Ryan lit up the box-offices with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. When Roberts was paired with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman and The Runaway Bride — the results were pretty much $Ka-ching! What do you think?

Didion:  Having only seen the preview at this point, I want to know: isn’t Hanks a bit long in the tooth to be playing the cutie-pie sweetheart? Unlike the perennially handsome Gere or George Clooney, he’s going to have to get past his midlife paunchiness to appeal to us. I’m also not sure yet that Julia Roberts can convincingly play a beaten-down, cynical professor. (I know cynical professors, ma’am, and you’re no cynical professor.) My read on the trailer is that this is a role reversal from You’ve Got Mail: Hanks has been slotted into the perky Meg Ryan role, and Roberts is the cynical Hanks role.

Larry early in the film

JustMeMike: How old is Hanks anyway? Can we agree to call him not-yet doddering, but surely way past being able to play the male ingénue? I’ll go along with your knowledge of professors and academia if you’ll accept that I know something about having a paunch – so let’s set the movie up right now: (SPOILER ALERT * SPOILER ALERT)

In case some of you haven’t seen the much-circulated trailer, Larry Crowne opens with Larry getting fired from his job at a big-box store. Even though he had a long career as a Navy cook, they explain, he lacks a college education. Turned away from other jobs and feeling the pressure of an inflated mortgage, he signs up for a few classes at the local community college, including an econ class (with professor George Takei) and a public speaking class with professor Mercedes/Mercy Tainot (Julia Roberts). Along the way he befriends a beautiful free spirit and fellow scooter-rider, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who updates his style, invites him out with her pack of scooter riders, and otherwise initiates him into a more youthful culture. Meanwhile, Mercy’s unhappy marriage is crashing and she’s going through the motions at her job, when one night Larry offers to give her a lift home, a ride on the scooter that leads to a quick, drunken make-out session at her door. The next day she insists they both forget about it.

Meanwhile, Larry’s economics class helps him come to grips with his bad-debt mortgage. He sadly but resolutely jettisons his beloved house, reluctantly procures a job as a fry cook, and excels in his courses. Along the way, Mercy takes increasing notice of him. By the end, convinced of his merit, she acknowledges to herself that she’s attracted to him — and she begins to make opportunities for them to be together.

Didion: WHOA. I just saw the movie and have tons to say about it. First, on whether Hanks is too old: they must have faced this objection early on, because this is a makeover movie! By the halfway mark he’s jettisoned his dreary middle-aged gear in favor of the grooviest clothes, has a chain attached to his wallet (!), and, naturally, has a 20-year-old best friend/style diva who apparently dresses him for free. I was so surprised to find this to be a film in which the guy undergoes a makeover — it’s such a staple of the rom-com, but it’s always reserved for women.

Here’s a question for you: what did you think about the Julia Roberts character? I’m still trying to figure out why she didn’t quite work for me.

This rings true: the agonies of teaching + hangover

JustMeMike: Okay, leaving the Larry Crowne makeover on the sidelines for the moment — what struck me was the reversal of the shapes in this film. When I think of Julia Roberts, I think beautiful, sexy, and she’s got that wow factor. Tom Hanks has that sturdy, upright, up-standing, Jimmy Stewart everyman image. In Larry Crowne — Hanks got softer, rounder, and with his receding hairline, he just looked older than his true age 53 [Didion]: I just looked this up and he’ll be 55 in a couple of days]. But Roberts? She looked sharper, with more edges instead of curves, her chin more pointed, and her smile looked narrower.  She lost her glow and her warmth. But maybe that was what was intended — as a dissatisfied woman, unhappy in her marriage, and not thrilled with an 8:00 AM class.

Didion: Yeah, I agree. But her unhappiness also seems to have turned her into a pretty serious alcoholic, which could be a really interesting and depth-making character issue, except that she’s not really much of the focus in the film. Maybe I just found her … um, a little cold? A little unfocused?

JustMeMike: She arrived in class after power breakfast of an alcoholic shake — so she needed the  sunglasses. With those on — cold is a good description. Maybe bleary-eyed as well — but I’ve no proof…

Mercy Tainot commencing her frozen-margarita evening

Didion: There’s another issue re: believability: in the world of us professors, if a class gets canceled, your pay gets docked — seriously docked. As in, if you’re only teaching 2 instead of 3 courses a semester, your pay goes down by a third. (Or they make you teach an extra class the following term.) So her eagerness to have classes canceled really doesn’t ring true.

JustMeMike: As for college reality — I thought it strange that the Dean of Student Services sat in the class twice. Probably had a thing for Tainot.

Didion: Argh. No way. By the end I was cranky enough to think Larry’s final speech was kind of lame (as a speech) too — but it was sweet, and that’s the important thing. One more thing I didn’t believe: that Larry would be fired from the big-box store for not having gone to college … but I suppose his bosses could have been lying about it to get rid of a more expensive worker.

Things I did believe: that Larry was a sweetheart, that he cleaned up nicely, and that he learned some pretty useful information in that econ class with George Takei. The Julia Roberts part of the film just seemed less sensitive and developed — and I had a hard time buying the chemistry between them. Which is too bad, because I would’ve thought with Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as a co-writer, we might have had a more believable romance.

JustMeMike: The issue you keep going back to is the believability/reality factor. I guess you’re saying that Larry Crowne asks you to suspend disbelief so often, that you are bothered by it. I am in agreement with everything you mentioned that’s false:

a) Cancellation of classes
b) The 20 something scooter pal
c) Dean sitting in twice
d) Big box store firing him for no college degree
e) Chemistry between the leads

Yeah, all of the above are puzzlers. But I don’t think you go into a film that is being sold as a rom/com expecting reality. In other words, while all of the above are true — I wasn’t bothered by them as much as you were.

Didion: One more thing: a cousin of mine married a Navy cook who served for 20 years, and I believe his Navy pension has left him in a pretty sweet financial position. But maybe not enough to manage a massive mortgage debt like Larry’s.

JustMeMike: Now there’s something that I can rail about. Crowne begins with the firing of everyone’s candidate for permanent employee of the month. Then we learn about the huge nut he can’t support any longer – his mortgage and alimony payments. So Hanks and Vardalos begin with the set up of Larry Crowne being let go in the midst of the terrible economy. That’s a difficult topic. I saw that in The Company Men.

I think that setting the guy up on the shoals of life in order to change him isn’t going to garner them any kudos. Plus the terrible economy shouldn’t be a topic to either gloss over or take lightly. But I’m glad that was just the front end rather than the main course.

You know, he didn’t go from the U-Mart to the fry cook job. He did make the rounds. He took the cooking job out of desperation.

Didion: So maybe that’s going to be the essential question between us: is all the unbelievable stuff going to be too much to bear, or are there other reasons to enjoy Larry Crowne?

All this discussion about Larry and the economy makes me think that Larry Crowne is a romance on several levels: Larry learns to face his terrible personal finances; Larry undergoes a makeover, yet he returns to working as a fry cook, the one thing he never wanted to do again after being a cook in the Navy; and Larry finds (possible) love.

On the issue of his taking the fry cook job: honestly, I wasn’t sure what to think. I wasn’t sure whether to trust the fact that Larry didn’t want to do that anymore, or whether circling back to that work has its own satisfactions (he is, after all, quite good at it). What do you think: are we supposed to feel as if Larry’s giving something up when he takes that job?

JustMeMike: Necessity is the all-powerful ingredient in determining if you will take a job you probably promised yourself you’d never do again. I’ve been there. Drove a taxi in NYC once upon a time.

Didion, interjecting rudely: Driving a taxi! That story should be the start of a screenplay, perhaps entitled A Different Taxi Driver!

JustMeMike, continuing politely as if he had not been interrupted: Yes I do think there’s much to like about the film. First Larry Crowne is a nice guy. With or without the paunch, or the receding hairline, or the softness and roundness — that’s why Talia likes him, his squareness, and near fuddy-duddy style is to her — very cuddly. Ultimately, that’s why Ms. Tainot eventually changes sides from indifferent to liking — because he is likable, and he not only tried to improve himself but he accomplished it.

Second, and I’m just getting started — some of the writing of performances were great — George Takei’s Professor Dr. Matsutani was wonderful …

Didion: And I have to say, speaking as a cynical professor-type myself, that I love having older students in my classes, so long as they’re like Larry — eager to learn and be surprised. (Sadly, I’ve also had their depressing counterparts: the ones determined to show that they know everything already.) So I agree, absolutely, that Larry’s open-mindedness makes him appealing. And George Takei! He’s so weird, and I’m with him on the cell phones in class policy.

Character is key — so in that regard, you’re right — I fell for Larry the way I always fall for those characters who undergo makeovers in movies.

But on the question of believability issues, we should talk about the way the film portrays a post-racial fantasy-land. I find this completely fascinating. I grant you that someone like Talia might well take to Larry. But surely it’s worth discussing that people of color in this film are all slotted in as the uncomplicated yet colorful best friends who help out and offer up no racial tension whatsoever.

JustMeMike: On this we agree. This is a major flaw of the movie. This is where the teeter-totter goes way overboard — or should I say over-tilts. Hanks is trying his best to be nice. Offend no one. Leave no group out. His rainbow coalition of scooter friends is a just as silly as the multiracial makeup of the class. Not only did they offer no racial tension, they offered no tension period. Where’s the class bully when you need him? Maybe that role was assigned to Ms. Tainot.

Malcolm Barrett not given enough time to demonstrate dance moves

Said another way — what’s wrong with a post-racial fantasy land. After all this is a movie, and nothing more. But then again I’ve not attended a community college where academic admission is far less of a challenge.

Didion: Not a problem or even a flaw — but so striking as to be rich for analysis! On the one hand, this is the most racially diverse film I’ve seen in a long time; we could use more post-racial fantasies if we want to make it more realized. As far as I’m concerned, Pam Grier, George Takei, and Malcolm Barrett (who was fabulous in Better Off Ted) can show up in any film at all and I’ll be happy.

But none of them is fleshed out at all…not even the beautiful Talia. They all sit comfortably back, like colorful, unproblematic background furniture, helping to give Larry a rich environment in which to transform. Blecch. The film is all Larry’s character and not enough story with other figures.

Pam Grier as Mercy’s best friend

You know what I kept thinking? That the writers might have thought the lack of racial tension would make a film about getting fired during a bad economy more watchable for viewers who’ve actually been affected by the downturn. I.e., it’s a movie that resolves all other issues to help soothe people’s views of the economy.

JustMeMike: Yup — from a logical standpoint that makes sense — if you start with the bad economy based downsizing, add in some angry scooter folks also in the same or similar situation, and then some discordant classmates — then you will have a film that makes everyone angry and is something no one wants or expects in a rom/com.

As for Pam Grier — I was actually surprised when she re-appeared in Act Two.

Larry with his neighbor, Cedric The Entertainer

But back to the stress — the only guys that displayed some mostly mild anger were:

1) The neighbor (Cedric The Entertainer) who thought his yard-sale monopoly was being infringed when Larry carted out his stuff
2) Talia’s boyfriend — Dell Gordo (Wilmer Valderrama)  who thought his exclusivity with Talia was being infringed.
3) Tainot’s husband Dean (Bryan Cranston) who was just overdrawn ridiculous from the get-go. Any guy addicted to internet boobs would be looking at naked breasts not clothed ones.

But that brings us back to Hanks’ universal concept for the film of making nothing truly objectionable, or to make a film with as few hard edges as possible. That I understand even if I don’t like it or appreciated it.

In my view — the most ridiculous or objectionable part of the film was seeing Hanks’ skivvy-clad bottom in the changing of clothing scene. I’m wondering what they were going for with that?

Didion: I’m not sure I have any satisfying concluding words to offer on the subject of race in this film — it’s noticeable but it ultimately doesn’t especially affect the central story about Larry. And you know what I thought about during the aforementioned tighty-whitey scene? “I wonder if Talia will upgrade the skivvy situation?”

From a professor’s point of view, I thought the movie could have made more out of the tension about a professor dating a student. It’s verboten for us — I can’t tell you how many times we get warned about it. It’s always, always associated with something dirty and untoward: the idea that a student might get better grades because of a relationship, and/or that a professor is taking advantage by offering better grades as rewards. Any time one person actually has power over the other person’s life on campus — re: grades, a dissertation, etc. — you’re not supposed to get involved. What they always say is that they don’t like to have faculty dating students — but if you must, wait till the person is no longer in your class, and/or have another prof take over supervision of the grad student so it doesn’t appear untoward.

And I agree that the power dynamics of the situation can’t help but affect the relationship, even if there’s a genuine attraction/love between the people — how could Mercedes know that Larry didn’t just have a hot-for-teacher kind of tweak? (And who doesn’t have a hot-for-teacher kind of tweak?) How could Larry know that Mercy didn’t enjoy being the smart and powerful controller of the relationship? If I’d been in her shoes, I would have been more worried about losing my job than Larry’s locker-room talk. But that doesn’t sound much like rom-com material either, does it?

You know what I wish I’d looked at a little more closely? The number of times crowns appear in the film as motifs. The one I really noticed was when Larry picks Mercy up at the bus stop: there’s a big crown on the billboard behind her. Actually, aside from the curiosity factor, I’m not sure I’ve got much to say about this motif except that it subtly makes me like Larry a little bit more each time.

Sorry, Julia, for this hideous screen cap — it’s the only one I could find with the crown on the billboard.

JustMeMike: Whoosh! There’s the sound of the crown motif sailing by me. I totally missed that. Nice one for you to have noticed. I didn’t think that Larry in his basic undershorts was there for Talia to fix. I think it’s there so Wilderrama could toss off another burned and steamed look. Speaking of him — for about ⅓ of the film I thought I was watching Esai Morales — only I couldn’t reconcile the age gap.

As you said, having a bit more of issues/problems vis-a-vis teacher/student dating would have been a whole other movie. Not this one.

Okay what else did you hate or like? I kinda liked the scooter pack. In all my years I’ve never seen one. I kind of liked the music too. Not too hard and not too soft.

Didion: I did like the scooter pack — but can’t remember the music. I liked the scenes of that San Gabriel Valley (I think) part of LA where it’s shot — I kept wondering, when they were driving around, if it was Altadena or Pasadena or Silver Lake or Eagle Rock, [JustMeMike: per IMDB the film locations listed Altadena so you were right with your first guess] and whether they’d head out for chicken & waffles. I love movies that really give me a sense of where they’re filmed. (Of course, I also know people who spend all their time at those movies getting angry that they got the locations wrong. “You don’t drive on that level of the Bay Bridge to get to Oakland!” etc.)

JustMeMike: Okay got it. I too am particularly fond of watching films in places I’ve been. You know what I think – that you really didn’t hate it as much as you thought and I didn’t like it as much as I thought. It wasn’t terrible and it wasn’t great. The bad husband got his come-up-ence, the people who were supposed to be together got together, and the sun will come up tomorrow.

Didion: Oh, I can muster much more rage than that! I could say, “HEADLINE: if having a charming central character is enough for you, then Larry Crowne will work; but beyond that the narrative is tepid.” Or, in my cranky feminist guise (and who doesn’t love hearing cranky feminists go on rants?) I could say, “So what? another white dude has thoughts and feelings.”

But yeah, in the end you’re probably right — it’s a perfectly middle-of-the-road rom-com that won’t have you vomiting uncontrollably by the end. (Advertisers: please put that on a poster!)

I could also list a whole pile of better rom-coms that you should see instead. From the above-average (like The Wedding Singer, or Only You) to the truly excellent Amélie or When Harry Met Sally.

JustMeMike: Yeah, “I’ll have what she’s having.” A memorable line if there ever was one. Of course on this we agree, that Larry Crowne is not memorable in any way, shape or form. Not even the casting of these two will elevate this film to that kind of level.

That Scene from When Harry Met Sally

As for vomit-inducing films — that’s got to be a figure of speech — otherwise you’d have been barred from numerous theaters.

I wonder if Hanks aimed for middle of the road intentionally, or thought it was better than that and he failed. I also read that he shot for the adults and seniors opening against Transformers 3 and that the target audience isn’t enamored either….

Didion: One final thought. You asked at the beginning whether Hanks & Roberts might be the next big-money pairing — and I was reminded by a friend tonight that they had appeared together once before in Charlie Wilson’s War — in what were arguably much more interesting and even sexually-charged roles. I kind of loved her as that terrifying right-wing Texas power-broker. In short, I like them better together when they’re fighting each other tooth & nail, and much less when Hanks is an unobjectionable nice guy!

Final words? Perhaps, please go see Midnight in Paris again instead!

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