20 November 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: The Fighting Temptations

Released by Paramount Pictures
Screenplay by Elizabeth Hurter and
Saladin Peterson.

Darrin (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a con man in need to escape some credit card debt who learns his Aunt Sally has just died, leaving him a large sum of money... on the condition that he lead a small time

Let's start with the good: "The Fighting Temptations" delivers solidly on the music, and amazingly (or maybe expectedly enough) the music numbers actually do their job.

In music theater, a songs is expected to further the plot, develop or reveal character, or heighten the mood. In modern film musicals, if a song doesn't further the plot, it's usually cut out. In short, if the story is going to have music, the music has to tell the story.

In her first big number Lilly sings "Fever" at a nightclub, while Darrin watches, this lets the audience know she can sing and is of value to Darrin's choir. The setting is much like the nightclubs where Darrin's mother sang, presumably an intended parallel by Elizabeth Hurter. Also, that "Fever" is a steamy ballad, also serves to set up Lilly as Darrin's love interest.

Later in the film, Darrin has rounded his choir out with prison convicts, who perform the inevitable rap number "Down to da River". In the story context, this impresses the Reverend (since they're rapping about Jesus, yo) and represents a positive swing for Darrin in his quest to build the choir. This action also infuriates Paulina, directly motivating her to make her next antagonistic move.

Even "Loves me Like a Rock", the song performed in honor of a child's haircut ( um... yeah) serves a story purpose in that it's both information for Darrin and exposition for the audience:Monte Carlo is filled with talented singers; they'd just rather work in Barber Shops than in the choir.

So really, as part of a film Genre, "The Fighting Temptations" is as every bit as valid as a musical as Cabaret, West Side Story or Tangled.

It's still a stupid movie though. (up comes unfair comparison).

The end of "Singing in the Rain" concerns talented-but-unknown Kathy Seldon is hidden behind a curtain, dubbing as the singing voice for famous-but-bitchy Lina Lamont at a live performance. Throughout the film, there's been a definite motif of "Somebodies" and "Nobodies", stars and commoners, like Don the movie star and Cosmo the Piano Player. This pattern is even reflected in the otherwise non-sequitor "Broadway Melody" sequence,. What this motif means is pretty much up to the individual critic/viewer, whether it's about class in society, the dynamics of public verses private lives or even just the value of being yourself. Anyway, the motif is consistent throughout the movie, and the whole thing culminates in that moment when the curtain goes up...

And the audience gets a charge of meaning, whether it's political , personal or elsewise. In fact, Singin in the Rain couldn't have ended any other way, and gained the same worldwide resonance it currently has.

The climax of "The Fighting Temptations" the vote to case Paulina out of the group, has no basis or setup in the story and consequently has no meaning whatsoever.
How else could this movie have ended? Darrin starts out the movie by lying a bunch, maybe the big significant climax could be he tells the truth when it really matters? Both Darrin and Paulina manipulate others for selfish reasons. Would an appropriate resolution have to do with selfishness verses altruism? Hell, there was a good three minute speech about booty earlier in the movie, if everybody won the Gospel competition by showing their asses, even that would make more sense.

Thing is "The Fighting Temptations" just doesn't have a point. No overriding theme, moral or observation to be expressed. Which makes the characters flat, without purpose and uninteresting, which in turn fails to engage the audience in any kind of emotional investment which in turn drains the scenarios of tension, peril, suspense or any reason to care. What's left is a plodding collection of sights and sounds that's either a dumb movie that keeps getting interrupted by music numbers, or a concert video with really inane skits between the songs.

Either way it's a waste of time.

13 November 2011

The Films of Jonathan Lynn: The Whole Nine Yards

The Whole Nine Yards
Released in 2000 by Warner Bros.
Written by Michael Kapner

A Dentist named Oz(Matthew Perry), gets a new neighbor who he instantly recognizes as “Jimmy the Tulip” (Bruce Willis) an infamous mob hitman. Oz gets caught up in a vendetta between Jimmy and his former boss, and a scenario where everybody wants to kill everybody else.

“Yards” is an off-target movie, it’s about Oz when it should be about Jimmy, who is an amazing character, seeded by some great cast design.

In “Story” Robert McKee argues that the dimensionality of a character is expressed in the surrounding cast. With Sophie, Jimmy is a cold killer, but with Jill, the hopeful hitperson in-training, he’s a supportive lover. When Jimmy is alone with Oz, he’s at ease, and a friendly guy. In the presence of fellow hitman Frankie, he’s always holding a weapon. Though a simple dichotomy of “hitman with a heart” may feel a little stale, it’s more compelling than “Dentist with no-particularly-contradictory-characteristics-at-all”.

I’m not so sure Jimmy isn’t the main character, as the climax of the film revolves around Jimmy’s decision: whether or not to kill Oz. (SPOLIER: he doesn’t). There’s no real tension. Who’d believe that Bruce Willis would whack Matthew Perry? If the audience is going buy the final dilemma, need to see the situation’s alternative beforehand. If we don’t see Jimmy kill a guy like Oz, we don’t know the consequences of his final decision. There’s a lot of exposition about Jimmy, but little action. Would the climax of “Star Wars” be so tense if we didn’t SEE what happened to planet Aldreaan first?

That said, Michael Kapner’s screenplay is a joy. Most comedy endings are predictable: the guy gets the girl, the innocent kids on death row are acquitted, the objective is obtained and they live happily ever after. But “Yards” employs a clever series of Hitchcockian plot twists and revelations, keeping the audience guessing at the final resolution, and interested in the story (even if the lead characters aren’t interesting) .

“The Whole Nine Yards” is about an everyman thrown in with some deeply weird people. And as such, a successful connection with the audience depends on how they relate to the everyman in question. With Oz, I just… don’t. Maybe it’s because the character is written with the same depth as the wacky hitmen he’s surrounded by , or maybe I just don’t find Matthew Perry all that appealing, lacking in that Cary Grant “It” factor. Perhaps if it was Jeff Daniels taking pratfalls and proving his virtue under fire, I’d have a different reaction. But I’m just not invested in Oz’s progress in all of this mess.

To date, “The Whole Nine Yards” is arguably Jonathan Lynn’s most successful directorial effort, with the highest opening weekend gross of any other of his films. (and this is the guy who still managed to get work after ‘Greedy’). And although I don’t particularly care for it, I certainly appreciate it more than “The Fighting Temptations”.