Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Public Nuisance

Where's Warren Oates when you really need him? That's what kept going through my head as I watched Public Enemies, the Michael Mann-makes-a-Michael-Mann movie which is nowhere near "a grave and beautiful work of art," unless you're talking about the fact that you can see the individual ear hairs of various actors as Mann's digital camera shoots from behind them during the bank robberies. And why was I missing Warren Oates? Because nobody told Johnny Depp that doing an Elvis accent and looking thoughtful was the way to play a character who probably never had a second thought in his entire life, let alone sounded like Elvis. All of which I could accept if it actually played well as an interpretation of John Dillinger as The Last Fun Outlaw, but Depp doesn't look like he's having any fun at all. And God knows stiff-backed ass-clenched Christian Bale would probably shoot fun between the eyes for looking at him funny. So what do you have at the heart of this movie about two antagonists on opposite sides of the law? Two actors who are so busy internalizing the Mannic subtext that they've forgotten that real people, especially real people who shoot guns at each other, are a little nuts. Not Baby Face Nelson nuts; just Warren Oates nuts. Not once does Depp get that Dillinger never smiled -- he smirked. And guys who smirk? They're in on a joke you don't get. That's who Dillinger was. That's what Warren Oates could do in his sleep. The guy who smirks is always a little dangerous. The only danger in this movie is in mistaking the incredible cinematography for something that is deeper than surface level visuals.

I know too much to live. As actual history, the movie is the usual worthless piece of digitally gorgeous Hollywood crap, the kind where you can see all the wonderful details and say to yourself “Wow, crap looks really good in high-def, doesn’t it?” In the first ten minutes of the movie, Johnny Depp’s Dillinger fires more machine gun bullets than he ever did in his entire life. The first time we see Melvin Purvis, it’s 1933 and he’s killing Pretty Boy Floyd, who actually died in October 1934, which means Purvis’ entire reputation in the movie is based on something that happened three months after Dillinger died. Purvis wasn’t in charge of the Chicago field office -- Sam Cowley was; he was also older than Purvis, not the young kid in this flick, and while he did die in the shoot-out with Baby Face Nelson, it happened in November 1934, not during the Little Bohemia fiasco. Speaking of which: in the movie there is no trace of the shitstorm that came down on Hoover et al for shooting three innocent men and letting Dillinger and company get away scot free. In this movie, you’d hardly know it was a problem. Ditto for the scene where Dillinger companionably throws his arm around the county prosecutor at the Crown Point jail. When he saw pictures of this, Hoover went ballistic, and you’d think, in a film where J Edgar is deliberately being portrayed as a petty tyrant, there’d be a nice little scene for Billy Crudup to chew some period scenery, but no.

All of this would be negligible (even the scenes at the end where moments from Manhattan Melodrama are shown out of sequence) if the movie had actually been well-written or interesting or exciting enough to make me forget the source material. (I mean hell -- I could write you a 20-page dissertation on how Last of the Mohicans is nothing like Fenimore Cooper's novel, but not once in all the times I have watched that film did I think "Wait--that's not the way it happened in Chapter 12!" because I was caught up in the story on-screen. Which didn't happen once here.) But no. I spent the entire movie thinking "That's not right," for reasons both historical and artistic. I mean Jeez -- there's a scene where one character gets captured and never takes her eyes off another character when she's walked out to a car, AND NO ONE ELSE ON THE STREET LOOKS WHERE SHE'S LOOKING. And the fact that it's referenced in a later scene plays more like a post-production cry of "No, we didn't really fuck up--we did it for a reason!" than "See how true to life we actually were in that shot?"

Mano a Manno. It's official: Michael Mann has deliberately stopped making films and is now dedicating himself to making Michael Mann movies, where the plot means nothing unless it illustrates the troubling duality of likable criminal and haunted lawman. Which means it's been constructed not as a story but as a collection of beats, like a drum and bass remix of a real movie. Characters don't act because they're driven to act or compelled to act; they act because that's their function in the schematic outline. Nowhere is this more evident than in poor Marion Cotillard's performance. At a time in cultural history where the screwball comic heroine was flexing her Myrna Loy muscles and swishing her Barbara Stanwyck skirt, all Depp's Dillinger has to do to do to get Cotillard's Billie Frechette is to order her around, and she follows him like a dog for the rest of the film. Because, y'know, nothing is more attractive to a woman than being told "You're with me" and "You're going to be with me because I say so." Cotillard's entire part in the movie consists of saying "Okay" thirteen different ways. She could have phoned it in, except that not everybody had a phone back in 1934.

So don't bother. Not even if you need the air conditioning. (And I'm the guy who broke down and went to see Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp for the air conditioning.) Go see Up again. Or rent the Warren Oates Dillinger. Or you can do like I did, and throw on Last of the Mohicans, and harken back to a time when Michael Mann actually made movies.

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