Proposition: All stories are information delivered through time. How that information is delivered, in the time it takes to tell the story, is style. Like flashback, for instance, where a present-day character begins to talk about something that happened to her ages ago, and then we see it come to life. (For a really great example of this that you’ve probably never seen, hunt down That Hamilton Woman with Vivien Leigh.) Or like voiceover narration, where a bodiless voice comments on what we’re looking at. (Which is normally the sign of a really crappy movie, because most of the time it’s done in post-production; but for a really great example of voiceover (as a deliberate creative style) that you’ve probably forgotten, go watch The Opposite of Sex with Christina Ricci.)
Two recent movies—one kind of a mess, one kind of brilliant; one told via flashback, one told via not only voiceover but fourth-wall-breaking narration—share a third storytelling technique: stopping the narrative dead in its tracks. In the flashback case, it’s to send us up the timeline to focus on the storyteller; in the voiceover case, it’s to deliver complicated pieces of information as entertainingly as possible.
Because of this, one of them not only doesn’t work, its lack of success in the style area is like the icing on the failure cake. What movie am I talking about? Here’s a hint:
So if they got the dash-in-the-title correct here . . .
In In the Heart of The Sea, pretty much everything is a mess. The CGI is a mess. The plot is a mess. There’s a Mutiny On The Bounty storyline, a class war storyline, an oil-companies-are-assholes-even-in-the-1800’s storyline, a truth versus cover-up storyline, a whaling storyline, a Jaws storyline, a Hawthorne-envy storyline from Herman Melville; and to top it all off, you also get one of the worst regional accents ever committed to film by a lead actor who’s rich enough to pay for a whole college of vocal coaches.
All of which is continually interrupted by the frame story, which revolves around a we-did-a-horrible-thing-to-survive secret. And when I say continually interrupted, I mean frustratingly interrupted. Every time you get sucked into the flashback, bang, you’re back listening to the heavy-set Fenian who got bludgeoned to death by Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York talking to the weedy Brit who plays Q in the current Bond movies, and you don’t fucking care. It’s like every time you round third base and head for home, you have to stop dead in your tracks while the color commentator analyzes your running technique.
And The Big Secret these narrative interruptions are designed to reveal? It’s no real secret at all if you know the story, and no great shakes even if you don’t, because this is a Hollywood movie and you can’t show it—although I bet if they did, they’d still get a PG-13 and not an R. They’d only get an R if somebody said “Fuck—this ensign tastes like fucking chicken.”
And in the end it’s just laughable. I mean, after being stranded on an island and forced to endure incredible privations at sea, our hero arrives home years later dressed in exactly the same outfit in which he left, and in pretty much the same physical condition in which he left, which made me think that Ron Howard filmed the departure and arrival scenes one right after the other, without anyone saying “Hey Ron—since, uhm, we’re gonna make Hemsworth lose a hundred pounds for the starvation scenes, don’t you think we should wait till then to film his return to Nantucket?”
And it’s probably the same guy who didn’t say “Hey Ron—since we show the actual printed title of Herman Melville’s novel, don’t you think we should put the dash between Moby and Dick? Y’know, just for the sake of authenticity?”
Which is the kind of interruption this movie could have benefited from. In stark contrast to which, you have a movie whose interruptions are just as frequent, but not as frustrating:
Only two of these guys are ever in the same scene together.
The Big Short interrupts its story at least as often as In The Heart of The Beast, but it’s nowhere near as annoying. Part of this is because Beast took a simple story—“We’re supposed to be hunting whales but the whale is hunting us!”—and made it needlessly complicated by adding a longboat full of other stories simply because they didn’t trust the one they had; while Short takes an incredibly complicated subject and boils it down to one underlying message that is the foundation of the film, and why it’s a success: “What you call the truth is actually a lie.”
Right from the get-go, the movie has a narrator, who turns out to be one of its characters. This is what we used to refer to in the last century as Brechtian, but is now called meta—somebody in the story saying “We’re telling a story here.” And it happens throughout the film. Every now and then somebody will turn to the camera and say “That actually happened,” or “This didn’t actually happen this way,” or “Yes, we actually did that and thought of that.” Or the narrator will stop the story dead in its tracks to say, “And now, here’s Margot Robbie to explain mortgage-backed securities while drinking champagne in a bubble bath.” And she does. And it makes sense.
So right from the start, the audience gets the message that this is not the kind of movie which will require them to lean forward in anticipation as Chris Hemsworth hurls a harpoon; instead, this is the kind of movie you would get if Michael Moore had directed Margin Call. (Another one you should hunt down.) You’re not asked to become emotionally invested in any of the characters—you get Law And Order level backstory for pretty much everyone except Steve Carrell’s character. And the level of detail we’re given about him is so high, compared to what we get about everyone else, that it's like something from another film. But it’s not high enough to feel like more than just another interruption, one that totally wastes Marisa Tomei as Carell’s put-upon spouse and makes Carell’s one big emotional scene feel, well, kind of embarrassing, really. Me—I would have paid cash money to see Tomei kiss Carell’s forehead at the end of that scene, turn to the camera, and say: “This didn’t really happen, but we wanted to give at least one of the assholes in this movie a character arc.” That would have killed.
Other than that misstep, The Big Short is a very smart movie, which knows it’s smart, and ends up making you smart about stuff that people who’ve worked in the financial industry for years have always known about the business: supposedly-above-it-all rating agencies are just as venal (and capitalistic) as their clients (“If we don’t give it a good rating, they’ll go to Moody’s!”), people on the enforcement side are literally sleeping with people on the corporate side (especially when it comes to Goldman Sachs), and the sad-but-true fact that complicated financial instruments are complicated for a reason: so you’ll trust the fools who explain them to you enough to think you’re getting a steal when you buy them. But there’s always and only one steal going on here.
And the other wickedly fun thing about this movie? Because the underdogs (who are this movie's heroes) predicted the financial crisis of 2008, by rooting for them to win, you’re rooting for the crash to happen.
Now THAT’S Brechtian.
"I love Brecht. Now f#©k off."