February 19, 2008

Atonement is this year's Crash

A couple of years ago on this site I deemed Crash "one of the worst films I've seen in recent memory." Shortly thereafter, the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Affronted, I quoted an overwhelmingly negative review by LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas to back up my claim.

This year, after watching Atonement and harboring similar feelings about the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning period piece, I returned to the Internets in hopes of finding a review I could again quote, but a cursory review of Rotten Tomatoes produced no such satisfactorily negative text. Two quick pulls, however: The New York Times' A.O. Scott called it "an almost classical example of how pointless, how diminishing, the transmutation of literature into film can be," and The New Yorker's Anthony Lane, in an assessment surprisingly free of vitriol, allowed that he "hardly believed a word of it." However, Atonement currently has scores of 82 and 85 at Rotten Tomatoes and metacritic, respectively (which metacritic categorizes as "Universal Acclaim"). These are even higher marks than Crash's; Atonement also took home the Best Drama Golden Globe, which has been a decent predictor of Oscar-winners. This scares me.

That said, I'm no critic, and I've no desire to become one--on some level I think film critic and filmmaker are mutually exclusive occupations--so it's unlikely that I'll elucidate my feelings about the film as well as a bona fide professional would. Nevertheless, my problems with Atonement stem from its cart-before-the-horse writing; sure, it has drama, beauty, twists, reveals, and all the things they teach you in screenwriting class, but none of the events feel justified by truth. The characters aren't driving the story; the narrative is instead driven by the writer(s) wanting to get to a certain point, and coming up with totally implausible ways to get there. I say "writer(s)" because these complaints may be uniquely directed at screenwriter Christopher Hampton's adaptation--or they may be equally valid criticisms of Ian McEwan's source text. Not having read the book, and now harboring no desire to do so, I can't say. But without getting into any spoilers, let me ask: have you ever written multiple version of a letter--say one was handwritten and one typed, so by appearance they are quite differentiated, even at a glance--and then proceeded to sign, fold, seal, and send the wrong one, with the right one sitting on your desk face-up (right next to your Cambridge scholarship)? What if one of the letters was a filthy joke you'd written for your eyes only (implausibly), and the other one was an apology you were sending to your true love--via the hand of a nosy 12 year-old girl? Perhaps not the time to haphazardly stuff an envelope with (apparently) your eyes closed. Well, that's just what a certain character in Atonement does, setting off many of the tragic events to follow. If there’s anything to atone for in the film, it’s apparently Being A Dumbass.

This, along with several other occurrences in the film's first act, left me with an overwhelming desire to walk out of the theater; instead, I subjected myself to the remainder, in order to write home that Atonement is nothing to write home about. Indeed, the film is a shoddily-constructed soap opera--finely crafted at times, but less believable than an episode of "As the World Turns" (or whichever daytime soap is the least plausible). If Atonement was a construction project, and director Joe Wright was the foreman on the effort, then he should be evaluated as having done a proficient job with the interior decoration, weatherproofing, HVAC, and plumbing; however, he built the whole house on a faulty foundation, made not of concrete but rather of shit.

If it wins the Oscar I'll tell you how I really feel.

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1 Comment

Well written comments, interesting perspective. I loved the film, but I don't disagree with you. I just seemed more willing to suspend disbelief I suppose, and because i was so enjoying the *craft* of the film, the typewriter soundtrack, the editing, the shots, the directing decisions, I forgave all story faults. This leads me to believe that its not just the story, but also the craft: acting, lighting, editing, etc. that creates an emotional reaction to a film. My emotional ride in this case seemed more fueled by marveling at these things than being presented with a leak-proof story. But, i admit that when highly recommending this film to others I always did so with the disclaimer, "Well, the story is not all that great, but the way they crafted the film and the ride it takes you on is phenomenal."

Also interestingly, Crash was easily my favorite film of 2004, and I'd say is currently in my top 5 favorites. But, I also agree with you about the story there. I just didn't believe that, for instance, a shop owner would straight out ignore a recommendation by a locksmith regarding the safety of his store. Much of the story felt very contrived. This again leads me to the effect the craft of the film must have had on me to get me to ignore a presumptuous and forced storyline. The dialogue, the performances, the soundtrack, the editing, the weaving of the different characters together. In my opinion, this was all top notch. Maybe this is my film study eye adding meaning where there is none, but I think more likely all these things create conscious and subconscious effects on the viewer. In a movie where the level of craft is high, we enjoy the ride more and so maybe can forgive or suspend disbelief of minor story blemishes. I'll watch and enjoy anything Johnny Depp is in, even if the movie is trash.

Speaking of contrived, what about that TV show "Lost"? People are NUTS over it. Clearly the only point of every episode of that show is to get to you watch the next episode or weather the commercial break. This seems pointless and stupid.

This is all very similar to why I recommend people check out "The West Side." Not because I think the story is this watertight masterpiece--with only two episodes out, its impossible to really comment on the story. But that's not what is attractive about it. It's the look, the feel, the soundtrack, the premise--all awesome. i think people can enjoy even just one episode on its own, without really knowing what is going on. Because the world created is so interesting and the style is so strong.

There's my $0.02. I don't think I've ever responded to a Blog post before. You must have struck a chord.

February 20, 2008 at 9:40AM, Edited September 4, 10:17AM