Film review – Bachelorette (2012)

1 November 2012
Bachelorette: Katie Lawrence (Isla Fisher). Gena Myers (Lizzy Caplan) and Regan Crawford (Kirsten Dunst)

Katie Lawrence (Isla Fisher), Gena Myers (Lizzy Caplan) and Regan Crawford (Kirsten Dunst)

Psychoanalysis identifies the ‘return of the repressed’ as the process where past traumas previously buried in the unconscious, bubble up to the surface when appropriately triggered. The school reunion film often offers a light version of this experience, where characters who felt that they had moved beyond the dynamics of the schoolyard find themselves revisiting the petty rivalries, insults and cliques. In Bachelorette the trigger for the unwanted blast from the past is an old school-friend’s wedding where the characters must confront not only their old school mates, but the toxic foundations of their friendship. While following the format of recent pre-wedding disaster films such as Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) and The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009), Bachelorette is possibly better thought of as a darker and more painful spin on films such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997).

Written and directed by Leslye Headland, based on her play of the same name, Bachelorette is a tightly constructed ensemble piece. The three leads are the judgemental and self-important Regan (Kirsten Dunst), promiscuous and self-loathing Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and vacuous and shallow Katie (Isla Fisher). The film begins with a prologue set a few months earlier when the trio hear the news that their overweight and frequently picked on friend Becky (Rebel Wilson) is not only getting married, but getting married to the kind of man the rest of them would happily settle down with. While congratulating Becky through gritted teeth Regan is infuriated, Gena finds the whole thing a hassle and Katie is keen to use the occasion to take cocaine. They are essentially unlikeable characters and their resentment towards Becky and often towards each other would make it hard to believe that they were ever friends in the first place if Headland’s script didn’t bristle with so much authenticity.

Bachelorette works best when focused on the characters rather than the actual mishaps that happen to them during the night before Becky’s wedding. These characters would be insufferable if they weren’t so familiar and if the performances and Headland’s direction didn’t allow more complex layers of characters to gradually come through. Fortunately Dunst, Caplan and Fisher are excellent performers and handle the drama/dark comedy blend with ease. In her film début Headland shows considerable promise managing all the subplots while keeping the focus on the three protagonists, often literally by getting the camera very tightly framed around their faces, encouraging the audience to focus on what is being left unsaid.

The first half of the film is played mainly for laughs as the audience are introduced to Regan, Gena and Katie’s bad behaviour and the situation they create and then have only a few hours to sort out. While maintaining the almost farcical narrative structure the film sets up for itself, it is during the second half that the material really begins to shine. Themes such as bullying, suicide, unwanted pregnancies and eating disorders are hinted at through throwaway lines earlier in the film, but then fleshed out later. The material becomes increasingly uncomfortable since it mainly comes from sad and traumatic places. This is what gives the film its edge and while Regan, Gena and Katie aren’t miraculously redeemed and healed after one night of self-discovery, there is a sense of catharsis and self-realisation. Most importantly is that while the trio begin the film unsympathetic and being defined by their flaws, the film goes on to create a much more complex picture of who these three women are, although more so in the case of Regan and Gena as Katie is underdeveloped by comparison.

The integration of the three men from the groom’s party into the story provides a counter-balance to the women, with each man being more or less the masculine equivalent of one of the main trio. Regan’s domineering nature is mirrored by the chauvinistic Trevor (James Marsden) while Gena’s self destructive promiscuity is reflected in the behaviour of her ex-boyfriend Clyde (Adam Scott). Less successful is the pairing of Katie and loveable nice guy Joe (Kyle Bornheimer) since the dynamic is more paternal and lacks the power play and verbal sparring that we get from the other two pairs. While the male characters present a range of masculinities as a comparison to the range of femininities that the women provide, the male characters are the least interesting aspect of the film and Bachelorette would have been better if it only focused on the women.

It is unfortunate that Bachelorette has been released somewhat in the shadow of Bridesmaids and even though a direct comparison isn’t fair, it’s not unreasonable either considering the thematic and narrative similarities. However, with the exception of a scene where Clyde makes an embarrassing public speech (one of the film’s weaker moments) it contains a different type of humour to Bridesmaids. Both films effectively use comedy to comment on modern friendships, especially between women, and the phenomenon of being in your thirties and still overly defined by who you were as a teenager. While Bridesmaids was overall a more celebratory and hopeful film, Bachelorette presents something far bleaker. In this sense it doesn’t offer the same degree of instant gratification while watching it, but the prevailing sadness under the surface means that it unexpectedly lingers in the mind for far longer.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – On the Road (2012)

27 September 2012
On the Road: Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund)

Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style of writing is an energetic mix of impressions and observations, made visual in the film adaptation of his classic novel On the Road where Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) experiences adventure, drugs, sex, jazz and an intense friendship while travelling around America during a time of great cultural shifts and tensions. As with the novel the film is told from Paradise’s interior view of the world where his nonconformity was part revolutionary and part youthful self-indulgence. The film doesn’t depict the broader social and political issues of the era as Paradise was more focused on cultivating experiences and discovering America via a series of road trips with his best friend and muse Dean Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund and based on Kerouac’s fellow Beat Generation member Neal Cassady).

On the Road has long been declared ‘unfilmable’, which is only worth mentioning to illustrate how narrowly some people regard cinema. A film adaptation of On the Road that conforms to a classical Hollywood cause-and-effect narrative structure probably would never work, but fortunately not all films are made adhering to the Hollywood tradition. While the term ‘art house’ is mainly used today as a catchall marketing label for a wide range of films, it once meant films that genuinely aspired to something different to the dominant product coming out of the American studio system. For example, the various waves of European art-house cinema movements that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately went against Hollywood conventions to focus on things like character subjectivity and challenging established film style to express ideology, inspire active thought rather than passive viewing, and create impressions of places, people and ideas. In America there were various avant-garde and counter-culture movements doing similar experiments with narrative cinema. American filmmaker John Cassavetes’s early improvised and cinéma vérité style of cinema in the mid 1950s coincided with the publication of On the Road in 1957. These are the cinema movements that make On the Road extremely filmable, resulting in director Walter Salles and writer José Rivera’s absorbing adaptation.

The film style reflects the interior focus of the material and captures the essence of moments rather than facilitating a traditional narrative. Scenes at parties and in music clubs are tightly framed, often shot with a disorientating sweeping camera and frequently contain dialogue drowned out by the music. Such scenes have a seductive mix of energy and immediacy that expresses the Shock of the New as experienced by the Beat Generation’s lust for life and experimentation. As a contrast the scenes of the American natural and urban landscapes are warmly lit and soft focused to convey the romanticised vision of life on the road.

While On the Road is a series of impressionistic moments, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as aimless. The relationship between Paradise and Moriarty is a symbiotic one based on the desire both men have to replace their absent fathers. Paradise begins his travels after the death of his father while Moriarty is continually searching for his, based on scraps of information that he is living derelict on the streets somewhere. If the film ever does feel laborious it is during the final part of the film, which initially seems like one sequence too many. However, this is because for Paradise it is one adventure too many while for Moriarty the desire to pursue an impossible ideal and maintain the dream is too strong. The final stages of the film are some of the most powerful in how they portray the dark side to the young men’s adventures, which includes a level of excess that cannot be maintained and a destructively neglectful treatment of the women in their lives. There is also a scene where they go to hear music and cannot get into a club unless they hire coats, suggesting that the counterculture they once embraced as their own has now been absorbed into the mainstream, removing its potency and purpose.

While Riley and Hedlund are superb as Paradise and Moriarty, a real strength of the film is the performances by the supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen who channels William S Burroughs through the Old Bull Lee character beautifully, as well as Amy Adams who plays his wife Jane, based on Joan Vollmer. Kristen Stewart is sensational as Marylou (based on Luanne Henderson), the teenage girl Moriarty marries and then travels with. Stewart portrays Marylou as a wild, passionate, liberated and free willed person while also giving her a melancholic edge since she knows her adventures with Moriarty are finite. As Moriarty’s second wife Camille (based on Carolyn Cassady), Kirsten Dunst articulates the anger and disappointment of a woman who realises she is just a part of her husband’s grand adventure and not allowed to have her own. While the female characters are barely given a voice in the novel, the inclusion of extra details from the filmmakers (some of which came from Carolyn Cassady’s autobiography Off the Road) gives the film a welcomed extra dimension.

While other adaptations of seminal Beat works, such as Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010) and Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991) have incorporated biographical detail with the hallucinogenic imagery and experimental approach from the original texts, On the Road is a much more straightforward adaptation. The film even has the same pleasantly casual tone of the novel where the mind of the reader/viewer is allowed to drift to then come back and pick up on the next sensation on offer. While fidelity to source material is an unreasonable and unrealistic way to evaluate the value of a film adapted from a novel (see ‘The book is never better than the film’), it is remarkable when a film so faithfully captures the spirit of the original text. Salles has done exactly that with the film adaptation of On the Road, resulting in a cinematic treat for lovers of Beat literature and in particular Kerouac’s novel.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Marie Antoinette (2006)

19 December 2006

Marie Antoinette is a period film with an indi/teen film sensibility. Having already proven herself on The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation as a director with talent to burn, Sofia Coppola has possibly set herself her biggest challenge yet. Marie Antoinette tells the story of France’s controversial last queen not as a weighty historical drama about the French Revolution, but as the story of a teenage girl with strong modern sensibilities. Audiences expecting scenes of suffering peasants, enraged revolutionaries and climatic beheadings are going to be sorely disappointed.

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