Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Republicans at sea

The latest remake of The Poseidon Adventure is this year's Poseidon. The original is perhaps the best disaster movie of all time, a dubious distinction to be sure, but I've always been fond of the grand silliness of the genre. But Hollywood has a habit of taking a middling film and remaking it in an even worse way (e.g. The Fog), so I'm not sure what I was thinking when I went to see this.

This one was directed by Wolfgang Petersen, who for some reason I keep confusing with Paul "It's a satire because I say so" Verhoeven, the great auteur behind Showgirls and Starship Troopers. Peterson actually directed the submarine film Das Boot, which I hear is a classic, and crap like Air Force One and In the Line of Fire. This film, however, is not a classic, and movie critics have already dubbed it "Das Bomb", a line which I think is stupid only because I'm jealous I didn't think of it first. How about In the Line of Water? Air Force Wave?

However, in the tradition of Verhoeven’s critical defenders, I will now recast Poseidon as a trenchant satire of modern society. Or a triumphant celebration of modern society. Like Starship Troopers, no one knows for sure.

Spoilers ahoy!

In the original film, Gene Hackman plays Frank Scott, a priest engaged in some sort of Nietzschian tussle with God. Scott is earnest, messianic, fiery, flamboyant, and one of the oddest and most challenging characters ever to appear in genre entertainment. To me, more than Popeye Doyle or anyone else, this is Hackman's most interesting character and he seems to encapsulate everything that was so gloriously oddball about the 1970s. Rev . Scott must play personal Jesus to a little flock including Roddy McDowall, Shelly Winters, and Ernest Borgnine and try to lead them to dry salvation.

In this year's film, a smaller group of superrich WASPs apparently cast by the Heritage Foundation makes their way through the ship. They are led by a Republican Action Hero, a former firefighter turned mayor of New York City (you know which mayor we’re talking about here, and it's not the black one or the Jewish one) played by Kurt Russell, accompanied by his daughter (Emmy Rossum) and her incredibly bland fiancée (Mike Vogel). Though his daughter plays at being rebellious, they are good little Republicans and are waiting until they get married. Seriously. Now if I was on a cruise ship on New Year's Eve engaged to Emmy Rossum, a lot more would be unbuttoned than that one little button on her dress that Kurt Russell complains about.

Top billing goes to the almost as bland Josh Lucas, who plays a former US Navy diver turned professional poker player. (He lives by his wits, see?) With the best straight face he can muster, he actually utters the line "I work better alone." Along for the ride is an architect played by Richard Dreyfuss. Okay, so he's gay, but he’s probably a Log Cabin Republican. Also along are, according to the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, a hot, rich single mother (Jacinda Barrett) and her kid (some child actor).

The most disturbing aspect of the original was not the carnage, relatively subdued in the original, but cranked up substantially by Petersen. It was Rev. Scott's heartbreaking attempts to get other passengers to accompany them in their journey to safety. Jeered in the ballroom after they climb a Christmas tree (not exactly a subtle symbol but it's a fantastic visual) and ignored as a group of survivors shuffle past them in the bowels of the ship, you can see the anguish in Scott's face and hear it in his voice as he pleads with them to come with him.

But in the new movie, these products of Reaganomics don't even try to get anyone to come with them. In fact, their actions escaping, namely filling the ballast tanks, actually hastens the (admittedly inevitable) demise of the passengers they left behind! They shed the occasional tear over a person here or there, but more characteristic is their cheerful running through a hallway full of dead ship employees – literally working stiffs. The only actual working class people and the only non-WASPs who accompany them are quickly killed off: an illegal immigrant stowaway (Mía Maestro) and a waiter (Freddy Rodriguez) who is literally purchased by Republican Action Hero to guide them through the galley is soon kicked to his death when he outlives his usefulness, with little expression of regret afterwards.

Of course, a brave sacrifice must be made (i.e., than of an important, non-expendable cast member), and Republican Action Hero is up to the task. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is not. What should have been the emotional climax of the film looks like a drama class performing Scenes from Armageddon. Liv Tyler and Ben Affleck may not be great actors, but Rossum and Vogel remind you how good Tyler and Affleck actually are. The only way to salvage this seen is if you could see Kurt Russell rolling his eyes in the background before he dives into the water.

There's little pleasant to be said about the rest of the film, either. Stacy Ferguson of the Black Eyed Peas does her best Charo impression. (Someone should have told her that this wasn’t a remake of The Love Boat, though I wish that ship had sunk too.) Say what you want about "The Morning After", it sure beats whatever that song was Fergie sung in this film, and it can be used to get rid of a pesky succubus if you sing it backwards. The always underutilized Andre Braugher plays the ship’s captain, but he should probably turn the gravitas down just a little. (The reviewer from the New York Post wrote he "seems to think he's doing Lear".)

And Kevin Dillon plays Lucky Larry, a walking Freshman English lesson in irony. He is so astonishingly obnoxious and ridiculous, with his mustache and ruffled tuxedo shirt (This just in: it's 2006) and drunken ranting and swigging of the flask, that you think there must be something else going on here. When he helps save Bland Fiancée, accompanied by plenty of self-congratulatory ranting, you think there might be more dimension to this character, but there isn't. And when he dies in an obvious and cheaply satisfying sort of way, you realize there isn't any more dimension to this movie either.

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