3.24.2008

***!!!DIRECTED BY SEAN PENN!!!***

With all due respect to those who enjoyed it, and to those (perhaps it's just the singular he) who "really really really liked it," allow me to opine: Into the Wild sort of sucked.

I'm speaking here, of course, of the movie. I really liked the book, and in fact have just re-read it in an attempt to reassure myself that I was right in remembering that it was engrossing, balanced, and well written. (It was, and is, despite Jon Krakauer's slight overuse of the word "morass," which I can forgive.)

So good was the book, in fact, that I had high hopes for the film. And I tried--really tried!--to like it, despite the fact that Dana channeled my thoughts when she said, less than two minutes in, "Oh, no. Terrible, terrible title sequence." I tried to overlook that weird, puffy-lettered abomination. I tried to comprehend--and then, failing that, to not actively hate--the illogical split screens used throughout the movie. I tried to make my peace with the dueling voice-overs. I tried to resist fidgeting during every scene that went on just a bit too long (which is to say pretty much every scene). I even tried not to cringe when Emile Hirsch looked directly into the camera time and again, despite the fact that he was meant to be utterly alone.

I tried and tried, but to no avail. Dana and I were a chorus as we watched: "Oh, no." "No, no, no." "Yes, Sean Penn, we see your directorial hand here." "What? Why???" "Not again. No."

Here's the thing: Krakauer's book is unabashedly personal. He makes direct connections between his own foolish wilderness exploits as a young man and Chris McCandless'. He equally points out McCandless' shortcomings and errors and defends the guy from those who excoriated him after his death. And he writes in a seamless combination of first and third person. You always know Krakauer is there, but he's almost never the book's center of attention.

All of this means that, by the end of the book, you're left slightly annoyed by the foolish things Chris McCandless did but nonetheless holding at least a few shards of empathy for him. And you ache for his family.

Not so for Sean Penn's McCandless. The movie is so overblown and showboaty and drawn out that, by the end, you (if you are me) just want the poor boy out of his misery, as much because he's hanging on to such a wretchedly awful existence as because you just want the damn movie to end. The rest of the McCandless family? You might feel a pang for Chris' beloved and abandoned sister, but his parents seem like such one-dimensional, materialistic beasts that Chris' willful disappearance from their lives seems almost understandable.

And did I mention the title sequence?

A good director writes his or her signature all over a film but never, ever points out that signature. It--and all of the techniques and stylistic twists and directorial decisions that go with it--is what gives the movie its flavor and feel, but all of that is lost as soon as the director calls attention to what he's doing. This is why I hate Jean-Luc Godard: to me, his films are a succession of "hey, look what I did!" "Hey, did you see that clever trick I just pulled?!" "Missed those last 16 jump cuts? Here's another!" Putting all of these stylistic flourishes in the forefront flattens the characters and steamrolls the story.

So it was with Into the Wild. There are characters there, and an interesting story. When Penn chills out enough to let those two elements come together quietly--as when Hal Holbrook's character bids Chris/Alex goodbye--you can catch a glimmer of what the movie might have been (and what the book is). But then along comes a slo-mo sequence followed by a split screen montage accompanied by some overly florid narration followed by hell knows what, and you forget what you're actually supposed to be focusing on.

I wish Penn had stepped back a bit and trusted that he could've relied on the cinematography and acting (which, despite a few wooden or mushy moments, was pretty good) and the essentials of McCandless' (and Krakauer's) story to carry the film. It would've been, I think, much richer and more touching than the Hollywood-heavy thing we got instead.

3 comments:

Erik R. said...

I guess I'm in the group of people that liked the film (with only one "really"). I'm curious...

A) Have you ever approved of a film adaptation of a book you've read beforehand? I can't say that I have.

B) Which other movies of 2007 did you like more? I thought that No Country For Old Men, Michael Clayton, and Atonement were all worse than Into the Wild.

Emily said...

Erik,

A.) I just saw Little Children, which had a lot to live up to, as the book ranks as one of my favorite novels in recent memory, and I thought it was worthy of the book. But then, Tom Perrotta co-wrote the screenplay, so it's probably not surprising that it hewed fairly closely to the book.

And it's probably harder to translate a work of non-fiction, especially one with an investigative journalism bent like Into the Wild, to the screen.

One movie I liked more than the book on which it was based was The Smartest Guys in the Room. The book is amazingly comprehensive and is fairly engrossing, but it's so detailed and involved that I had a much easier time comprehending the Cliff's Notes version that was the documentary.

B.) I liked both No Country... and Michael Clayton, but neither of them ranks tops on my favorites list. I can't read Cormac McCarthy--way, way too dark and depressing for me--so I didn't have a sense of whether the film was true to the novel.

lady d said...

i think ideally the director's signature should be all over the film... written in invisible ink. as opposed to, you know, silver and flourescent pink outliner pen (i'm looking at you, sean).