Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Over Under - Large
When thinking about which films I consider to be overrated, I keep coming back to two different categories. First there are the art films that get embraced by the movie geek community and praised to high heaven for their crafting, whether they really makes for an exceptional overall movie-going experience or not. And then there are the movies that get overrated by the mainstream. They’re mostly sentimental movies that tug on the heartstrings, with characters that hit low lows, but then achieve some new victory. Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump is definitely the latter. It’s a movie that seems designed solely to make parents and grandparents nod knowingly at historical incidents they remember and then tear up when a sad part rolls around; but they love it for it.
Being There was nominated for the Palme d’Or and even won Melvyn Douglas an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor back when it came out, but it’s a movie I never hear mentioned these days. As a matter of fact, other than the little bit of nostalgia that remains for Harold and Maude, I would say that Hal Ashby is a director whose career has been kind of forgotten by my generation of film fans. That’s a shame, because the man did some great work, and this film in particular has one of the last great performances by the legendary Peter Sellers.

What do they have in common?

At the surface level these movies have a lot in common when it comes to plot and their main characters. Both are about characters with mental disabilities who travel through life without understanding much of the world around them. And despite their diminished mental capacities, both characters have a certain home-spun wisdom that reminds us to keep things simple and appreciate the little things in life; though each film treats their character’s insights with differing degrees of respect. As the films progress, each character stumbles his way into pretty extraordinary circumstances that see them having big effects on the world, as well. They end up on TV, and presidents are met. Tonally there are some consistencies between these films as well; they’re farcical in nature and it takes a series of ridiculous coincidences for their plots to keep progressing.

Why is Forrest Gump overrated?

Most of my problems with Forrest Gump come down to the writing. It relies pretty heavily on framework narration, which is a lazy way to tell a story in the first place, but when you factor in that the narration we get feels overly crafted to be charming and insightful and takes no pains whatsoever to sound natural or to reflect the reality of what a character who is this slow’s voice would really sound like, it can get exhausting to listen to over time. The phony-sounding dialogue speaks to problems with the characters as well. Forrest feels like a creation, not a real man. The character of Jenny is much more a stand-in for the experience of coming of age in the 60s and 70s than she is a real person; even with all of the sexual abuse backstory she gets.
Conceptually the character of Gump just doesn’t work as well as he should either. Because he’s so oblivious to the importance of everything that’s going on around him, none of it really hits with any impact. Gump is a character who’s just as at home sitting in a Vietnamese jungle with bullets whizzing over his head as he is sitting on a lawn mower in Alabama. None of the supporting characters stick around long enough to give us a real, empathetic window into his life either. Hanks gets some opportunity to do some legitimate acting towards the end, once the kid shows up, but before that you’re sitting through a couple hours of basically just watching a guy do a funny voice. I’m not a smart man, but I know what character development is.
Another issue with the film that’s a symptom of the questionable writing is that it’s just too long. There are a bunch of flashback sequences that play like Family Guy cutaway gags that add nothing to the film and could be taken out. There’s all the footage of Gump interacting with famous people that generally lead to nothing but lame gags (especially the painful John Lennon bit). And what’s with the thread of assassinations that goes through the whole movie? It seemed like they were building up to Gump finally foiling an assassination or something, and then nothing.
I think all of my problems with Gump can be summed up by the running across the country sequence. It’s got some of the film’s worst gags (the “Have a Nice Day” and “Shit Happens” bits), it adds nothing essential to the main character, and in a movie that uses and abuses the popular song soundtrack, this sequence alone burns through about four overplayed songs with the word “run” in the lyrics all in succession. As a whole, Forrest Gump needs to focus less on stupid, winky humor and spend more time focusing on its character development so it can better earn some of its high drama.

Why is Being There underpraised?

Whereas I find the writing in Gump to be a little lacking, here it is meticulously handled and one of the film’s greatest strengths. Both films rely on a series of coincidences and misunderstandings to explain away why their characters get to do all of the things that they do, but while Gump has a sort of “just go with it” attitude in presenting these things, Being There actually makes them an asset. Various aspects of Sellers’ character’s routine get introduced organically, and seem to just be small character bits, but then they pay off in bigger, unexpected ways later. And while the supporting characters in Gump understand that they’re dealing with an idiot, the characters in Being There all mistake Sellers for being a genius. That’s a gag that seems like it would get really old after a while, but the writer, Jerzy Kosinski, always finds new things to do with it.
The humor here just works a lot better overall, and it gets pretty dark too. Sellers commits a few acts of oblivious racism that are downright hilarious. And several scenes where Shirley MacLaine tries to seduce him just get keep getting more and more uncomfortable and awkward until you want to scream. I didn’t know anybody was doing this sort of cringe-inducing humor back in the 70s outside of insult comics working in smokey clubs, and seeing it here had me on the floor. And while Being There does some of the same things that Gump does in putting the main character on TV and having him meet famous figures, it never gets winky and referential likeGump’s humor. Instead of relying on CG tricks to get Sellers next to a real president, they just hire the grandpa from Problem Child to play a fake president instead. Problem solved.
Back to that satire though. Most of Sellers’ interactions with other characters lead to some sort of commentary about our self-obsessed, sound bite culture; and it still feels relevant to the things we’re going through today, even though this movie came out decades ago. Being There is a thinker, and no place is that more apparent than in its final scene. The whole movie we think that we’re in on the joke being told, but in the end they sort of pull the rug out from under us. Maybe we didn’t know what was going on… maybe we weren’t supposed to be looking at everything we saw as satire. And what does it say about us as a culture that we were? Is that where the satire really comes in? Being There is a movie that sticks with you, where Forrest Gump is only able to manipulate you while you’re sitting there in the theater.

Evening the odds.

Pitting these two movies against each other can largely come down to pitting Tom Hanks and Peter Sellers against each other as actors. Whose approach do you prefer? And when it comes down to it, why would you want to choose? Both of these guys are great. Why not get a bunch of people you know together and watch these two in a double feature?

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