Gone Girl, the hit classy movie du jour this month – was silly, overwrought, overdone and, in the end, laughable. That is – for me. Actually, let’s not sugarcoat it. Even in the film noir world it seeks to evoke and despite being under the hand of David Fincher, one of the best American directors working today, it presents two people so utterly “written” – and therefore so totally preposterous – that it’s difficult to take anything they do for an almost endless two and a half hours seriously. This includes their relationship, their marriage, their lies, their truths and certainly their acting. Oh, and also, not any murders they may or may not have been involved in. That’s right, you will find no spoilers here – that is with the exception of the movie itself.
No, I DID NOT READ THE BOOK! And stop asking me!!! I know you loved it and you think I would too, especially if I had picked the book up before the movie. (Note: Which yeah, I know, would have had the added benefit of me ALSO having liked the movie a lot more– at least you think that’s the case). (Note #2 – But it isn’t!). And finally, yes, of course I know this is a matter of opinion and I’m clearly in the minority. Do not feel the need to refer me to Rotten Tomatoes, where the film has received a 91% positive rating by audiences and an 89% thumbs up from movie critics across the country. A best picture Oscar didn’t get me to change my mind about the annoyingly retro sensibility of Forest Gump, the dulling Driving Miss Daisy or, dare I say it, the blood curdling, off tune caterwauling of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago. In fact, I still have to plug up my ears every time I hear one of my favorite show tunes, All That Jazz, anywhere to this day for fear it will somehow be her voice wafting into the room to haunt me once again as she begins to mangle each and every one of those lovely notes. (Note: Right, yes, I realize she won the Oscar for that one, too. Blah, blah, blah).
You might say, in these situations, I have chosen not to adapt and get with the program. Or perhaps – I was unable to. We all do this in some ways and in various situations thought not necessarily out of stubbornness. Sometimes it’s about mere conviction – a state of mind that is truly anything but “mere.” Though occasionally it is also about::
- an inability to change (not to be confused with stubbornness), or
- a process of reasoning that presupposes one knows best in pretty much most situations and that the rest of the world is full of your excrement of choice.
It’s unclear why certain situations cause a particular individual to be inadaptable and therefor unable or adamantly against modifying an option and/or action in a given situation. For example, I was truly surprised by the reaction of my students to Gone Girl (why do I keep confusing it with Affleck’s directorial debut – Gone Baby Gone – an infinitely better and, to my mind, terrific film in a similar though not totally analogous genre?) – that’s how sure I was in my analysis. But as it turns out, they loved it. Well, most of them. They found it to be engrossing, superbly acted and right on in its portrayal of a marriage gone bad. Painful as the latter is, I suppose it does give me yet another reason to keep my 27 year old perfectly happy non-married relationship intact despite all the outside pressure to make it legal now that we can. So at least there is that.
Still, what particularly intrigued me about their clearly misguided reaction to the film weren’t their actual opinions but their willingness to agree with me on all the points I raised about it and yet — not change their minds! Was I losing my touch? Or generationally, are they just not as stubborn and/or intractable as we were on every issue in the universe?
Well, I prefer to think it’s generational since I certainly would never pressure, out-argue or outwardly shame anyone into agreeing with me on any one point. At least, not consciously – well, okay, gleefully. Instead, they seem to me a more adaptable group and/or generation, which in the end might be a more admirable quality for the times they have been born into.
We baby boomers – though I’m on the tail end of it – expected so much and were not satisfied with NOT getting it. So we chose to innovate or push the envelope in other ways to get what we wanted. Or stamp our feet and whine when that didn’t work.
I don’t think this generation wants any less but it feels like they’ve come to expect less. It’s not that they won’t work hard it’s that they haven’t decided they’re entitled and have to have something. They have adapted themselves to expect less – be it from movies, the economy or the government – because less has been given. I’m not sure if they have the right idea but it might not necessarily be the wrong one if they keep working just has voraciously for what they desire. In the end, it might just only be yet another way to look at the world – a canny strategy given the state of things that we have left for them.
This principle is illustrated tenfold in Adaptation – a 2002 film dreamed up by one of the few truly original voices left in the screenwriting trade – Charlie Kaufman. This is a movie I’ve had students watch and read in classes almost since it came out in order to study Mr. Kaufman’s spare writing style and daringness on the page and it’s been almost universally adored by aspiring writers I’ve taught over the last decade. Sadly, this was not the case last week. There was something about the sheer oddness of the work that left this group cold. Not that that they didn’t admire the unmitigated gall of what he did. He got some points for that. They just didn’t believe it made sense under the rules of movies they had grown up watching.
As the inside story goes, the real Mr. Kaufman wanted to adapt a non-fiction book about flowers called The Orchid Thief, written by famed New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, into a major feature film following the out-of-nowhere success some years earlier of his original, post-modern, hilariously affecting meta-screenplay for Being John Malkovich. Stumped beyond reason and with a deadline looming, the real Mr. Kaufman had the desperate idea to write himself into the film as the main character struggling to adapt an inadaptable book and imagined its author, Ms. Orlean, as an unattainable, ice princess intellectual snob from the Big Apple who falls in love with the subject of her novel and becomes, well – lets just say you have to see the film in order to know that. In any event, the desperate fictional version of Mr. Kaufman, helped along by his doppelganger screenwriter brother Donald –a twin who only aspires to write big commercial movies – finally takes some action to discover the truth behind not only The Orchid Thief but the seemingly unattainable Ms. Orlean -and in the end discovers both the unsavory but thrilling truth about her life as well as his own.
The genius of the real Mr. Kaufman’s efforts here is that in his story adaptation (and thus the movie, Adaptation) became not compromise but innovation. It was only after hitting his head countless times against the proverbial writer wall that he found the most bizarre solution imaginable, taking a ridiculous stab at doing something outlandish that had just the slightest chance of emerging as – great. Forget about how one feels about the film itself – imagine yourself being paid a hefty amount of money by Columbia Pictures to adapt a book about flowers and handing in a screenplay where you are the main character and your subject takes a back seat to your neurosis in wrestling said subject? Not to mention co-authoring your WGA registered script with another person – your brother – who is also fictionalized in the film and, as it turns out, does not exist in real life. The best part of all this for me was when Mr. Kaufman’s screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award and at the Oscar competition ceremony, the fake name of Donald Kaufman, along with the real Charlie Kaufman, was read by actress Marcia Gay Harden from the stage of the Kodak Theatre to millions of viewers worldwide. Now that’s adaptation on all levels – and in the best, most insurgent way.
This is not the case with Gone, Girl – a not particularly innovative film that by most accounts is a very faithful adaptation of a best-selling novel that purports to tell the tale of modern day marriage by employing the filmic conventions of suspense and neo-noir while ultimately cloaking it all in a sort of 2014 media world of 24/7 meta reality. For those looking for a take on the latter, I would suggest a film done almost 20 years prior – Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995) – which has its flaws but at the very least took a fresh and much more unusual approach to the subject. Or better yet, a brilliantly funny cable movie, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter in an unforgettable, Emmy Award-winning performance. Yes, it’s a matter of taste. I know that. But to not call it as you see it when the whole world seems to be proclaiming it an entirely different way, would be to betray everything I believe in. After all, if nothing else I am still a baby boomer. On the tail end, that is.
For the record, one’s view of any movie or work of art is certainly nothing more or less than a matter of opinion. Clearly, there is no real right or wrong. But when one aspires to merely adapt rather than innovate – or more dangerously sees them as the same thing – we run the risk of losing the rarity of something truly fantastic. Standing on my crumbling soapbox of flower power I proclaim to the world that Gone Girl is not even close to being the latter. And note – this is nothing personal to the filmmakers. I’m sure one-on-one I would likely enjoy the company of the entire cast and crew, even if they would each prefer to take me to the woodshed – or simply tune me out. But I’m used to that. After all, I have been in a relationship for 27 years where the latter simply becomes an occasional fact of life – on both sides. And unlike what’s presented in Gone Girl it doesn’t mean marital destruction – it actually ensures relationship survival.
If you’re single or perhaps simply despise marriage metaphors, let me put it another way with a brief excerpt from one of the wisest films that I know – The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A heated exchange between transvestite/resident mad scientist, Dr. Frank –N –Furter and his surly, crazy-haired maid, Magenta, finally and inevitably concludes this way:
Magenta: I ask for nothing, Master.
Frank: And you shall receive it…..IN ABUNDANCE!!
Interestingly enough, those lines came from an adapted screenplay.
To be honest, I find David Fincher to be consistently the most over rated director of our time, possibly ever. For as good as he is with actors, I find the majority of his visual and editorial choices to be overly deliberate and on the nose. To me, he’s little more than a sleek music video director. That style worked well for a film like fight club, which was about sleek commercialism, or for social network, which was about how these kids view themselves as sleek and hip. But the more I see from Fincher, the more I think that the brilliance of those movies may be largely accidental, and that the irony of the directorial style may be unintentional.
I think Fincher is no different than a lot of directors – his talents fit some projects better than others. And he has hits and misses. No one belts it out of the park all the time. So I agree that just some subjects will work better for him. Maybe he wasn’t the right person for this or perhaps no one could really make it work. On the other hand, lots of people think it works. Or is it about being sold a bill of hype. We’ll probably never know.
I enjoyed GONE GIRL up to a point, because I was hoping this might be a clever exercise in domestic paranoia (of the sort novelist Harlan Coben trades in.) But the movie got progressively worse as the plot became more and more improbable. (SPOILER ALERT!) The author tries to defuse this improbability by having Ben Affleck’s lawyer say “you have the craziest marriage I ever heard of.” But that doesn’t fly. Hard to imagine such a cursory investigation of the murder of Neil Patrick Harris. And even harder to believe that Ben Affleck would willingly go on living with a woman that he knows is a manipulative psychopathic murderer. This woman is a danger to him. She almost sent him to death row. And he’s going to keep living with her? The excuse for this offered by the author is that she is pregnant with his baby. But this is the most artificial of justifications, and one that is false both to the Ben Affleck character (he didn’t really want kids with her) and reveals itself as a kind of fantasy of devoted fatherhood that is false to this character. I could go on, but why? It’s inflated cheese, and not the best kind.
It’s also impossibly difficult to buy them as a couple from the start. All the talk about – well, it’s supposed to be stilted (I don’t want to give anything away) is ultimately a justification for lazy screenwriting. Just like the line you quoted above. I think the issue is the mix of genres – black comedy, straightforward drama – don’t work. It becomes “Showgirls” and yet seems to aspire to “Scenes from a Marriage” or”Two for the Road.”
Oh GAWD! Your inspired commentary inspires me to go see the alleged adaptation of “Gone, Baby”! I doubt that was your intention. Hopefully I shall forget my mis-inspiration after I leave this desk. Thank you for your Catherine Zeta-Jones assessment. I can’t the misfortune of seeing (I can’t bear to remember hearing her) “A Little Night Music”. She was as vulnerable as hard candy and vocally as powerful as the body mic she was hooked up to. And as for “Chicago.” I’m with you, as are many I know. AN OSCAR? For THAT? Don’t they record their voices and HEAR them BEFORE they commit it to the soundtrack? Aren’t there people in the crew whose job it is to notice that stuff and at least TRY to fix it in the booth? They’ve been doing it for Madonna for decades. I love your illustrations. I confess I swipe some for FB. Your team does great work for you.
Oh, if I hadn’t seen the movie and read what I’d written I would be curious. Also, it’s the movie everyone is talking about. As for voices – sometimes people are tone deaf – to all sorts of things.
I will pass your compliments on to the team. And feel free to share to share the images and the blog however you see fit.
I am almost curious to read the book now, wondering if it is MORE effective as a book than the movie. The casting — as you mention — is a pretty unbelievable couple. What would this movie be like with Steve Buscemi and Toni Collette? Affleck and Pike are both too clean and nice — I don’t believe either is capable of any crime of any sort. If I wanted to get worked up there are many more things about this movie that are offensive. How ’bout this: if you kept everything intact but switched the gender on the couple? Would that work? Would Rosamund Pike stay with Ben Affleck after her husband cut some woman’s throat? What would the message is that? No matter what, the message seems to be: an abusive insane partner is a reasonable choice — especially if you are having kids.
I thought we had gotten past the point where staying with insane people for the sake of a child was a valid choice for oneself or the child. How silly of me.
Also, I absolutely agree with your major point that the modern generation has been trained to “expect less”. It’s something I constantly find myself screaming about all the time. I remember seeing Dark Knight Rises and having to convince everyone how much of an utter mess that screenplay is. But no, it’s the greatest movie EVER! Because….well because it actually looks like a movie, rather than like a brightly colored cartoon. That’s the bar now. And don’t even get me started on the apologists for the Hobbit movies, or for various television shows that go off the rails in later seasons. There seems to be this mentality that we should accept whatever we are given, and be grateful for it, rather than that we the consumers have the power to demand the best and only the best, and producers should be grateful to be in the position to give us a high quality product. Because that is the only way things will change, if consumers demand more and make their voices heard. People call me a pessimist, but I see it the other way. I’m the optimist in a sea of passive pessimism.