Sunday, December 7, 2014

Law of averages

I've talked before about how 2014 has been a very good year for movies. I think it's revealing itself more as a very good year than the great year I once thought it might be, but it's still a standout in terms of quality.

It's not only that the good movies are quite good, it's that the bad movies are also comparatively good.

I have still only seen one movie in 2014 that I out-and-out hated. I won't tell you what that is right now, because I'm saving some surprises for the revealing of my rankings a month from now. The other movies gathering around the bottom of my list have been either serious misfires or movies that weren't aimed at me in the first place. "Hate," though? No.

In fact, I've been starting to get a little desperate about not having five or so movies I truly hate at the bottom of my list this year. Those movies are almost as much fun to talk about as the five (or hopefully more) movies you out-and-out love.

That is, I was starting to get desperate -- until Jude Law helped out with the law of averages.

See, the key is not to make the task easier for yourself by watching movies you know will be bad, just to flesh out the bottom of the list. The key is to watch movies you think you'll like, and end up hating them. In most years, that hasn't been a problem, but that's why 2014 has been a good year -- the movies I thought I'd like have mostly lived up to my expectations.

However, the law of averages dictated that Dom Hemingway would come along, and eventually, it did.

Dom Hemingway was firmly ensconced in the "movies I should like" category. It's written and directed by Richard Shepard, whose The Matador is a hidden gem I consistently recommend to fellow film fans (and has a great poster, as discussed here). And though I don't love Jude Law, I have definitely settled into a late-career respect for what he might bring to the table.

But my oh my, did I not like this movie. Yeah, "hate" is a good word for it.

Dom Hemingway begins about as inauspiciously as a movie can begin. The opening shot is of a naked Law from the waist up, his lower body clearly gyrating in the throes of some passion. Both hands grip the piping that's running at shoulder height, to brace himself against the unpredictability of said passion. The setting seems clearly to be a prison cell, and the activity seems clearly to be that he is being fellated by a fellow inmate. This would be okay in and of itself, but the title character is also giving a long, self-indulgent oration about the legendary qualities of his own penis. The word "cock" is used about 30 times in a three-minute speech.

Before this unendurable speech was even over, I turned to my wife and said "Okay, what else do you want to watch?"

See, even though I was looking to add a bad movie to my own 2014 list, I did not have the same agenda for my wife. We've watched enough middling to poor movies recently that she has started to despair about whether it's even worth spending her time on movies. As my own movie-watching strategy relies on having her as a partner at least a third of the time, it's in my interest not to expose my wife to movies like Dom Hemingway. Especially on days that have been challenging in other respects (a flat tire on the car we're borrowing from her dad being one of them).

I gave her two more opportunities to bail in the first ten minutes. When the movie had made no positive strides forward by the 23-minute mark, we did indeed bail in order to watch the first episode of the Fargo TV show.

Masochist that I am, I finished Dom Hemingway after she went to bed.

As the movie may have gotten marginally better after those 23 minutes -- and as I live by a code of not spoiling even bad movies for my readers -- allow me to tell you about the other objectionable things Dom Hemingway does in those first 23 minutes:

1) He beats an auto mechanic within an inch of his life for having slept with his ex-wife while he was in prison. Not his wife, mind you. His ex-wife.

2) He guzzles from any bottle of booze within arm's reach.

3) He screams out "I am Dom Hemingway!" on at least two occasions. I believe one of them was actually "I am Dom Fucking Hemingway!"

4) He delivers a ferocious rant about getting his just desserts for having stayed quiet during a 12-year prison sentence, the target of his rage being a man described as "the most dangerous gangster in Europe." He delivers this rant to this man's face.

5) He freely dabbles in the C-word and says things like "My face looks like an abortion."

I guess there must be some kind of audience that sits back and chortles at the reprehensible behavior of this character, but if so, my wife and I are not acquainted with them.

My wife is very good at cutting to the essence of the problem: "And why are we supposed to care about this man?"

The problem is not that he is off-putting on some surface level that is unpleasant to watch. It's that there seems no possibility of redeeming him, even when the movie inevitably does go down that path. What we've seen of him in this disagreeable introduction is enough to permanently sour us to him. My wife is great on structure (better even than Charlie Kaufman's mom, ha ha), and she recognizes what I sometimes don't: You need to start liking a character, or at least some aspect of that character, within moments of meeting him or her. If there's a redemption on the horizon, the seeds of it need to be in place from the start, even if you may not be able to pinpoint them at the time.

When a character starts a movie by delivering a three-minute soliloquy about the epic qualities of his member, he's got a lot of ground to make up.

The problem with most bad movies, which temporarily convinces you they might not be bad, is that they do succeed in redeeming the character. Most movies are afraid to make a character too unlikable, so they play it really safe on the redemption part and make it absolutely clear that this is someone to root for. Tammy is a good recent example of this. Melissa McCarthy doesn't only start that movie as a basketcase, but as an actual gross human being. When it comes time for her inevitable rebirth as a swan, they swing the character 180 degrees, so it's like the original character never even existed. And though I can recognize that as a false and pernicious device, I'll be damned if my takeaway wasn't that the second half of Tammy had a fair amount of heart.

Dom Hemingway made it much easier on me. Although there's a moment near the climax when the character strips away all his bluster for a scene of genuine emotion and regret, the movie finishes with a tone-deaf episode that reinforces all his worst traits. While that does represent a certain kind of courage on the filmmakers' part, an unwillingness to conform to conventional Hollywood morality, it also reminds me why I hated this character at precisely the point when that should stop being one of the film's goals.

But as I said, I'm thankful to Dom Hemingway. In the strong year of 2014, I really needed a character -- and a movie -- to just purely and unambiguously hate.

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