[Editor’s Note: This was supposed to be written months ago but I’m just now getting around to it. That’s why it’s not Sunday when it’s being posted. Whatevs.]
Hollywood seems to have this love/hate relationship with films based on true events. On one hand, they love making them. Reality provides us with stories that writers couldn’t make up in their wildest dreams and audiences automatically get a movie they can invest in because it really happened. They’re basically witnessing history.
On the other hand, reality doesn’t always fit the traditional three act structure most movies adhere to. The heroes may not be heroic enough nor the villains villainous enough, or it might be missing some critical action beats and suspense. And so in the process of making a “better” picture, details get smudged and the truth gets bent.
I try to accept those taken liberties, just as long as the story itself isn’t whitewashed beyond comprehension. Little did I know this philosophy was going to be pushed to its limit this week.
American Hustle follows a pair of mid-level con artists who end up working for an ambitious FBI agent in an effort to save their own skins. As they work to expose corrupt politicians and mob connections, they all begin to find they’re in way over their heads.
Saving Mr. Banks chronicles the struggle of screenwriters, musicians, and Walt Disney himself to acquire the rights to the Mary Poppins film from the story’s eccentric owner. Enduring her nagging and nitpicking, they discover what the character means to her and how deeply personal it is.
Director David O. Russell and notable A-hole puts his tongue firmly in his cheek when he opens the film with the title card “Some of this actually happened.” It’s a fun riff on the genre of pseudo-history that elicited laughter from most of the audience including myself. Too bad that’s about as clever as the movie gets.
The movie’s title and synopsis make a lot of promises. Crime. Passion. Politics. All of which it delivers in… whatever the opposite of spades is. Hearts maybe. Granted as an Oscar-contender, I was expecting less action and more close-ups of actors contorting their faces into funny shapes, which it did. But I was hoping for more than like two plot twists and at least one I didn’t see coming. It did deliver on the actors though.
Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner — this movie is brimming with people who are really damn good at pretending to be other people. Problem is, it’s hard to tell who exactly it is they’re pretending to be. They take turns being intense and hamming it up and getting emotional for the camera, but at no point in the movie do I care about what happens to any of them. The sole exception is Renner’s Carmine Polito, Mayor of Camden, New Jersey who seems like a genuinely good man just trying to serve the best interests of the people he’s pledged to serve. It makes you sick knowing how the system screwed him over until you realize it didn’t. Carmine Polito doesn’t exist, nor does his wonderful wife and lovely children.
About halfway through its considerable running time, I started having serious issues about whether I should be laughing or not. When Bradley Cooper is getting too aggressive with Amy Adams (I don’t remember their character names) should I be worried for her or amused at her predicament? When Robert DeNiro shows up and almost exposes the scam should I be relieved when they get away with it or upset that Polito is still on the chopping block? Normally I don’t have a problem with films that mix drama and comedy, but it becomes a problem when I can’t tell the difference between the two.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad movie. It’s just the Hollywood equivalent of… well a Hollywood bimbo: all looks, no brain. At least the film is true to its name, having hustled me out of my American dollars, but they could’ve saved themselves a lot of time by making a 3 hour title card that reads “Some stuff happens”.
The Disney Effect
I was skeptical going into Saving Mr. Banks. Movies based on the making of movies is like cinematic masturbation, and with Disney making the movie based on the making of one of their own movies, it seemed a lot like getting off to yourself getting yourself off. Put John Lee Hancock [Editor’s Note: this pun worked out beautifully] in the director’s chair and you run the risk of it becoming an overly sappy affair like his previous efforts. But I’m a huge Mary Poppins fan and a whore for nostalgia, so I went for it. And I was not disappointed.
On the contrary, like Mary’s famous bottomless bag, the movie kept rolling out the surprises. You wouldn’t know it from the way it was marketed, but half of the movie is set in the past. Well, the further back past. P.L. Travers’ past to be precise. It’s a period piece within a period piece and so the linguistic gymnastics continue. It also packs considerable star power beyond leads Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson; Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, and BJ Novak all play fairly important roles without getting too flashy and distracting from the main story. Speaking of which, the main story was not at all what I expected.
Yes it was definitely about the making of Mary Poppins, but that wasn’t the focus. The meat of the movie is Travers being hilariously put-off by the Disney-fication of her book. From the infusion of political activism to the animated penguins, she scoffs at every glossed-over detail and captures it all on audio tape. Walt and the writers have to talk her through every change to win her over and even then she fights them tooth and nail. The scenes set in the other past weave a different tale entirely. Her childhood isn’t an easy one and her father is painted as a tragic figure too caught up in his dreams for his or his family’s good. The flashbacks are intermingled throughout, presumably to prevent Travers from coming off as a complete bitch.
My Poppins fandom didn’t go completely unrewarded though; they perform many of the most popular songs with the benefit of new context while impressively retaining the music’s significance to the story, and there are clever nods to creative choices that may or may not have worked out. When Mary’s real life inspiration finally makes her appearance, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling like an idiot. In all, it shows a remarkable level of self-awareness for a Disney film. On paper, the climactic scene of Travers watching Mary Poppins sounds awful, but in practice it’s heavy, man.
Afterwards, Walt is terrified that Travers is going to trash the movie but she surprises him by giving her approval. I felt the same way, thinking I was in for a schlock-fest full of merchandising opportunities and shameless self-promotion and instead leaving with a full heart and an insatiable desire to watch Mary Poppins again. Which I did, and my God this Julie Andrews. No wonder I love musicals.
A Spoonful of Sugar
And so it worked out that I watched two ‘Based on true events’ movies back to back, which became my focus for this week’s post. They both challenged the very genre they belong to, albeit in radically different ways. Saving Mr. Banks took the subject head on and built a story on its ideas while American Hustle said to hell with it and threw everything out the window.
After the fact, I found out that the Carmine Polito character is based on Angelo Errichetti — the actual former Mayor of the actual Camden, New Jersey — who died in May 2013, a mere seven months before the movie’s release. In spite of his indiscretions, the flags in Camden were flown at half mast in his honor. The movie does no such thing. And why should it? Technically he wasn’t in it, but given that the project wouldn’t exist without him, you’d the think someone on the film could at least tip their hat to the man who helped it earn millions of dollars and dozens of awards. I guess it’s a measure of poetic justice that Errichetti was hustled a second time by the same story.
Meanwhile the Disney gang went out of their way to prove their picture’s roots; remember how I mentioned Travers capturing her indignation on tape? They play the actual thing as the end credits scroll, affirming that all those feels you just felt weren’t for nothing. The audio doesn’t match the dialogue of the scene it inspired, of course. It doesn’t really even come close. But it still serves as proof that the whole thing actually happened and a nice wink to the late P.L. Travers.
Adapting true events to feature films will never be an easy feat. Between the subject, the studios, and the audience, it’s nearly impossible to find a story that will satisfy all three while adhering to every minute detail. But that’s the key difference between a documentary and a movie: one presents you with facts, the other tries to entertain. The best we can hope for is that these films serve the truth.
Unfortunately for American Hustle, no one on or off camera seems to know what its truth is. [Editor’s Note: underscored by going 0 for 10 on Oscars] It got so caught up in making a statement that it forgot to make a movie. Thankfully we have Saving Mr. Banks emphasizing that the best stories will tell themselves, even if they need a spoonful of sugar to be practically perfect in every way.