Hollywood, you’ve got to give me a reason to keep watching

Over the weekend at my house, we started to watch two films nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards in the past year.

After 10 minutes or so each, we quit watching them. I have no desire to resume. Neither film gave me the slightest promise that there would be anything worth seeing if I would only waste more time on them.

First, we tried “American Hustle.”

It opens with a bloated Christian Bale going through a personal grooming ritual that is so odd that it takes a moment to realize what he is doing. And what he is doing is laboriously pasting a hunk of black hair to the top of his pate as filler, and then elaborately pasting a combover on top of that, at gravity-defying angles.

Then there is a scene with Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner. Bradley Cooper has a ridiculous permanent, and is dressed in clothes meant to give the spectacularly ugly duds on Bale a run for their money. In case you may be trying to ignore the clothes and the hair, Amy Adams points out how much Cooper is dressed like Bale. Or someone does. I’m not going to watch again to check.

Then enters Renner with a pompadour that would have embarrassed Elvis in the depths of his Vegas decadence. My wife points out, “Who wore a pompadour in 1978?” No one, I replied.

Then ensues a confusing argument in which every other word starts with F. Then, the film turns to flashback, showing us how Bale and Ms. Adams got together. You didn’t want to know, and as they tell you, you want to know less. There is nothing appealing about these people. Even Ms. Adam’s celebrated, exaggerated décolletage is off-putting after a couple of moments.

The film depicts these people as so ugly, so sad, so tawdry, so flawed, so tacky, so off-putting that every moment of watching them is painful. Oh, and I was an adult during this era. Yeah, the fashions were tacky. But this film wallows in ugliness to a point far, far beyond invoking an era. Our clothes were sometimes ridiculous, but beneath them we were still real people, people as fully, appealingly human as anyone today, or at any other time in human history. We were not the sum of off-putting fashions. As it seems everyone in this film is.

My wife was first to say she had seen enough. So I popped it out and tried “Nebraska.”

The very first gritty, windy, black-and-white image of a pathetic old man walking down a highway was decidedly unappealing, but I said, look — I expected this to be kind of a downer. But I’m hoping it’s leavened with some stuff that makes it rewarding to watch.

It wasn’t. Everyone in it, every single situation depicted, was completely depressing. No one had a reason to embrace or even, seemingly, to endure life. Even the usually delightful Bob Odenkirk was a complete bummer.

As with “Hustle,” the film seemed to be daring me to keep watching — slapping me in the face and saying, “Can you take it? Huh? Can you? Here’s some more! Slap!”

And I have no reason to take that.

I feel the alienation, but I will keep watching -- and be rewarded for it.

I feel the alienation, but I will keep watching — and be rewarded for it.

For some reason, irrelevantly, I started thinking about “The Graduate.” Remember the beginning? A depressed, almost catatonic Benjamin sitting on the plane, then riding the moving sidewalk in the terminal on his way to pick up his baggage, with “Sounds of Silence” playing? It was hip. It was arty. It was ironic. It was all about alienation. You were meant to sense Benjamin’s disconnection from his dispiriting surroundings.

But… you wanted to keep watching! There you were, stuck in the theater — you’d bought your ticket. Mike Nichols could have assumed that he had you for the whole 105 minutes. But he didn’t abuse that. He made you want to keep watching, and see what happened to Benjamin. Maybe it was just the Simon and Garfunkel — but you wanted to keep watching. And you were richly rewarded for doing so.

But the directors of these two films I gave up on over the weekend aren’t going to stoop to seek my approval, or even my submissive cooperation. Even though I’m sitting there in my TV room with four remotes at hand, with cable and Netflix streaming and iTunes and Amazon and all sorts of alternatives at my complete command, not to mention my not inconsiderable DVD collection — they just keep slapping me, poking me in the eye, trying to make me go away.

Well, they succeeded.

25 thoughts on “Hollywood, you’ve got to give me a reason to keep watching

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    You know, if you were hearing the pitch for “American Hustle,” you might, just might — if you didn’t read the script or anything — think, “This could be another ‘Argo.'”

    After all, we have something ripped from the headlines of the late 70s.

    But while “Argo” had the clothes and the hair and the evocations of an era, it also had human characters worth knowing. More than that, it had courage and nobility, people risking their lives for the sake of other human beings. You had a reason to care about these people.

    Not so with “Hustle.” Not for a moment.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Let’s compare “Hustle” to another period piece, one that is a masterpiece of its genre… “Goodfellas.”

    Lots of basking in the fashions, many of them quite tacky, of the era. Some pretty tacky people, too — think of the wives of the other guys in the crew.

    “Hustle” tries to establish why these two desperate, misfit people — the Bale and Adams characters — are drawn to each other. But you just don’t want to know.

    By contrast, the back story of the Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco characters is entirely engaging. Yeah, it might be weird for her to be turned on when this guy gives her a bloody gun to hide after he’s just viciously pistol-whipped her neighbor before her eyes (one of the most convincing, and shocking, scenes of violence in the history of film), but it WORKS!

    And when she comes after him, furious that he stood her up, and dresses him down in front of his friends on the street, you see completely how he is drawn to her. You understand the attraction. It absolutely works.

    Nothing in the part of this film I watched even begins to work like that, even for a second…

    1. bud

      Goodfellas was simply awful. The only reason I sat through that gratuitously violent piece of crap is that I made a personal pledge to watch all 100 movies on the AFI best movies of the first 100 years of cinema. I won’t ever make that kind of pledge again. I rated it as the very worst of the 100.

      Nebraska was a masterpiece. The characters were charming, endearing. The writing crisp and concise. It had a dark humor resonance about it that was simply terrific.

      But so as not to come across as completely contrarian I did very much enjoy The Graduate.

      1. Silence

        I couldn’t even make it through Nebraska while I was bored, on an airplane. I tried. Something about the Will Forte character’s loserliness just rubbed me the wrong way. He was like a character from Napoleon Dynamite, but without any charm.

  3. Kathryn Braun Fenner

    I really liked American Hustle. You might have given it more than ten minutes.
    It’s a comic film, not supposed to be uplifting

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t NEED it to be uplifting! “Goodfellas” wasn’t uplifting. Neither was “The Graduate.” But both were, from start to finish, something this was not — ENGAGING. The filmmakers gave me something to keep me watching. They were engaging on a comic level, as well as on others.

      And I’m not asking for engaging on any grand scale. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a little film made the same time as these that had no great pretensions: “The Way Way Back.”

      This had tremendous potential to be a downer, with Steve Carell’s horrible character, the sad character played by Toni Collette, or the young protagonist whose circumstances are in no way enviable.

      But the moment Sam Rockwell’s character pulls up behind the station wagon and gives the young protagonist a wink, sitting there in the way way back, you know it’s going to be OK. Between him and the delightful next-door lush played by Allison Janney, you know that life in this fictional universe is going to be bearable. It’s not all about the depressing people.

      Bottom line, it gives you reasons to keep watching, to invest this small portion of your life…

  4. Doug Ross

    Here’s a link to photos of the real characters portrayed in American Hustle.


    I wasn’t thrilled with American Hustle and avoided Nebraska because I don’t like Bruce Dern.

    I didn’t like any of the Best Picture nominees this year. Wolf Of Wall Street was another sign that Scorsese lost his mojo at least 15 years ago.

    You want a good story, good acting? Try Warrior with Tom Hardy, Joel Etherton, and Nick Nolte. It’s a better fight movie than Rocky.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The people in those pictures look a lot more normal, more real (since they ARE real) than the people in the film. The people in the film look like the sloppiest work from SNL makeup artists…

  5. Bryan Caskey

    I saw “Nebraska” at the Nick awhile ago. Didn’t really want to go, but it was my wife’s choice, so I dutifully went.

    I also wasn’t impressed early on, but you have to give it time. It’s a great Father/son movie. Give it another chance. I’ll be surprised if you watch the whole thing and don’t like it.

    “American Hustle” was not good. I agree with you on that one.

  6. Dave Crockett

    Last two times we tried to watch ‘acclaimed’ movies, my wife and I both gave up on them. “Ironweed” back in the late ’80s was awful from the opening scenes with Merle Streep and Jack Nicholson and we both dozed through most of the flick. And “Sideways” was so bad that even our hosts for the evening suggested we find something on pay-per-view rather than sitting through the rest.

    Since then, DVR…occasional Freeview weekends on premium uVerse channels, Redbox…and Netflix are our friends…

    1. Doug Ross

      Interesting… Sideways is in my top 5 all time. I’ve watched it a half dozen times – including once with the actors’ commentary track which is pretty funny.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        I liked <pSideways but I don’t have room for it in my all-time top five. Maybe top 150 or something. Now that I think about it, it’s not even my favorite movie involving wine.

        I thought Bottle Shock was much better, and it even hits that 70’s feel Brad was talking about earlier. Top it off with Alan Rickman playing a snobby French wine guy? Great movie.

          1. Bryan Caskey

            Speaking of movies, has anyone else seen the trailer for “The Drop”? Anyone know anything about this one?


            I just saw this trailer over the weekend, and that was the first I’d even heard of this movie. I certainly did not know that Gandolfini had already made this before he died. This would be a “Go See In Theater Movie” for me if I didn’t also have two kids. Having two children under 4 has pretty much guaranteed that all the movies I see in theaters will now me animated.

            Not that there’s anything wrong with animated films, though. I took Henry to see “Planes 2: Fire and Rescue” and he loved it. I thought it was pretty good, myself.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Ironweed” had little to recommend it. I didn’t like the novel, either.

      Something I’d rather have seen Hollywood make was another novel from that Albany series, “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game…”

  7. Bart

    John Jenrette didn’t need much encouragement to accept a bribe. His first wife Sally was a total class act and someone whose background in classical music and the arts never quite fit with the John Jenrette of “sex on the Capitol Building” steps image with his second wife. Was his character in the movie? If not, too bad, he would have been the leading comic character among the “victims”.

    My wife and I no longer go out to the movies but wait until they are on Netflix, Amazon, or any of the other choices on satellite. Amazing how many have been cut short, avoiding a waste of time.

  8. bud

    I watched all nine of the best picture nominees for 2013. Here’s the list I compiled a couple of months back ranking them from my favorite to least favorite. I thought it was a pretty good year and gave all but Wolf of Wall Street a thumbs up :

    1. Nebraska
    2. Philomena
    3. Her
    4. Dallas Buyers Club
    5. 12 Years a Slave
    6. Captain Phillips
    7. Gravity
    8. American Hustle
    9. The Wolf of Wall Street

    1. Bart

      The only one I would be interested in watching is “12 Years a Slave”. Not only for the story but the main character is portrayed by a great actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. My first exposure to him was on the last episode of Serendipity which was at one time, Firefly.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Bart, you mean the movie “Serenity,” which was the feature-film revival of “Firefly.”

        I’ll always think of him as the Operative.

        I saw “Serenity” before I had ever heard of “Firefly.” That made me go back and watch the series, which I now own on DVD…

        Shiny. Let’s be bad guys…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          They should make Joss Whedon the king of Hollywood for having conceived of the premise of actual “space cowboys,” and then for having executed the concept so brilliantly. So awesome…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Best bit — when George Clooney makes his dramatic re-entrance and coaches Sandra Bullock through the steps necessary to save her life… Very cool Deus ex machina device…


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