Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: It's a G-rated movie called Mr. Goddamned Motherfucking Magorium's Cocksucking Wonderfuckingporium starring a never-worse Dustin Hoffman as a fantastical, magical, stupendical 234-year-old man-sprite who runs a toy store with a life of its own. What more cultural infamy do you need? The only thing that could make this less palatable or less appealing to black-hearted cynics like myself would be calling it Patch Adams Too: The Quirkening. In an all-too-generous but otherwise dead-on C- review, our own estimable Scott Tobias pointed out that the film "has a familiarity that breeds contempt" and sagely notes that "just having a bunch of inanimate objects zipping around the room only technically qualifies as magical."
Curiosity factor: I liked Stranger Than Fiction, the high-concept scripting debut of Emporium writer-director Zach Helm. I also liked the cast, especially stellar straight man Jason Bateman. Furthermore, my curiosity was piqued when I walked past a Wendy's by my apartment during the film's brief, undistinguished theatrical run and watched a child indifferently blow up a Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium blimp. It's a neat toy, but it nevertheless made me profoundly sad. I envisioned the sad little boy sitting all by himself with his lonely little Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium blimp while all the other kids bathed in the life-giving blue light of HDTV plasma screens and Sony PlayStations. While not technically a form of child abuse, exposing children to the potentially fatal doses of whimsy and wonder coursing through Mr. Magorium is questionable parenting at best. The Wendy's blow-up blimp, meanwhile, is nothing but a cheap, plastic gateway drug leading them to the film itself, which is the liquid cocaine of twee preciousness.
The viewing experience: I'm invariably wary of movies where the production designer has the most important job, as they tend to be heavy on spectacle and light on substance. I'm even warier of movies where the production designer has the only important job. Mr. Magorium is just such a film. I'm wariest, meanwhile, of movies that try to uplift the soul and unleash the viewer's inner child. Well, this is the soul-upliftiest, inner-child-lovingest film to come down the pike in many a moon. A magical toy store is a great beginning for a film, but here, the magical toy store is the beginning, middle and end. Everything else feels secondary, almost irrelevant, a textbook case of the tail wagging the dog.
In a performance that doubles as an all-too-convincing argument for a mandatory retirement age for actors, Hoffman plays the eponymous toy-store proprietor, an elfin man with a weakness for corny wordplay and Successories-worthy aphorisms like "Life is an occasion. Rise to it."
Helm clearly expects audiences to instantly fall in love with Hoffman, but I had the opposite reaction. I despised every cutesy, gratingly adorable, insufferably life-affirming molecule of Hoffman's performance, from an exaggerated lithsp that makes him sound like Rip Taylor playing Willy Wonka to his caterpillar eyebrows, fluffy upturned hair, and flamboyant wardrobe. To keep myself sane and awake during the film, I began fantasizing that Hoffman's character was secretly a deranged sex criminal, and the film would climax with a monologue where he'd tearfully confess "I'm actually a thewial wapist who hath buwied the corpses of many a twanny hooker under the fantastical, magical floor of this most goodest of esthablithments! Now let's all dwink root-beer floats and jump up and down on the bed and raith Big Wheels! And not weport any of this to the police, those big meanies!"
Just as movies with no sense of humor about themselves are often unintentionally funny, a children's film that lacks even the faintest trace of the eviscerating darkness found in the best kiddie entertainment invites audiences to project their own neuroses onto it. The best kids' films are the stuff of nightmares as well as dreams. Think Pinocchio or Pee-wee's Big Adventure (which I sincerely hope Scott covers in The New Cult Canon) or The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T. But Magorium doesn't have a dark strand in its DNA: When the store turns black and dead after Hoffman deserts it, it feels like nothing more than an obnoxious, ephemeral temper-tantrum from an insolent child.
Hoffman has run his Wonder Emporium for ages, but he's eager to pass over the reins to Natalie Portman— a frustrated former piano prodigy who needs to "find her sparkle"—so he can ascend to heaven. In yet another refreshing turn as the sole grown-up in a cast full of overly caffeinated man-children and manic pixie dream girls, Jason Bateman—yes, Teen Wolf Too himself—plays an accountant with a calculator for a heart and a ledger book for a soul, who is burdened with cleaning up the store's financial records. Will the magic and wonder of the emporium unleash Bateman's inner child? Will Portman find the courage to, I dunno, find her heart-song or capture her sparkle or whatever the fuck it is she's supposed to do? Last and least, will an annoying little boy make some friends who aren't employed by a magical toy store? Even laster and more leasty, will I be able to make it through this goddamned film stone-cold sober, without commandeering a gun and shooting holes in the screen, Fat Elvis-style?
Mr. Magorium is full of ideas and images that must have sung on the page and wowed studio executives gazing rapturously at the film's storyboards, but that fall absolutely flat onscreen. For instance, the Federico Fellini-style strongman who lives in the store's basement and makes all of its children's books. The film's production design constitutes a full-on assault on the senses, with its headache-inducing onslaught of bright colors, shiny spinning things, and manic mischief bursting from every corner of the frame. Yet I couldn't help but think that if the average child were given a choice between spending the afternoon in a toy store where the merchandise magically comes to life, or zoning out with Grand Theft Auto IV, they'd choose the video game nine times out of 10. It's like Santa Claus The Movie: If Santa's competitor were offering magical flying candy, I'd be all "Fuck Sanity Clause. Little Nate Dogg wants to fly," regardless of the ultimate consequences. Yes, Mr. Magorium actually made me hate whimsy and wonder. No small feat.
It isn't an encouraging sign that when Bateman finally busts loose from the buttoned-down prison of self and embraces his inner child by donning a jester's cap and speaking in a silly voice, I felt betrayed instead of delighted. Emporium makes such a terrible case for delight that in the battle between life-loving pixies and cold, dreary, soulless authority figures, I came down firmly on the side of the authority figures. The last time I felt so oppressed by childhood innocence, Roberto Benigni was threatening to makea love to humanity's face onna da moon during the 1999 Academy Awards.
After Hoffman announces that he's intent on shucking off his mortal coil as quickly as possible, Portman treats him to the most splendiferous, excitementastical last day on earth ever. Why, they do a merry little jig together (on top of bubble wrap, even! How crazy!), jump up and down on a bed, and make a public phone call! Gosh, if Natalie Portman were intent on making my last 24 hours on Earth as enjoyable as possible, there'd be a lot less bubble-wrap jigs. But that's just me. I'm probably alone in that respect.
Whimsy is a tricky thing. Get the tone wrong, and a delightful concoction turns into a pounding ice-cream headache. Mr. Magorium nakedly aspires for a place in the pantheon of great children's films. Instead, Helm has made a 2007 version of Toys.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? 23 percent, and that's almost exclusively due to Bateman's wry gravity and Portman's adorableosity. At the risk of overstatement, I did not care for this film.