Well, it appears that some readers have inexplicably found my fuzzy, confusing, and wildly counter-intuitive Elizabethtown-based rating system fuzzy, confusing, and somehow counter-intuitive. So I will reiterate for folks keeping score at home that Failure is the lowest rating on the scale. It denotes failed movies devoid of the mad-prophet vision and overreaching ambition that defines true Fiascos. Secret Successes, meanwhile, are films that despite middling-to-terrible reputations I think are fundamentally good movies worthy of critical reappraisal.
I'm similarly amused that readers seem to think I hate the movies I'm writing about. See, me and bad/failed movies, we got a thang going on. What might look like vitriolic abuse from the outside is really just tough love. I certainly didn't hate Strange Days and I don't hate today's entry, the barely-released 2006 drama Home Of The Brave, a wall-to-wall laugh riot that unfortunately never aspires to be funny.
When producer-turned-director Irwin Winkler and screenwriter Mark Friedman dreamed up the premise for the film, I'm sure visions of little naked gold men swirled madly in their heads. I suspect Winkler went ahead and wrote an Oscar acceptance speech about how terribly noble he was to make a film about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Iraq War and how people like himself and his cast are the real heroes for pretending to suffer from timely ailments.
How could Academy voters ignore such a brave and important film? Heck, the word "Brave" is even in the title! How could they resist a glamour girl like Jessica Biel pulling a Charlize Theron as a dowdy one-handed veteran? The only way Biel's performance could be more Oscar-friendly would be if her character were somehow also a cerebral palsy-stricken concentration camp prisoner.
Brave nakedly aspired to be a contemporary version of The Best Years Of Our Lives, William Wyler's achingly sad character study about the lingering effects of World War II on three veterans. It's one of Robert Altman's favorite films, a tour de force of deep-focus cinematography from Gregg Toland, and a defining masterpiece of the post-war era. It was also one of the most commercially successful films of its time.
Brave sets the bar prohibitively high: there's a gulf at once tragic and comic between the sober, substantive film Winkler set out to make and the hysterical melodrama he actually made. It opens in Iraq with doctor Samuel L. Jackson and his fellow military brethren learning that they're headed home in just a few weeks. When he learns of his imminent trip back trip back to the States, Jackson, clearly hoping for a snake-free flight home, can barely contain his joy. "I'm going home!," he beams to an Iraqi girl he's treating. Unfortunately, the film cuts away before she can respond "What wonderful news! My happiness for you is dampened only by the fact that my family lives in a bombed-out, rat-infested crater."
On a seemingly routine humanitarian run, however, shit gets real. The Americans are ambushed in battle scenes so poorly filmed and ineptly edited that it looks like the cast is stumbling through some sort of bizarre Iraq War simulator at TomorrowLand, not actual combat. In a 10-second span, Brave offers up the following two masterpieces of cinematic dialogue: "Fuck you and die!" "Big pot of shit, man. The more you stir it, the more it smells." (This is true. If you've ever prepared a giant pot of feces, for whatever reason, stirring it only increases its pungent odor)
Somewhere amidst all the gratuitous, seemingly unmotivated slow-motion and labored dialogue, Biel ends up losing a hand and 50 Cent accidentally kills an Iraqi woman. Then it's back to the states, where the leads each cope with the stress of civilian life their own way. Some go a little bit crazy. Others go super-duper extra-bonus crazy. Jackson takes to binge drinking, scowling incessantly and staring sadly into the distance. Biel, the first heterosexual gym teacher in recorded history (seriously, she's the Jackie Robinson of non-lesbian P.E. instructors), struggles to adjust to a prosthetic hand and shapeless, baggy outfits designed to bump down her sexiness level from "Va-Va-Voom" to "Meh."
Newcomer Brian Presley, meanwhile, wrestles with post-war nerves and being the poor man's Seann William Scott by driving around aimlessly at night, drinking and getting into overwrought arguments with his dad. Last and almost certainly least, 50 Cent tries to make up for his wooden under-acting in Get Rich Or Die Tryin' by overacting wildly as a loose cannon who takes his ex-girlfriend hostage and is struck down by a single bullet when the real 50 could probably get shot dozens of times and walk it off. Then again, given his paltry amount of screen time, maybe 50 (I'm sorry "Curtis Jackson," as he's billed here) is just angry that all his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
Jim Sheridan infamously told 50 not to take acting lessons before starring in Get Rich Or Die Tryin, assuring him that if he delivered a bad performance it would be entirely his fault. This time around, 50 appears to be under the spell of an acting teacher whose main advice seems to be "Crazy it up, 50! Make with the crazy googly eyes! That way everyone will know you're straight loco! And would it kill you to drool just a little and spit when you talk? Just pretend Ja Rule and Cam'Ron are double-teaming your mom. How angry would that make you? That's the level of crazy we're shooting for."
It's a measure of the film's surreal miscalculation that the scenes of Biel adjusting to life with a fake hand play like unintentional physical comedy instead of harrowing drama. Biel's flashbacks to Iraq, meanwhile, are filled with spooky, unexplained rays of beatific white light, as if everyone Biel fought with was on the verge of ascending to heaven during some strange wartime rapture, only to be pulled mercilessly back to Earth at the last moment. When Biel struggles to pick up a soccer ball with her prosthetic hand, Winkler sadistically cuts to a slow-motion flashback of Biel shooting a jump shot in Iraq with Michael Jordan-like grace while once again inexplicably bathed in golden light.
Watching Brave repeatedly go over the top, then keep going, I was reminded of the line in Futurama where Zoidberg's uncle, the legendary silent-screen crustacean Harold Zoid, insists that in talkies everyone must run the full gamut of emotions in every scene. But even an incorrigible ham like Zoid would draw the line at Biel's bitter ex-boyfriend grousing, "I guess it only takes one good hand to push people away" (take that, disabled veteran!). Incidentally, it only takes one angrily upraised finger to give the film the salute it so richly deserves.
The "one good hand" line would mark the apex of ridiculousness in most movies, but Brave breezes right past it in a startling scene where Jackson drunkenly invites a bunch of day laborers to his Thanksgiving dinner, launches into a bizarre monologue about Iraq, becomes enraged by his son's lip ring, and tears it out, then stalks around with a gun. This was clearly supposed to be Jackson's big Oscar moment, but it's written and filmed like a PCP freak out in a hysterical '70s anti-drug movie. Given the scene's heavy Death Drug overtones, I guess we should just be grateful that Jackson didn't kidnap a neighborhood baby, stick it in an oven for an hour or so, then serve it to his mortified family as a "California Cheeseburger."
As my colleague Keith wrote in his review, you half-expect Jackson to angrily exclaim, "I've had it with these motherfucking traumatic wartime experiences in my motherfucking head!" Jackson repeatedly butts heads with his petulant teenaged son, but rushes to his defense when he gets busted at school for wearing a tee shirt that reads "Buck Fush." "Buck Fush? Buck you, you son of a bitch," Jackson yells angrily at a cartoonish bigwig at his son's school. I don't know what the big deal is: Buck Fush is one of the most underrated country singers out there. I still listen to early albums like Hard Luck Buck and Buck's Countrified Straight-Talking Blues regularly. I don't understand why anyone would get in trouble just for wearing a shirt promoting his music.
I felt like Lord Of The Rings: The Return of The King went on about a half hour too long and contained about four endings too many. But I also thought it artfully conveyed the rootlessness and alienation of battle-scarred veterans returning to the ostensible comfort and safety of home and realizing that nothing would ever be the same again. It's telling that a movie populated by hobbits, elves, and wizards captured the knotty emotions of warriors returning from battle with far more resonance and emotional heft than a would-be prestige film stocked entirely by what are apparently supposed to be human beings, though you'd never know it from their behavior or words.
Brave aspires to be a 2007 version of The Best Year Of Our Lives. Instead it's the Iraqi War answer to Mommie Dearest. Brave's heart is undeniably in the right place, but its overmatched little brain is hopelessly fuzzy and clouded. I felt a little guilty guffawing long, hard, and lustily at a film with such noble intentions but, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde famous takedown of Dicken's The Old Curiosity Shop, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh at Winkler's painfully sincere folly.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco