Roger Ebert is the Santa Claus of American film criticism, a jolly, avuncular older gentleman who delights in stuffing the stockings of the film community with rave reviews and rapt praise whether they've been naughty or nice. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Ebert's accomplishments and passion for film. I doubt I'd even have a job as a film critic if Ebert hadn't done so much to popularize the form. I might otherwise have been forced to do something useful and productive with my life. A man of robust, Falstaffian appetites, Ebert is a lover, not a hater. So when he really tears into a film, people sit up and take notice. For Ebert's wrath is all the more potent for being so rarely deployed.
When Ebert gives a movie the dreaded zero-star rating, it means his loathing transcends business and has become personal. It's like when I give a movie an F. That means I left a screening with cartoon steam billowing from my ears and raced to a computer so I channel my rage into something constructively destructive.
A while back I was introduced to an actor at a wedding. "Hey, you guys are pretty much in the same business. I'm sure [Actor X] has appeared in something you've panned," the introducer insisted. "Oh, I doubt that. What have you been in?" I replied gingerly. "Well, probably the biggest thing I've been in was Epic Movie" was Actor X's response. A strained smile on my face, I thought, "Yeah, I really did hate that fucking movie. Just thinking about it now is making me inexplicably angry."
One of Ebert's most legendarily scathing reviews was directed towards today's Thanksgiving entry in My Year Of Flops, Rob Reiner's North. Deep into his zero-star review of the film Ebert wrote "I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would entertain it." In a weird way, Ebert's review has usurped the film that inspired it. Today North is remembered, if at all, as the movie that inspired both one of Ebert's most vitriolic reviews and the title to a collection of scathing reviews Ebert has written through the years.
Before deriding North as "one of the worst movies ever made" (Ebert is the rare soul entitled to make such a bold statement, having seen more than his share of bad movies), he praises its director. "I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker, among his credits are "This Is Spinal Tap", "Stand By Me", "When Harry Met Sally," and "Misery." I list those films as an incantation against this one." Ebert expresses hope that North represents a mere "lapse from which Reiner will soon recover".
Yet Reiner never really did recover. North marked the turning point where people stopped saying, "Oh wow, a new Rob Reiner movie!" to "Oh shit, another fucking Rob Reiner movie." Reiner's impressive string of triumphs was in the past (All in The Family, the aforementioned directorial hits, fucking Penny Marshall) while The Story Of Us, Alec & Emma, and Rumor Has It loomed ominously in his future.
Reiner and Barry Levinson have strangely similar career arcs. Each triumphed throughout the '80s with critics and audiences then wiped out with a deeply personal labor of love early in the early 90s. Reiner and Levinson obviously put a lot of themselves into North and Toys, respectively. Reiner and Levinson clearly thought they were giving the world another Wizard Of Oz. So it must have been traumatic to have the world treat their gift-wrapped whimsy like a vial of the bubonic plague. They expected to be greeted as liberators of the world's collective inner child. Instead they were treated like a guy who comes to the family Christmas party high on crack and hand-cuffed to a dead hooker.
North represents a collaboration between director Reiner and screenwriter/producer Alan Zweibel, a fascinating character who was one of the original Saturday Night Live writers and the co-creator of It's Garry Shandling Show (Yay!) before writing the novel North is based on, its screenplay, and Story Of Us (Boo!).
North opens on an idyllic suburban house and a train set accompanied by a plethora of snow globes representing the film's various locales and an abundance of adorable old-timey toys while the score twinkles, twinkles, twinkles sadistically. Good Lord, I was suffering from whimsy overload before the opening credits ended.
The film then introduces us to its pint-sized protagonist, a proto-Max Fischer played by Elijah Wood who excels at everything he does, from theater (he plays Tevye in Fiddler on The Roof and Hamlet in school productions) to baseball (he hits over .400) to school, where he's a book-learning, good-grades-getting-motherfucker. The only people who don't worship Wood are his parents, headache-inducing suburban gargoyles played by Jason Alexander and Julia Louis Dreyfus, who are too wrapped up in their own problems to cater to their special little man.
Spying an opportunity in his parent's incredibly mild semi-quasi-neglect, Wood enlists shyster lawyer Jon Lovitz in his campaign to be named a familial free agent empowered to peddle his sonly services to the highest bidder. This creates a ripple effect throughout the world. Parents are understandably terrified that the bratty, demanding little ingrates that share their genetic materials will no longer afford them the privilege of feeding, clothing, protecting, and caring for them if they can do better elsewhere.
An empowered Wood travels the world in search of his ideal parents, aided and abetted by a magical shape-shifting creature/mentor played by Bruce Willis, whose motto then, and now, seems to be "Have Smirk Will Travel." First up Wood travels to the Lone Star state and spends quality time with yee-haw shitkickers Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire, who want to have both the biggest and best son in the world. So they set about fattening Wood up until he's the size of the morbidly obese son whose death by trampling left a Texas-sized hole in the core of their Aykroyd and McEntire's being. There's even an elaborate song and dance number devoted to their fattening-up plan. I half expected the camera to reveal that Aykroyd and McEntire were taking their game plans from a tome entitled "To Serve Man." It's a cookbook, dammit!
Then it's off to Hawaii, where the locals expect Wood to drive up tourism to their island paradise. Wood's prospective papa, one Mr. Ho, sadly, creepily explains to his would-be son that "There's only one barren area in all of Hawaii. Unfortunately it's Mrs. Ho." Wood is understandably concerned when his hosts unveil a billboard of an amorous octopus cheekily pulling down the skimpy blue bathing suit of Wood's cherubic image under the heading "North says 'Go Hawaii,'" a scene that's undoubtedly a big hit at NAMBLA gatherings. The creepiness of the scene isn't leavened by Wood's frequent references to the tourist board peddling his crack as a major tourist draw.
Reiner and Zweibel's campaign of ugly Americanism continues in Alaska, which seems idyllic until chipper hosts Graham Greene and Kathy Bates announce their plans to send Abe Vigoda on an ice floe to die a slow, dignified death. North offers a view of the world not terribly dissimilar from that found in the comedy of Carlos Mencia. Like Mencia, North has never encountered a crude ethnic stereotype it doesn't consider both painfully true and deeply hilarious.
Why bother creating sympathetic, three-dimensional supporting characters when there are centuries of regressive cultural stereotypes to recycle? The French, for example, are represented by a pair of beret-sporting beatniks laughing uproariously at a Jerry Lewis movie on television in a cloud of clove cigarette smoke with the Eiffel Tower in the background. It is all very, how do you say, not funny?
In a subplot oozing unrealized potential, Wood's child-rights campaign ends up empowering a pint-sized demagogue from his elementary school newsroom who co-opts Lovitz as a means to gaining power through any means necessary and hires a goon to kill Wood once it becomes apparent he's intent on returning home to his real parents. This plot thread affords the filmmakers a wonderful opportunity to ruthlessly satirize the cult of childhood innocence, to reveal that greed and lust for power are as endemic to childhood as Bert & Ernie.
North's inspired premise offers countless avenues to penetrating satire yet it sticks lazily to stereotypes and broad comic grotesques. Watching the film, I was reminded of my late, great Movie Club colleague Anderson Jones' comment that he hated kids films, hated kids in films, and hated children in general.
I don't hate children, but I do hate the way children are deified in films. I'm sickened by the endless deluge of parenthood redemption comedies about hard-working parents who learn, through some manner of metaphysical magic or bizarre quirk of fate, that the only way to be a good parent is to devote every waking moment to catering to their child's every need. These films coldly exploit both the innate narcissism of children and the guilt of dual-income couples worried that their professional success is coming at the expense of their children's happiness. Most parents try their best under challenging circumstances. They don't deserve to have cynical kiddie fare propagating the message that if you miss little Timmy's softball game even once he'll end up a serial killer all because of your terrible parenting.
Wood takes 87 laugh-free minutes to realize what's apparent to the audience in the first few minutes, that Alexander and Dreyfus aren't bad parents at all, just busy and distracted. To drive the point home, Willis' smirking fairy god-jerk even parrots the old bromide about there being no place like home. North gets no points for subtlety, or for anything else for that matter.
North closes with the ultimate cop-out ending. It was all just a dream! A pointless, time-wasting dream! Wood was never really liberated at all! Wood returns to his loving parents, who he now accepts, and everything is perfect forever. North is a mean-spirited bully that thinks it's a magical sprite. It's a curdled exercise in misanthropy masquerading as whimsy.
Yet for all its faults, I didn't hate this movie. Nor did I hate hate hate hate hate it. I strong disliked it, sure, and I can't say I particularly enjoyed even a single simpering, stupid, vacant audience-insulting moment of it. But nobody is going to buy a compendium of negative reviews entitled I Strongly Disliked This Movie. Mostly I just rued the neverending stream of missed opportunities. How can a movie that combines elements of films as wonderful as Rushmore (precocious, over-achieving youngster enters the adult world) and Joe Versus The Volcano (pure-hearted innocent encounters comic types, including one played by Abe Vigoda, during a life-changing international trip) still be fundamentally worthless? Perhaps because Alexander and Dreyfus are never established as anything more than one-dimensional monsters early on, so their reconciliation with Wood lacks resonance. Or maybe it's because the film has no satirical point of view beyond a lazy reliance on cheap stereotypes and glib caricatures.
Expectations undoubtedly played a major role in my perception of the film as well. Ebert went into North expecting another winner from a talented filmmaker on a hot streak. I went in expecting one of the worst films ever made. I can't say I was pleasantly surprised, but I wasn't horrified either. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful that Ebert survived this trying year with his boundless enthusiasm and inspiring commitment to his craft intact. People will fondly remember Ebert and his reviews, good or bad, long after the Norths of the have been justly forgotten.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure