Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Songcatcher is positioned to move a lot of copies of its soundtrack. Aside from their affection for old-timey Southern music, though, the two films have little in common. The Coen brothers’ latest is a farce, whereas writer-director Maggie Greenwald’s earnest drama iswell, it’s a farce too, but it doesn’t know it.
Set in the early 20th century, Songcatcher follows Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), who’s introduced singing the traditional “Barbara Allen” in a 19th-century art-song style. We soon learn that Lily teaches music at a college in the Northeast, where even her own (married) lover won’t support her for a full professorship. Mad at the urban world, Lily decides to visit her sister Elna (Jane Adams) in the mountains of North Carolina, where the latter runs a school with Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr), who is soon revealed to be her lover.
Elna and Harriet have taken in teenager Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum), who holds the key to the region’s cultural riches. The hills are alive with the sound of music, and Deladis knows “Barbara Allen,” toobut an older, purer version. Soon, Lily (who’s loosely based on an actual musicologist of the period, Olive Dame Campbell) is lugging a wax-cylinder recording device up steep mountains to capture authentic British ballads, brought to the area hundreds of years before by people whose culture has been largely untouched since. (For both verisimilitude and marketing clout, Iris DeMent and Taj Mahal are dragged in for musical cameos.)
In the process of documenting the local music, Lily meets crusty Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), who’s just the sort of proud, suspicious mountain man a city woman might find intolerable for a few days before yielding to his virile charms. (The setup to their first kiss is a practical joke that wouldn’t snare a reasonably savvy 8-year-old on her first trip to summer camp.) Prissy as she is, Lily learns to drink moonshine, do barn dances, and sing along grinningly when old Granny Butler (Pat Carroll) twangs “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again.”
To add to the drama, the squeamish Lily is dragooned to help with a difficult childbirth, and a weaselly land agent shows up to try to buy everyone’s property for a rapacious coal company. Then Elna and Harriet are accidentally outed, which leads some of the local guysbut not gruff, macho Tom, who turns out to be a liberalto attack the school. Songcatcher has enough arson, murder, brawling, and bad-time religion to outfit a whole wing of the Museum of Southern Stereotypes.
Greenwald hasn’t made a feature since 1993, when her The Ballad of Little Jo took another ride on the vintage gender-roles express. (It tells the story of a late-19th-century woman who dressed as a man so she could farm her frontier land claim in peace.) The director clearly means well, but she has a hard time sifting contemporary attitudes from period stories and a weakness for overacting stage veterans. (McTeer, a British actress, isn’t as bad here as in 1999’s Tumbleweeds, but she should definitely declare a moratorium on roles that send her to the American South.) What really sinks the movie, however, is neither its anachronism nor its didacticism but the crude, shameless melodrama in which they’re cloaked. After the major crises kick in, Songcatcher plays like a film Monty Python could have made if the troupe had spent more time in Asheville, N.C.
Almost as momentous as the Battle of When Harry Met Sally, the war between cats and dogs shakes suburban America to its lawn-worshipping, RV-driving, stereotype-loving marrow. As Nora Ephron’s oeuvre supercharges and sentimentalizes decades of take-my-wife-please gags, so Cats & Dogs elevates to global crisis the banal and superficial distinctions between two species of domestic-entertainment animals. Forgive me if I don’t take sides.
The opening is the movie’s most cleverly staged sequence, but it’s also a bit of a cheat. A dog chases a cat, who turns out to be wilier than he first appears. The dog keeps getting bamboozled, until finally the cat’s confederates pull up in a van with a CATZRUL license plate and trundle him away. Thus cats are established as the villains before the credits even roll, meaning that hard-core cat people have been suckered into a movie that takes a dog’s-eye-view of the world. The real con, though, is that the opening escapade was shot largely with a real cat, whereas the rest of the movie relies heavily on clunkier, less appealing animatronic felines.
Take it as a sign of superior intelligence or simple truculence, but cats are harder to train than dogs (or pigs, as Babe demonstrated). So director Lawrence Guterman and his team (which, of course, includes many Henson Creature Shop puppeteers) use real dogs to play tough undercover operative Butch (the voice of Alec Baldwin), raw-recruit puppy Lou (Tobey Maguire), and empathetic stray Ivy (Susan Sarandon). The cats, however, are led by the obviously animatronic Mr. Tinkles (Sean Hayes), who’s portrayed as effeminate, egocentric, and ruthlessa gay stereotype no Hollywood live-action movie would dare employ these days.
The story was obviously knocked off from such models as Babe, The Adventures of Milo and Otis, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, andwhat else? Oh, yeahOld Yeller. The animal catnapped at the beginning is in fact a doggie secret-service agent assigned to protect a tiresomely wacky scientist (Jeff Goldblum) who’s trying to cure hisand thereby the world’sdog allergies. The nutty professor works in a high-tech clean room in the basement of his house in an American suburb so pristine it must be (and is) Canadian. His technology is no more advanced, however, than the M:I-2-style surveillance and communications gear secreted in Butch’s doghouse.
The cat conspirators intend to turn Dad’s research against their canine foes, making everyone in the world allergic to dogs. It’s part of the feline plan to restore mankind to complete subservience to cats, as was the case in ancient Egypt. Only dogs are smart enough to save the human race, although the movie is a little vague on why they’d want to. (Butch is gently condescending about humans, and surely if dogs can oversee advanced satellite-information systems, they can figure out how to operate a can opener.) The first line of defense is Lou, the family’s new dog, picked out by Mom (Elizabeth Perkins) and soon befriended by the couple’s son, Scotty (Alexander Pollock).
Outfitted as it is with the requisite hairball, neutering, and dogshit gags, the movie surprises only when it occasionally proffers a one-liner that hasn’t been declawed. Just as the scenario favors dogs over cats, so, too, the filmmakers emphasize four-legged James Bond gambits over the sort of quasi-Wildean dialogue that might have made rendered Mr. Tinkles engaging. Still, if you’re going to see just one sentimental animatronic-pet adventure this summer, Cats & Dogs has the advantage of being almost an hour shorter than A.I. CP