Movies don’t bother anymore. They just don’t lift a finger around here, and even if they think two-hours-plus of a story is the same as giving the people their money’s worth, the people would happily lose 45 minutes of film if only someone would apply a little elbow grease to the remainder.
This isn’t a call for the wholesale overhaul of American filmmaking. Somewhere between The Matrix and Being John Malkovich and Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne, movies are being reinvented without any help from the Betty Thomases of this world. It’s about the Betty Thomases doing their job. I mean, it’s not as if there’s no precedent for submarine flicks and zany dramadies; no one’s rewriting the rules of filmmaking here. All we ask is that you follow the rules already in place to give the audience a fully satisfying, brain-free entertainment experience.
Jonathan Mostow’s U-571, despite the gouges in its shell, manages to leave the overall impression of total awesomeness. But it’s also completely berserk. The film opens on an unlucky band of German submarine sailors, and before we’re even told whom to root for, their U-boat is badly damaged. Then an intrepid crew of pluckily frightened U.S. boys is assigned an unusual task: Disguise as Germans, offer to rescue the U-boat crew, gun them all down, grab the Enigma encoding machine—a fascinating item that some audience naifs (well, OK, I) vainly hoped this film would be about—and sail safely for home. For no reason at all, a square-jawed, slit-eyed Marine (Treat Williams?) is brought on board to “train” the men in combat. We never see the Marine (Kurt Russell?) actually do this exercise; and, come to think of it, for a character introduced with such fanfare, how come we never see how exactly the Marine (David Keith! I knew it!) gets, um, permanently outroduced?
But alas, while seven untrained U.S. soldiers are slaying jerries on the U-boat, their own ship is firebombed into nothingness. This is a lucky break for Lt. Andy Tyler (Matthew McConaughey). Because his superiors inform him in the first act that, despite his expectations, he isn’t ready to lead his own submarine, you can be sure that God will see that he gets one by hook or by crook. In fact, he’s so sure of his ability to command that he hardly notices that his uniform is tight enough have come straight off the backstage rack at Chippendale’s. McConaughey has never really acted—well, he acted a little in Amistad, but who was awake to notice?—because it might distract from his posing, which he does with clamped-mouth, blank-eyed grit in scene after scene. How Tyler learns to display those very qualities his superiors claim he’s missing—that is, the minuscule but requisite evolution of the main character—is not a development that the script bothers unfolding before us but a given of the situation. It seems whimsical that, of the classic elements of the small-crew-on-decrepit-sub-in-enemy-waters flick, the makers of U-571 would choose to jettison such ballast as character and keep lines like the expository question to Lt. Hardbody that incredulously demands if he’s really going to “go up against a destroyer with only one fish in the tube and a broken—” something…who cares…?
The sheer spectacle of Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, and Alan Cumming occupying the same submarine is delicious enough even without the explosions, the Enigma, and Keitel’s sweatily bellowing “Dive! Dive!” at men a quarter his age. But because U-571 is sloppy and indistinct, it trips over its own rulebook, weakening its ability to engage viewers. Jarring anachronisms like “Outstanding!” and “That radio’s history!” and my personal favorite, “Back in World War I” (Keitel again) are distracting. The boys’ nicknames seem to have been chosen at random rather than to refer to any quirks or abilities on their parts—”Tank,” “Rabbit,” “Trigger,” whatever. And there’s dialogue Stan Lee would have rejected as too corny, not to mention dunderheaded: “It’s for long-range reconnaissance,” someone notes, spotting a German plane. The next line? “What’s it doing way out here?” My bet: trying to get away from movies so slipshod they’re insulting. U-571 is incontrovertibly successful by many submarine-flick standards. The last half-hour, by any standards, is exciting, tense, cathartic, and even thoughtful—’fess up, somebody watched Gardens of Stone after Saving Private Ryan came out, right?—but it could have been so much more, if only it had bothered.
28 Days, like its heroine, really screws up but passes for not being an outright disaster. Director Betty Thomas convincingly shows how even a thorough sot like Gwen (Sandra Bullock, strong and likable) can undergo a metamorphosis in attitude after less than a month in a rehab facility whose touchy-feely methods are as silly as they are successful. The trouble is Thomas’ own attitude. The special tolerance afforded leading ladies of major motion pictures means that Gwen’s drunken antics are approached as the wackiest, most endearing screwball. She and her boyfriend, Jasper (Dominic West), are such unrepentant drunks that they line up their empties on the windowsill, and such sloppy boors that it’s a wonder they get invited anywhere, much less to participate in Gwen’s sister’s wedding. They’re horrible, selfish, dangerous people, but Thomas adopts a peculiar Gwen’s-eye view for the audience, so the early scenes of destruction and vulgar behavior are played for laughs and maximum adorability on Bullock’s part—there may be fat, ugly drunks who decide the bridesmaid dress is too confining, but this is more about Sandra Bullock, not alcoholism. It’s about how cute and sexy the star is when she stumbles around in a black slip and high heels. And Gwen’s final joy ride, climaxing when she smashes a stolen limousine through a house, is treated as if it were as harmless and madcap as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
The story unfolds in the usual way: When first deposited in rehab, denial-ridden Gwen sneers at the needy, chanting addicts all around her and begs her bad boy to smuggle in some pills. Then she gets in trouble for flouting the rules, bumps up against the stonelike patience of her counselor (Steve Buscemi), and begins to connect with some of the good-hearted eccentrics. Then she finds a man who’s nicer and better-looking than Jasper (Viggo Mortensen, better-looking than almost anyone) and who understands her struggle, before she emerges, to the cheers of all whose lives she’s touched, as the life of this upbeat party. She hits the streets a sober, wiser woman who still doesn’t seem to need to work. Oh, and her sister (Elizabeth Perkins), whose life she has made hellish, recants, apologizes in tears, and splits the blame with their dead, drunken mom (seen in flashback causing all Gwen’s problems). Screenwriter Susannah Grant can’t keep the larky, Teflon, callow, sitcom tone out of any of her scripts, although, bizarrely, she has a taste for serious subjects. A few weeks ago, I said that with Erin Brockovich she had written the feel-good mass-poisoning movie of the year; get ready for a wacky pills-booze-and-death-by-overdose spring smash hit. CP