For the last 15 or 20 years critics have been lamenting the fact that amply-funded, carefully-composed, middle-class movies with toney, well-paid movie stars have become all but extinct. Especially the brainy, sophisticated dramas and dramedies. I’m mainly talking about Mike Nichols or James L. Brooks-level stuff. Or early Nora Ephron or pre-North Rob Reiner-styled films about faintly witty, educated, well-off urban white people and their problems. Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets, When Harry Met Sally, Groundhog Day, Heartburn, Sleepless in Seattle…that line of country.
Or something like Silver Linings Playbook, which felt to me like a vague descendant of the Nichols thing. Or polished white-soul romantic dramas like Bridges of Madison County.
Notice how the above paragraphs sound vaguely racist? These are the times in which we live. If you say you find something pleasing or agreeable about thoughtful, well-crafted films that happen to concern white characters, you’re automatically regarded as dicey or suspicious. Just ask…no, I won’t say his name.
Almost all of today’s adult-friendly quality fare has moved over to cable and streaming, of course. Minus the aid of a comprehensive survey I’m presuming that HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the others have taken a stab at some kind of facsimile of the above …smart, urbane, witty, perhaps even book-based.
But even if they are, the culture is no longer geared to pay attention to such films as it did 25 or 30 years ago. Our attention pulled in so many directions, many of us texting as we watch, etc. If and when one of these films were to be made for streaming, they wouldn’t settle into the conversation like they used to. Because everything gets consumed so quickly, and at increasing speeds.
I re-watched Heartburn six years ago, but I went there again last night with the excuse that I’d never seen it in HD on a 65-inch screen. Same modest satisfactions, same mixed reactions.
Posted on 5.12.12: “I was moved to give it another go, and it was intermittently entertaining once more. I miss this kind of well-funded, well-acted, sophisticated adult dramedy with that Nichols attitude and a fine commercial gloss. I didn’t even mind the Carly Simon songs. And Meryl Streep‘s portrayal of Rachel Samstadt (i.e., the stand-in for Heartburn screenwriter-novelist Nora Ephron) has many genuine moments, especially of vulnerability.
“But the film has a huge roadblock or two. Or three.
“Ephron’s screenplay, based on her mostly autobiographical 1983 novel of the same name, charts the breakdown and dissolution of her marriage to Watergate reporter and novelist Carl Bernstein. Bernstein is called Mark Forman in the film and played by Nicholson, who came aboard at the last minute when Mandy Patinkin, unhappy with his part, left the film early on.
“The problem is that Nicholson’s affair with the unseen giraffe lady with the big splayed feet (inspired by Bernstein’s affair with Margaret Jay) happens entirely off-screen and reveals nothing at all about Nicholson’s psychology. All you can sense is that he feels vaguely threatened by fatherhood and responsibility. It just feels bizarre that the affair just happens without the audience being told anything. Nicholson’s Mark is just a selfish shit (which may well have been the case except it takes two to bring a marriage down), and I felt bothered and irritated that I wasn’t getting the whole story.
“And their friends (Richard Masur, Jeff Daniels, Stockard Channing, Milos Forman, et. al.) do nothing but sit around at weddings and dinner parties and picnics and share knowing glances and go ‘Well, yeah…obviously’ and ‘cluck, cluck, cluck.’ I began to really hate this bunch. Do they have lives? If so, do they involve disappointments or failures or betrayals that are similar to the ones being endured by Mark and Rachel? I gradually began to dislike this Greek chorus more than Nicholson’s character, in a way. I wanted at least one of them to get killed in a car crash.
“‘The movie is full of talented people, who are fun to watch, but after a while the scenes that don’t point anywhere begin to add up, and you start asking what is this movie about?,’ wrote New Yorker critic Pauline Kael. ‘You are still asking [this] when it’s over, and by then a flatness, a disappointment, is likely to have settled over the fillips you’d enjoyed.
“‘Although Ephron is a gifted and a witty light essayist, her novel is no more than a variant of a princess fantasy: Rachel, the wife, is blameless; Mark, the husband, is simply a bad egg — an adulterer. And, reading the book, you don’t have to take Rachel the bratty narrator very seriously; her self-pity is so thinly masked by humor and unabashed mean-spiritedness that you feel that the author is exploiting her life — trashing it by presenting it as a juicy, fast-action comic strip about a marriage of celebrities.”