Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Aren't

So I lied about writing that review on Tuesday. Sorry, here it is!

Spike Jonze is a very talented director; everyone knows this. His past films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation are excellent. The success of these films is also largely due to the creative genius that is Charlie Kaufman, their writer. Jonze is also the creator of endless music videos, including the Beastie Boys "Sabotage," and Weezer's "Buddy Holly." I'll be first to admit his body of work, at age 40, is very impressive.

When hipsters all over the world (but mainly right here in Brooklyn) heard Jonze was going to tackle the cult children's classic Where the Wild Things Are, American Apparel panties were in a twist. We all waited with bated breath for at least two years for the film to finally come to fruition. That's okay; it takes a long time to make a movie, and Jonze had trouble finding a studio to finance the project. I don't blame producers for hesitating: Jonze wants to adapt a book with less than ten lines of text into a feature length film. How? And, why?

In this iteration, Max, our protagonist, is having a rough time. He's about 10 or 11, and his parents are divorced. His sister is an asshole and his mom is dating. That's some upsetting stuff. And in the first ten minutes of the film Jonze does an incredible job of illustrating just how isolated and angry this little guy is. The young actor who portrays Max is also named Max in real life, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Ellen Page. This is not pertinent to my review, but whatever, I think it's so strange.


After an argument with his Mom (always superb Catherine Keener), Max runs off, gets in a boat, and finds himself in the land of the Wild Things. There are five of them, all different animals / monster types, with very human personalities. This works well, mainly because these Jim Henson created puppets are voiced by some of the finest working actors today: James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, and Paul Dano. Their voices are undoubtedly the best part of the film, and the main reason to see it - next to the puppetry and digital work which is gorgeous.

The Wild Things name Max as their king under the condition that he "keep the sadness out," which, of course is an impossible task that he fails at, for the most part. The monsters seem to function as extreme manifestations of Max's own personality, but really they could be anyone: they're neurotic, funny, and sad. They're also a family. To put it simply, this film is an exercise in how fragile people are, especially in intimate relationships. James Gandolfini, as Carol, the leader of the group, and Lauren Ambrose, as his ex-girlfriend-ish, do the best job of voicing the despair over a frustrating relationship.

All of this isn't really new or unique or interesting in any meaningful way. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the artistry that went into this film. Several people said "Spike Jonze has really shown us what it is to be child." I resist this. That would be some kind of achievement. I don't think Wild Things delves deep enough into Max's life to give us that kind of a statement. For this reason, and the overall lack of purpose, I was disappointed.

Jonze is venturing into interesting territory with this kind of Monet-ish movie-making that reminds me of his ex-wife's work. Sofia Coppola is constantly criticized for making these kind of visual-centric films. Marie Antoinette, in particular, took it pretty hard from critics. Movies, after all, are supposed to be amount the image. Otherwise we'd read books or listen to the radio to entertain ourselves (some of us still do this). But it's my hope that filmmakers will use their medium, which incorporates writing, visual, sound, and dialogue into the package. That's what makes a great film. Where the Wild Things Are isn't it.

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