It isn’t often that I long for Roman Polanski. Personally, I find him more than a little creepy and twisted. If I go back to my one unpleasant encounter with him, at the home of a shady financier of his in Paris in the early 90s, I’d say he reminds me of a character lurking in the background of a Harry Potter film. He is often, however, a great filmmaker. Chinatown is his co-masterpiece, the definitive L.A. noir film, alongside The Pianist, a definitive Holocaust film.
Chinatown is so good it almost makes you wonder why they keep trying to remake it in one way or the other every decade with way under-benchmark movies like Ruben Fleisher’s Gangster Squad. But I suppose Sunset Boulevard didn’t stop The Artist from happening, which renders my wondering idiotic.
It’s January, when most people who aren’t obsessive film Dobermans like me—to wit, my Twitter meltdown over not being able to find a theater screening Amour a couple of weeks ago—are catching up on the Best Picture nominees before the actual Oscar ceremonies. Or at least people on my particular Facebook feed are. January is the time of year when you hear the movie theaters ringing their bells outside the studios up and down the streets of Burbank, Hollywood and Culver City, crying, “Bring out yer dead!”
I went to see Gangster Squad because of a delirious essay I read by the increasingly delirious Richard Brody in The New Yorker. Brody intros the piece by going the full geek with references to esoteric classic film noir, written in a style reminiscent of something I might slap together if I’d swallowed everyone’s meds in my ward at the insane asylum. Then he teeters off and manages to rope in three of the Best Picture nominees to accuse them of a common “chortling failure” (huh?) with Gangster Squad: having no story.
Um, Mr. Brody, Sister Jude from American Horror Story wants a word with you in electroshock, please.
A film mentioned in the same breath as Amour, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty is begging to be seen. Or that’s my excuse, anyway. Brody also compares Sean Penn’s performance to Daniel Day-Lewis’ in Lincoln. While I might have issues with Penn as a loony windbag, I do admire him immensely as an actor who cannot help being authentic, and who only improves with age. Here I must quote Brody:
It’s as if Day-Lewis were in an altogether different movie—as if he were an angel come to Earth, with an angel’s otherworldly bearing. He plays a secular saint and makes him aptly saintly, pulling him, from the very start, outside the realm of ordinary people; his every appearance seems accompanied by a sweet choir from on high. Penn does just the opposite—with his seething suavity and the hot-clenched tension of imminent violence, he stands as far from the rest of the cast in “Gangster Squad” as Day-Lewis does in “Lincoln.” He, too, is seemingly delivered from another movie, and his composition of the actorly details is no less accomplished or devoted than Day-Lewis’s.”
Sadly, one cannot even think about Gangster Squad without cracking a smile over Sean Penn’s prosthetic nose. If I’d directed this, I would be accused of anti-Semitism had I enhanced in such a caricatural way an actor with an already formidable proboscis who is playing a Jewish mobster. It is true that Mickey Cohen, a one-time professional boxer, did have a nose that was broader than its natural size because of the extensive soft-tissue damage he sustained fighting. But Penn looks nothing like Cohen in the first place, so why make this disastrous decision? It instantly deflates the seriousness and credibility of the film, and given that Penn smacking the shit out of a boxing bag is the first thing you see, Gangster Squad is pretty much doomed from the start.
The story is a mangled and steroided and cartoonish version of true events that took place in the 40s and 50s in L.A., when the city was apparently under the thrall of Cohen to such a degree that a secret independent unit was created within the police force to undermine the gangster’s operations and stop him from becoming a Genghis Khan-like warlord over all of California. Yes, you can read that last bit as the most Dr. Strangelove part of a script that is so overwrought and histrionic that more often than not it shoves the film into parody.
Gangster Squad has been lauded for being “stylish,” but frankly it’s hard to go wrong with stylishness when you’re dealing with the post-War period leading up to the late 60s, after which style was pretty much shot to pieces in a chaotic gangland free-for-all of liberated individual expression. It certainly has moments of inventive and gorgeous shots, some of them even brave. But what is up with grading the image that strange color? My initial thoughts were, Fleisher has turned film noir into film orange. And everyone’s skin texture is so unreal it looks like they’ve been substituted by their effigies at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.
Emma Stone is versatile and talented, especially as a comedienne, but as a noir femme fatale she looks like she’s doing a spoof for Saturday Night Live. She starts out as Jessica Rabbit when she’s draped around myriad nightclubs in backless dresses and lacquered red lipstick, but in later scenes she is so bloated she oddly transforms into Porky Pig’s girlfriend, Petunia Pig. That’s just so bitchy and unkind of me, but that’s what I thought… okay, as long as I’m being honest, I also thought she might have had her period, or that she was pregnant.
When Ryan Gosling sashayed on screen wearing sleek tailored suits in a modern cut (i.e., a Gucci silhouette rather than the exaggerated shoulder pads of the period) and peach lip gloss, my gaydar went so berserk it shattered. He looks and behaves like Marlene Dietrich in male drag—you expect him to burst out with “See What The Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” except the back room Gosling would imply is something out of an experimental James Franco movie about cruising in the 70s. After seeing his childhood singing-and-dancing videos, as well as his suspiciously natty personal style off camera, I’m having a hard time buying Gosling’s straight “Hey Girl” shtick, which doesn’t take away from the fact he is never anything less than a delight to watch, even in a misfire like Gangster Squad.
The violence is so excessive it is boring, desensitizing. How the heroes can survive those showers of machine gun bullets without getting hit is asking the audience to believe Gene Kelly can sing in the rain without getting wet. Yeah, I grimaced at some of the more inventive maiming and killing during the first act, but Tarantino this ain’t, and Tarantino it aspires to be.
Given its pedigree cast and “stylish” treatment, not to mention its original release date of September 2012—it was pushed to January 2013, ostensibly because a shoot-‘em-up scene in Grumman’s Chinese movie theater was too much like Aurora and had to be reshot outdoors in, of all places, Chinatown—it’s fairly safe to assume that Gangster Squad once had Oscar pretentions. But this is an example of how you cannot begin to conceive of a great movie without a great script, and a wobbly script is the greatest “chortling failure” of this piece. Had the cast not been comprised mostly of the caliber of actor who can read the proverbial phone book and still be engaging, Gangster Squad would have been such a risible disaster it would have gone straight to Netflix. The dialogue is so disjointed, crashing back and forth from classic noir-esque lines to outright anachronisms like a rabid baboon in a time machine, that it reeks of studio exec and actor tinkering. Then again, this is Mark Beall’s first produced feature-film screenplay, so maybe the fault does lie mostly with him.
This film will be on Netflix sooner than later, so wait for it then if you have to see it at all. I’d recommend catching up on HBO’s Enlightened and Girls instead.
And, Richard Brody, you owe me thirteen bucks for duping me with that paean to Sean Penn’s performance, ya big dodo.