Tuesday, April 24, 2012

I'll Watch Anything: JB Watches The American President

 When I discovered that Patrick intended to make I’ll Watch Anything a (semi) regular feature here, I was, quite frankly, shocked. One thing Patrick and I agree on is how obnoxiously some people will insist you watch their favorite movie, especially once it becomes clear in the workplace or family that you are the MOVIE GUY. I have been teaching Film Studies in a public high school for almost thirty years, so imagine how many times well-meaning (pain-in-the-ass) colleagues have brought me their copy of Boondock Saints or Requiem for a Dream and INSIST THAT I WATCH IT. Similarly, students just starting out on their personal “movie journeys” are always asking me if I have ever seen A Clockwork Orange or Evil Dead 2 or Fight Club or Eraserhead, as if they are the only ones who have ever heard of these movies.

Patrick and I once admitted to each other that we would often take the goddamned DVD, just to get the person off our backs, keep it for a few days, and return it unwatched, with a knowing nod and a declaration of “Interesting!”

So Patrick has suggested that I watch Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin’s 1995 film, The American President. This I have done. What did I think of it?


The plot of The American President, for the three of you who have not seen it yet, concerns recently widowed President Andrew Shephard (Michael Douglas). When he meets-cute with lobbyist Sydney Wade (Annette Bening), he decides to start dating again. His underlings are mostly against this; they beg him to think of his upcoming reelection campaign. His political opponent Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) makes political hay of the courtship. Shephard’s approval ratings fall. Shephard makes a big speech on TV and solves everything. That is pretty much it.

I have never been a parishioner at the church of Aaron Sorkin, and I found his screenplay for The American President to be just another Aaron Sorkin Papal Bull(shit.) You know the setup: crowded offices full of literate people spouting aphorisms a mile a minute, a sweaty liberalism that mostly goes unquestioned, the inevitable presence of a Sorkin manqué talking even faster and smarter than everyone around him, a certain humorless earnestness that permeates every scene, and the entire narrative leading up to one big moment of speechifying.

We have seen this before and we will see this again. From Sports Night to The West Wing, from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip* to, I am guessing, Sorkin’s upcoming HBO show Newsroom. Even his scripts for A Few Good Men and The Social Network suffer from these signature tropes. In The Social Network, Sorkin finally figured out how to goose his frequently weak narratives: make the protagonist and the antagonist the same character. It yields Shakespearian tragedy, and that character gets to do TWICE the speechifying. Bonus!

Sorkin won an Oscar for The Social Network and deservedly so.

I thought Michael Douglas was great in The American President. I usually like Michael Douglas, though. Except for a certain sameness that one can argue will start to infest any big star’s performances (Give the People What They Want) I have always liked Michael Douglas, especially his performances in The China Syndrome, Romancing the Stone, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Falling Down, Wonder Boys, and Solitary Man.
I am not a particular fan of Annette Bening, and I think in this movie she is miscast. Her performances always seem too “actressy” by about half, and this one is no exception.

The film suffers from a large cast of one-dimensional characters. As Patrick has pointed out in innumerable film reviews, why (in films like this one) does each character only get to be ONE THING?

In this regard, Richard Dreyfuss really suffers. He is presented as pure evil, a smug amalgam of Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and a horned lizard. He only lacks a moustache to twirl. He makes big trouble for the Michael Douglas character by smearing him on television. Then Michael Douglas finally gives his big speech… and we never see Dreyfuss again.

All of us know, of course, that this is exactly the way things play out in real life. After President Obama’s last State of the Union address, remember the shock we all felt the next day when the entire Republican Party had disappeared?

So I have been a willing participant in this new column… I have dipped my toe in the fetid pool of other people’s suggestions. But I need to be clear on this: I will NOT watch ANYTHING. F-Heads, if you want me to participate again, you had better come up with some mind-blowing doozies. Challenge me. Pique my curiosity. Make love to me… NOW.

*Oh, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip! This was the only television show in history that I watched every week because it was so bad -- so ludicrously earnest about nonsense, so wrong headed at every turn. I reveled in its awfulness. Don’t believe me? You must read Nathan Rabin’s epic takedown of Studio 60. You will find it here.

In the comments section, please continue to give us suggestions for future installments of "I'll Watch Anything." Thanks! 


  1. My suggestion for an I'll watch anything would be the documentary called Cinemania. It's very interesting and also sort of scary.

    Also, in the last podcast, you asked for a glossary term for when an actor indulges their broadest impulses (ala Nicholson in Batman) for their subsequent roles. How about 'Being Marilyn' or 'Troublemaker Studios'?

  2. Oh, yes! I have seen Cinemania, and it is indeed a doozy! I used to screen it as an "ice breaker" and "conversation starter" the first week of class. For those of you who have not seen it yet, the documentary concerns a small group of New Yorkers who suffer from movie-going OCD. Their whole lives revolve around attending four, five, sometimes six screenings a day. A cautionary tale for all F-heads, to be sure!

  3. I have dipped my toe in the fetid pool of other people’s suggestions... F-Heads, if you want me to participate again, you had better come up with some mind-blowing doozies. Challenge me. Pique my curiosity. Make love to me… NOW.

    OK sir, you're asking for an epic mind fuck? I'll give you and 'F This Movie' one. I'm throwing the gauntlet at JB and the other 'F' heads in the Chicago area. Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION (1981) screens in 35mm at the Siskel Film Center Sun. May 20 (5PM), Mon. May 21 (7:45PM) and Wed. May 23 (8PM). I will gladly pay for the tickets of any 'F' head (JB & her 'schmoopy,' Patrick & Erika, Doug, Mark Ahn and Mike P.) that attends any of these screenings and comes out not being blown away by this flick. I'm not including Doug's wife (from his description of her attitude toward other movies "Possession" is definitely not her cup of tea) or Mike's (not a regular 'F This Movie' contributor) but, if it'll help get everybody, I'll gladly include them in my offer. At its most-inner core "Possession" deals with marriage issues, so the more couples see the movie the more interesting the discussions afterwards will be.

    I'm counting on the honor as genuine cinephiles that you'll be truthful whether each of you liked the movie or not, but if anyone in the group sincerely doesn't care for or like "Possession" I'll gladly refund you the $11 ticket price per head. I'd just ask that nobody in the group read/look at any reviews or the Siskel Film Center webpage with info about "Possession" because, like Ebert's review of "Super," the first line gives away already way too much and knowing as little as possible going into this flick maximizes the intensity of the experience.

    Later, gotta start working on my response about "Studio 60" and Sorkin. It might be a while (wink, wink). :-P

  4. I would select Erika to watch "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" because if you hire Rebecca De Mornay to be the nanny to your children, all hell will break loose.

  5. Can I just say I think you should watch whatever you want to watch? This column actually makes me a bit sad, the idea of watching things you don't really want to see because people are asking you to. Life (and time not spent working or sleeping) is short, too short to be wasted on checking your watch during a movie that you didn't really want to see in the first place. But then again, at the bottom of the post, it does say to please continue sending in suggestions. I'm so confused!

    By the way, the idea of people pushing movies, as mentioned in the column with reference to Boondock Saints and Fight Club, is totally true, and I believe the soft blow-off strategy("interesting") has come up on the show. I've been on that awkward receiving position before, and I absolutely don't want to be in the movie-pusher end of that scenario. The last time that happened was with the Will Ferrell vehicle "The Other Guys," and, of course, that didn't work out well for me. the person who pushed the movie sat there saying "nice" and "so good" as the film (and I use that term loosely) unfolded while I politely smiled. Never again, I say!

    Now if anyone needs me, I'm going to be in my room listening to The Cure and fighting "the man," whoever that is.

    1. ...the idea of watching things you don't really want to see because people are asking you to. Life (and time not spent working or sleeping) is short, too short to be wasted on checking your watch during a movie that you didn't really want to see in the first place.

      Actually Heath, I like the idea of Patrick and his fellow 'F' heads (JB and Doug so far; Mark, Erika and Mike can't be far behind) using their bully pulpit to solicit and expand their viewing choices beyond each of their own 'safe' areas. They're actually showing trust and acceptance of our opinions, even if they end up rejecting most or all of our suggestions (i.e. "The Legend of Billie Jean"), as the fuel for interesting columns/podcasts when they do listen to our suggestions.

      Doug clearly wasn't meant for "The Garbage Pale Kids" and JB didn't warm-up to the liberal-soaked romanticized view of Washington Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner crafted for "The American President." But I'm glad these guys saw those movies (and Patrick suffered through "Battle Beyond The Stars") for our entertainment in the well-written columns that resulted. As Patrick said in the "Garden State" podcast, that's what opinions from complete strangers on the internet are for. ;-)

    2. Yep, I get it and understand the point of the column, we just have different philosophies. I figured I should at least voice mine. Now I've expressed it, so I'm going back underground like Keyser Soze. And like that...he's gone. Hey, have you guys seen that movie? You really should watch that movie. I can let you borrow it. Here, it's in my bag. Take it and call me as soon as it's over. No, wait, I'll watch it with you. It'll blow your fuckin' mind!

    3. Heath! New picture. Nice.

      I'm all for people watching what they want when they want and following whatever thread is interesting them at the moment. I'm only chiming in because I think the spirit of the column has been unfairly characterized. No one has to watch anything they don't want. The whole thing is just kind of a goof for us to watch stuff we might not otherwise or that we've been intending to see but haven't. Doug agreed to watch Garbage Pail Kids because he knew it would be funny. JB asked to watch American President after I suggested he see it, because I knew he hadn't. It's still all voluntary. If JB never wants to do an "I'll Watch Anything" again, he certainly does not have to. There is no fun in making someone see something against his or her will -- which you have accurately captured with your Usual Suspects rant.

    4. You're just complementing Heath on his picture because he's rockin' a beard. You facial-hair people and your way to look for one another... ;-P

    5. Hey, Patrick! I feel a bit like John Lennon during his whole "Beatles are bigger than Jesus thing." It was prompted by JB's closing thoughts where he said he will NOT watch anything, and that if F heads wanted him to watch something then they'd better come up with mind blowing doozies. It was that statement I tried to direct my reply to, just saying "hey, watch what you want to watch." The man, did not seem to be feeling the idea of I'll Watch Anything, so that's what I was responding to, not the idea as a whole. But now it's become all this...I wasn't saying I was bigger then God as a thing or person or whatever it is, or that F this movie is better than Jesus... Anyway, I notice JB has wisely steered clear (good call), and I certainly wasn't insinuating that he is being forced to watch movies Clockwork Orange style (eggy wegg). Can you guys actually see the hole I'm digging getting deeper? Anyway, you know I love you guys, and I'm not a rabble rouser. I know why you guys do it, JB just did NOT seem to be feeling it. Can we awkward man-hug? *slaps back* Anyway, it shall never be mentioned again. So...Cabin in the Woods, right? I mean...yeah.

  6. I've never been able to think of The American President as anything but a dry run for The West Wing. While JB appears to lump both of these projects together in the same mound of Sorkin mediocrity, I'll always hold The West Wing in high regard, if for no other reason than for dramatizing the political process in the least-pandering manner in the history of fiction. If I can avoid sounding like an executive-level douche, as a journalist in Washington DC I can tell you that WW has had a profound effect on more federal employees than you can begin to comprehend.

    Having said all of that, I feel somewhat obligated to defend The American President. Easy though it may be to categorize this film as a "political drama," it's actually got so very little to do with the business of governing. Rather it's an examination (though I'll grant you, not the most realistic one) of the interaction between genuine human emotion and civic duty.

    JB aptly points out that Andrew Shepard's "big speech" moment is depicted as a total vanquishing of his political opposition, which runs in stark contrast to the political reality of this (or any developed) country.

    But I'd counter that that speech, though certainly peppered with liberal rhetoric, has so much more to do with President Shephard's conscious decision to defend the honor of woman he loves even though she is, by any measure, the very definition of a political liability.

    The movie is incredibly corny and aims for "the middle" on so many occasions, but it I'll contend to my wit's end that it is made with complete sincerity and a genuine reverence for its characters and subject matter.

  7. I'm with Alex on this one. Maybe it's because I read the script first, but I thought this was a totally solid film if you watch it without expecting more than a cursory glance at the presidency itself.

    It plays more like a fast-talking, old school Hollywood comedy (think HIS GIRL FRIDAY), starting with a meet cute between a man and woman on opposing sides of the career food chain and ending with them learning to value the relationship first and foremost.

    In this sense, I'd agree that Benning was miscast (maybe they were looking for another Allison Janney?), since she's more suited to grounded, three-dimensional roles instead of flighty ones like Wade. However, I don't think Sorkin could've picked a better pair than Michael Douglas and Michael J. Fox to deliver lines of this nature. They're what keep the film from being a structural exercise that ultimately reads better on the page.

  8. I'll take a stab at a "I'll Watch Anything"...

    "The Apple" (1980) - especially being a fan of "Phantom of the Paradise" you appreciate that film a lot more.

    A suggestion for either "I'll Watch Anything" or "F This Movie" - "Formula 51" (a/k/a "The 51st State" outside of the US). I thought of this film while listening to your podcast about "Boondock Saints" and the comparisons to Tarantino. "Formula 51" has been accused of the same thing but I have it on good authority (from the writer, who I know) that he had been shopping the script around long before "Reservoir Dogs" came out. It was only after that movie hit that anyone was interested in it.