Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Unsung!: They Might Be Giants

Most of you have probably figured out by now that Mssrs. Bromley and Riske are more than merely my lovers – they are my role models when it comes to film criticism. Much like those gentlemen’s reviews of Side Effects and The ABC’s of Death, this review of They Might Be Giants offers only a qualified recommendation. That officially makes it “Mixed Bag” Week here at F This Movie! (Take that as you will.)

They Might Be Giants is a little gift from the 1970s, when movies were… different. The Seventies may have been the last time when filmmakers were free to pursue their own visions (for good or ill), and studios were willing to back what they hoped would be the next big thing. This was before genre films all shared the same themes, the same beats, and the same casts. Of course, the Seventies produced a mammoth amount of self-indulgent, pretentious nonsense as well. They Might Be Giants perilously skirts that line between “inspired” and “insipid,” between “swell” and “swill,” and between “giant” and “giant miscalculation.”

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Following the death of his wife, retired judge Justin Playfair (George C. Scott) begins to believe that he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother, who has racked up huge gambling debts, wants to have Justin declared incompetent so he can gain access to Justin’s fortune. He takes Justin to a psychiatric institute for evaluation; his case is assigned to Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward). Atypical Seventies hijinks ensue. The audience learns something very deep about the human condition. Or not.
George C. Scott turns in a terrific comedic performance here, the equal to his work in Dr. Strangelove. Scott was a gifted comic actor; I wonder why he was not given the chance to show off this gift more often. I think Scott’s performance as Native American John Rainbird in Firestarter was a comedic performance; it’s just that Scott didn’t bother to tell anybody. (A quick check of the IMDb reminded me of Scott’s tour-de-force performance in Movie Movie, another largely unseen gem that will surely be the topic of an upcoming column.) Scott’s performance, alas, is the best thing in They Might Be Giants; pity the filmmakers could not manufacture a better film to surround and support it.

Joanne Woodward, who plays Dr. Watson, is an underrated actress who, after winning the Oscar in 1957 for The Three Faces of Eve, married Paul Newman and became subsumed by his fame – it is too bad that she was then known chiefly as “the wife of Paul Newman.”

Watching They Might Be Giants, I was surprised to see how many familiar faces show up in bit and character parts: Jack Gilford (Catch-22 AND Crackerjack television commercials), James Tolkan (Back To The Future AND Problem Child 2), Rue McClanahan (The Golden Girls television series AND Starship Troopers), M. Emmet Walsh (Blade Runner AND Snow Dogs), F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus AND Muppets From Space), Paul Benedict (This is Spinal Tap AND Mandingo). One of the hidden pleasures of many lesser-known Seventies films is that they gave a bevy of New York’s best character actors a day or two of work.

They Might Be Giants is based on an unproduced play, and it shows. Oddly, it is the scenes that are most “stage bound” that work the best in the movie – the extended dialogue scenes between Scott and Woodward. These scenes work because they are about something: the nature of justice, the nature of delusion, or the nature of mystery and inquiry. During another wonderful scene in the reading room of the New York Public Library, Jack Gilford delivers a delightful monologue about secretly wishing he was the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The other scenes in the movie are obvious examples of the filmmakers trying to OPEN IT UP, as they used to say, and it is here where the film goes awry. A long “parade” near the end of the film, featuring many of the characters the two leads have encountered earlier in the film, seems particularly half-baked – a nod to the work of Fellini with no clear purpose in this particular narrative, not to mention that it goes on FOREVER. A later scene in a grocery store seems like a confused attempt to satirize consumerism in a film that has heretofore shown no interest whatsoever in this theme.

We have spoken of this phenomenon before. Half of the film wants to be one thing, and the other half (the shitty half) want to be another. We wind up with two films fighting each other for supremacy. This fight ends in a draw. The small stuff between Scott and Woodward works; the BIG ABSTRACT IDEA stuff fails spectacularly. Spabstractular!
I like the film’s conclusion. It features one of the Seventies’ most odious gifts to moviemaking: the ambiguous ending. Here, though, it works. The audience leaves the theater discussing a mystery (in this case, the mystery of what the fuck that ending MEANS), following a film that was itself full of mysteries and clues. Of course, I may be wrong – it may be one more sad case of confused filmmakers throwing their hands in the air (metaphorically) and telling the audience, “You figure it out.”

Ultimately, you should see They Might Be Giants for George C. Scott’s spot-on and funny performance. But you should also seek out this film BECAUSE of its messiness, its partially-formed notions, and its willingness to be extremely foolish. Modern films are so pasteurized, so homogenized, and so safe; they have had all their sharp corners polished off. They Might Be Giants is a film with sharp corners.

I like sharp corners.

They Might Be Giants
is unfortunatly out of print on the DVD (used copies go for between $65 and $150 on the Ebays), but IS available on the Netflix Instant Streaming and (broken up into nine little bite-size pieces) on the YouTubes.

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