This is a long post. I hope it’s a good one. In any case, folks, have a good weekend.
Are you a pinball fan? You must be. Your best movies are like those great, caffeine-fueled pinball-game sessions, where I’m so riveted to the action of the machine that it doesn’t strike me as odd to lift and tilt the machine or to yell at the ball. My eyes are fixed on the screen because I have to pay attention if I’m gonna catch everything, and even then I’m worried that I might miss something. The one-liners ping off the walls and the characters themselves, and the dialogue zigzags in unexpected directions. Though churned by rapid-fire conversation and surprising plot developments, your camera is remarkably still and graceful, like the unchanging contours of a pinball machine.
Since about 2001 or so, however, everything has fallen flat, as if the shining ball came to rest on the upturned flipper. Your characters are dully drawn, the performances are perfunctory, the few great jokes linger in the air instead of bounce off the New York scenery, and the plots are on treadmills. Nothing happens. In 2003’s Anything Else, the characters talk and gesture with the same mannerisms—I closed my eyes once, and couldn’t distinguish who was speaking. It’s as if you have given up on giving them anything approaching identities, much less giving them anything interesting to do.
This isn’t easy for me to write. One night a few years ago, I was unable to sleep. Realizing that I wouldn’t be nodding off any time soon, I amused myself by counting up the number of your movies I had seen, and seeing if I could summarize the plots and major characters of each one. I stopped, finally drowsy, at 27.
But I won’t see your new flick, Melinda and Melinda. The basic premise, like all your basic premises, is terrific. Since Slate’s David Edelstein has actually seen the movie in question, I’ll let him sum it up: “In a bistro-set prologue, two playwrights (Wallace Shawn and Larry Pine—standing in, perhaps, for Andre Gregory) argue about comedy and drama and which is the more vital form. Someone at the table tells a story of a woman who crashes a dinner party, and each writer decides to retell it according to his own firm aesthetic. The two versions, presented not in succession but breezily interwoven, revolve around the same character—an unstable woman named Melinda (Radha Mitchell). One is a heavy drama, the other a frothy romantic comedy.”
It’s a great premise. I’m sure the movie will be awful…
Your most recent movies—the gorgeously photographed and intermittently entertaining The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, the execrable Hollywood Ending and the limp-wristed Anything Else—have all been charged with great setups, and absolutely no follow-through. They’re not fleshed out, as if you’re rushing through scenes so you can get home in time for dinner. You seem to want to get through a shot (or a scene, or a movie) as quickly as possible, and move on. Your productions are nothing if not well-oiled units. You shoot quickly, with small budgets, and usually on-location. So, you’re not quite lazy. Your work ethic isn’t sloppy, but your vision has become so.
Even at its best, many people complain about that vision. Naysayers bray that your New York is overly warm and glowing, scintillating, and scrubbed free of squalor, colored people, cultural allusions after the year 1965, or people under 40 (other than the ingénues who chase after you). I don’t mind it so much. When you’re good, and you often are, your eye captures gorgeous things, and your neurotic characters stumble towards the heart of everyday anxiety and longing. I don’t care that they’re all white, urban, and upper class. They speak to me anyway.
Besides, when you try to create black characters, which is rare, you end up with poor Hazelle Goodman as a loudly dressed hooker in 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. She’s not just a prostitute, but a cartoon version of a prostitute—she’s as stereotypical and offensive as R. Crumb’s notorious Angelfood McSpade. The difference is that Crumb was deliberately trying to upset our perceptions of race and racial stereotypes; in your case, I’m just not sure you know any better. Melinda and Melinda goes the opposite direction, using Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of my favorite actors, as an opera composer and classical pianist named Ellis Moonsong. (His name sounds like a character from a bad blues novel—what were you thinking?) Moonsong, from most critical accounts, seems to be godlike—charming, eternally gracious, glowingly handsome, perfect. In short, like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he’s superhuman. When you don’t portray us in your vision of a city that’s got more ethnic diversity than any other in America, I recognize it as a serious flaw. When you do, however, I wish you’d leave us the hell alone.
Let’s face it: you’re not much for the under-40 set, either. Anything Else concerns twenty-somethings flailing around in search of good jokes, or at least a discernible narrative; only you and Stockard Channing are truly interesting. The kids all listen to 1940s jazz, shop for vintage posters, and dress like college students circa 1962. In Everyone Says I Love You, a movie I otherwise adore, 19-year-old Natasha Lyonne seems to love the Marx Brothers more than any other comedy troupe. She doesn’t interact with anyone her own age, or with anyone who might listen to, or read, something more contemporary than Rodgers and Hart. I’m not disturbed that these kids all have your particular old-man tastes. Rather, it’s annoying that they seem to all live in a world in which Britney Spears doesn’t exist, in which hip-hop isn’t heard booming from the streets, in which MTV is nonexistent. You’ve grafted your tastes onto these youths; I never get a sense that they have tastes of their own, tastes that might challenge yours. They’re not characters, but merely contrivances.
Don’t get me wrong—contrivances can be terrific Your finest creations are often just that. These spots of gleaming greatness, however, are not what you probably think they are. From about 1968 to 1980, while in the midst of a fertile filmmaking period, you also made a bid to be a great prose humorist. In quick succession, you produced three books of short comedy pieces—Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects—that rank among the best American humor volumes ever. “The Metterling Lists” is a glowing review of a deceased writer’s laundry lists. At seven pages, it’s a perfect satire of how the publishing industry will milk a famous writer’s ephemera as far as it can. (Expect to see a collection of Saul Bellow’s correspondence in the near future.) “Remembering Needleman” mercilessly parodies the obituaries of public intellectuals, as well as punctures neatly the eccentricities of obscure thinkers—also seven pages long. “God” and “Death” are one-act plays that are as fresh and useful on each respective subject than most three-act tragedies.
Because your pieces are usually absurd, nonsensical, and full of puns, you were often called the heir to S. J. Perelman. This must have pissed you off. Perelman’s diction and sentence structure is rococo, building dazzling and hilarious ornaments of language with high-flown words. (I keep a dictionary by my side when reading him.) Your style is terse, direct, and simple. Like much of rococo art, ornamentation is the point in Perelman’s pieces—often, there’s not much narrative thrust in his pieces. Your stuff much more situational—the humor comes from characterization and ever-mounting anxieties as much as from elaborate language. In your writing, the laughs come from within your characters; in Perelman, from outside them, from the environment that surrounds them.
Your greatest prose creation so far is “The Kugelmass Episode,” in which all of your thematic concerns—sex, neurosis, literature, marriage, the struggle between art and reality—are laid bare. Schlubby professor Sidney Kugelmass finds himself unhappily married and getting nowhere in his therapy. His therapist recommends to Kugelmass a man who has invented a contraption that can literally insert him into any book of his choice. Skeptical, Kugelmass asks to be put into Madame Bovary—if you’re gonna dream, at least dream big. The thing is: It works. Kugelmass has an affair with the lovely madam, and gets addicted to her in the same way that my friend Ernesto has gotten addicted to reading Flaubert’s prose.
There are complications, of course: “…Students in various classrooms across the country were saying to their teachers, ‘Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?’” A colleague recognizes Kugelmass as the sporadic interruption in the novel. Emma decides that she wants to come to New York, to enter the real world, and becomes harder and harder to please. She wants an acting coach, glamour shots, acting classes. Then, Kugelmass can’t get her back into the novel. Tension mounts at home as his wife begins to suspect. A simple fantasy becomes filled with the anxieties of real life. It’s hilarious, but also unsettlingly true.
Best of all, it’s only 17 pages long. In “The Kugelmass Episode,” you found the perfect form for your surprisingly ambitious trifles.
In a feature-length movie, however, a filmmaker needs more than a trifle, no matter how good it is. For most of the last decade, you’ve thought up some terrific confections, but have confused them with full-course meals. You start with a great conceit—a washed-up filmmaker goes blind just before he begins the shoot of his comeback picture (Hollywood Ending); a detective gets hypnotized by a thief, and is forced to commit crimes that he can’t remember later (Curse of the Jade Scorpion); a writer undergoes severe writer’s block just as he’s about to accept a major award for his work (Deconstructing Harry); the aforementioned Melinda and Melinda. But you’ve either lost interest, or forgotten how to, create interesting characters and plots to drive these conceits.
There’s hope for you. In 1989’s New York Stories, you showed a flair for short comedy in the half-hour “Oedipus Wrecks.” After a long absence, your prose has started to pop up again in The New Yorker. You wrote a wonderful review of the Library of America’s new anthology of George S. Kaufman’s Broadway comedies that revealed as much about your aesthetic sensibilities as it did about Kaufman’s. [Registration is required for the New York Times review.]
In short, be short. You’ve lost sight of big vistas, so you should switch to smaller, more concentrated views. You can clearly churn out some great belles lettres, and you’re obviously not gonna stop working until you keel over. Fine. Instead of unleashing yet another disappointing mediocrity upon us, why not hone your prose even further? Decimating your reputation as a filmmaker can’t be fun. You’ve made us laugh, you’ve made us cry, you’ve made us think.
Now, you’re just making us cringe. But that piece you wrote about Mickey Mouse testifying before a Senate subcommittee? Hysterical. And that weird piece that starts with you in a classical music store? Funny as hell. Keep it up.
But, for God’s sake, stay away from the camera. At least for now*.
With best wishes, and with guarded thanks,
*p.s. I hold out hope for your upcoming movie Match Point. It’s your first film shot entirely in England, which means that by necessity you’ll be moving outside your normal frame of reference. Maybe a change in locale will make you think things through. So, I’ll plunk down cold hard cash to see this one. Because I’m a sucker for you.