Thursday, March 13, 2008

Miller's Crossing

I got around to seeing Miller's Crossing yesterday (finally!). Here's my two cents.

Basically, it just continues my love-hate relationship with Roger Ebert. This is one of those he got right.

Three stars, he says. I totally agree. It's a good movie with aspects of greatness, but actually calling it great would be taking things way too far. How does Ebert put it? " seems like a movie that is constantly aware of itself, instead of a movie that gets on with business." Indeed. Even better is Ebert's specific example: Leo's office is too nice. Which, of course, it is. Leo is the Irish mob boss who supposedly runs the city (ah, but which city?), and the furniture in his office is VERY NICE. That bugged me too. Not just about Leo's office, but about everything. The movie is very tasteful. Everyone lives in exquisitely-furnished places. It's not just 1929-style, it's the best 1929 had to offer. The clothes too. Everyone is conservatively dressed - but you can tell they're wearing the best. And all of this is typical Coen Brothers accidentally tipping their hand. They're detail fetishists rather than sticklers for detail - and the furnishings and clothes and tad-too-witty dialogue are all their fantasies of what the 20s must've been like rather than any real attempt to recreate the period. Which would be fine as far as it went - except that it's all clearly meant to be taken seriously. Or - actually, it's worse than that. It would like to be taken seriously, but the Coens are products of their generation, and they can't do anything completely without irony. So one gets the impression that the finery is covering for a certain lack of confidence. Not trusting themselves to pull off a convincing period piece, and honest enough to admit (to themselves, anyway) that the reason they want to pull off a period piece is so they can play with ridiculously expensive lamps and conservative wool suits, they do what they want and hope that those few in the audience who notice will be film-school enough to chalk it up to the Coens' consciousness of their role as fantasists. Fine - but that kind of feint keeps them out of the experts' circle.

The other thought that kept going through my head was just "Scorcese does a better job with these movies." Don't ask me to put my finger on what it is about so many Coen Brothers films that reminds me of Scorcese - but they frequently do. And that's not a good thing - because again all it does is highlight their second-place finish. If I had to say what it was, I would say it's the fascination of both parties with ethnic stereotypes. They love that stuff and can't get enough of it - and in both cases it falls short. But somehow in Scorcese's case I don't mind so much - and I think it's because the movies are still about the individual characters. No one is an excuse for anything in a Scorcese film - the "type" they fit is incidental, a personal indulgence we allow a great director. No one is anything other than an excuse in a Coen Bros.' flick. They have itches they want scratched, and their characters are the fingernails.

The trouble with this movie is that lots of things that it is are excusable in and of themselves, but the excuse falls flat next to other similarly "excusable" things. Take the dialogue. It's very witty - frequently laugh-out-loud funny. And in that sense it's all Phillip Marlowe. Everyone in this movie thinks improbably fast on their feet. Which is lots of fun to watch, of course, and having fun is what watching movies is all about. So fine, it's not realistic, but we don't go to movies to look out the window, after all, so it's excusable. What kills it is that it doesn't jive with other things - like all the faux meditation on the nature of political power and just how, exactly, the Categorical Imperative is in play at all times even if never explicitly named. Maybe I'm being too tight-assed about this, but it seems to me that you can make a movie about philosophy, or you can make a movie about wisecracks, but you can't do both at the same time. Or at least, if you want to, you have to modularize - they can't be part and parcel of the same theme. And yet in this one they are: the Dane's constant refrain about Tommy is that he's "too smart." If you want a movie about a battle of wits - fine - make that. But to pull it off we have to believe in the characters, and we can't do it while their lines are so good that we know the writers just handed them out without regard to the person saying them - merely making sure that our hero gets the last word.

But OK, I'm rambling. Let's distill it down, then. This movie is mostly concerned with covering all its bases. It wants credit for being a period piece, but it doesn't want to take any real risks, so it overdoes things and hopes to get off on "film consciousness." It wants to have an intricate plot, but it doesn't want there to be any holes. So it throws dialogue at you fast and keeps the characters whirling across the screen, keeps making references to events and people the audience hasn't been told about yet, and hopes you won't notice that the plot is actually quite simple and formulaic. For those who do notice it, well, that's OK because it's really about philosophy anywyay. But of course they don't want to get too deep in that either, so they've got that one covered as well: the philosophy is just a way for us to understand Tommy's character. But think too long about that and you'll notice that Tommy is the only actual human in the whole film, so we cover that one by making him an implausible wisecracker. Anyone get to thinking that it's a character study of Tommy, and no, really it's just a fun noir film. And that's it, folks. This is a well-calibrated pleasure-giving machine, but it isn't art. Worth seeing? Absolutely. But know that it's overrated. As with all Coen Brothers films, you should expect to be impressed, but not awed. This one's better than most of theirs, I think, because it's such a neat mental toothpick. There are endless meta-film angles to ponder on - a goldmine if you're into that thing. And hey, I am, so I'm pleased. But Ebert's right - this is three star material. Good most assuredly - but nothing like great.


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