Friday, September 16, 2011

A Pleasant DRIVE Through Familiar Territory

I think DRIVE is overrated. I only just finished watching it for the first time three hours ago, but I feel pretty confident in making this statement.

That's not to denigrate the film in any way. I also think INCEPTION is overrated, but it's still a fantastic film.

The main problem with DRIVE, for me, was the plot--the framework; the foundation. The execution was innovative. I wanted to love the movie so badly, every second that it was onscreen. I saw that it was fighting against mainstream cinema, and in all the right ways. But at its heart, the plot just felt like something I'd seen many, many times before. In fact, it felt like a plot I'd seen two seasons ago on BREAKING BAD.

The presence of Bryan Cranston may have been more of a curse than a blessing. He's a terrific actor, and certainly elevates whatever material he's performing. But in this particular case, the give-and-take-and-then-take-some-more mentor relationship with Gosling's character is really reminiscent of Walt 'n' Jesse, perhaps to the detriment of the film. The fact that Gosling's character is romancing a troubled lower-class gal with a kid (and ties to the Hispanic community and the criminal underworld) makes it feel even more like a retread of BREAKING BAD season 3. The filmmakers obviously wanted me to think of Gosling as the next Clint Eastwood (The Kid with No Name!). Instead, all I could think about was Jesse Pinkman, and the fact that Ryan Gosling, as good as he is, is no Aaron Paul. Paul displayed greater range in one scene of BREAKING BAD this year ("I made you my does THAT feel?") than Gosling musters in the entire film.

I do think Ryan Gosling is talented...but I think his career has been badly mismanaged. He's overexposed, for no good reason. All of a sudden, he's in one out of every six movies. It seems like he's trying to pull a DiCaprio.

Back in 1998, you couldn't spend ten minutes with any girl under 20 without hearing squeals of "Leo!" Leo, in turn, was despised by the entire male population of the U.S. Five years later, he underwent a tremendous transformation (largely thanks to Martin Scorsese), and today he is one of the most respected dramatic film actors alive. (Deservedly so, I might add.)

Gosling similarly came to prominence in a romantic adolescent melodrama, and in the last year or two has been trying to parlay that into artistic credibility with some daring, interesting roles. The problem is that Gosling hasn't been working with anyone of Scorsese's calibre (with the possible exception of Marc Forster).

The "less is more" approach to acting can be very effective (see Clint Eastwood in the Leone trilogy). But Gosling is leaning on it too heavily. His minimalist performance in LARS & THE REAL GIRL thrilled me for twenty minutes, but then started to bore the shit out of me. His DRIVE character kept my interest a little more. It's a credit to the performance that there could be a thirty-second scene of two characters staring at each other, exchanging only one line of dialogue ("I'm not doing anything this weekend"), and I was on the edge of my seat. I chuckled at the absurdity. I felt the guy's pain. I felt the GIRL's pain. If a moment like that is done right, the audience becomes a worm on a hook, waiting to be devoured by the film. It worked in that moment.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of other moments in the film where Gosling's wide-eyed man-of-few-words goes from intriguing to boring. At a certain point, you need to pull something else out of your bag of tricks. At a certain point, there needs to be some development. "The Kid" never quite seems to get there. He's always just the boy scout with a dark past.

Maybe if the pacing had been better, DRIVE could have disguised its script issues. Instead, it feels like two separate movies welded together. The first half is a tediously slow "forbidden romance"; the second half is an ultraviolent revenge thriller. It's like someone started doing an update of ROMEO & JULIET, and then Sam Peckinpah was brought in midway to take over the production. The Peckinpah-esque stuff is terrific (and much appreciated, being released the same week as the watered-down remake of Sam's classic STRAW DOGS). But the romance just feels belabored and obvious.

Some reviews have compared its dreamy quality to the love scenes in David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DR., probably due to the L.A. setting. But without Lynch's visionary weirdness, we're just left with two people who have a penchant for staring moodily into space. Reviewers often talk about sexual chemistry, but the so-called "sexual chemistry" between actors doesn't actually happen on the set. It's something that's read into the performances after the fact, by the audience. In this film, the first few scenes of Gosling and Carey Mulligan standing silently across from one another, sporadically throwing smouldering glimpses across the room, feel sexy. Really sexy. But after awhile, as human beings, we're supposed to connect. When two people are together for the fifth time and still can only say three words to each other, you start to wonder if maybe they just don't have anything in common. Or maybe they're both slightly retarded.

I think that if some of the violence had been bumped up to the first half of the film, and some of the romance pushed to the second half, we might have been left with a more balanced and less tedious film. The Kid's relationships with Cranston and Albert Brooks were the most intriguing parts of the film for me. I felt like his time with these men was far more important than his slight romantic entanglement with Carey Mulligan; and the ending of the film seems to bear me out on this. Unfortunately, there's a good forty minutes of the film's 100 minute runtime that seems to disagree with me.

To digress momentarily:

I love the Steve McQueen film THE SAND PEBBLES. The only part of the film that doesn't work is the romance with Candice Bergen, which feels completely tacked-on. Fortunately, that romance only takes up about 20 minutes of the film's three-hour runtime. Much more important is McQueen's love affair with the ship's engine ("Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman").

Similarly, I feel that Gosling's love affair with driving (and particularly the stock car, which gets lost in the shuffle) should have received more emphasis. That stock car was the offspring of Gosling, Cranston, and Brooks' characters. The betrayals these three men inflict on one another would have meant so much more if that initial bond had been pushed on the audience a little more. Instead, the filmmakers elected to flesh out in painstaking detail a romance story that we GET almost instantly. It's important to the film, and to the Kid's character...but it doesn't merit the amount of time that's spent on it.

There are several terrific performances in the film, but I'm tempted to give Brooks the edge--if only for his complete defiance of expectations. The performance he gives here is the kind that can redefine a career. These days, Brooks is known for being goofy and intelligent. He's Nemo's dad; he's the author of a well-reviewed work of satirical political fiction; he's one of the funniest celebrities on Twitter. And in DRIVE, he's absolutely chilling. I think there are probably more than a few people who will hesitate to shake his hand after watching this film.

The highlight of the film is absolutely the pre-credits scene, which is one of the most intelligent and suspenseful car chases shot in the last twenty years. That ten minutes of footage is almost worth the price of admission all on its own, and could have made a terrific short. Maybe the film doomed itself by starting out so strong, when it couldn't possibly sustain that level of awesomeness for 100 minutes.

Would I recommend watching DRIVE? Absolutely; anyone who loves film should do so. However, I hope you won't be quite as amped-up as I was. It's a pleasant "artsy" diversion, but underlying the gloss is a worn-out storyline that needs every bit of polish the filmmakers have at their disposal.

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