Thursday, October 4, 2007

A worthy but long journey "into the Wild"

Summary: Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" tells an intriguing eough story, but the movie eventually wears out its welcome. The fault: Penn stretches an episodic tale to near-epic length, perhaps trying to scoop big helpings of meaning from a life that barely got started.

What does it mean to say a movie is too long? Were nine hours of "Shoah" too much for the Holocaust? Should 175 minutes of "The Godfather" been boiled to a crisp 90 minutes? And what of a movie such as "2001: A Space Odyssey?" Were its 141 minutes nothing more than a cosmic blast of Stanley Kubrick-style indulgence? Would "Gone With the Wind" have been more palatable as "Gone With the Breeze?"

Generally, I believe length should be treated as a non-issue -- until, of course, it becomes one.

And in the case of "Into the Wild," which I mostly enjoyed and which certainly is worth seeing, length becomes an issue, which is why I begin with it. The movie's slender story hardly demands 140 minutes.

Working on a bigger canvas than ever, Penn tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who turned his back on an affluent future to bum around the country. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) rejected the life that seemed to spread nicely before him after he graduated from Emory College in Atlanta. Instead of hitting more books -- say in law school -- he hit the road.

Narrated in quasi-poetic fashion by McCandless' sister Carrie (Jena Malone), the picture provides enough backstory for us to peer into McCandless' psyche. He couldn't abide a father (William Hurt) who abused his mother, portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden, an actress who can look as if she was born to suffer. (Don't believe me; watch "Mystic River" again.)

McCandless' journey moves toward increasing isolation, but during his travels, he meets the people who help give the movie its spark: the manager of a group of farm workers (Vince Vaughn), a hippy couple (Katherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and a lonely old gent (Hal Holbrook) who takes a liking to the young man, pretty much as everyone does.

For a time, you, too, may fall under McCandless' spell. It's not difficult to understand why. McCandless' wanderings rekindle a spirit of romance that has called to nearly every generation, the naive but often-irresistible yearning for the freedom of the road. I admit it. I'm still juvenile enough to admire someone who dares to say, "Take this life and shove it." "Into the Wild" should appeal to everyone who objects to following a pre-determined path. You know the drill: College, grad school, marriage, kids in high-priced pre-schools.

As document-ed in Jon Krakauer's 1996 nonfiction account -- Penn's source material -- McCandless' journey ended in the Alaskan wilderness. He went off by himself, and lived in an abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere. In the grip of ferocious hunger and unable to ford the raging stream that separated him from safety, McCandless ate a certain kind of berry that destroyed his powers of digestion. He subsequently starved to death, a fate that made a mockery of his insistence on self-reliance and living off the land.

At times, I couldn't help feeling that someone (I was ready to volunteer) ought to have given McCandless a swift kick in the pants, begging him to get over himself. Call home. Get an apartment. Find a job. It's possible to view McCandless' romanticism and rebellion as a mask for massive amounts of whining. Moreover, McCandless isn't the first young man to aspire to a freewheeling existence, although he may be the first to rename himself Alexander Supertramp.

"Into the Wild" relies on the magnetism and charm in Hirsch's performance, as well as on the inchoate yearning landscapes can evoke in us. For a long time, I bought into the poetry of "Into the Wild," but by the movie's end, I'd begun to wonder whether Penn's narrative wouldn't have benefited from a dash of irony, particularly as McCandless' adventure begins to turn into a journey of self-destruction.

Either that or shorten the movie. Think of it this way: It took Stanley Kubrick one minute longer to cover the entire history and evolution of mankind in "2001" than it takes Penn to deal with two years in McCandless' tragically abbreviated life.

The Heartbreak Kid. If nothing else, Peter and Bobby Farrelly have a fan base. Even though their recent "Stuck on You" failed to impress, the Farrelleys still deserve to be called kings of the increasingly popular relationship/gross-out genre. And let's face it: The guys who made "There's Something About Mary" aren't likely to wear out their welcome with comedy-hungry audiences.

This time out, the brothers offer a loose remake of Elaine May's small but classic 1972 comedy, which starred Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd and Jeannie Berlin. The Farrellys drop the ethnic impertinence of the original, move the story from the East to the West Coast and scrap the desperate striving that marked Grodin's performance, derived from a Neil Simon script based on a short story by Bruce Jay Friedman. Ben Stiller, who worked with the Farrellys on "Something About Mary," plays the owner of a San Francisco sporting goods store who's pressured into marrying a woman (Malin Akerman) who seems an ideal match. On a honeymoon to Cabo San Lucas, Akerman's character reveals an apparently endless stream of annoying personality traits. Stiller's Eddie Cantrow falls out of love as quickly as he fell into it.

He spends most of his honeymoon chasing a live-wire dreamgirl (Michelle Monaghan) who's in Cabo for a family reunion. The Farrellys find some laughs (a deviated-septum joke is crudely funny), but they haven't assembled a pleasing comedy. The brothers know how to drop gags into a story, and when it comes to pushing the taste envelope, they can be peerless. (Beware the donkey sex scene.) Still, in tackling "The Heartbreak Kid," the Farrellys probably should have shown they can do more.

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