Between Reviews: Same, but Different

Posted on August 14, 2010

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SAME, BUT DIFFERENT

Two recent hits prove, yet again, that it’s easy to forgive familiarity if the treatment is reasonably unfamiliar.

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AUG 15, 2010 – WHERE WOULD HOLLYWOOD BE WITHOUT its tales of grinches discovering their inner parents and wrongly accused (wo)men on the run? Despicable Me and Salt are two recent releases that have mined these familiar territories and unearthed box-office gold. Perhaps the next time we say we keep making the same movies over here, we should also point a finger towards Hollywood. There too, originality is not exactly a valued virtue. Then again, even in the rut of sameness, they manage to make a difference – and that’s where the lesson lies. The sin is not to conceive something derivative. The sin is to render it derivative. For the duration of the film, we should feel we’re watching something (reasonably) new, and as long as that promise is fulfilled, we forgive everything else. And going by this criterion, Salt and Despicable Me end up mostly forgiven.

Two aspects make the familiar machinations of the man-on-the-run plot seem unfamiliar in Salt. One, the man is played by a woman, Angelina Jolie. And two, almost till the end, we are never quite sure if she is just a wrongfully accused CIA operative, or if she’s indeed a Russian “sleeper spy,” planted deep in American soil only to await the day she will sprout into a democracy-threatening assassin. The premise is mouthwatering. Imagine a series of such sleeper spies who themselves are unaware that they’re sleeper spies until the day they are awakened to duty. And imagine one such spy portrayed by one of the most leonine of actresses, the queen of the action-adventure jungle. When someone asks a captive Salt (that’s her name, Evelyn Salt) how many more like her there are, she looks them in the eye and replies coolly, “Like me? None.”

This is as true a line that has been uttered in the movies – for which other actress can make herself so convincing while outfoxing, outrunning, outfighting a bunch of men? At several points in Salt, I was reminded of the way Jonathan Demme highlighted Jodie Foster’s smallness in The Silence of the Lambs. He surrounded her, at her workplace, with men at least a head taller, and we are meant to feel afraid for this frail woman taking on a “man’s job.” We feel no such fear with Jolie, even though she doesn’t seem to be much taller than Foster. We fear, instead, for the hapless men in her way, as she integrates her femininity – a sanitary napkin, or her lacy panties – into her survival tactics. Several of the stunts are fairly routine, nothing we haven’t seen in countless similar adventures, but what keeps us watching is that they’re executed by Jolie.

The only time Jolie is unconvincing is when she asks her slightly paunchy husband if he wants pancakes for breakfast. We laugh because it’s he – the entomologist, with the more “feminine” profession – who’d probably be servicing her, preferably on all fours. Through the course of the film, I kept wondering why Quentin Tarantino had not yet made Jolie the object of his worship – for she comes across as much a fetishistic possibility as Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill movies. With each determined pursing of those full lips, she appears to be saying, “Go ahead, make my day.” She’s Dirty Harriet, ruler of her own take-no-prisoners moral universe – and yet, as this is a Hollywood production, she finds time to entrust her little doggie to a neighbour before embarking on the mission to exonerate herself. These stray concessions to sentimentality apart, Salt is like its heroine, fit and fighting, with very little flab.

Despicable Me, too, relies entirely on its protagonist, Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) – though, at first, he’s more of an antagonist. It isn’t just that, with his sepulchral attire and beaked nose, Gru looks like the love child of the Addams family patriarch and Danny DeVito’s Penguin. Early on, Gru sees a child wailing on the street. A quick look at the pavement reveals a blob of ice cream, which has fallen from the now-empty cone in the kid’s hand. Out of apparently nowhere, Gru conjures up a balloon animal and gifts it to the child, who begins to smile at this unexpected compensation. An instant later. Gru produces a pin and pricks the balloon and departs with a self-satisfied smirk. Children, evidently, are not amongst his priorities – and that’s the starting point of his gnarly character arc, which will end with his embracing parenthood with family-audience-pleasing gusto.

Like many of the better animation films these days, Despicable Me works less due to the plot than the touches varnishing the plot – the hysterical Mission: Impossible-inspired heist sequence, for instance, or the sly sight gags. (Gru’s grand ambition is to steal the moon, and when he details his plans on charts, the moon diagram contains the disclaimer, “Actual size may vary.”) There are the mandatory nods to contemporary headlines (Gru’s sponsor is the Bank of Evil, Formerly Lehman Brothers) and classic cinema (the horse-head-on-the-bed moment from The Godfather is amusingly recreated) – but thankfully not too much to reduce the film to an empty guess-the-reference fest. There’s also a very funny fart joke, which so many years after flatulence becoming acceptable (even de rigueur) on screen, is no mean accomplishment. Even the same old fart joke can clearly be made to sound different.

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