Monday, December 23, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (*1/2)

Directed by John Lee Hancock


When I learned of the overall premise of Saving Mr. Banks, I immediately began suffering PTSD of my horrid viewing of the 2004 film, Finding Neverland. In that film, we learn that author J.M. Barry (played with aching stiffness by Johnny Depp) was inspired to write his Peter Pan books by spending his time with a lovely but unlucky English family. It was an overwhelmingly sentimental film that played down several important issues in Barry's tale and focused on the power of family. In Saving Mr. Banks, we're introduced to P.L. Travers (played here by Emma Thompson), the Austrailian author of the Mary Poppins books. By the time of this film, she has already written her books, and the film's story is about her fight against those planning to adapt her books into a movie. Doesn't necessarily sound too exciting until you consider that it's Walt Disney himself who's trying to make the film. Going into Saving Mr. Banks by comparing it to Finding Neverland was setting the bar rather low, if I'm being honest. And some how Banks managed to be even worse.

The film is directed by John Lee Hancock who is also responsible for 2009's The Blind Side a film which so intuitively insults the intelligence of its audience that it may be the very worst Best Picture nomination of all time - it's most certainly the worst one that I've seen. It's eventual awards success (it won the Best Actress Oscar for Sandra Bullock's catty performance) is probably what led to Hancock getting this gig as well. With Saving Mr. Banks and The Blind Side, Hancock is given incredibly interesting stories but tells them in the least interesting, most ignorant ways. The Blind Side flops so heavily atop socio-political land mines (poor black children are fine as long as the football-loving white lady is there to save him!) that you get whiplash by the film's end. It's so blunt that it feels harmless, and it's deceitful manipulation of race relations convinced many in the audience that it was wholesome. Saving Mr. Banks is not nearly as offensive on a sociological level, but the manipulation is still there. It searches for audiences the same way political figures search for votes: by hitting the lowest common denominator and raking in the chips.

The film's greatest achievement is its casting. Getting Thompson in to play Travers is a brilliant move, but then the film only utilizes a rather marginal percentage of her excellence. Before watching this film, I was of the opinion that Emma Thompson could do no wrong, polishing even the most soiled turds into shining moments of greatness. How else do you explain how she pulls off the preposterous character in Last Chance Harvey? As Travers, Thompson is relegated to incessant nagging. The film takes place in 1961, where Travers has refused to let Walt Disney adapt her books for the last twenty years. She has no interest in what the Disney filmmakers will likely do to her stories, transforming her disciplinarian nanny into a twinkling singer - closer to a cartoon character then a living, breathing human being. She relents slightly, after the two decades, because she needs the money, but falls short of actually forking over the rights. She flies over to Los Angeles to meet with the screenwriters and the songwriters, and of course, Walt Disney himself.

The legendary Walt Disney is played by Tom Hanks, in another inspired casting choice. Hanks smartly embodies our fantasy of the character of Disney, as opposed to trying to play the man straight. Many will, no doubt, complain that Hanks' performance and the film's screenplay ignores the more unseemly details of Walt Disney's persona, but what we're privy to here - and what's perfect for what Saving Mr. Banks - is this representation: Disney as the stubborn, spoiled, brilliant mind who makes great children's films because he's a big child himself. It's silly but it works here. A lot of the film is an emotional tug of war between Disney and Travers, with Travers holding onto the rights of her books, thereby holding all of the leverage. Travers seemingly goes out of her way to talk down to her driver (played by Paul Giamatti), dismiss the Disney assistant (Michelle Arthur) and consistently takes down the film's screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) because they're getting it all wrong. The film's songwriters, two brothers named Robert (B.J. Novak) and Richard Sherman (Jason Schwartzman) are fighting a constant uphill battle since Travers insist that it simply CANNOT be a musical.

Almost half of the movie is flashbacks to Travers' childhood which is the true inspiration for the character of Mary Poppins. Young Pamela (Lily Bigham) adores her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), even though he's a dangerous alcoholic and his disease has lead to the loss of several jobs and their family home. Travers pushes his oldest daughter to use her imagination, to pursue her dreams, and their equal adoration for each other leads young Pamela to lie to herself about her father's condition. The real Mary Poppins in Pamela's life is her aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths), who promised to fix everything in the Goff family, but failed ultimately at saving Mr. Goff from his boozing ways. In fiction, Mary Poppins really does save the day, but what Disney and DaGradi and the Sherman brothers simply do not understand is how much Mary Poppins plays in saving the childrens' father, Mr. Banks.

Farrell is very good in his role, but the flashbacks threaten to consume the movie at times, as if the script can't really tell which story is the main thread audiences should be paying more attention to - at times I wondered it myself. The Goff family tale is inherently tragic and to place it side-by-side to Walt Disney trying to get some filmmaking rights seems a bit uneven. The parallel storyline is meant to explain why the character of P.L. Travers is draped in such unwarranted cunty-ness - to possibly create some sympathy for this woman who is by all counts monstrously rude and lacking of nearly all socially accepted manners. I didn't find anything funny in Thompson's performance, her clashes with her sweet-hearted driver and her incessant no no no with the writers and Disney grated on me. I felt like this was the kind of role that was right in Thompson's wheelhouse, and maybe she is working well within the confines of her director's tutelage. With an actress as great as Thompson delivering a performance this bad, I tend to blame the directing and the editing. There's just nothing for this character to do except whine.

As the film moves forward, we get the eventual relenting of Travers to the charm of Disney. She even hugs a plush Mickey Mouse doll in her hotel bed. The whole transition is very obvious and it comes because finally Walt Disney himself understands what Mary Poppins is all about. Alas, the power of Disney can cure all ill feelings and bad moods, it can even help you overcome the cirrhotic death of your father. It all felt incredibly empty to me, the stakes incredibly low. It's not that there was no suspense because I already knew what would happen, I felt no suspense because I didn't care. Over the film's end credits they play audio recordings of the real P.L. Travers harassing the writers and undercutting their authority much like Thompson's performance does in the film - as if to confirm "See! This really is how it all happened!" It made the whole sequence feel even more shallow to me. The performances from Hanks and Farrell are good, and Giamatti and Schwartzman also give the movie a handful of moments that will make you smile, but the film is completely dominated by the performance of Thompson who apparently decided early on that complete surliness is the equivalent to acting. The film will probably get awards play like The Blind Side and that makes me very, very sad. There are entire internet campaigns to stop Michael Bay, but where's the outcry for Hancock?

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