How are Woody Allen and Pixar alike? It’s not output; Pixar needs to keep hustling for another few decades before its collective can match the movie-a-year rate of Allen on his own (yes, yes, collaborative medium, but seriously: he writes and directs a movie a year). And as much as I love Woody Allen, it’s not quality control; the aforementioned pace all but precludes the astronomically high batting average enjoyed by Pixar, which includes two of the best sequels ever, one of the best superhero movies ever, and that’s even before you get to the less classifiable but equally astonishing triumphs of Up, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and so on.
But both entities do have the relatively recent problem of letting their body of work define critical evaluation—perhaps even more so than makes sense, and I’m someone who’s all for parsing the ways Adam Sandler’s filmography fits together.
For awhile, the Pixar story was the streak. Now that Cars 2 put an end to that by being liked but not loved, and profitable but not a smash, it seems like people are looking askance at Brave, their new movie and first non-sequel in three years. In the wake of Cars 2, Pixar can’t just make another really good movie; they have to somehow atone for their previous foray into dirty sequelizing—and if that atonement doesn’t come in the form of a masterpiece, the story of Brave must become the story of Pixar’s inability to scale previous heights, not what gets put on screen when the company decides to make what looks like a more traditional fairy/folktale.
Of course, I haven’t seen Brave, and it’s entirely possible that it belongs near the bottom of the Pixar hierarchy, in dreaded “pretty good” territory (really, even Cars 2 isn’t less than pretty good if you consider things like design, visual snap, and well-directed action sequences). But it seems like that in its way, Cars 2 gave some people permission for the shark-jumping article that a certain segment of culture writers seems to be itching to write about everything from the moment it becomes clear that it’s really good. Whether this is an advanced (which is to say wordier) version of calling firsties, or the product of a melancholy sensibility dictating that all things—especially creative winning streaks—must come to an end is difficult to say.
The latter sensibility might find some sympathy from one Allen Stewart Konigsberg, who also has a movie out this weekend: To Rome with Love, which by virtue of a last-minute retitling (previous, superior title: Nero Fiddled [Previous, superior title to the previous, superior title: Bop Decameron. -Ed,]) has been positioned as a de facto follow-up to Midnight in Paris, even though Allen works too quickly for any of his movies to be made with the previous film’s reception in mind.
Allen has been dealing with filmography reviews for well over a decade now, if not two or three, and conventional wisdom has it that late-period Woody typically follows a left-field surprise artistic success like Match Point or Vicky Cristina Barcelona with a disappointing whiff like Scoop or Whatever Works. I’d put it differently; I’d say overpraised late-period Woody Allen movies tend to be followed by underappreciated late-period Woody Allen movies. That is to say: I love the ultra-lightweight silliness of Scoop and while it may not be a “better” movie than Match Point in terms of ambition (or plotting; it hinges on a ghost ex machina, after all), it’s the one I own on DVD and have any interest in rewatching ever. Similarly, Whatever Works is probably minor Woody at best, but so is Vicky Cristina, and the former is a lot funnier (what is Vicky Cristina Barcelona?! It’s not really a comedy; it’s not really a drama. I sort of enjoy its neither-here-nor-there-ness, but then, that same quality is present in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger [With the key difference that Tall Dark Stranger is, and I say this with only a hint of hyperbole, a stone masterpiece. -Ed.]).
This is all to say that as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Paris—here, I can almost agree with the conventional Woody wisdom; it’s one of his best recent movies, though this best-in-20-years claptrap is just that—I don’t much trust the disappointment greeting Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which finds Carell lonely and depressed, as Carell characters usually are, a few weeks before an asteroid is scheduled to collide with Earth and destroy all life (Carell’s Hope Springs, due out in August, looks even more blandly dramedic; at least the Seeking a Friend trailer has a few laughs, although he also looks less pitiable in Hope Springs [Wait, why are they remaking Hope Springs? -Ed.]). I hope the movie is melancholically funny; I also hope Carell doesn’t lose touch with his comedic bona fides after he wraps Anchorman 2. Of course, he could also start applying his talent for dramedy to movies that are better than the likes of Crazy, Stupid, Love. Maybe Seeking a Friend is a step in that direction.
I don’t have an easy segue from those first three movies, all of which I want to see, to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I have seen and do not recommend, other than Pixar and Woody Allen and even Steve Carell cover aspects of movies that I truly love, while director Timur Bekmambetov deserves to be lumped in with every big-ticket hack in Hollywood. Actually, come to think of it, at least some of Brett Ratner’s movies have charming movie-star performances and some of Michael Bay’s have eye-popping individual shots, albeit often edited together without much sense. Neither of those minor saving graces exist in what I’ve seen of Bekmambetov’s work so far, although at least this Lincoln movie is far less noxiously self-satisfied than Wanted. I suppose he has a gift for taking the ridiculous seriously, and some will doubtless argue for the merits of playing it straight. And that strategy might work for Bekmambetov’s movies if he had any sense of gravity, character, or when not to use speed-ramping and slow-mo. But he doesn’t, so he somehow makes movies that are just as ridiculous as the Robert Rodriguez pictures I tend to love, only weirdly un-fun and seemingly unaware of their own stupidity. I guess he doesn’t condescend to the material. I guess he also doesn’t have any sense of when material needs to be transcended, not treated as badass gospel.