Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Great Expectations (1998): A Review
There was a time, not too long ago, when 'classic' novels/plays were getting the 'Update Treatment'. The general thought was that teens, generally either too bored or too stupid to bother reading these hallmarks of English/American literature (let alone understand them), needed to have these stories placed in contemporary settings and brought from the dusty and rarified air into bright, shining versions. These versions were hip and cool and most importantly, flashy.
They had to be flashy because as we all know, reading or hearing Shakespeare's or Charles Dickens' words is simply too difficult for today's audiences. The MTV Generation demanded things be brought down to their level, because they sure weren't going to raise their standards for some books by a bunch of dead people.
On occasion, these updates can breath new life into these classics and even be entertaining (Clueless for example was a funny and clever update of Jane Austen's Emma). They can be quite pleasant (the updating of The Taming of the Shrew into 10 Things I Hate About You was a delight). Then, there are other cases.
The contemporary version of Dickens' Great Expectations is not the nadir of this 'literature for the youth market' craze. I still think Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet is a horror and an abomination of my beloved Shakespeare (though I concede many teens STILL are enthralled with it, though I've no idea why). However, this Great Expectations suffers from many flaws to make it interesting, let alone worthy of being in the same category as the 1947 version.
Finnegan "Finn" Bell (Ethan Hawke) is going to tell us this story, in his own words, "not the way it happened, but the way I remember it". Thanks for the 'unreliable narrator' update. He is a young man in Florida, living with his sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and her husband, Joe (Chris Cooper). One day, he finds an escaped convict who holds him and threatens him and his family, demanding food in exchange for Finn's life. Finn complies, and later the convict tries to run off to Mexico with Finn as some kind of hostage. The convict is caught and returned to prison.
Shortly after, Joe and Finn are called to the home of reclusive Miss Nora Driggers Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), a Miss Havisham-type who is more Norma Desmond living at "Paraiso Perduto" (that's Paradise Lost in case the symbolism isn't already testing your patience). Miss Dinsmoor has a beautiful niece, Estella, who catches Finn's eye. In turn, Estella plays hot and cold with our hero, and even draws the taunts of Miss Dinsmoor, who tells him he will fall in love with Estella...only to have his heart broken.
Finn has fallen in love, but his hopes are dashed when Estella leaves, and now seven years have passed. Finn has gone to New York to pursue his art dreams, when a lawyer comes to offer patronage on behalf of a mysterious figure. To Finn's surprise, another figure comes his way: Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow). She continues her game of teasing Finn, taking him to the edge and pulling back, even doing this in front of her fiancée Walter (Hank Azaria) and her posh friends. Eventually, Finn tires of this and gets on with his life.
With continued patronage, Finn becomes a success, but his personal life continues to be a mess. Joe shows up for Finn's debut, embarrassing him with his rustic manners. The mysterious benefactor reappears: it's that same criminal, Lustig (Robert De Niro), who takes Finn on a wild run from thugs in the New York City subway. Even Miss Dinsmoor pops up earlier, taunting him with how Estella has gone off to Paris to marry Walter.
And I think all this was that same night.
Eventually, after Lustig's death Finn becomes an artist without his patron, and he makes a sentimental return to Paraiso Perduto. He finds a young girl and imagines it's Estella, but it's really Estella's daughter. Now divorced from Walter, she begs forgiveness for her past actions, and she and Finn reconcile, with a chance that perhaps they can be together at last.
It is a bit sad that Great Expectations came to us courtesy of Alfonso Cuaron, who has gone on to bigger and better things. Great Expectations suffers from a whole series of bad performances by people who really should know better, so while we can fault some of the actors for being bad, they had to have been guided by someone who couldn't get them to do better when they obviously can (four Oscar winners and one two-time acting nominee).
Worse among the performances are the elders in our group. I won't go so far as to say that Bancroft was doing some form of drag queen impersonation, but Miss Dinsmoor was so broad and unintentionally comical that she came across not as menacing or bitter or even crazy but as a joke that she wasn't in on. Cuaron's decision to have her always wear green as opposed to her wedding dress made her look like Poison Ivy's slightly bonkers grandmother.
As a side note, I wonder why the film opted out of both naming her Miss Havisham (too British, I imagine) and having her not wear her wedding dress (I imagine the Gen Xers the film was appealing too would have found that too ludicrous).
Ultimately though, Bancroft was just a dead man in a pool away from telling Mr. DeMille she was ready for her close-up.
Great Expectations also allowed De Niro to go into his worst traits. His Lustig was pretty much bonkers too, more raging lunatic than a sober-minded man who was rewarding a kindness.
As both played by Paltrow and written by Mitch Glazer, Estella isn't an obscure object of desire but as a morose, bored person with no personality. It's a wonder as to why Finn or even Walter (weak as he was) would care for or about Estella. She never made Estella an interesting person, let alone a fascinating and/or erotic one. Whether it's due to Glazer's script or Paltrow's stilted performance or both is up to the viewer.
Hawke wasn't breaking new ground as an actor here, playing a variation of the confused young man he had done before. Maybe it's because he was at that period of his life where his role as the symbol of Gen X male confusion was what sold him, but while I won't say he was horrible I won't say he was good either.
Azaria does fine as the plain Walter Plane (which makes me wonder if Glazer was going for overtness by naming our dull character "Plane". I figure he must have, otherwise it was a remarkable coincidence). I mean 'does fine' if Walter was meant to be dull, so if that was the case Azaria did a fine job.
I imagine the reason I didn't totally hate Great Expectations has to do with the fact that it is a beautiful looking film. The sets are quite exotic (even the dilapidated Paraiso Perduto), and Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography still top-notch. Truth be told, I wasn't crazy over Patrick Doyle's score (and he is one of my favorites) but I don't remember hating it, so there's that.
Great Expectations is all pretty, the type of film where I can imagine the MC from Cabaret saying that 'even the orchestra is beautiful'. Beauty, however, goes only so far, and Great Expectations does not live up to them.