xXx: Return of Xander Cage
The last forty minutes of the movie do come together in a pretty diverting way.
There is a theory about film directing which teaches that every shot is wasted that does not further the story. When details are added to make things “interesting” or “colorful,” they only distract from the forward progress of the narrative, and bore us. For example, I tell you, “A guy is on a lonely road in cold weather, trying to get his car started.” What do you want to know? What he does to get his car started, right? Now what if I say, “A balding, middle-aged appliance salesman is on Alaska Route 47, trying to get his Ford Crown Victoria started when it’s 47 below zero.” More interesting, or less? Less, I’d say, because the additional detail was not crucial for the thrust of my story. And what if I added lots of other touches, like giving him a bumper sticker that says “The more I know men, the more I trust dogs.” Better, or worse? In a mediocre film with nothing to say, the details might provide momentary flashes of distraction. But the pure story line would be lost: The guy against the elements and a stubborn machine. When a movie seems overflowing with interesting, colorful details, that is often a sign of desperation - a way of saying, if the picture’s no good, get a gaudier frame.
These remarks are inspired by Paul Mazursky’s “Scenes from a Mall,” a movie that stars Woody Allen and Bette Midler and is very bad indeed. Ever since seeing the film I’ve been trying to figure out what went wrong. This is a movie I’ve been looking forward to since it was first announced. How could Mazursky, whose work includes “An Unmarried Woman,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Enemies: A Love Story,” possibly make a bad movie starring Woody Allen and Bette Midler? Isn’t the combination of director and cast so good that the movie has to work? And yet the movie doesn’t work, except for a short time at the beginning, when we are meeting the characters. They’re affluent professionals who have just packed the kids off to camp and are now embarking on a shopping trip to the local mall. There are some laughs in these opening scenes, but more importantly, interest is generated: We learn enough about these people to become curious. Even if they’re not stranded in the Arctic, even if they’re only celebrating their 16th wedding anniversary, that’s enough, and we wait patiently to see where the day will lead them.
Where it leads them, alas, is into a fog of arbitrary storytelling and desperate gimmicks, sudden revelations and unmotivated mood swings, in a movie that seems to have been written without having been thought about very much. The screenplay - by Roger L. Simon, with Mazursky - creates big gestures for its characters because it doesn’t know them well enough to give them small gestures.
What happens is, midway during a day that seems destined to be happy, the husband confesses he’s been having an affair. This revelation inspires a series of arbitrary responses in Midler - calm, outrage, grief, rage, analysis, acceptance, a decision for divorce, a willingness to compromise - after which she tells him she’s been having an affair, too, and the whole merry-go-round starts again. OK.