Regular readers of this column know that Super 8 left me cold. That film had been billed as one of the good ones. But that’s in a world—to borrow the blockbuster-trailer parlance—where “good” means predictably “shallow and sentimental.” As a grudging habitue and tiny-paycheck-collecting parasite of Hollywood excess, I know all too well that the critic who refuses to enjoy blockbusters can easily become more of a buzzkill than the blockbusters themselves. But the blockbusters long ago zeroed out our expectations.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
And yet, this summer’s batch seems to almost brag about its collective lack of actual humanity. It is a season of waddling penguins (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, with Jim Carrey), animated automobiles (Pixar’s Cars 2) and twitching transformers (see below). Of superfluous smurfs (The Smurfs, with Katy Perry and Neil Patrick Harris) and more apes (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco and Andy Serkis). Of horrible bosses (Horrible Bosses, with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston) and cowboys and aliens (Cowboys & Aliens, with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford). And, maybe worst of all, one pair of withered American sweethearts (Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks) mugging their way through the saccharine sludge of Larry Crowne.
For kids, summer means a reprieve from the tedious pre-adult responsibility enjoined by school; for adults it often means poignant reminiscence of same—a yearning for those remembered childhood days, with their great swaths of open, squanderable schedule. But now we’re all, “Well, that’s another two hours I can’t get back. Thanks again for nothing, Michael Bay.”Probably what’s worst is the ruthless inflexibility of it all. These mindless rituals are bludgeoning instead of relaxing, familiar in a way that offers stupor in lieu of comfort. If Transformers: Dark of the Moon actually involved giant robots performing Howard Richardson & William Berney’s play—you know, Starscream blowin’ up skyscrapers, Uncle Smelicue dancin’ at the hog trough—it might really turn a few heads. No chance, unless some dork (me?) mounts such a production and puts it on YouTube.
Sure, we have alternatives to the wide releases, but those are only barely available. How about writer-director Mike Mills’ Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent; or director Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; or Azazel Jacobs’ Terri, with John C. Reilly? Not that being alternative automatically means being good, either. Mostly it just means being marketed differently.
Of course, every summer-movie dung heap has its delights, but to discover them you must be willing to roll up your sleeves and reach right in. But that seems a lot like work, and some of us kind of want a vacation.