Talking Movies

November 17, 2019

From the Archives: Into the Wild

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) drops out of Harvard Law School, without telling his family, to tramp the highways of America as an itinerant labourer before travelling to Alaska to live off the land.

Sean Penn’s fourth feature as director is as po-faced a bore as he is. Penn has absolutely no sense of humour, as his reaction to his caricaturing in Team America proved. He has stated that this film is “A call to the youth of America to explore their country and really live”. Into the Wild exhibits a deluded belief in the ‘rugged individualism’ preached by Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s. Men with no ties, living off the land, fiercely independent, surviving alone in the rugged West, real men…with beards. It was fairly mythical then, and in the 1960s Hunter S Thompson sought out these deluded Henry Thoreau wannabes who wanted to commune with nature. He found only broken old men and naïve youngsters from the East Coast, with no skills. Penn in 2007 is hilariously presenting this as a positive option. Christopher McCandless’s real-life odyssey was insane in 1990 and it’s only gotten more ridiculous since as all jobs for the unskilled have dried up.

Vince Vaughn, who is surprisingly good in his cameo, is the voice of sanity in this piece! He contradicts the dribbling condemnation of American society offered by Emile Hirsch as his reason for leaving his identity of Christopher McCandless behind and becoming ‘Alexander Supertramp’. ‘Alex’ sounds like a stoned hippie whenever he tries to explain why he’s choosing a life of homelessness. It is that ridiculous. Penn depicts Bush Sr on TV justifying the Gulf War, in a soundbite carefully chosen for its eerie resemblance to Bush Jr’s justifications of the current Iraq mess. But Penn uses it to justify Alex’s illegal border-hopping to continue his tramping. For such a political activist to suggest dropping out of engagement with society and retreating to nature as the paradigm for America’s youth is baffling.

This film is pretentiously divided into chapters, while Alex quotes 19th century books endlessly rather than think for himself. For those who like clichés Alex kayaks down the Rio Grande and meets a Danish girl who instantly takes her top off. Ah, those wacky Europeans. In a later chapter he teams up with Kristen Stewart for a Bob Dylan/Joan Baez style musical relationship. Hal Holbrook is on fine form as the wise old man in the final ‘chapter’ titled ‘The Getting of Wisdom’, but it is screamingly obvious that Alex never even develops common sense. Vegetarians will not be the only ones traumatised by a graphic scene in which he kills and guts a moose. A magnificent animal is being sacrificed to sustain a pretentious, incredibly narcissistic twit who deserves his inevitable death which comes about as a result of his own idiocy. The one star is for a few good supporting turns and the undeniably gorgeous scenery.

1/5

December 3, 2011

The Big Year

Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson star in a pleasant tale of competitive bird-watching that just stubbornly refuses to take true comedic flight.

Martin plays the retired CEO of a major company who’s trying to belatedly achieve a ‘big year’, in which he would spot more species of birds in North America in a single calendar year than any other birder. That means spotting more than 700 types of bird. This involves trekking all over the continent on hot tips to spot rare birds like the great snowy owl or the pink-footed goose, travelling to the farthest island tip of Alaska (nearer to Tokyo than Anchorage) for a week to see the Asian wildlife landing there, and chasing major storms that will cause migrating birds to touch down unexpectedly on the Gulf Coast. The lengths to which the birders go results in a number of nicely rendered stampedes and diabolical schemes and tricks as well as a charming travelogue of some of America’s prettiest landscapes.

Martin is supported in his absurd quest by his wife, but perpetually harassed by requests from his former lieutenants to head back to NYC to help them with deals. Wilson, by contrast, plays the world-record holder Bostick who is testing the patience of his wife Rosamund Pike to its breaking point. She’s taking hormones to try and conceive, but he’s never around as he’s trying to better his own record to secure his place in the history books as the undisputed best birder of all time. Black is the singleton of the trio, a divorced loser who wants to achieve something with his life, and is aided by his mother Dianne Wiest arranging his travel schedule even as his father Bryan Dennehy despairs of the stupidity of his son’s choice of goal. The adorable Rashida Jones crosses his path from time to time as a fellow birder who he just can’t summon up the courage to ask out.

It’s a delight to see Anjelica Huston crossing swords with her regular Wes Anderson colleague Wilson, over his mutiny on her birding ship in his previous ‘big year’ quest to see a rare bird rather than the whale she was showcasing to tourists. It’s also amusing to see a veritable pantheon of TV comedy actors including Joel McHale from Community, Kevin Pollak, CSI Miami’s Byron quoting British Person in the lab, Network head Jack and the demented impressionist from Studio 60, as well as Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory as a blogger causing trouble. However, this movie while big hearted, solidly acted, perfectly structured, and nicely subversive of the philosophy of winning at all costs, just doesn’t have enough jokes. There’s one sublime gag but mostly you’ll just chuckle and smile.

The verdict must rest with the good doctor, Samuel Johnson: “Worth seeing? Yes. Worth going to see? No.”

2.5/5

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