Rising Above

I’ve noticed a trend recently of amazing performances in films which are only okay. The first time I seriously noticed this was with An Education (2009).

The film was good. Comparatively great, I’m sure, to the majority of films released in 2009, but I found it trite and rather predictable. A safe British indie film, destined to be nominated a few times come awards season, but with little impact beyond that. But Carey Mulligan? I thought she was wonderful. Nuanced and complex. Her Jenny was smart, sharp, self-obsessed in the way only teenagers can be, but never obnoxious, never unpleasant, never needlessly mean. I thought that Mulligan’s fantastic portrayal rose above the relative mediocrity of the film.

I was struck again with the same feeling this summer upon seeing Easy A (2010).

Emma Stone is awesome. Her delivery is amazing, along with her comedic timing. As Olive Pendergast, she was quick, witty, sharp, and deadpan. The kind of girl I love to see in films. She also had a dream situation playing opposite Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her adorable parents. If the film could have been 120 minutes of their interactions, I would have loved it. Frankly, it would have been better. Instead, it was bogged down with inefficient storytelling (her “best friend” character was totally pointless and served almost no purpose), unbelievable plot points (since when does Ojai, Calif., have a burgeoning fundamentalist Christian youth movement? In what universe is a Southern California girl so severely shunned because she’s not a virgin?), and in my honest opinion, a shitty ending. Olive is eventually vindicated, but not because her peers come to their senses and realize that her sexual activity is none of their business. Rather, it’s because it was all a big misunderstanding, you guys! It’s all okay, because she’s not actually a slut. But if she was, everyone’s behaviour would be justified? Yet despite these issues, Emma Stone still shone; her Golden Globe nomination was well-deserved. I only hope she can find similarly wonderful characters to play in better films.

I was beginning to think this was a female-centric phenomenon until I saw 127 Hours.

If you’re interested in my snarky initial response, you can read my haphazard, bullet-pointed review here. Suffice it to say I found the movie to be uneven. An over-reliance on awkward flashbacks and Danny Boyles incessant need to SHOW US all his EDITING SKILLS drove me a little mad. It’s okay to let a story unfold organically, particularly when you have a skilled actor to show us the way. I was taken aback by James Franco. I knew he was a good actor (Milk comes to mind most readily, but he will always be Daniel DeSario from Freaks and Geeks to me), but this had been lost in his I’m-a-performance-artist-earning-14-MA-degrees-at-once-and-a-PhD-for-good-measure-oh-also-I’m-on-General-Hospital-too schtick. But he blew me away in 127 Hours. It is the measure of a great performance to be alone onscreen and still remain dynamic, to draw an audience in without interpersonal interaction. James Franco did a remarkable job.

So what is it? Why do some performances rise above their material, when others don’t? Is it a matter of the right role? The right actor or actress? The right movie? And why is it that I notice this but cannot think of an example of a film that was great despite poor performances?

I’m full of questions today, people! Got any answers?

6 thoughts on “Rising Above”

  1. Agreed with all of these. I would like to add that Eddie Redmayne is the king of this phenomenon. I thought I was never going to see a film worthy of his talent (his films usually failing his acting abilities through bad scripts, bad editing, or bad marketing) until I watched Glorious 39. Finally he’s in a film that showcases his acting talent and is pretty strong on its own.

  2. Leading ingenues in Fashion Films are lucky to have writers and directors essentially building movies around them. An Education is a Fashion Film. So are 500 Days of Summer and Lost in Translation (natch, every Sofia Coppola film). It’s the nature of an independent film. They’re not good enough to sustain an expensive big release. They appear to be great because we watch them with lowered expectations. In reality they’re just vehicles for adorable actresses.

    1. I was going to say something similar, but in reference to another Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette. There are some movies like Marie Antoinette or Moulin Rouge that I watch purely for the aesthetic experience of getting lost in the scenery and costumes ,with the narrative taking a back seat. I’ve never heard the term Fashion Film before but I think it fits in describing how/why I watch these types of films.

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