Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review: Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels
Dir. Rob Letterman
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: PG
Running Time: 85mins

As I’ve been sitting here trying to type this review, I have come to the realisation that there are in fact many ways to begin a review for Gulliver’s Travels. “It’s good!” is not one of them. But, then again, neither is “it’s bad!” because Gulliver’s Travels defies mere badness and enters a sort of crazy inverted whirlpool, much like the one Jack Black’s Gulliver encounters on the high seas, and enters a parallel universe of bad. It’s bad, but for seemingly completely new and different reasons to any other bad movie I can recall seeing recently. It’s awfulness does not fall on mere bad acting or lazy writing – although there is plenty of both - but instead falls on some unexplained strangeness that doesn’t adhere to any sense of logic on this planet.

It has warmed my heart to know that several other critics have found themselves in my position. Particularly Tara Judah of Liminal Vision, with whom I saw this film and shared a lengthy rambled conversation with after as we both scrambled to explain what we had just witnessed. Questioning the film – and its very existence – seems like a fruitless task, and yet it’s one I keep coming back to. Just why was it made? I know the studio pitch – “It’s Gulliver’s Travels… with JACK BLACK!” – must have been an easy sell, but having seen the film I am quote certain that not one single, solitary person involved in the making of this modern day update was at all interested. The director? Doubtful. The cast? Definitely not. The grips, gaffers and clapper holders? They probably weren’t even aware what movie was being made. The entire affair is a strange and altogether odd concoction, made with little finesse or bother and ending with a finished product that is the strangest movie to come out of mainstream Hollywood since Mamma Mia!

Focusing on part I of Jonathan Swift’s five-part novel from 1726, Rob Letterman’s film wastes no time with things as Gulliver (Jack Black) is sailing away on his adventure a mere 10 minutes into the film. Promptly swept away to the Bermuda to write an article for editor Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), Gulliver finds himself and his boat tumbling into an upturned vortex that washes him ashore an island made up of people one twentieth of his size. He’s considered evil, then a hero and then evil again and then some stuff happens with a robot (yes, a robot) and then the movie ends. I'm fairly sure that robot wasn't a part of the novel, yes?

It must be said that the film begins quite nicely with an opening credits scene filmed with tilt shift photography that is fun to watch. It all goes rapidly downhill from there with a prologue sequence of sorts that shows Gulliver being an annoying workplace clown that we’re apparently meant to find endearing. He’s nothing of the sort. The brow-burrowing doesn’t stop there either for Letterman and his writers Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller throw about scenes that will surely offend anyone who has even the slightest of desires of entering the world of writing and journalism. After plagiarising a piece of sample writing that his editor is too thick to notice straight away he is sent on a three week (THREE WEEK!) vacation to Bermuda (BERMUDA!) to write a short fluff piece (SHORT FLUFF PIECE!) Of course, “the pay isn’t great,” but when a character getting a three-week vacation to Bermuda as the first assignment in your new career as a travel writer then you know this film isn’t going to be aiming for realism.

Once Gulliver arrives in Lilliput things get even stranger and over the course of the next 70 of the film's mercifully short 85 minute running time they continue to get stranger and stranger. This mystical location of miniature people all dress in Elizabethan garb and yet the character of Horatio (Jason Segal) speaks in modern day terms, ending sentences with “so…” and occasionally lapsing out of his poor British accent. Apparently Gulliver’s popularity makes the citizens of Lilliput ditch their corsets, hoop skirts and frilly shirts for outfits from Supre and Cotton On. Emily Blunt’s Princess Mary goes from looking like her royal character in The Young Victoria to looking like Lindsay Lohan in a ghastly canary yellow dress with black leggings. How Jack Black’s slacker gear inspired that look is perhaps beyond my skills of movie analysis.

And what of Emily Blunt, who turned down a role in Iron Man 2 for this? Nobody within a few square kilometres of this production cares as little about it as Blunt does. I’d be surprised if the blooper reel doesn’t include Blunt accidentally throwing the words “pay check” into her dialogue when she was meant to be reciting dialogue. The only thing on her mind is, clearly, the money. There are scenes where I can swear I saw her daydreaming about a new Porsche mid-sentence! And one moment of particular horror is like a really bad punchline to a depressing career achievement montage where the audience will laugh as Blunt hides under the table. "Boosh" indeed.

And then there’s poor, sad Amanda Peet. Forced to somehow make audiences believe that she would fall for Jack Black and then humiliated by having to dance around like Portia De Rossi doing her chicken impersonation from Arrested Development. The climactic action sequence between Gulliver and Chris O’Dowd’s General Edwards in a giant robot costume is lazy, the 3D – while initially promising – is more or less ditched by the second half, presumably by visual effects artists who found better things to occupy their time with. Like, oh I dunno, eating paper. And then there’s that musical sequence where the cast sings Edwin Starr's “War”. Something tells me Elaine Benes wouldn’t even believe that if I told her.

Throw in the biggest toilet gag every seen, a drunken Catherine Tate seemingly impersonating Fiona Shaw from The Black Dahlia, a dark sense of embarrassment for Black – forced to done a pink, frilly doll costume when he arrives on an island of people even bigger than he – and Prince quotations and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a truly baffling movie going experience. Who green-lit this script? Who on set didn’t think to question anything that was going on (perhaps the copious green screens made it impossible for everyone to know how cartoonish yet cheap it would all end up looking?) and why – just WHY – did anybody think audiences would like these people?

Words can’t truly express how strange Gulliver’s Travels is. I imagine one has to be stoned to appreciate any of it, and yet nobody over the age of 8 would be within the film’s demographic. So unless you, your child or both are stoners I can’t recommend it. I mean, I wouldn’t even recommend it to them, but at least they might get a kick out of seeing Jack Black urinate over a castle. Everyone will probably sit there is shocked disbelief at the clusterfuck of oddities that make up this movie. My head was spinning by the final scene and when the credits began to roll I looked over at my friend and was quite speechless. What had I just watched and just how bad was it? How bad? This bad: F

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough I believe the castle urination was actually in the novel, although it's been a long while since I read it.

The thing that really annoys me about this adaptation is not how spectacularly bad it seemed from the preview but rather how little it takes from the novel. If the only point of similarity is the Lilliputians and the broadest story outline of the first part then its pretty clear that you're only sticking the Gulliver's Travels title on it as brand recognition.

An actual adaptation would use the same conceits to skewer modern day politics rather than use the broad scenario to make pop culture jokes.