Though Hollywood reserves the holiday movie season for its annual harvest of ambition, prestige and clout, even the most painstaking Oscar husbandry can often fail. For three much-anticipated films in particular, the damage varies.
So Bad it's Good: The Spirit (Dec. 25). Perhaps it's best to know as little as possible going into this adaptation of Will Eisner's classic 1940s comic series, written and directed by Eisner acolyte Frank Miller in the arresting visual style of his debut (with Robert Rodriguez) Sin City. But the silhouettes, snow and sooty (if green-screened) Central City backdrops are less-convincing a reason to have a look than the gleeful pageantry of Miller's bad taste: The Spirit (Gabriel Macht), essentially a zombie cop turned oversexed masked-vigilante enforcer, introduces himself by way of an epic fight with equally unkillable Central City crime lord The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). Mud is thrown, balls are crushed, toilets are slammed, and expectations are dashed. "This," you should expect to mutter to yourself and/or your incredulous date, "is fucking terrible."
Well, kind of. Your first impression — that Miller has no idea what he's doing — eventually surrenders to an intrigue with what he'll do next. Will Scarlett Johansson put her beguiling badness to work as Octopus right-hand Silken Floss, or simply stand around like a line-reading cleavage prop? Will Eva Mendes (as jewel thief Sand Saref) test the PG-13 rating with her de rigeur gratuitous nudity? Will doctor Sarah Paulson ever tire of her male-slut superhero crush? Will Jackson's fat, annoying cloned henchmen ever shut up? And is that actually Sam Jackson up there in Nazi regalia, shouting about eggs?
By the time Miller answers most of these questions, you're already barreling toward The Spirit's climax — a convergence of the hero, villain and their intimates for a hyper-violent This is Your Life variant for the soul of Central City. With spectacle to spare and absolutely no interest in Iron Man's optimism, The Incredible Hulk's self-seriousness or The Dark Knight's social criticism, The Spirit instead emerges as the comics genre's semi-lucid inbred cousin. Hating this movie would be like booing at the Special Olympics.
So Bad it's Bad: Seven Pounds (now playing). At some point one might expect an ebb to the extraordinary critical tsunami that helped devastate Will Smith's morality play. Or at least a backlash of some kind, anything pledging some redeemability to the story of a purported IRS agent making a set of mysterious rounds to help an ensemble of sick, blind and otherwise downtrodden strangers.
Alas, we won't be the ones inaugurating that movement. Seven Pounds is everything its detractors say, with baffling plot contrivances and dramatic ineptitude compounded by the cardinal sin of utter boredom. As Smith's mission crystallizes and his motivations surface — in a twist so random it really does defy spoiling here — the likelihood of any emotional payoff diminishes behind the vast horizon of its star's ego. We imagine Seven Pounds' final 40 minutes may someday acquire some esteem in the Cult-Classic Canon for its adroit interweaving of printing-press repair, bone-marrow transplants, bad sex and killer jellyfish. But for want of anything worthwhile preceding them, it begs the question: If Will Smith falls in the forest and the audience walked out around the one-hour mark, does he make a sound?
So Bad it's Ugly: Revolutionary Road (Dec. 25) . While novelist John Cheever traced the glide path of America's fall from post-WWII euphoria to disillusioned ennui, his contemporary Richard Yates was the black box that captured every primal, panicked cry in the seconds before the crash. Nearly 50 years on, Sam Mendes likely fancies himself to share a little of each man's qualities, with his decade's worth of moodily revisionist entries surveying suburbia (American Beauty), crime and the Depression (Road to Perdition), the first Iraq War (Jarhead) and now Revolutionary Road, Yates's debut novel about an idealistic young couple's suffocation in the Connecticut suburbs.
But Mendes crafted not so much an adaptation here as he did a stunt. It was one thing to reunite wife Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, tricking the Titanic generation into a bit of po-mo awards-season whiplash; it was another entirely to impose his semi-literate condescension on Frank and April Wheeler, Yates's doomed ad man and his housewife, whose shared yearning for a life beyond the social constraints of their titular street capsizes in devastating slow-motion. Their unraveling was a symbolic end to the optimism of Eisenhower's '50s, no less nightmarish for its yowling, virtually unprecedented depiction of complacency's costs. It created a stir that never altogether faded, influencing American Beauty itself and prompting no fewer than a dozen failed screen attempts before Mendes and Scott Rudin coaxed around $40 million of DreamWorks' money to smear their quasi-pedigreed patina over the Wheeler family's implosion.
It would have been bad enough with screenwriter Justin Haythe digesting Yates's piercing dialogue into compact, Oscar-clip-compatible bursts. It would have been bad enough with DiCaprio and Winslet, each miscast, delivering those bursts in furrow-browed, you-shout-now-I-shout order. It would have been bad enough with Michael Shannon dropping by as the neighbors' candid loony son, the Connecticut equivalent of Southern dramas' "magical Negro" whose cruelly omniscient nuggets coincide conveniently with key junctures of the Wheelers' dissolution.
But Revolutionary Road's real failure transcends tone-deafness. Here, Mendes actively perverts his source's vanguard qualities — grossly commodifying the Wheelers, fetishizing their anguish, and in fact reveling in the excruciating emotional turmoil that tormented Yates until his death in 1992. We knew Mendes was a bit of a serial masturbator, but a necrophiliac? Moreover, a cold-blooded cultural murderer? Quick — someone save Kate.