Movie Review: “Wonder Woman 1984”

2017’s “Wonder Woman” was that rarest of things in the second decade of the genre—a genuinely earnest superhero movie starring a sincerely likable figure. In a marketplace of superhero content increasingly suffering from hardcore cynicism or obsessed with franchise-building, it was a breath of fresh air. For its part, “Wonder Woman 1984” arrives at a rather bleaker cultural moment, but mercifully, is no less upbeat. Like its predecessor, it trades vistas of cosmic destruction for a much smaller-scale story about human virtue and vice—a daring choice, but one that ultimately pays off.

We pick up with Diana Prince (the infinitely likable Gal Gadot) roughly seven decades after the original film, as she works as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian. An early jewelry heist gone wrong allows the Smithsonian to come into possession of a strange artifact—one capable of granting its holder a single wish, however extravagant. Such wishes, however, exact an unseen price. Diana wishes for the return of her long-lost lover, World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine)—who promptly reappears in her life, but at the cost of the slow degradation of Diana’s powers. Diana’s colleague, the hapless Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), wishes to be strong and sexy like Diana—a choice that paves the way for her transformation into the inhuman supervillain Cheetah. And erstwhile industrial tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) wishes to become a wish-granter himself, a choice that may have world-destroying consequences.

This isn’t the sort of superhero movie that one picks apart in search of plot holes, or tries to hammer down to fit into a seamless DC film chronology. Rather, like its forerunner, it’s best read as a sort of parable about the human condition (much like the Greek mythology that forms its thematic backdrop). Just as the 2017 flick used the figure of the god Ares to tell a story of war and vengeance, “WW84” uses Maxwell Lord and the wish-casting stone to undertake an exploration of disordered desire, of all-consuming avarice and the horrors that would follow if everyone received what they claim to long for.

Percolating beneath the surface here is a kind of Leibnizian theodicy: the world of truth, the reality we all actually inhabit, is in a way the best of all possible worlds. And in that spirit, “WW84” amounts to a repudiation of the comic book trope that, whether through maximum firepower or clever scheming, the hero can ultimately outwit fate and “have it all.” On this view, a measure of sacrifice—even crushingly painful sacrifice—is necessary to the rightly-ordered life, and characters can only grow to the extent they are willing to acknowledge that fact.

To my mind, this is a large part of what makes Diana a much more interesting lead than last year’s Captain Marvel. One can’t help thinking that Marvel’s screenwriters, in an effort to create a female lead who could be “just as tough as the guys,” wrote Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers to be little more than a snarky, emotionless force of destruction. But that’s not “empowering” in the important sense—it’s not an interesting way to write a character of either sex. Here, Diana doesn’t run from her emotions (she even cries at a pivotal moment), and that doesn’t make her any less of a heroic figure. Quite the contrary: it makes her a more interesting and relatable one.

Fortunately, viewers have plenty of time to get to know her: “WW84” is something of a slow burn (and probably could’ve shaved a half hour off its lengthy runtime), but for the most part this works to the film’s credit. Diana, Steve, and Barbara feel like genuinely realized characters, with motivations and life stories that make sense. And for his part, Lord does some excessive scenery-chewing early on, but once he becomes an avatar of sheer consumptive excess—something like a mixture of Elon Musk, a televangelist, and Norman Vincent Peale—his performance works. Nobody will win any Oscars, but the cast here has rather more gusto than the average Marvel contingent.

I don’t know how “WW84” would hold up on the small screen (I made the trek out to see it in IMAX, but it simultaneously debuted on HBO Max, where most readers of this review will probably be watching it), but in the end, I can’t help thinking that this is a movie that principally rewards viewers willing to be swept into its mood and momentum. Just like its star, “WW84” largely eschews irony in favor of sincerity and earnestness. And perhaps that’s naive in 2020, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s what we all need at this point.

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Posted by on December 27, 2020 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “Hillbilly Elegy”

Hillbilly Elegy, for better or worse, has become a kind of political litmus test.

Releasing as it did in the midst of a presidential election that shocked the world, J.D. Vance’s compelling 2016 memoir of Appalachian poverty has been both celebrated and pilloried. In the eyes of its fans, the book is a starkly honest portrait of an American working class in pronounced decline, and an appeal for help on behalf of mostly-forgotten blue-collar communities. For its critics, Hillbilly Elegy is mere “poverty porn” offering a distorted image of small-town Ohio, and is poisoned by a  “bootstrap mentality” that ignores the true hopelessness of systemic deprivation. (There’s also been some grumbling that the “white working class” is already privileged enough and doesn’t warrant much more policy attention than it presently receives.) It’s impossible to review Ron Howard’s new film adaptation—out in theaters now, with a Netflix release to follow over Thanksgiving weekend—apart from all this context.

In any event, defenders and detractors are only debating the book and film in the first place because, well, Vance got out. After serving in the Marine Corps directly following high school, Vance excelled at Ohio State University and went on to attend Yale Law School—a kind of baptism into the professional-managerial elite that wields cultural and political power in contemporary America.

Hillbilly Elegy’s frame story picks up with J.D. (Gabriel Basso) in late 2011, in the midst of on-campus interviews at YLS. The realm of elite corporate “Biglaw” firms, offering lavish receptions and eye-popping starting salaries, is a world altogether alien to J.D.’s more middle-class sensibilities—though his supportive girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto) is there to help him through.

On the cusp of final interviews that will make or break his career, J.D. receives a call that his mother Bev (Amy Adams) is hospitalized following a heroin overdose. So, J.D. drives through the night back to his increasingly hollowed-out Ohio hometown. On the way, the story of J.D.’s childhood is recounted through a series of flashbacks to the the pivotal moments of J.D.’s life—many of which involve his loving yet hard-bitten grandmother “Mamaw” (Glenn Close), and Bev’s tragically cyclical pattern of struggle and decline.

Unsurprisingly, Adams and Close both turn in Oscar-contender performances. Adams, playing against type as the volatile and erratic Bev, dominates the screen, whether laughing with her children or shrieking at police in the middle of the street. Technically speaking, the film is tightly edited and continually engrossing (and it certainly doesn’t hurt that legendary film composer Hans Zimmer contributes to the soundtrack).

All of this, though, might’ve been expected—given Howard’s involvement and the obvious amount of money that was lavished on the film. What about the subtext?

On that front, the film gets a mixed grade. This Hillbilly Elegy adaptation isn’t a particularly political flick—you have to squint to see anything really controversial here—but unfortunately this isn’t necessarily to its credit. In fact, I can’t help thinking that in stripping the book down to its most dramatic images and scenes, something truly vital has been sacrificed.

Since I haven’t already, I should make one thing clear: it’s impossible for me to approach Hillbilly Elegy, whether in book or film form, from a place of total objectivity. Though I certainly can’t claim to have lived a life like Vance’s, my family hails originally from the same Midwestern communities that are now suffering from the creeping rot of deindustrialization. My own friends and relatives have wrestled with drug abuse and family breakdown. And as it happens, I’ve actually crossed paths with Vance himself a few times—he was just four years ahead of me at YLS—and I presently work in a day job that bears significantly on these issues. So, take my thoughts for what they’re worth.

When J.D. first experiences culture shock in the rarefied world of YLS legal recruiting, I felt an immediate flare of recognition. That world is almost perfectly captured onscreen (and on the page)—it is a world where you learn to talk about David Mitchell’s latest book and the best restaurant in Tel Aviv and why yes I do have an opinion on the latest season of “Orange is the New Black,” thank you very much.

But Hillbilly Elegy serves as a reminder that the world outside those gates has a beauty of its own, though one perhaps unintelligible to those long steeped in upper-class norms.In a particularly haunting sequence in the film, after Mamaw’s husband dies, dozens of community members stop what they’re doing as the hearse slowly drives past, stepping aside from their work to solemnly stand at attention 

“Why are they doing that?” J.D. asks.

“We’re hill people,” Mamaw says simply “We honor our dead.”

It’s an image that’s altogether too painfully earnest for the world of champagne bottles and Biglaw, impossible to recount at a gala without throwing in an awkward chuckle or an ironic aside. And it’s an image that captures a deep truth about Vance’s project: Hillbilly Elegy is a book written in the implicit conviction that in America’s increasingly impoverished heartland towns, there is still something worth saving—the possibility of speaking unabashedly of something like honor, the cultivation of traditions cherished as sacred or close to it, sprawling families overflowing with new life, and so much else. In a world of trendy neighborhoods filled with near-silent luxury apartments, inhabited by a caste of HBO-watching nouveau riche content to defer family life ever further into the future, those particular joys are hard to glimpse.

And crucially, that is a world within which the real-world Vance is not content to permanently define himself. Hillbilly Elegy ends with J.D.’s graduation from YLS and transition into the ranks of the American “masters of the universe,” but the real-world tale doesn’t conclude there. In a recent extended essay in The Lamp magazine, Vance openly undercuts the assumption that Hillbilly Elegy is to be taken as a kind of rags-to-riches story:

“My Randian arrogance about my own ability melted away when confronted with the realization that an obsession with achievement would fail to produce the achievement that mattered most to me for so much of my life: a happy, thriving family. I had immersed myself in the logic of the meritocracy and found it deeply unsatisfying. And I began to wonder: were all these worldly markers of success actually making me a better person? I had traded virtue for achievement and found the latter wanting. But the woman I wanted to marry cared little whether I obtained a Supreme Court clerkship. She just wanted me to be a good person.”

The fact that the entire Hillbilly Elegy project exists is a testament to the fact that for Vance, personal success is not the end of the story. Indeed, Vance openly acknowledges that he “spent less than two years after graduation as a practicing attorney”—instead electing to launch a venture capital project in Columbus, Ohio with the goal of developing startups in underserved cities. Vance has always struck me as someone willing to put his money (literally) where his mouth is. And so, we are left thinking, ought all of us who have been lucky enough to enjoy similar benefits.

Alas, this coda simply doesn’t come through in the Hillbilly Elegy film—and as a result, the movie ends on an uneven note. It’s wonderful that J.D. got out, we’re left thinking, but what about everybody else? Yet the real-world Vance is keenly aware that (for lack of a better turn of phrase) with great privilege and power comes great responsibility. That’s a message that demands internalizing.

None of all this is to suggest that the movie deserves its 22% score on Rotten Tomatoes, though. (The Tomatometer has grown increasingly unreliable as American political polarization has increased.) As mentioned, Adams and Close are superb—and incomplete though its story may be, this Hillbilly Elegy adaptation remains a potent plea to the white-collar world to see those outside its walls as individuals, not simply pieces in some larger narrative or symbols of structural forces.

So too, the film suggests that the complexities of love and loss and family and responsibility cannot be collapsed down into a single sociological or economic account. Certainly, people are products of their communities and environments…but they also have the capacity to make choices and experience the consequences.  The line between those two may not be altogether clear, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist: Hillbilly Elegy wouldn’t ring true if it told a story of either despairing determinism or pure meritocratic struggle.

In the end, I’d have to say that Hillbilly Elegy certainly isn’t an easy watch. But it is a worthwhile one nonetheless.

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Posted by on November 15, 2020 in Contemporary

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