Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Wrong Con: An Education

I've spent a good portion of my life watching shitty movies and enjoying the crap out of them. There's nothing wrong with that. Once you've got your head wrapped around the idea that a movie is going to be awful, you can go with the flow, and enjoy it.

Outside of B-grade pictures, I have come to expect movies to be mediocre, even the ones I've been dying to see. I've just been burnt too many times, and I don't really feel all that cheated anymore.

Frustration sets in when I see a film that begins strongly, hooking me emotionally, only to flounder and let me down at the end. This is what An Education did to me, and I'm kind of pissed.

Jenny, a suburban teenage girl, outside of 60s London, is swept off her feet by David, a thirtyish art dealer with a cool charm and rakish smile. Shown a world of fancy restaurants, smoky nightclubs and weekend trips to Paris, she must decide whether to follow follow him, headlong, into that world, or continue down her previous path to Oxford.

The browns and the grays of the suburbs give way to the flash and pizazz of London-proper. The soundtrack romps through burning early rock, nightclub jazz and French melodrama. The dialogue is crisp, quick and witty, and the acting is all right-on, without any sore thumb accents to jar you from your seat.

Without doing the requisite scientific study, I'd estimate that a solid 95% of the movie plays like an old-fashioned romantic comedy. Not the modern, simply squishy ones, but the Hudson-Day screwballs of the the 60s. It's a comedy. It's funny. Romantic comedies are supposed to be funny.

About fifteen minutes in, I turned to Leah and told her that I would fuck David. Not being one with a proclivity for dudes, this should have been all the tip-off that anyone needs that the dude was too smooth for school. Too smooth for schoolgirls, anyway.

Unfortunately, director Lone Scherfig (Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself) wasn't quite as smooth as her leading man. By the the time of the big twist, I wasn't seeing the world through the eyes of young Jenny, or her gullible parents, but through the objective tsk-tsk-tsk lens of her teachers.

Too many times, there were sudden changes in tone from the actors, the camera showed us reaction shots that we shouldn't have seen and the minor-keyed music cues came creeping out to let us know - nudge nudge nudge - that something was amiss!

Oh, Christ. As if we didn't know.

A thirty-something man giving the old wink-and-a-smile routine to a 16-year-old (perfectly legal in Jolly Old England, by the by), is pretty much a roundhouse-kick-to-the-face of a tip off that something was amiss! When you've got an amiss(!) story point like that, you don't need the ominous music behind all the scenes where something seems a little screwy.

More to the point, you don't want that ominous music popping up.

Scherfig would have better served the picture by letting be in Jenny's world a bit longer, letting us fall for David, just as she did. That way, we would have felt a little more taken aback by the final twist, just as she was. Instead, the audience takes the holier-than-thou, see-I-told-you-so position that her teachers take. I felt emotionally cheated by not being able to writhe and squirm along with our heroine and her parents.

The sudden shift back to her perspective, at the end (complete with an out-of-nowhere voice-over), doesn't work because I'm no longer rooting for her. I'm Emma Thompson's exasperated headmistress, waving off the silly girl who made the glaring mistake of falling for an oily con man, not the conned little Jenny herself, slapping her head at the obvious mistakes she made.

I wanted to be right there with her, and Scherfig wouldn't let me. I also wanted this to be a great picture, not just another good one. It had me for a while, too.

I can't believe I fell for it!

Dan Majesky is the big boss man of this corner of the internet. He has been devouring popular culture like it's going out of style, and then yelling at people about it, for thirty-one years. Now he's just typing it up and resting his voice.


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