Monday, March 28, 2011

For Your Consideration: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1998)

If you want stupid teenagers (as I was, once upon a time) to relate to classics, go with stories that stupid teenagers can relate to: the ones with love and unrequited love. 'Cause that's all high school was, right? The great stories about love is why Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet have stayed with me since high school. It's why Moby Dick did not. (Even now, I'm just not interested in whaling... I mean, I get the metaphor, but... meh.) It's been 10 years since I first and last read Great Expectations and despite a quick wikipedia refresher, I remember very little about the book. But, the central story stays with me.

To put it very simply: Boy helps convict. Boy meets girl at rich, crazy lady's house. Boy likes girl and spends a lot of time with girl. Girl is of a different "state" than boy. Crazy lady teaches girl to hate men, and girl torments boy. Space alien attacks (kidding). Girl leaves, but boy comes into the means to be "worthy" of girl. Boy thinks crazy lady is boy's benefactor and is setting boy up to be with girl. (Spoiler) Boy comes to find that convict is actual benefactor, and crazy lady is just mean. Boy realizes that he won't get girl. Somewhat hopeful ending.

In 1998, a rather brilliant, ahead-of-its-time film was released. To call this film a loose adaptation of the book is using the word "loose" loosely. It's difficult to describe what's the same. 19th Century London is 20th Century New York. The lead character's name in the film is Finn and not Pip. (Granted, it'd be hard to make an audience root for a dude named "Pip.") In the book, Pip was given a lot of money to, in essence, become a gentleman in London. In the film, Finn (Ethan Hawke) is given money to become an artist in New York. The crazy, rich lady, "Mrs. Havisham" is inexplicably renamed Ms. Dinsmoore (played by scene-stealing Anne Bancroft). And the film has cut out a ridiculous amount of back story.

But just as it should be, at the center, you still have Estella... Gorgeous, tragic Estella, played to perfection by Gwyneth Paltrow. Seriously, it's impossible to take your eyes off her in any given scene.

Here is the trailer featuring the haunting and beautiful "Life in Mono" by Mono.

The oddest thing is that, despite all the changes... it works. So much was changed, but it captures the essence of the novel. Some argue that it oversimplifies Great Expectations into the common, Hollywood love story. But the worst parts of the book, for me at least, were the filler to get back to the story of Pip and Estella.

The cast is incredible. You have Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Deniro, Chris Cooper, and Anne Bancroft in the lead roles. It was directed by Alfonso Cuaron (who went on to direct Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) who brought excellent style to it. The look of the picture is outstanding. The story and script really manage to feel both modern and Dickensian and has some truly wonderful moments. The pacing is a bit off at times but not terrible, and the song selection (as we're all about music on this blog) is really great.

If I had to guess what went wrong, it'd be the title and the marketing. I think it was mis-titled. I think that if they went the way of O Brother, Where Art Thou, it might have worked better. O Brother had been sold as being based on The Odyssey. And, really both movies share about the same amount of likenesses as their source material. I can't think of a better title for the film Great Expectations, but I'd imagine the regular movie going audience was turned off by the movie based on an old British book. The initial movie poster featured an incredible painting of Gwyneth as Estella (shown above). I loved the painting so much that i have the movie poster in my room. So, now you have a movie called Great Expectations that is advertised with a painting that doesn't really tell you much... and the novel has nothing to do with a painter. You have the ones that loved the book that are now under the impression that the source material is being butchered, and you have those that haven't read the book that are turned off by how it appears too high concept.

Now, it's not a perfect movie. Though captivating at the beginning of the movie, the convict subplot was forced and rushed at the end. The big reveal is actually well done (I'd imagine Shyamalan clubbing you to death with it), but it just feels awkward in this movie. And then afterwards the film becomes an odd chase movie.

Here's a stupid criticism, but it distracted me. I hate it when actors play themselves as high schoolers. Ethan Hawk's high school wig ruined the first intimate Finn/Estella scene for me. He acted as a panicky, nervous guy, which is fine... but the hair was ridiculous.

I wanted to discuss one of my favorite scenes: the painting scene featuring Pulp's soaring "Like a Friend." I've had that moment. (No, I've not had a nude woman saying to paint her. That was Jack from Titanic. In fact, I would never want that to happen because I can't draw for crap, and it wouldn't end well. Hell, I wouldn't even want a nude woman on my bed saying, "write a sonnet about me." But I digress...) I've had that flash of desperate creativity with a muse. That whole scene could have taken place in his mind, and the effect would have been the same. It was a fun juxtaposition: Watching him draw (which isn't always that visually interesting) with this hyper, building song, and a nude Gwyneth Paltrow posing. You can feel his heart racing.

So, why am I talking about a movie that flopped at the box office and has been largely forgotten? Because Great Expectations is a really great movie that has been largely forgotten.

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