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Film Evaluation and Critique: Falling Down, Movie Review Example

Pages: 9

Words: 2567

Movie Review

Introduction

Certain films inevitably reveal overt agendas in their writing, style, and construction, and it is arguable that nothing is more fatal to the creation of a genuinely good movie. Film is story-telling, no matter the complexity of the medium, and the story that broadcasts its “message” blatantly violates a basic premise of all fiction. It vastly weakens its own agenda through an insistence on informing the audience of what effect is anticipated upon its delivery. A prime example of this kind of adolescent filmmaking is 1993’s Falling Down, directed by Joel Schumacher, written by Ebbe Roe Smith, and starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall. This is a movie by no means lacking in “messages”; on the contrary, it is virtually all message, and it relies on sensationalism and expected viewer empathy to carry off essentially clumsy and juvenile scenes of action and reaction. Moreover, the film errs in a broader way, in that it seeks to convey ambiguity, thus excusing itself from asserting any particular point of view. Falling Down is not without some merit. Several performances are excellent, the atmosphere of the time and place are presented authentically, and there is even an arc of tension. These virtues notwithstanding, however, the film is an unsatisfying form of equivocal propaganda, and it cannot rise above the cartoon-like scenarios it offers. Most importantly, Falling Down leaves the viewer with a decidedly adolescent taste in the mouth. The dialogue and story, more exactly, are rebel fantasy thinly disguised as social commentary, as the movie is a transparent attempt to elicit audience identification – and laughter – from situations which, in life, would be horrific and appalling.

Evaluation

Falling Down is – ostensibly – the story of one man’s dismissal of society and his gradations of protest within it. There is, in fact, something of a fabulous quality to the movie, in that it proceeds very much like a gritty fable or fairy tale. The story is suitably simple, in that Michael Douglas portrays a corporate type who, caught at a crossroads in his life and despairing, revolts against the constrictions, absurdities, and minor and major injustices besetting the ordinary man in today’s world. That his character is killed at the end, after engaging in a trail of violent protest, only reinforces the obvious message: modern man is a prisoner of his own environment, and madness has replaced natural sense and order. To rebel, furthermore, is an exercise in futility, for man’s dignity has long been a casualty of this world.

This is not an easy story to tell, the simple structure of the plot notwithstanding, because it is an emphatically single-minded theme. It is also, unfortunately, inherently juvenile. There is nothing wrong with exploring the state of modern humanity, but no reasonable attempt may be made without providing shades of meaning and characters that offer varieties of interpretation; otherwise, all that remains is a sort of political or social manifesto with no substance. The more direct the message, the more essential it is that the story-teller employ creativity and expansion of idea within it, at least as possibilities. Guided by director Schumacher, Falling Down adamantly refuses to entertain any such parameters. Subtlety of image or writing is not merely disregarded here; it is trampled upon because it is evident that the message is held to be all-important. There is not even any examination of culpability in regard to this unacceptable existence Douglas fights against, which further eviscerates substance. All too plainly, the viewer attains the uncomfortable sense that they are meant to empathize with this disturbed central character. It is felt that he is presumably what we wish we could be, as he takes the action we wish we could take. Even this blunt theme could have integrity, albeit of an immature variety, were the direction and writing true to the force of the raw intent. Regrettably, Falling Down consistently lapses into farcical scenes which betray the misguided confidence of the filmmakers in their “theme.”

It may be said that Falling Down offers one advantage for the critic seeking to explore its worth: virtually every scene compactly encompasses all of the serious flaws in the movie as a whole. There is, for example, the brief scene when Douglas pauses on his “journey” at a park. It is a microcosm of clumsy, heavy-handed direction, writing, and acting. To begin with, the music playing behind the opening of the scene is tribal as the camera slowly pans down past the palm trees in the heat of the sun. The “message” is visually glaring: this is a jungle, no matter the modern setting. There are then brief cuts to various interactions, seemingly random but clearly offered to reinforce the confusion of the setting. Children are playing on swing sets and monkey bars; a band of what appear to be Jamaicans is jamming; an elderly man lies on the grass with a sign proclaiming that, “We are dying of AIDS”; and a black man in a wheelchair also wields a sign requesting help for a veteran as, just behind him, a suburban white man lies on a lounge chair in the sun. To be plain, the baseball bat in Douglas’s possession could not make a more obvious impact. The visual intent is so blatant, and the succession of images so clearly offered as overt contrast, Schumacher himself may as well have held up a sign declaring that modern urban life is dangerous and unfair. What should be a relatively natural scene is exploited, and beyond how real urban parks do indeed create unease. More exactly, as Schumacher objectifies the people in it as symbols, he is guilty of the crime with which he accuses society.

It is difficult to conceive that so transparent an opening could be rendered more so, yet the writer and director accomplish precisely this. Douglas, in his absurdly obvious “uniform” of the white corporate male, takes in the park scene and appears exactly as out of place as the film requires him to appear. His tie remains knotted at his collar, a minor fact revealing just how far the film is willing to go to pound home its message; were Douglas to loosen or remove the tie, as any man would in such circumstances, he would shed something of the persona Schumacher insists he maintain. Even in his rantings, Douglas reverts to essentially common-sense attitudes, so such a man would react to the heat of his environment normally. This, then, is not about character. It is about more symbolism, exaggerated to a cartoon proportion.

In the ensuing conversation with the man seeking money, the writing joins forces with the visual elements to utterly depart from realistic presentation. It is, plainly, highly unusual for anyone soliciting money from a stranger to be devouring a sandwich at the same time, yet the “bum” is eagerly and casually eating as he accosts Douglas. The story told of needing gas money is perhaps the only realistic moment in the scene, but this is exploded by the following reactions. After Douglas coolly requests to see a driver’s license and the bum comprehends that there will be no money from this source, Douglas goes on his way. The bum, however, comes back, to complain of being treated shabbily as a veteran. He literally turns to pursue Douglas, even though he is clearly not under any influence or psychotic. Here, suspension of disbelief is not enough to justify such an action. Even more preposterously, the bum then identifies himself as a Vietnam veteran, a remark clearly belied by his age, and going to an absurd persistence in soliciting from a man who is adamantly not about to offer money. The absurdity is compounded when the bum, dripping food out of his mouth, angrily tells Douglas he has not eaten in days.

All of this goes to defining a scene in the film as not minor at all, for the gross departures from remotely realistic behavior potently proclaim the director’s intent. The bum persists even after this, which permits Schumacher to level his camera at Douglas’s face and emphasize the strength and finality of his refusal. He is evidently, if not oppressively, the “everyman.” He is us, taking a stand against worthless people who are clearly capable of working but who choose instead to beg.

The nearly comic hyperbole of this scene permits the viewer to assess the film in a way likely not in keeping with the director’s agenda. More exactly, as Schumacher insults the audience in this presentation of farce disguised as a common annoyance or social issue, the viewer is all the more entitled to take offense at the simplistic and offensive treatment of the issue, rather than commiserate with Douglas. The reality is that, in life, encountering such people creates confusion and unease in most people because it is known, even as the experience is disagreeable, that many homeless people genuinely are in need of help. By thrusting at the audience a character so obviously false, the actual force of the moment is lost. More to the point, the director is completely shielding himself, even as he seeks to present authentic tension; Douglas must be entitled to his outrage because the bum is so transparent. Unfortunately for Schumacher, the unease and conflict created in real life by such encounters are rarely that neatly classifiable. Here, as elsewhere, an adolescent mentality offers exaggeration, which eviscerates any potential for true interest or empathy.

Other scenes equally reveal excess which radically diminishes any possible value, as presenting authentic drama and human conflict. Then, there is as well a disturbingly racist component “casually” tossed into the mix, as in Douglas’s confrontation with the Korean shop owner. When the owner defies Douglas’s request for change, his speech is seized upon by Douglas as the turning-point for the ensuing fury. More precisely, as upsetting as the unreasonable demand of the owner is, it is only when he mispronounces words that Douglas enters into rage, citing American funding of Korea. Even more so than other scenes, these moments convey a recklessness of intent. The lighting here, for example, is heavily sepia in tone, reflecting the “yellow” of racist perceptions of Asians. The owner is first seen with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, his eyes squinted, in a parody of the Asian villain. Then, when the owner challenges Douglas’s remark about American aid to Korea, Douglas is baffled and the moment is clearly intended to be a comic break in the tension. What it does, in fact, is further explode a scene that has no sense of what it is about. What is the crime, the ethnicity of the owner or the store policy? And, as it is the former that sets Douglas off, just how deserving of empathy is he? There is also something inherently offensive in Douglas’s “victory” here. Instead of perceiving a victimized man fighting back, the audience is left with an arrogant American exercising a seeming prerogative to confront a minor injustice with might.

Perhaps the scene at the Whammyburger restaurant, however, most clearly demonstrates how the writing and direction consistently defy the message intended to be given. As with the bum asking for money, this is plainly a scene presented to exploit the ordinary annoyances people feel at fast food restaurants. At the same time, to employ such a foundation for the insanity of firing an automatic weapon in such a setting is to stretch the annoyance beyond reason, and consequently lessen whatever empathy exists for Douglas’s character. The situation simply cannot support the response, and infusions of humor, as in the Korean shop, only add to the sense of irresponsible filmmaking. To begin, Douglas enters with hip hop music playing on the soundtrack, a contrivance proclaiming a “battle” is coming. Inside, he is confronted by the common, if irritating, fact of arriving a few minutes after breakfast service has ended, but the actual cause of his grievance is unimportant. What the audience emphatically understands is that the film intends to have fun with American dissatisfaction with fast food outlets, which is far too weak a foundation for a violent reaction from a protagonist meant to generate empathy. The intent to exploit what is assumed to be an easily identifiable dislike is reinforced by actor Brent Hinkley as the manager, who has a physicality clearly selected because it conveys an exaggerated “wholesomeness.” Simply, everything here is skewed. As in the bulk of the movie, the viewer is expected to relate to a hero because of common objections to facets of modern life, even as the hero both deliberately sets himself within the objectionable scenario and behaves in a psychotic fashion. To protest against the quality of fast food is understandable; it is less so when the person making the protest has no business expecting anything else, as one would expect of Douglas. The protest is then rendered meaningless when the hero’s semi-automatic weapon misfires at the ceiling. It may be argued that this very absurdity of combined elements is the point. Unfortunately, the film is inherently driven by the need to follow Douglas. He must be, in some fashion, an object of understanding. That his character so flagrantly alternates between reason and madness, and is provoked by scenarios no intelligent or sympathetic man would allow himself to be goaded by, destroys the audience identification at all levels. What remains is a filmmaking agenda of enormous transparency. What remains is a message that clearly affirms that violence is the understandable – and even commendable – reaction to the world we have ourselves constructed.

The vast flaws of Falling Down acknowledged, it is all the more unfortunate that there are valuable components to the film. Douglas consistently gives himself to his role, as Robert Duvall, in the equally transparent storyline of a man also besieged by his life, adds integrity. The urban landscapes are filmed in a way that conveys reality, even as that reality is overdone. Most notably, the cinematography captures the oppression of the heat without resorting to perspiring characters. Even the outdoor scenes have a feeling of claustrophobia to them, which works in establishing a mood of oppression. Then, if Schumacher fails in large ways, he succeeds in small ones; the pacing of scenes and flow of camerawork is uniformly strong. Essentially, there are components here that would greatly enhance a good movie based on one man’s confused denial of his life and world. It is too bad that they serve a movie so poorly written, and with so empty and single-minded an intent.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Falling Down is a film that betrays an adolescent mentality at play. It takes the concept of man’s increasing discontent with an artificial, and often nonsensical, society and lays it out in a juvenile, burlesque manner. The audience follows Douglas on a trail of adventures in rebellion, most of which are both violent and erratically comic, because it fully anticipates that this audience will relate to the character. It plays with racism, unclear of intent but hoping for comic effect. It attacks the realities of modern life while absurdly exaggerating those realities. There are good performances in the film, and it is directed well in a strictly technical way. Nothing, however, can overcome a script so hyperbolic and cartoon-like. The real impact of Falling Down, and very much at odds with what the filmmakers intend, is to leave an audience disbelieving of the hero with whom it is expected to relate.

 

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