I think the only thing more useless these days than "Best Of" lists now that everyone with an internet account is making a year-end rundown is the more rare "Worst Of" lists. It's an idea that's not bad as a concept, just one that is always poorly executed. There is no need to point out a lot of elements of popular culture as being bad, because most of it was never intended to top anyone's list of faves. Dane Cook movies, for instance, are not supposed to be better than they are. Same goes with VH-1 reality shows or a Hillary Duff album. There are rare cases when these things should be singled out. For instance, calling classic Britney Spears albums bad at the time they were released did not mean all that much, but 2007's Blackout would deserve to top a Hall of Shame for being so far below the already low standards.
No, those lists would better serve the public if they gathered up all the things from the year that had higher aspirations, that believed they were important and noble and good and failed miserably. The products of hubris and misguidance stink far more than the feeble flailings of the untalented the way a rotten egg is far more shocking of an odor than the bag of garbage we toss it into. We expect the bag of garbage to smell like garbage, but when we crack an egg, we expect an egg.
And it is with this introduction that I humbly present to you...
To be honest, I had avoided this one for months, because it just looked so damned self-important to me. It was obvious that the people behind it never had any intention of making anything other than the most calculated of awards bait. Like the high society people it depicted, you could tell that the filmmakers felt they were members of a privileged artistic class and deserved to be treated as such.
And for the most part, they have been treated as such. Atonement received good reviews, and it has been nominated for all the major movie awards, including a Best Picture slot at the Oscars. This was why I finally gave in to see it, because it was the only one of the five nominees I had not watched. In order to be fully informed, I sucked it up. I had been warned by two friends who had seen it and hated it, but I thought that could only help me. My expectations were so low, surely Atonement could not do the limbo low enough to pass under that bar.
Nope. Atonement must be double jointed, because it actually put its hand on the bar and pushed it down a couple of inches before going on its way.
The movie starts out okay. I enjoyed the tricky editing that allowed us to see how the little girl Briony (Saoirse Ronan) witnessed certain events in such a way that she would think something bad was happening, and then immediately showing us how it really went down so that we would know it was not bad at all. The only sin I could see right off the bat was the regular problem failed literary adaptations have: screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright did not adequately solve the question of how to take the interior life of Ian McEwan's novel and bring it to the exterior. There are no characters in Atonement, just actors we might recognize enough to care about the emotions they express. In this case, I didn't.
Atonement would be fine if the only shortcoming it had was empty characters, but the whole thing is an empty, bloodless endeavor. Joe Wright has no real style, and so the movie is a string of concocted stabs at elegance. It all looks very pretty, but just as there is nothing behind the emoting of the performers, the way the movie looks made me think I could reach into it and put my hand all the way through to the other side. I mean, look at the photo of the poster above. Don't the actors even look bored?
Compare Atonement to a movie that is a distant cousin like A Very Long Engagement, and you'll see what I mean about the style. Jean-Pierre Jeunet has his own unique vision, and when he applies it to his movies it makes sense for it to be there, it's part of the air that permeates the scenery. Not so for a Joe Wright movie. When he does stumble on something special, he has no idea how to integrate it into the larger fabric. His movie is a collection of individual shots that all look very pretty as the mill about the dancefloor, but they never manage to get in step to the same tune. The most obvious and egregious moment for this is when Robbie (James McAvoy) reaches the beach of Dunkirk and Wright stages a tremendous, uncut tracking shot that takes in the entire beach in one swirling go. It's the only time he does this kind of thing, however, and the wizadry of the choreography destroys any semblance of reality in the movie. Even worse, the things we see on the beach go by without an explanation. The images are incongruously surreal, like Robbie has stepped out of The Big Red One and straight into Apocalypse Now.
Had I been strapped to a respons-o-meter while viewing Atonement, they'd have tracked me going from mild interest to mild boredom to severe annoyance to utter disdain. I didn't care a thing for any of the people by the end of the movie, didn't care if they lived or died. The one revelation that was supposed to be the final "gotcha" of the movie didn't even work because Wright had telegraphed it with his overstylized editing at the precise moment when I was supposed to be fooled (when Briony and her sister (Keira Knightley) reunite). If nothing else, that should have been a gimme.
Alas, no, Atonement sucks through and through. I even found the music excruciating. I don't know who came up with that typewriter motif, but it's obnoxious.
There have been some pretty big Oscar crimes in the past, but if Atonement beats any of the movies it's up against, it will be a travesty. I can easily think of several movies that should be there in its stead. Zodiac, Eastern Promises, I'm Not There, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, just to name a few. I doubt it will take the prize, but it shouldn't even have had the chance.
On the other hand, if there was an Oscar for Worst Picture....
Current Soundtrack: Pelle Carlberg, In a Nutshell
Current Mood: aggravated
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All text (c) 2008 Jamie S. Rich