Friday, April 23, 2010

ensembly challenged: WHEN BIG CASTS GO WRONG

One of the most hit-or-miss sub-genres you're likely to find this side of the year 2000 seems to be the "huge ensemble cast" variety of films. Now before I begin, I should clear some things up - by "huge ensemble cast" movies, I'm not referring to those flicks that feature a core cast of four or five that spend the bulk of their screen-time together (think Closer or Junebug) or even the large casts that seem to be a force of nature (as in My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Ocean's Eleven). No, I'm talking about the movies so hell-bent on big names that the marquee can't support the weight of said name-dropping. The movies that are so scattered while searching for an ascertainable plot, that they forget to develop any of their characters. The best example of this plague in the past decade is 2006's Bobby, a movie so interested in showing you recognizable faces that it forgets how stunted it is. From Demi Moore's uncannily hammy diva to director Emilio Estevez's downtrodden sidekick with a flat-as-a-pancake personality, the movie brings a hefty cast (nine people are featured above the title alone, for god's sake!) but none of them deliver a meaningful performance. So I ask you, what then is the point?

Now, these big-cast flicks aren't always horrible. There are the mediocre ones as well. Sure, The Women remake was mostly harmless fun, but it lacked a lot of chemistry, which is unforgivable considering the cast they were working with. Take Fast Food Nation as another example - it boasted a gigantic cast (a la Bobby) but none of them were able to live up to the compelling story they were trying to tell. The meat-packing plant scenes were painful to watch for all the wrong reasons - Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandino Moreno were nap-inducing and lifeless. And though He's Just Not That Into You had its moments (most of them thanks to bubbly Ginnifer Goodwin), it was bogged down by overdoing it with the storylines. How are we to care about any of their predicaments when we barely get a chance to get to know any of the characters?

And then there's the hotly debated representative of all things intertwining and highly quantitative - 2005's Crash. The Best Picture winner had critics polarized, including this one. Sure, it had a few reasonably acceptable performances (I was particularly taken with Sandra Bullock in fact), but the self-awareness of its own melodrama resulted in one of the most painful performances I've seen in recent years from Thandie Newton. The definition of over-the-top. Sure, backlash contributes to people's seeming hatred of the movie (was it the biggest case of award-robbing in the past 20 years?), but it was always mediocre at best. Too much of the character work was meaningless and brought us nowhere by the film's end.

But never fear, my friends, for there is hope. Sometimes twisty-turny ensemble pieces can be intelligent, cohesive, and, at times, fun. Leading the charge is Christopher Guest, whose ensemble pieces (particularly Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) seem to manage character development in mere moments. A great skill that Emilio Estevez just couldn't reproduce. And let's not forget the master of this sub-genre, Robert Altman, whose contribution of 2006's A Prairie Home Companion just solidified his reputation as the ensemble master. So in the future, let's have faith that we'll see a lot more of Inglourious Basterds and Happy Endings and a lot less Demi Moore in 10-foot-tall hair.


Simon said...

Pulp Fiction did it fine...though, to be fair, a lot of people weren't big yet at the time. let's just say Tarantino does ensembles best and call it a day.

Andrew K. said...

Yikes, here I go disagreeing with you again. I really liked Bobby, in the weak year that was 2006 I think it deserved more love. Yes, it had its issues but Sharon Stone was excellent in her role (that admittedly deserved more screen time). Even Demi Moore's main course of ham was a means to an end.

And well, you know I was no fan of those Basterds...but I agree with you on Crash...and on the topic of Altman and ensembles, where's the mention of Gosford Park? ...sheer excellence.

Robert said...

Amen!!! Of course I'm going to agree with you heartily on the Christopher Guest mention. His ensembles are just perfectly balanced. And of course, Robert Altman.

Oh, and Basterds...such an amazing ensemble. Sorry Andrew!!! Haha

Unknown said...

Bullock was indeed great in Crash.
The others were just terrible, Brendan Fraser should stick to The Mummy-s and silly comedies!

Unknown said...

You know how I feel about The Women.
I will hurt you if I must.