Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016 in the Rearview: Reactions I Wasn't Supposed to Have

This is the first in a series of posts looking back at the films of 2016.

For many years now, I've had a film blog or one sort or another.  And along with my annual ten best list, I've always identified at least one film that "I Liked More Than I Was Supposed To" - the kind of film that no one in their right mind would put on a Ten Best List, but which I remembered fondly for providing a rollicking good time and little-to-no artistic merit. (The honorees have included Ted, 2012, Neighbors, and It's Complicated.)

There were a few contenders for this dubious accolade in 2016, but surprisingly there was also one film that begged to receive its Bizarro World equivalent: the "Film I Was Supposed to Like, But Didn't."

Every year has its share of overrated critical darlings, but Manchester by the Sea is an entirely different case. It's well made, impeccably acted and written with emotional authenticity and genuine human insight. It probably deserves every award nomination it gets. And it's just about unbearable.

Because it's one thing to tell a story about a man in deep emotional pain who repeatedly fails to overcome the traumatic events of his past. But it's quite another thing to make people watch that in excruciating, unrelenting detail for two-and-a-half hours: every awkward conversation, every painful confrontation with an estranged family member, every rejection of help or new relationships. And it doesn't help that director Kenneth Lonnergan underscores the film's most tragic scenes with bombastically mournful music, as if he couldn't trust the audience to have the correct reactions. There are occasional bits of attempted comic relief, but played so dryly they barely register. (One screwball-worthy scene with Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick seems to have been spliced in from another film altogether - until it, too, ends on a depressing note.) By the the two-thirds point, I wanted to escape the theater so badly, I was gripping the armrests to try to keep myself in my seat.

Manchester by the Sea is by no means a bad film. But its authenticity works against it. It feels like emotional torture porn.

After seeing it, I went home and popped in the Blu-Ray disc of the 2016 film I most liked (that I wasn't supposed to) as a corrective. And it worked. Which is kind of a miracle...

Because Bridget Jones's Baby is a film that no one was clamoring for, with a premise that makes no sense and a hackneyed plot contrivance that plays out almost exactly as you'd expect.

That it succeeds as a funny, cozy, heartwarming bit of entertainment is a testament to the one quality that covers a multitude of cinematic sins:  star power.  Or, more to the point, the enduring spark of chemistry between Colin Firth and Renee Zellwegger. Early in the film, there's a scene at a christening party where Firth's Mark Darcy looks on as Zellwegger's Bridget dances to "Gangnam Style" with a gaggle of children; between her bubbly good spirits and his adoring gaze, it's as sweet a depiction of a match made in heaven as I've seen on screen all year.  In the hands of these two most appealing actors, Bridget remains lovably and laughably flawed , while Mark Darcy retains his status as the most attractively repressed English male since, well, the original Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice."

Otherwise, nothing here makes much sense. No one who's followed the exploits of Helen Fielding's plucky, faux-pas-prone heroine - on the page or onscreen - would expect her to have reached the age of 43 without marrying Mark Darcy. (In fact, Fielding's own 2012 novel, "Mad About the Boy" gave us Bridget as the widowed mother of two young children, re-entering the dating world after Mark's tragic death.)  But Bridget's alternate history on film is hardly a drag; she's still upbeat, still plucky, still surrounded by funny, slightly ribald friends and co-workers who clearly love her, and her world is a sweet and friendly place to spend a couple of hours.

Oh, and Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey is on hand, too, as a dating website billionaire who could be Bridget's baby daddy.  But honestly, he's the least interesting thing on the menu. Next to the longing gaze of Colin Firth, he doesn't stand a chance.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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