Saturday, January 03, 2009

Kinda entertaining crap: The Spirit

Stayed up late for new year's, slept in. By the time I felt like hauling myself out of the house and to the theater, it was The Spirit and stuff I'd already seen. Oddly, it's never the really good movie that starts at the convenient time.

The Spirit

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2009 in Regal Fenway #9 (First-run)

When I first saw trailers for The Spirit, and compared them to what I've seen of the comics, I figured that the biggest potential problem with the movie would be that Will Eisner's creation (which had a fine revival by Darwyn Cooke a couple years ago) was somewhat whimsical despite its noir elements, and Frank Miller doesn't do whimsical. Upon seeing it, I stand corrected: Frank Miller does do whimsical, but his idea of what fits in that category is rather different than Eisner's - and, likely, that of most other people.

This doesn't make The Spirit a good movie, but it does have potential as a guilty pleasure. The Spirit is the gloriously bad product of a single lunatic, with Miller's fingerprints on every frame, and you could sprain some part of your brain trying to figure out which individual bits he's trying to play straight and where he's indulging in (self) parody. It hasn't been homogenized to make it less idiosyncratic or cut down to 88 minutes to squeeze an extra daily showing in. It's consistent enough and the story makes enough sense that someone whose sense of humor is in line Miller's can enjoy this quite a bit, and the rest of humanity may find themselves fascinated by the sheer insanity.

It starts off a bit odd, even for a superhero movie, as Central City's masked hero, The Spirit (Gabriel Macht), leaves his cats behind to answer a call from one of his policeman allies. After thwarting a mugger, he picks up the trail of arch-nemesis The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson), who along with his cloned thugs (Louis Lombardi) and comely assistant Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson) is trying to retrieve a mysterious crate. He's got competition, though, in the person of Sand Serif (Eva Medes) - a former girlfriend of the Spirit, back when he was young Denny Colt, and what she finds could hold the secret to The Spirit's and Octopus's unusual healing abilities.

Though Miller and Eisner respected each other's work as comic book artists, they had very different styles. Miller opts to shoot his film in a style similar to how he and Robert Rodriguez shot Sin City, an approximation of the way he draws. That wouldn't necessarily be a big deal if he were doing this as a comic; it's not unusual for an artist to bring his own style to a long-established character, but Miller's doesn't seem particularly suited to this one. Sometimes I thought he was deliberately trying to send up how wordy comics used to be, with panels filled with words and characters explaining themselves out loud even though there's no one besides the audience that needs to hear it. It's awkward and artificial, and Miller never gets it to work either as good exposition or entertaining parody.

There are occasional spots where things work, in large part due to the large, fun cast. Most of the time, they tend to choke on Miller's dialogue, but every once in a while they hit on something that works. Macht finds a naive charm in the moments when he doesn't have to be hard-boiled, and Jackson chews some good scenery (though the whole egg obsession never works). Lombardi and Johansson are goofy and deadpan, respectively, as Jackson's sidekicks. Sarah Paulson is sadly underused, while Miller goes for shameless exploitation with Eva Mendes and Paz Vega (though anyone who complains about shameless exploitation of Paz Vega just must not like the female form).

The Spirit isn't a good movie, but I have to admit, there were plenty of moments when I enjoyed its insanity. Not enough moments, and few of them are truly great, but that's why its upside is "guilty pleasure", rather than "genuinely good movie."

Also at HBS, along with three other reviews.

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