Monday, October 26, 2009

Movie Review: Amelia

Amelia * ½
Directed By:
Mira Nair.
Written By: Ronald Bass & Anna Hamilton Phelan based on the books by Susan Butler & Mary S. Lovell.
Starring: Hilary Swank (Amelia Earhart), Richard Gere (George Putnam), Ewan McGregor (Gene Vidal), Christopher Eccleston (Fred Noonan), Joe Anderson (Bill), Cherry Jones (Eleanor Roosevelt), Mia Wasikowska (Elinor Smith), Aaron Abrams (Slim Gordon), William Cuddy (Gore Vidal).

I’m sure Amelia Earhart was a fascinating woman. You would have to be if during the Great Depression, you stood up and broke the all boys club mentality that were around pilots at the time. What she accomplished, no other female had done so before her. She remains an inspiration for a lot of people. But the Amelia Earhart presented in Mira Nair’s new biopic is a thudding bore – as is the movie that surrounds her. Watching the movie, I could help but wonder if that’s all there was to her story, and if so, why people seem to love her so much.

Two time Oscar winner Hilary Swank plays Earhart, but much like all of her performances that she hasn’t won an Oscar for, it is a mannered and lifeless performance. Earhart was presumably a woman who embraced life, and lived it to the fullest, consequences be damned. But Swank in this movie seems utterly lifeless. You never feel her love of flying, never feel there is any passion in her marriage to George Putnam (Richard Gere) or her affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor). Swank dons a boyish haircut, and a fake sounding Kansas accent, and thinks that’s enough to play Earhart, but she doesn’t capture the spunk and vitality needed to play her. Imagine if Amy Adams, who memorably played Earhart in the otherwise standard Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian earlier this year had played her. Then you would have seen some life in this movie.

But Swank is just one of the myriad of reasons why the film doesn’t work. She certainly gets no help at all from the lifeless Gere, who spends most of the movie either smiling serenely, or looking worried. He claims he loves Earhart over and over, yet you never feel that love – not even when he gets angry about her affair with Vidal. Like Swank, Gere dons a fake accent (what he was going for, I have no idea, but I suppose since the real Putnam was from upstate New York, that was what he tried for). McGregor is equally lost as Vidal, but he is given next to nothing to actually do with his role. My wife insisted that his accent wasn’t as bad as the other two, until I informed her that Vidal was from South Dakota, and not England. Everyone else in the cast looks just as lost in the movie as these three do.

Director Mira Nair is a gifted filmmaker, but her best films (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, her segment of September 11th ) are the ones that seem to be extremely personal to herself as an Indian-American woman. She undoubtedly admired the independent minded Earhart, but that doesn’t mean she was the right choice to direct the movie. Her filmmaking here is flat and lifeless – not the sort of thing I think when I think of her colorful, lively films of the past. She misses an real opportunity in making the flying scenes seem so dull. True, Earhart wasn’t much of a racer, and she was often the only plane in the air, but we constantly hear how dangerous what she was doing was, and yet we never feel it. Not even in the finale, when Earhart misses her landing spot and ends up God knows where out in the Pacific Ocean. All we get is some muddled dialogue over the radio. Nair, who rightfully resists the urge to sensationalize Earhart’s death, doesn’t even portray it at – we simply get her plane fading into the clouds.

Her storytelling attributes also fail her, as plot threads are introduced, and then dropped a scene later with no real purpose. What are we to make of the character of Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska), who says she wants to dethrone Earhart as the premier woman flyer, only to disappear for almost the entire rest of the movie, save for one scene when Putnam tells her to throw a race against Earhart? Why is she in the movie at all? And what of Christopher Eccelston’s Fred Noonan, Earhart’s navigator on her fateful final flight. Much is made of his drinking, but then nothing done with it. Why do the filmmakers have him make a pass at Earhart, and then drop it in the next scene? The movie lacks a real flow, anything really for an audience to hold onto.

Amelia is a major disappointment from a filmmaker who is normally top notch. No doubt when the studio green lit this movie, they had visions of Oscars dancing in their head. This is one film that I feel safe in saying will not be invited to the Kodak theater in February.

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