When the term “middlebrow” comes up in relation to movies, it’s probably not going to be that long before the name Ron Howard is invoked – usually derisively. I admit, I’ve done it myself at times - I remember expressing disappointment that one of the most daring directors in the world, Oliver Stone, essentially made a “Ron Howard film” when he directed World Trade Center.
It’s easy to see why – Ron Howard IS a middlebrow director. But is that, necessarily, a bad thing? The thing about Ron Howard is almost always, you know what you’re going to get when you walk into one of his movies. He is a skilled technical director – his films are almost always well put together. And, as a former actor, he is capable of getting some very good performances out of his cast. I find it impossible to truly hate many of his movies – but also nearly as impossible to love many of his movies. They seem too impersonal to me. They certainly do not have a “directorial stamp” on them – Howard is no auteur – and as Tobias and Murray point out their conversation, it’s difficult to pinpoint a recurrent theme in Howard’s work – agreeing that the closest he comes is portraying people who “really good” at their jobs – but even they agree that’s a stretch.
There are exceptions to the no “love it or hate it” in the case of Howard of course. I do love Apollo 13 (1995) – and consider it his best movie (we’d be in a better place had that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1995 rather than Braveheart – which would have meant something other than Howard’s A Beautiful Mind could have won in 2001). This is one of the best movies about astronauts ever made – even if it pales in comparison to The Right Stuff (1983) and the upcoming Gravity in that regard. But it’s a movie made with precision and skill – features wonderful performances by Tom Hanks et al, and is perhaps Howard’s most personal film – as we know he loves space. The one film of Howard’s I truly despise is Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), a horrible movie that misses everything charming about the original story. Sure, it made a lot of money – but does anyone NOT hate that film?
Everything falls somewhere in between. True, his two Dan Brown adaptations – The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) are both bad movies – but can you really lay the blame at Howard’s feet for them? Are they not “well made” films, with performances as good as can be expected, given the source material? Howard probably made as good of films out of those two bad novels as it was possible to make. He was hamstrung by the material there – he didn’t screw anything up that didn’t arrive to him pre-screwed up. His last film before Rush was The Dilemma (2011) – a bad comedy about Vince Vaughn having to decide whether or not to tell his best friend (Kevin James) that his wife (Winona Ryder) was cheating on him. That movies wasn’t really that well directed – and it was tonally inconsistent from scene-to-scene – but a lot of that springs from the screenplay, and the fact Vaughn never quite figures out how to play the role (it did however how just how good Channing Tatum could be in comedic roles). Howard’s biggest misstep in that film was agreeing to do it in the first place. His only other true misfire was 1999’s EdTV, which may have been better had it not come out a year after the similar The Truman Show – which was an excellent film, and showed just how shallow Howard’s film was. It didn’t help that the main character was played by Matthew McConaghey during his “I’m going to coast on my Southern charm” phase. 1986’s Gung Ho may not exactly be a wonderful film – and it is a little uncomfortable at times for it’s depiction of the Japanese, which borders on racist – but if you can ignore that, it’s an affable comedy, with a fine Michael Keaton performance at its core.
But leaving aside the six of his films I haven’t seen (Grand Theft Auto, Night Shift, Splash, Willow, Parenthood and Far & Away) – can anyone truly HATE any of Ron Howard’s other films? How can you not be charmed by the alien and old folks fantasy of Cocoon (1985) – if for no other reason than it gave some legends one last chance to stretch their acting legs a little bit – and netted Don Ameche an Oscar? I have a soft spot for Backdraft (1991) – perhaps because I saw it when I was too young to know how clichéd it is – but it still wins me over when I see it on TV – from its excellent performances in supporting roles by Robert DeNiro and Donald Sutherland, its exciting firefighting scenes, and even its cheesy ending. The Paper (1994) is a fine film about the news business – it’s not a masterpiece, but it’s very good, and has an excellent ensemble cast. Ransom (1996) is an intense thriller; with Mel Gibson is full movie star mood that is satisfying within its limitations. A Beautiful Mind (2001) may have been over rated in 2001 – when it won the Best Picture Oscar (and Howard a directing Oscar) – but 12 years later, it’s now under rated. Like many Best Picture winners, A Beautiful Mind isn’t great enough to support the mantle of “best of the year”, but it’s hardly the travesty some think it to be – and it does contain excellent performances by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. The Missing (2003) is actually one of my favorite Howard films – a mystical Western, a little darker than typical Howard fare, with very good work by Cate Blanchatt and Tommy Lee Jones. Cinderella Man (2005) is an overly sentimental film to be sure – but it’s period details are wonderful, and Russell Crowe (again) and Paul Giamatti – not to mention Craig Bierko – are all excellent. Howard may try too hard to make Frost/Nixon (2008) more “cinematic” – but at its core, it’s still an excellent tet-a-tet with great work by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen – and a number of fine supporting roles. The movie takes some undeserved shots because it’s one of the “middlebrow” films that got into the Oscar race that year – instead of more popular films like The Dark Knight or Wall-E - and inspired the Academy to go from 5 to 10 Best Picture nominees – but that’s hardly the films fault.
I think Tobias and Murray hit it on the head when they say that while Howard doesn’t elevate the material he’s given, he doesn’t ruin it either. In short, if Ron Howard makes a film from your screenplay, he won’t fuck it up if you’ve written a good one, but he won’t be able paper over its flaws if it’s a bad one. You’re going to see your work up there – for better or worse – in a technically proficient and well-acted film. In old school Hollywood terms, Ron Howard is not Howard Hawks – who would take the movie and make it his own – he’s more Michael Curtiz – who knows how to make a good film when he has good material.
All of this probably seems like I’m dismissing Ron Howard. I’m not. You have to admire a director who has worked consistently in Hollywood for more than 30 years, and for the most part, has put out one good film after another. True, he has very rarely made a “great” film, but he’s also very rarely made a “horrible” one. How many other directors like Ron Howard can say that? In the 30 years he’s been around, how many directors have come and gone, leaving behind little or no lasting impact on film? Ron Howard may be the poor man’s Spielberg, but that’s a hell of lot better than most directors.
To sum up, I’ll go see Rush this weekend. I suspect that I’ll like the film, but not love it. I suspect it will be a well-made film, with exciting racing scenes (those are the type of things Howard does well), and that it will be well acted by its entire cast. With Howard, you usually know what you’re going to get when you walk into the theater – and even if he rarely exceeds your expectations, he also rarely disappoints. Personally, I don’t think that’s all that bad.