Remade in the USA
Hollywood loves to do 'em again, even if they weren't so great the first time. New ideas? That's foreign territory. Source: Los Angeles Times
In order to enjoy a movie like, say, "Charlie's Angels" or "Starsky & Hutch" as nature and Hollywood intended, a viewer needs to be both simultaneously steeped in and ironically removed from trash and celebrity culture. That is, he or she must be able to appreciate that Snoop Dogg is Huggy and not mind that Huggy is Snoop Dogg all at the same time. (This isn't nearly as hard as it sounds.) Nora Ephron's upcoming "Bewitched," for example, piles on so many referential layers, the premise alone could topple over in a light breeze.
In the old TV show, an irascible ad executive did his best to cope with a beautiful, clever stay-at-home wife, who happened to be a witch. In the film, which stars Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell, a dimming movie star is cast in a remake of the old TV show and hires as his costar a beautiful, clever actress, who happens to be a witch. Basically, it's a movie about a movie star whose life begins to imitate an old TV show after he starts remaking it. Who can't relate?
Big studio movies don't talk about life anymore, they talk about other movies and TV. And in some ways, remakes cop to this practice more honestly and openly than the standard-issue formulaic action flick. Both set out to conform to set expectations — remakes just do it by embracing staleness, thereby cleverly deflecting accusations of staleness. From a strictly critical perspective, this is not necessarily a bad thing, seeing as how these movies tend to result in the kinds of products whose pleasure resides principally in the act of taking them apart. Still, there's something deflating about staring down yet another long list of déjà vu titles, no matter how relevant or well cast.
By the end of 2006, somewhere on the order of 60 remakes, updates and "reimaginings" will have been released in the preceding 24-month period, barring scheduling problems or production delays. And that's not even including sequels or adaptations of books and plays. Has Hollywood's repetition compulsion finally crossed the line into treatable pathology? Frankly, I'm not up to the math. The data entry alone would be a massive undertaking. The practice is so ingrained, even complaining about it feels like a rehash.
EVERYTHING TO EVERYONE
THE saying about not trying to be all things to all people doesn't really apply anymore in America, where "premarketability" is now not only a word but apparently a very attractive quality in a product. No matter how imaginatively or how spectacularly remakes depart from their original sources, their power to surprise will always be safely circumscribed within familiar parameters.
Even films that lift no more than a title and a few broad character strokes from a well-known source are more inherently marketable, in a neat inversion of logic, than movies nobody has ever heard of. No wonder camp classics and cheesy kids' movies and sitcoms are so popular as fodder — they provide the perfect vehicle for narcissistic nostalgia trips and the ideal opportunity, when dutifully hip-ified, to correct previous lapses in political correctness, hair and clothing styles, or pre-ironic earnestness.
Also perennially popular are remakes of sci-fi or otherwise effects-heavy classics whose early technology can be shown up by the digital tools of today; remakes of foreign hits, from which all offending foreignness has been expunged; and politically "relevant" remakes that wish to comment on current events without risking the ire of Fox News pundits. Like Steve Zaillian's upcoming remake of "All the King's Men" — which tells the story of a Southern governor who rises to power thanks to his talents for corporate deal-making and "feel your pain" empathy, slides into cynicism and womanizing, and is eventually impeached — they usually sound like a great idea. But experience teaches us not to expect much from this category, either.
Two of the most potentially interesting remakes last year, "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Stepford Wives," though perfectly timed, didn't nearly live up to their potential. "The Manchurian Candidate," while fair, declined to draw out obvious parallels between the McCarthy era and today's. "The Stepford Wives," which could have been a great post-feminist coda to the proto-feminist camp classic, was a hash of focus-tested political correctness and controversy avoidance.
The bulk of Hollywood's recent and upcoming recycling efforts seems to be concentrated on such twinkly objects as "Bewitched," "Herbie: Fully Loaded," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "The Honeymooners," "The Longest Yard," "The Pink Panther," "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Shazam!," retooled to flatter current sensibilities.
In the "Love Bug" sequel "Herbie: Fully Loaded," for instance, Lindsay Lohan plays the daughter of the crash derby driver of the original, a sexy, sassy power-teen (Britney-bred audiences demand it) who takes control of the wheel to help out her dad.
Consider the differences, for instance, between the remake of "Freaky Friday," which was not a bad movie, and the original, which was not a particularly good one. The original took its cues from observable life. The remake took them from InStyle, Oprah and MTV. Annabel, as the original central character was called, was in the school band; her modern counterpart, Anna, is in a rock band. (Posting her comparison on a message board, a fan of the remake expressed her disbelief, after seeing the original, at witnessing Jodie Foster on screen with braces and a bad haircut.) Annabel's mother, played by a frazzled and loopy Barbara Harris, is a harried, married housewife with a cigarette habit and a beef with her daughter's inability to appreciate how easy she has it. Anna's mother, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is a self-made, semifamous psychiatrist and author whose charmed life includes TV appearances; a handsome, romantic, supportive fiancé; and apparently limitless credit.
God forbid we be expected to identify with an unaccomplished mommy and a dorky kid. It used to be that Hollywood specialized in escapist fantasy portrayals. Now it provides aspirational ones. Either we're clamoring for fantasy portrayals we can use, or we're all remakes now.
As Hollywood gives itself over to its role as global purveyor of fantasy, escapism, familiarity and comfort and bombastic "event films" so ritualized they're practically Kabuki, the job of speaking to our contemporary global, social, political, sexual, religious and economic realities — whether in drama, comedy or satire — has been left almost entirely to world cinema. To watch small, human stories from places as diverse as Iran, Korea, Kurdistan, Mexico, China and Brazil is to experience a small shock of recognition — not with the culture or the language or the surroundings but with their unvarnished representations of human experience, their empathy, their humanism.
It's also to realize how deeply alienating our own mainstream cinema has become, even when it operates under the guise of realism. Remakes are nothing new, but the new breed of remakes seems to reflect a widespread indifference to the world around us, even a self-defeating narcissism, encouraged by marketers and embraced by consumers who would rather be included than surprised, flattered than transported.
Not to suggest American cinema doesn't have filmmakers attuned to the particularities of American life. Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater (who has just finished remaking "The Bad News Bears") are among the best known, and small, gem-like films crop up regularly on a smattering of screens (such as Phil Morrison's upcoming "Junebug," in which a cosmopolitan Chicago art dealer visits her new husband's parents' home in North Carolina, where she's met with quiet wariness by his small-town family).
In the early '90s, I worked for a video game company that made live-action videos and aspired to make interactive movies. One day, one of the managers, a man prone to sudden enthusiasms, grabbed me in the hall: "What if you could direct your movie?" And me, ever the surly underling: "Uh, I'd ruin it?"
I suspect it's this sort of thinking, more than anything else, that has shaped the tone and sensibility of so many mainstream American movies, leaving the stories of American life mostly untold — or at least largely unhyped and unseen.