Two more down for this year’s roster of Best Picture nominees – one of which was, for me, an “also-ran.”
The term “Oscar-bait” gets applied dismissively to some films; the accusation is that the subject matter or the casting or some other aspect of the film is catering expressly to stack the odds of the film receiving a nomination of some kind. I don’t use that term, however, because often the artistic choices people see as opportunistic still work for me. But I know what they mean, and have started using my own term – “Ikea OSKAR flatpack movie” – to describe the impression I sometimes get that a given film is not made so much as assembled, as if the creators weren’t actually making anything fresh but were rather following a well-established formula designed to Produce An Oscar Nominated Film. There are no hard-and-fast rules I can point to, like “it’s always about history” or “there’s always a duck in it” or whatever – it’s more of a feel, a sense that I can predict exactly what kind of tone a given scene is going to take or what kind of a pace the film’s going to have or what kind of relationship the two main characters have or that “yeah, right on time, this is about where the hero has the crisis of conscience and they get a pep talk”. This isn’t to say that the film is necessarily bad – often it is well done, and everyone involved does their jobs quite well. I’m just not surprised by any of it.
Mank was my flatpack movie this year. Ostensibly it is about how screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz developed the first draft of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, but it’s also about how Mankiewicz went from being a mercenary party animal to actually giving a damn about things, at a time when it was almost too late for him to do something about it. The film uses a similar time-jump framework as did Kane – skipping frequently between the seedy hotel room in 1941 where Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is holed up and writing, assisted (or babysat) by a pert British secretary (Lily Collins), and to various moments throughout the 1930s, starting when Mankiewicz first meets William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Marian Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and is charmed by Marian’s wit and bemused by Hearst’s bombast. He’s equally bemused by his own boss, studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), but keeps his opinions to himself for the sake of continuing to get a paycheck. But the political scene of the 1930s causes Mankiewicz to question his principles, especially when he starts suspecting that Mayer and Hearst are conspiring to manipulate the voters against the Democratic candidate.
Again, everyone is fine – the black-and-white design of the film mirrors Old Hollywood nicely, and the actors are all doing perfectly fine. (I was particularly pleased with Seyfried as Marian Davies.) But it just felt like…well, of course they’d shoot in black and white, right? And of course there’d be a couple of Kane shout-outs and of course Mankiewicz’s brother would have a hard talk with him in the third act and of course Mankiewicz would turn up blind drunk at a party and embarrass himself, and…the various plot beats just felt kind of inevitable. Even the bare-bones plot arc the film sees fit to give Lily Collins’ character is predictable – when she gets a telegram early on stating that the ship her naval officer husband is on has sunk, and he is “missing and presumed dead”, you know that by the end of the film she’s going to get another telegram saying that he’s been found alive.
Roommate Russ cynically observed that movies which are Love Letters To Old Hollywood tend to do well come Oscar season. I suppose I’d be happier if this were like a Love Letter to Sundance or something.
In a sense, Minari was also kind of formulaic in its tale – we have seen a lot of stories of Immigrant Families Trying To Assimilate And Make Good. But the telling of this story had some surprises in it that kept it out of flatpack territory for me.
Set in the early 1980s, the film follows the Korean Yi family – Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), and their two kids Anne (Noelle Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). They’ve just moved to rural Arkansas, following Jacob’s ambition to start a farm specializing in Korean vegetables for the surrounding cities’ burgeoning immigrant populations. And yes, there are plenty of “fish out of water” moments for the family – other local kids asking David and Anne rude questions, Monica feeling isolated as the only Korean woman in town, and a running gag with the Yi’s constantly guzzling Mountain Dew soda because Jacob assumes the name means it’s a health drink. There are also a few “comic misunderstanding” moments after Monica asks her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking card shark, to emigrate from Seoul and move in to look after the kids.
But these elements are all secondary to the film. The bulk of the story is about the nearly insurmountable strain that Jacob’s gamble is putting on his marriage to Monica, and about the blossoming relationship between David and his weird grandma Soonja. It’s implied that David was born in the United States, and so Soonja is a near alien presence to him – she doesn’t make cookies, she swears when she plays cards, she smells funny. But she also sees potential in him the rest of the family can’t see yet, and he gradually comes to rely on that when the tension between his parents starts growing.
And the film handles that tension between Jacob and Monica very well. Other such “immigrant stories” where it is a couple trying to adapt condense their characters’ conflicts into one or two dramatic arguments, where one or the other finally snaps under their tension and lashes out. But here, you have the sense that Jacob and Monica have been having ongoing debates, and raising their voices doesn’t really help because it’s never solved anything before. You have the sense of a much longer history between the two – the ongoing negotiations, debates, and pet peeves, some of which weren’t even about the farm or their move to the United States but are more the particular issues all couples face, when two unique individuals try to coordinate the merging of two separate life paths into one. That kind of negotiation is a lifelong journey – there is no final end point when all the differences have been hashed out and everything’s fine ever after, it’s a continual process as life and fate throw curve balls at you. And the film’s ending is equally open-ended, with some curve balls not quite yet resolved and some obstacles still to dodge, but you are left with a sense of how the family is going to attempt to face things.
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P.S. – I have a similar term for overly-formulaic romantic comedies – “LOVMUVI flatpack films” – but I’m way more dismissive about those.