Monday, December 17, 2018

Wildlife (2018)

I know what tipped me off was the setting in Great Falls, Montana, along with the focus on domestic trouble for a young couple with a teenage boy, but Wildlife felt like a story by Richard Ford even before I realized he's the author of the source novel, published in 1990. But I was otherwise distracted by a gnat storm of annoyances. The physical resemblance of Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould)—the aforementioned teenage boy—to first-time director and cowriter Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Love & Mercy). The fact that, doing the math on this period piece set explicitly in 1960, that very same Joe was born in 1946, the same year as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump, which inevitably makes it a baby boomer coming-of-age story—no surprise as a Ford property, but still, haven't we had enough of those? Then there was a jackass in the row ahead of me who had to keep checking his phone. Last but not least, it was a good turnout for an afternoon show, but mostly groups of four or six older people on outings who treated the place like a living room. Oh, also, while this movie has wildfires and it has wild life, it does not actually have any wildlife, except of course metaphorically. Even that annoyed me, as in my head I keep thinking of the movie now as Wildfire and then have to correct myself. Wait, that reminds me, one more—errant husband Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a failing golf pro who takes off for most of the movie to fight wildfires in the Montana woods—there's even a very impressive shot of one, though handled weirdly. But it feels like it's intended to reflect what has been going on with recent horrific seasons of wildfires. Instead, it just feels convenient and minimizing, implying it has been going on for as long as we can remember. The main pitch on Wildlife, as you may have heard, is Carey Mulligan's performance as Jeanette Brinson, which is as good as billed, given all the changes Jeanette is put through as a pretty girl lost in a big country. Unfortunately, the picture is hampered by a weak screenplay that doesn't seem to be trying very hard. Maybe that's the Ford novel—I haven't read it. It's not surprising that Dano would serve up an actors' showcase for his first time directing—arguably, it's what he knows. I would have been more comfortable if Oxenbould didn't look so much like Dano, because that makes the picture look too much like a vanity piece. The production design is also above average, with lots of credible detail for 1960. But good performances, costumes, and sets sadly turn out to be slender reeds on which to build a whole feature film when the story itself goes so flat.

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