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Monday, May 12, 2003

The Dancer Upstairs
Among the hip and happening things detailed in my May Day Project entry (two hours standing in line, people, now that’s entertainment) was a trip to the Harvard Exit, one of the venues that will soon be my home from home, to see The Dancer Upstairs. Now, I yield to no one in my admiration for Javier Bardem, but I’m afraid this movie was a bit of a mess. The trailer was magnificent, so perhaps the movie would’ve been better if it had been cut it by about 130 minutes? (That’s far too nasty, but even after seeing the trailer at least 15 times—I guess the movie’s release was put back because it started running back in January then disappeared for a couple of months—every viewing increased my eagerness to see the film. And John Malkovich really did need a bossier editor.)

OK, let me start with the good stuff so I can disguise what a raging bitch I am: As always, Javi was cojonudo. He’s an amazing actor—one of the few that can actually achieve the trick that every uninspired director seems to ask of his cast: look through a window pensively, let the viewers know you’ve just had an epiphany, and make everyone think you're, like, rilly rilly deep. Usually this just makes the actors look like gormless oiks who have forgotten what they’re supposed to be doing; I could watch Javi look through a window for hours. Laura Morante is beautiful in a way that only talented actresses can be—whatever they’re wearing or doing or saying, they’re so gorgeous you just fall in love with the character. I don’t think she could play an unsympathetic character. (I mean, has Meryl Streep ever pulled that off? Think again, the answer’s no.) The movie was ambitious—I mean actors usually try something easy for their first feature—a family drama (or this or this) or a crazy stalker movie)—but John Malkovich had to adapt a tony novel centered on geopolitical issues and Greene-ian personal tensions.

Ach, but I’m afraid his vision didn’t quite match his ambition. For a start, it was a huge mistake to have Spanish- (and some Italian-)speaking actors working in English. I know the book was written in English and the director is American (albeit a famously multilingual one), but it MADE NO SENSE to have the dialogue be in English, in or out of the context of the movie. If anyone thought that losing the subtitles would make it more attractive to a wider movie audience, they forgot to consider the small question of comprehensibility. Even as someone who spent two years teaching English to Spaniards (well, trying to) and who thus has a well-tune ear for mangled Spanglish, at least one-fifth of the dialogue was tortured beyond my understanding. It’s a terrible disservice to the actors, if nothing else. In many ways, The Dancer Upstairs is a 130-minute ad for subtitling. (Besides which, the Quechua dialogue was subtitled anyway.)

As if that wasn’t enough, there were also major pacing issues—another problem typical of actors’ projects. I guess (literally) it’s that actors always look for award-bait passion-packed scenes—so actor-directed movies, especially first efforts, are usually migraine-inducing climax-athons. The Dancer Upstairs had the opposite problem—long, languorous sections where nothing really happened, the sudden bursts of action, then a long burst of nothingness, then another burst of action that viewers hadn’t been prepared for. There were some major plot holes too.

Nice soundtrack, though.