In which my utter lack of power sucks. Again. (Gulliver’s Travels edition).

Alas, many are the times that I wish I had more power.  Whenever I write about Israel/Palestine for instance, or demand greater responsibility from the folks in Washington.

Or today, when I’m confronting the bad reviews that greeted Jack Black’s latest offering,Gulliver’s Travels.

You heard me.

A couple of weeks ago, the girl announced that she wanted to see Gulliver’s Travels on Christmas, and I thought, well, huh. Ok. My spidey sense had picked up on some bad buzz — and I confess to thinking it unlikely that the movie had very much to do with the source material — but, well: Jack Black. And: The kids! So, sure. Gulliver’s Travels. Whatever. It’s all about the kids! And Jack Black!

And guess what, dear reader? I laughed.

Out loud.

A lot.

And emerged declaring the film (and I believe this is an exact quote): “AWEsome!”

Beyond vague thumbs-up/thumbs-down indicators, I almost never read reviews of movies beforehand, and if I’ve enjoyed something that I know critics didn’t, I tend not to read the reviews at all — for far too often, this has led to me feeling like a rube, and retroactively having a bad time (I’ve never meant to suggest that the space In My Head is anything other than messy).

But this time (absolutely confident in how much fun I’d had), I thought I’d find out just how bad the buzz was, and oh my goodness. 21% at Rotten Tomatoes is bad, right? Yeah. That’s really bad.

BUT HERE’S THE THING.

The vast majority of the reviewers who didn’t like the movie made snippy comments about how little it had to do with the source material, and I’m sorry (no wait. I’m not) — if you thought that a Jack Black movie geared toward children and released on Christmas weekend was going to be a painstaking adaptation of early 18th century political satire:

  1. You’re a moron and
  2. You’re a moron.

First of all, I have a very distinct memory of actively disliking Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece, finding it as witty and subtle as a sledgehammer. Of course, I’m not very clever, but maybe it’s just possible that political satire — being a genre wedded and welded to the time in which it is written — doesn’t hold up over the course of some three centuries.

Second of all: Jack Black. Honestly? You went to a movie starring Jack Black (School of Rock, Kung Fu Panda, Tenacious D ?) and expected Swift? What on earth is wrong with you?

The basic idea — regular sized person caught by very, very little persons on a beach — was lifted from Swift’s work, and then made into something else. In my suburb, we call that “repurposing.” It happens in movies all the fucking time, and no one seems to notice or mind.

Moreover, from start to finish, the movie was laugh-out-loud, cover-your-mouth-with-your-hand, don’t-want-to-embarrass-the-children funny. (Plus which, that thing with the princess at the end? Awesome!) It was (hold on to your hats kids, ’cause I’mma sound fancy) absurd.

The humor in Gulliver’s Travels hits that very, very small sweet spot between slapstick and absurdist. Often the former looks like the latter, but isn’t. Frequently the latter is mistaken for the former and is unfairly written off.

But the folks who made this movie managed to create a kind of gentle absurdist humor that appealed to everyone in my family. The characters — absurd as they were — appeared to genuinely care for each other, the women were (get this!) believable (take that, Judd Apatow!), and both the main character and the villain were (dare I say it?) complex.

Gulliver is a good guy, a sweet guy — but he is, also, undeniably, a liar, who is used to compensating for his own low self-esteem with ridiculous (absurd!) lies. The bad guy, General Edward, is a tightly wound prick who thinks only of himself — but he is also, undeniably, right when he tries to warn Lilliput against trusting Gulliver too much.

Horrors! Humor that doesn’t always make sense, and heroes and villains with a smidgen of complexity! And it doesn’t look very much like a 300 year old book that shares its name! Let me just clutch my movie reviewer pearls!

Interestingly enough, Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times) and Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) gave the movie two of its few decent reviews (though, it should be noted, these were not as glowing as mine is. “Awesome” isn’t mentioned once, by either man, if memory serves) — maybe it’s a Midwest thing.

Or maybe, they, too watched The Monkees when they were little and learned to recognize gentle absurdist humor when they see it.

But alas. No one gives a shit what I think, and Gulliver’s will go down in history as a failure.

Goddamnit, why don’t I have more power?

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

5 Comments

  1. I don’t read reviews if I’m going to see a movie, and it seems the more I like the movie, the worse it will do commercially. Movies I don’t like are usually hits. So, I sympathize. Would that I had this power as well.

  2. Roger Ebert: still the best movie critic ever.

  3. zic

     /  December 28, 2010

    I learned long ago that the movies I most enjoyed were the ahemmm two-star movies. The three typically bored me to death; the 4, usually okay, but required more work then I wanted to put into a bout of entertainment in a theater full of folks I didn’t know. The ones? Usually sucked completely.

    But the two stars, those were the movies that were fun. That left me feeling like I’d been on an adventure. That I wouldn’t mind watching again. So WTF to critics know?

    You have my humble permission to ignore them, to say the movie’s awesome, and to spread the word far and wide; take your kids, borrow someone else’s kids, or go feel like a kid yourself and just go see this movie.

    I plan to, and I’ll tell them Emily sent me.

  4. sue swartz

     /  December 28, 2010

    My extraordinarily smart 23-year-old stepdaughter Leah (whose brains can in no way be tied to me) says of critics: WTF!?!?!? if people would just freaking ask kids what they thought about movies made for kids or ask teenagers what they think of movies made for them, etc., that would be awesome! What do older people know about what’s good movie making for me? I take her point. She hasn’t steered me wrong yet. If you get a change to see “Easy A,” released in Fall 2010, do it. We watched it last night and it was charmingly funny.

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