Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What's wrong with Broadcast News?

Dramedy from the mid 80s now enjoying the reputation of rising above slurs aimed at it on first release that it was Network lite. So Amazon had a sale on some of its Criterion titles and I chucked that one in the cart along with the rest. First rainy day, I noted mentally.

So I did. Loose end, finished a short list for SHADOWS, I slip the ol' blu-ray disc into the OPPO.

So, Network lite or something with its own weight? Neither.

James Brooks is a competent if constrained filmmaker but the premise of a triangle of careerism and heart strings with Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt can't be that bad, surely. Well, it is and the problems with it are there in the first sentence of this par. This film plays satire then rom com then serious drama by turns but never twines the threads. If you were to take a handful of marbles and put them in a box and shook the box it would have more coherence than Broadcast News because for all the variations of pattern and size of the marbles they would all be making the same racket.

See that cast list up there? It's virtually madatory casting for the period. Brooks was branching out from his stand up and tv careers into cinema outings, eventually graduating to writing, directing and starring in them (Lost in America, for example, or Defending Your Life). Holly Hunter was taking her Texan drawell from heights in Coen movies to a real mainstream paypacket. William Hurt, post oscar was at that time in everything but a bath, spreading his earnest sensitive new age guy with a fine line in me generation psychobabble as far as it would stretch. Love 'em or hate 'em they were the team to beat.

And wasn't it time for a new Network, anyway? Masterpiece or not (it is) Network was all post-Nixon guilt and boardroom autocracy. Wasn't it time for some Reagenomics to hit the fan? Sure, maybe. Hurt's character of the charmer without stuffing sleazing his way to the top makes him perfectly cast as the very cipher the era nurtured. Brooks' smartarsed hard journalist was poised with wisecracks and effortless integrity to resist the Ron 'n' Nancy show. And Holly Hunter, workably quirky could demonstrate the woman's role in this, hammering at the glass ceiling, folding her neuroses into career-manageable bites. All good, so why doesn't any of this work?

Because none of the drama seems to come out of the interaction of these players but rather seems filled in like a cartoon background when required. Because the comedy is all wisecracks between people who find each other funnier than I could. Because there isn't a second of genuine connection between them. Because smugness and arrogance in their characters is standing in for charm or style or  conviction. Because they don't have much of a chance at going for any of that as the film they are part of doesn't have any to begin with.

Holly Hunter bursts into uncontrollable tears after stress. Her colleagues are used to it. No history given nor any destination forthcoming. Just a quirk that a writer remembered. It's stuck on with gaffer tape. She delivers insufferably detailed directions to the drivers of every cab she gets in. Why the cabbies who could radio each other didn't see she ended up in the Potomac is beyond me.

William Hurt had recently won the Oscar for Kiss of the Spiderwoman and carries his character like a demon from Smug Hell, naturally and with palpable purpose. No problem there.

Albert Brooks once again proves that his small role in Taxi Driver was a fluke. He was funny the way office workers are funny with each other. He was also reined in by Martin Scorsese. Brooks is a comedy talent, really, but as a big screen romantic lead he is charmless, dowdy and queasily superior. His lines are witty and should be welcome but they are delivered so self-pleasingly that they are doomed at breath. His is an ugly presence which could never attract one of the opposite gender, even accounting for the hook of personal power doesn't work with him. Imagine being told grievous news by a messenger who smiles as he speaks and then sneers a remark about how much grief you should be showing. Well, that's what Albert Brooks is like in this film. And another thing: Brooks went on to write and direct several black comedies which should have worked a treat except that he cast himself as the lead in each one and had other characters laugh at his wisecracks.

But not even Brooks is chiefly responsible for Broadcast News' offence. Well, not that Brooks, anyway. It's James Brooks, writer and director, perpetrator of two hours of smugness so cloying that the packaging ought to include a toxicity warning. It is the smugness of a time when the attraction between three thoroughly repellent people could be covered by a lazy-minded pisstake on the media. It is the smugness that attempted to convince its audiences that the supposed ethical atrocity committed by one of the characters would turn another against them when the act in question was the very kind of thing the satire was aiming at. (Oh, but that's the rom com part, not the satire part. Bugger off!) It is the smugness that assumes automatic hilarity will ensue from mixing tv news title music with a Broadway musical style tune (and in an excruciatingly protracted scene which travels seven nautical miles beyond its own joke).

We're not smug like that anymore. We can't be. These days even our cynicism has a nervous edge to it when climate-change deniers are referred to as skeptics (and not equated with creationists as they deserve to be) and the apparent homogeneity of political partisanship is allowed a crushing inevitability. When broadcast media is both reviled for barrel-bottom-scraping and declared irrelevant. When a creepy, misty-eyed utopianism enters into what passes for worldiness then the scattergun smugness of Broadcast News looks obsolete, embarrassingly obsolete. It's a styrofoam cup. It's a plastic shopping bag.

So is it just poor time travel? Why is Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. cringeworthy but Catch 22 from the same year with a similar satirical brief still fresh? M.A.S.H. has a larky laddish misogyny that feels violent-minded now. In Catch 22 this attitude comes from within characters rather than from the film as a whole and it is not assumed that the audience will confuse it with anti-authority. Back home, Broadcast News fails where the full-decade-earlier Network continues to compel, draw big laughter and excite.

Network, for all its treasure trove of topical 70s references, is a timeless film whose hints at reality tv and the big, frightening, faceless business behind the ownership of the media. Network functions, despite its overliterate dialogue, because its cast performs at the top of its game and looks like it doesn't know the camera is in the room. Network, despite having some truly vile characters among its dramatis personae, absorbs its audience into its population, allowing time to see something of how each of the major players came by their shape.The newer film cannot compete with any of this. It fails on every point. It is made for its time rather than beyond it. Broadcast News is not Network lite, it's like Network never happened.

1 comment:

  1. Great review.

    I just saw it for the first time, and wrote at length about it and it's relation to Network and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (though be warned, my reaction was more positive than negative):