Friday, March 29, 2013
When does it become clear to the people involved in making a film that the finished product is going to be a turkey? Well, if it's some direct-to-video detritus, probably "before the script is even written." But if it's a film with A-list pretenses, your Giglis, your Leonard: Part 6's, it presumably takes a while for everyone to realize what they're doing. A bad screenplay can be salvaged. A bad performance can be muted in the editing booth. An incoherent mess can be streamlined. But at some point, if things are really dire, it probably becomes obvious to enough people on the production that things are not going to end well, and their job is just to finish the damn thing and move on to the next project.
1941 is a massive turkey. It is incomprehensible and unfunny, and it is those things for almost two and a half excruciating hours. It was actually not a box office bomb, making three times as much as it cost at theaters, and I feel sorry for every single person who bought a ticket to the latest blockbuster from the man who made Jaws and Close Encounters, and had to sit through this piece of shit in a dark theater. At least I got to pause it and take a break. Watching this from start to finish straight through might have destroyed my mind.
The film is ever-so-loosely based on the bombardment of Ellwood, when a Japanese sub shelled an oil refinery near Los Angeles in early 1942. After Pearl Harbor there was a lot of paranoia on the American coasts about what the Japanese or Germans might get up to, and the shelling of Ellwood fed into that sense. We are introduced to a Japanese sub off the California coast at the very beginning, and then at the very end it does some shelling. In the middle, a whole bunch of mostly-unrelated nonsense happens, and a huge cast of famous and semi-famous people show up for a few minutes here and there as the plot determinedly refuses to actually go anywhere. A lot of stuff gets destroyed - planes, tanks, a house, a paint factory for some reason. It's all supposed to be funny and almost none of it is. I don't know whose decision it was to make this material into a slapstick comedy - Spielberg has a well-known love for Stanley Kubrick, so at some point I'm pretty certain he saw 1941 as his Dr. Strangelove. But between his ham-handed direction (seriously, everything gets destroyed, it is exhausting) and the joke-free screenplay, the film is neither funny nor poignant. It's not lifeless, at least, because at any given moment about 5 different things are happening on screen. But it's all so tiresomely vaudevillian. One of the characters, I am not making this up, is a ventriloquist dummy, and the film treats it like it's a real person. That is the type of film this is.
John Milius, who is most famous for tough-guy movies like the Dirty Harry pictures and Conan the Barbarian, has a story-by credit, but I'm going to go ahead and assign most of the script portion of the blame to the writing team behind the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. It's not clear whether they wrote a semi-serious script and then Spielberg decided to go jokey a la Strangelove, or whether it was jokey to begin with, but most of Zemeckis' early work was pretty doofy, so I'm going to assume it's the latter. There was one joke in the film that actually made me laugh, for a solid 1 joke/150 minute ratio. A lot of the humor, to be fair, is visual, which really has to fall more on Spielberg's shoulders than the screenwriters. If you think the sight of a tank plowing through a warehouse full of paint cans is inherently funny, well, this might be your favorite movie.
The cast is sprawling and almost no one comes out with their dignity intact. John Belushi's character, if it can be called that, is an overeager spin on Bluto Blutarski. Dan Aykroyd is a soldier who loves America but also has a thick Canadian accent. Treat Williams spends most of the film attempting to rape another character - this is, obviously, played for laughs. Slim Pickens and Warren Oates trade on their names and their well-established personae to join in the "fun"; Pickens, in particular, is on the wrong end of a very long scene that revolves around his character's bowel movements. Ned Beatty is a clueless oaf who willfully destroys his own home (he does, however, have the film's one funny moment). Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune(!) play the film's Nazi and Japanese villain, respectively - both of them play their scenes fairly straight, but neither has much to do but yell and argue. Robert Stack plays the military head honcho, and he is probably the one actor in the film whose character acts in consistently logical ways, and never has to do anything humiliating.
I don't want to waste much more time on this film, because I have wasted too much on it already. It is awful. When the James Bond series bottomed out, at least one could still enjoy the various tropes of the series. Same with the worst Star Trek movies. There are no redeeming qualities to 1941. It is stupid, it looks awful, and there are no performances in it that are even worth mentioning again. Spielberg, at least, must have known he had a bomb on his hands when he watched the dailies, and he has at least had the good sense to stay the hell out of the comedy business since then. Let us never speak of this movie ever again.
Well, just a little bit more. Bullet points.
The opening scene is an homage to Jaws. Instead of a shark, it's a Japanese sub. That seems like a really presumptuous thing for Spielberg to do, to already be self-referencing this early in his career.
Slim Pickens does a riff on his famous "survival kit" speech from Dr. Strangelove, rattling off all the garbage in his shit-kicker character's pockets for the Japanese sailors that capture him. It's actually vaguely amusing, but then they flush the character right down the toilet (puns!) by having him swallow a compass that the Japanese need for some reason, and then having them force-feed him prune juice.
The one funny joke - Ned Beatty is having a heart-to-heart with his daughter about the USO dance that she is going to go to that night, and he tells her that it is her duty as an American to sleep with the soldiers. It came as such a surprise that someone had done something unexpected and funny that I had to rewind and watch it again to make sure I heard what I thought I did.
Robert Stack's character cries at Dumbo, which is actually pretty cute.