Saturday, September 18, 2004

Auntie Mame: a Review

A friend was shocked when she found out I'd never seen it, so she leant it to me. And it sat. It sat weeks, until I decided I had to give it back, so I watched it and found that I actually rather liked it, with reservations. The film is so artificial. The story is hurried in overly-delineated chapters (whose inner logic is often haphazard), the script always telling you what to feel from moment to moment, its melodramatic emotions lurching at a pace that would be pyschotic--if you were actually feeling them. The whole thing passes by as if in quotation marks: "entertainment," "colorful character," etc. Compare this to a work made by a sensitive master director, like Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis (featuring another gay camp figure in an early 20C period piece): it's the difference between seeing and feeling. I guess it depends on whether you prefer to be involved in stories or merely distracted by them. Anyway, its failings as a film aside, I enjoyed parts of the story. Rosalind Russell was certainly an excellent actress (not to be missed in the classic His Girl Friday), and she had little competition in this production.

The film involved me most as a cartoonish tale of a free-spirited bohemian fighting for her place in conservative America. In the opening, Mame takes in a nephew (played by a truly annoying child actor--I breathed a sigh of relief when he suddenly grew up and was played by handsome Roger Smith) whose father (her brother) just died. According to the terms of the will, which we see in the opening (and which is, incidentally, made out from a law office on "West" LaSalle St. in Chicago, which I chose to take as an early indicator of the film's intentional skew from reality), she is the father's absolute last choice to raise a child, and many of the financial/legal powers are entrusted to a bald, square, conservative, Mr. Babcock (at one point, Mame intentionally gets his name wrong as Babbitt, a refreshingly witty touch). This sets up the basic contest of wills, though the winner is never in doubt. In the film's best purely cinematic moment, while traveling far away (in Egypt) on a honeymoon, reading a letter from nephew Patrick, Mame becomes worried that he's becoming one of those stuffy snob conservatives. This worry is expressed through a close-up on her face: in her eyes we see the boy morph into Babcock. "I think we better get back home," she says to her new husband. The last half-hour of the 2 1/2-hour film was my favorite section, in which she confronts the snobby, empty-headed girl Patrick has fallen for and her philistine, anti-Semitic parents. The Birdcage clearly owed a lot to this portion of the plot. (Come to think of it, there are a lot of those "meeting the crazy potential in-laws" stories. The upcoming Meet the Fockers might be fun.) Not a great film by any stretch, but an "entertaining" one. And who can argue with its message: Live! Live! Live! Rating: 2 1/2 stars out of 4.



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