Might have been a solid 'B' had it been entirely subtitled rather than largely dubbed, but it still seems like a project better suited to the page than the screen -- especially since the most compelling footage is lifted from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams. I spent most of the movie wishing I were watching that instead. (Seen on video for Time Out New York review.)
Like The Limey, a simultaneously playful and somber exercise in genre deconstruction, in which heady atmosphere and highfalutin' conceits are intended to disguise the material's basic lack of remarkableness. I wound up preferring Jarmusch's effort slightly to Soderbergh's, partly because I found Forest Whitaker far more compelling than Terence Stamp (the latter is tied with Hilary Swank for 1999's Most Overrated Performance), partly because Ghost Dog, for all of its pretensions, has a wonderfully sly sense of humor -- you've gotta like a movie in which The Way of the Samurai includes detailed instructions on how a warrior can improve his complexion.
A minority opinion, if the sustained applause that erupted at my screening is at all representative...but I stand by it, even as I acknowledge that it seems a bit churlish to dismiss a movie made with such honorable intentions. If you're automatically receptive to any tale of socio-economic hardship, you may well be moved to tears; I found the whole thing oppressively noble, its adagio-heavy score and life-is-tough-for-the-downtrodden theme so pushy and didactic that I half-expected Sally Struthers to step into the frame's foreground and ask us to look into our hearts. (There were, in fact, people collecting donations outside the Quad on opening night.) A critic blurbed on the poster compares it to Italian neorealism; I hereby dare whoever it was to watch it back-to-back with Umberto D. or The Bicycle Thief, and then try to make the comparison again with a straight face.
Haven't read the novel, but whatever might be special about it didn't survive the translation: the plot is surprisingly pedestrian (for Irving, anyway), and the fine cast (Tobey Maguire fast becoming a fave, though his range still seems limited) is intermittently swamped in generic sensitivity. Some nice moments here and there, but dead spots are more numerous still, and structurally it's so damn neat'n'tidy that I accurately predicted the movie's final scene, right down to the final line of dialogue, about half an hour before it ended.
(The following was written to a few friends way back in June, after I'd seen a recruited-audience screening -- hence the comparative informality of my tone and the occasional cryptic personal asides. I plan to see the finished film sometime in the next week or two, and if my opinion substantially changes -- which I think unlikely -- I'll add further comments in a separate entry.)
Okay, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. First of all, the print I saw was pretty much complete, although there were a few effects shots that were clearly not finished yet, and no end credits, and it obviously hadn't been timed. Music all seems to be in place already. Opening titles are pretty cool, as usual -- fairly simple by Scorsese's standards, but still cool.
Plot summary, such as is possible, goes like so (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want that much information): Nic Cage is an ambulance driver who's haunted by the ghosts of the patients he couldn't save, in particular the ghost of one teenaged girl named Rose, whose face he sees on every passerby on the street. Early on he and partner John Goodman pick up a middle-aged man who's had a heart attack; the man's daughter turns out to be Patricia Arquette, with whom Cage forges a tentative friendship as she continually returns to the hospital to check on her dad, who's barely hanging on. Arquette is involved with some drug dealers, and that plot strand leads to a gruesome climax that I'm not prepared to spoil for anybody except to say that that's where most of the unfinished effect shots take place. And then there are various subplots, the most prominent of which involves a crazy homeless guy who keeps ending up in the hospital tied to a gurney screaming for someone to give him a cup of water (drinking water could allegedly kill him, according to one of the doctors). Hard to say more, because narrative isn't this movie's strong suit -- one strike for me already, as those of you who know me well know.
What worked for me was everything that had nothing to do with the main storyline, i.e. all of the details about working for EMS. Typically flamboyant direction by Marty and editing by Schoonmaker is aces. Best thing in the movie is Ving Rhames, playing another EMS guy, who has an over-the-top hilarious scene that I predict will do very well in the Best Scene category in my annual survey. (Tom Sizemore, as a kinda evil-wacko driver not unlike his character from STRANGE DAYS, I didn't care for so much.) The movie is fundamentally pretty serious and somber -- it was written by Schrader, after all -- but the supporting elements and background detail are often borderline absurdist; try to imagine TAXI DRIVER crossed with AFTER HOURS. I much preferred the absurdist stuff, and (as usual) I was somewhat irritated by the constantly shifting tone (cf. Imamura).
What didn't work for me was (a) the Cage-Arquette relationship, which takes up an obscene percentage of the film's running time and is a major-league snooze (cf. virtually every movie ever made starring two actors who are involved in real life; makes me nervous about EYES WIDE SHUT), and (b) the whole Schraderesque man-haunted-by-inner-demons thing, which is unbelievably trite for one thing (wow, an ambulance driver obsessed with the folks who died on his watch, whodathunkit?) and clashes with the wonderfully absurdist tone of the rest of the movie for another. There's a fair amount of voiceover that I'd guess was lifted directly from the book, and while I usually don't mind the voiceover in Scorsese pictures (it even worked for me in CASINO, which I loathed), here it seems studied -- closer to the labored, academic Willem Dafoe narration in AFFLICTION than the sardonic Ray Liotta narration in GOODFELLAS. Cage is at best okay, but still seems to be in sad-eyed CITY OF ANGELS mode a lot of the time. Arquette sucks, as ever. Goodman is good old reliable Goodman, but he's not given much to do. Rhames rules, playing a character closer to Don King than Marcellus Wallace; he's having way too much fun.
As Peace pointed out in his Usenet post, I didn't especially care for CASINO or KUNDUN either (though I gave the latter a fairly respectable B-), and both of those have many ardent fans. I'll be surprised if this one does, though, except among those for whom Scorsese can do no wrong. I should note for the record that everybody within earshot of me *hated* it. I overheard numerous discussions while we were sitting around filling out the survey cards, and the hostility in the room was palpable; people resented having wasted two hours of their lives watching it. I think my C+ was one of the more positive reactions. But keep in mind that I saw an advance screening of FARGO and predicted that it'd be a huge critical and commercial flop, so I obviously can't be trusted. In fact, my response to DEAD is similar to my response to FARGO, now that I think about it: both felt like two different movies inelegantly stitched together, and in both cases I only liked only one of the two. So you FARGO/Scorsese fans are definitely advised not to get too despondent. I'll be curious to see what the other critics think come October.
(Turns out that the critical response was reasonably favorable, at least here in New York; nobody got overly excited, but I saw a lot of three-star reviews and grades in the B/B- range. People are willing to cut Marty a lotta slack, I think)
I know, you're wondering why I even bothered to see this. To be honest, I was in the right mood for "relationship propaganda," as Leslie put it (she was smart enough to stay away); unfortunately, it's so inept that by the end I was rooting for Bruce and Michelle to get divorced, and for their kids to be adopted by cannibalistic space aliens. And Eric Clapton is lucky he used to be a genius; if he hadn't written "Sunshine of Your Love" and "Layla," I'd want him consigned to a special room in Hell, one in which the inane faux-Spanish ditty that recurs throughout this movie plays on literally infinite repeat.