A numbed down Hollywood plot is
out of sync with the nation's new psyche
By Scott Vogel
OK, so against your better judgment - and after being commanded by authorities both local and national - you agree to go on with your life. To get over it. Returning to your former existence, you are told, is the greatest contribution an ordinary citizen might make in the war against terrorism. (They may have crippled our cities, so goes the argument, but they haven't even touched our powers of denial.)
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Now, what was it you were doing before those long days and nights spent dizzily reading the CNN news zipper? Oh, that's right, you went to see Bruce Willis movies, and as luck would have it, one opens today. You've seen the trailer for "Bandits," so you know the action-comedy features Bruce as Joe Blake, one-half of the most successful bankrobbing team in American history (naturally). You're also aware that he's teamed with Billy Bob Thornton -- this being a comedy -- who, as the hypochondriacal, toupee-wearing Terry Collins, comes across in commercials as the love child of George Stephanopoulos and Don Knotts. You've also heard there's a love interest named Kate, played by an actress named Cate (Blanchett), a bored housewife who accidentally crosses paths with our antiheroes before becoming caught up in the excitement, Patty Hearst-style, and falling in love with both.
But nothing could prepare you for the numbness that this Barry Levinson film inspires. Which is especially surprising given the jarring thrills of the movie's first hour, during which we are treated to Joe and Terry's dramatic escape from prison in a cement truck, a daring bank robbery in which a yellow highlighter is made to appear as a gun, numerous tire-screeching car chases and Blanchett's hysterical version of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" performed in the privacy of her kitchen.
The film begins at the end of the tale, during an apparently bungled attempt at robbing an Alamo Savings and Loan (get it?). Thanks both to a frame story (Joe and Terry appear on an episode of a show called "Criminals at Large") and the protagonists' penchant for reminiscing, we learn about their quirky, thoroughly improbable friendship, Terry's phobias ("I've got symptoms, I don't care what that doctor says") and the duo's plans for the future. "Life'll be like one big sunset," says Willis of his post-outlaw career, decamping to Mexico and living out his days as a resort owner.
Up until recently you might have forgiven Willis his self-loving smirk. (By film's end you too will have mastered the art of slowly turning your head while allowing a grin to creep across your mug.) You also might have forgiven the candy-colored depiction of criminal life, which after all worked for Butch and Sundance, to whom Joe and Terry will likely be compared, to the latter's detriment.
And the cringe factor has always figured into movie dialogue. So why should lines like the following -- where Joe explains his attraction for Kate -- suddenly bug you so much? ("She's got a lot of saliva in her mouth.") And has the sturdy, three-act screenplay itself, such a comforting storytelling frame in times past, ever seemed so inappropriate?
It wouldn't be fair to blame MGM for this yarn's pointlessness. "Bandits" is amusing enough and, at least in the case of Thornton and Blanchett, blessed with actors who've somehow managed to take this material to heart. But the film is also a cogent reminder of how poorly Hollywood understands America these days, and how inept it has been (at least until now) at holding up a mirror to a complex populace.
That's to be expected from an industry whose every casting decision, every directorial choice and every three-act screenplay is designed to provide a nerve-jangling but ultimately comforting picture of life.
But now life looks different, a mood shift that instantly renders films like "Bandits" obsolete, at least for the moment. And Hollywood, so often the perpetrator of cardboard villains and "Clear and Present Danger," must hastily adapt to a world that now contains the real thing. Here's hoping they won't pretend - unlike, apparently, the rest of us - that nothing has changed.
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