04 May 2006

current cinema: Lucky Number Slevin


starring: Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, and Ben Kingsley
written by: Jason Smilovic
directed by: Paul McGuigan
R, 109 min, 2006, USA

Generally speaking, when a film violates one of the basic laws of cinema in the opening minutes, it's a sure indicator of trouble or, at very least, some harsh reviews. Your average patron may not, beyond a slight discomfort, notice or care, but to a more critical member of the audience such transgressions trigger a red flag, putting the film in a hole that's difficult to overcome. The basic laws aren't, by any stretch of the imagination, unreasonable or complicated, so a competent filmmaker can easily go his entire career without running afoul of them. Most would never consider doing otherwise unless they were trying to convey a specific point.

That being said, it's more than a bit confusing when director Paul McGuigan breaks the 180 degree rule[1] in the opening minutes of Lucky Number Slevin multiple times in a simple scene where Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) explains the Kansas City Shuffle to Nick Fisher (Sam Jaeger) in an airport lobby. And for what purpose is this rule broken? In what grand way does it advance the film? Well, it provides a convenient, although unremarkable, shot of Bruce Willis sitting in a chair. Nothing more. It is, plain and simple, the calling card of a bad film.

While the airport scene may look pretty good[2], it is unsound, and therein lies the key problem with Lucky Number Slevin--it lacks a fundamental knowledge of the art form, almost as if the principal filmmakers somehow managed to skip the first year of film school. At its worst moments, it feels like the cinematic equivalent of playground basketball and occasionally hits a high-water mark somewhere in the vicinity of the Harlem Globetrotters. And that's fine if the film understands that, if it plays out with a wink and a crooked grin, fully aware that it serves as nothing more than an excuse to consume popcorn in a dark room, but it doesn't. Instead, Lucky Number Slevin is a film that yearns to be loved. Never have I seen a film expend so much energy to convince an audience (and, perhaps, itself) that it belongs in that uber-hip modern crime club[3]. It reminds me of the inept little kids that spend their time copying other kids in a vain attempt to be accepted. But what they don't realize is that to be cool--truly cool--you cannot ever be seen trying to be cool, for at that moment you have failed. If it isn't effortless, then it's just pathetic.

The cast, for the most part, has figured this out and their performances raise the film out of mediocrity, but there's only so much an actor can do. Josh Hartnett, in the titular role of Slevin, turns in what may be the best performance of his career[4], which ranks it slightly below the functional jobs done by Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, and Bruce Willis, all of whom realized early in the production that this wasn't going to get them to any award shows, no matter how good they were. But the great thing about casting such luminaries, other than the instant credibility it gives the project, is that no matter how inept the folks behind the camera may be, the actors are professionals who have certain standards below which they will not sink, even after they've lost all interest in the film. They've perhaps realized there's little point in wasting a good performance, so they save it for the talk show circuit, where the real acting is much more vital to the film's financial success.

Up until now I haven't said anything about the plot--a convoluted affair involving a mistaken identity, warring crime families, revenge, bookies, and the occasional double-crossing. In other words, pretty standard stuff for the genre. I won't give away much of the proceedings, even though the title of the film does, other to say that Kingsley and Freeman play crime bosses, Willis the hitman, Hartnett the man mistaken for someone else, and Lucy Liu the love interest. Based on this information, you could in all likelihood craft a better story than first-time screenwriter Jason Smilovic who, after long hours alone at his computer, has come up with a script that's somewhere between a unintelligible mess and a clusterfuck. If it isn't the worst screenplay I've ever seen in theatres, then my mind has managed to block another from my memory. Smilovic "specializes" in a noir-ish, rapid-fire dialogue that's meant to be clever, but he isn't talented enough to pull off clever, so he resorts to repeating himself over and over again with lines like "The Boss wants to see you/Who?/The Boss./Who's the Boss?/The guy we work for". And that's one of the better exchanges. He manages to hit something resembling a stride in the second act, thankfully, but in the third, after the grand and inevitable reveal, he proceeds to spend the next twenty minutes explaining, in detail, the mechanics of the reveal, despite the fact that most of the audience has already figured it out and it isn't at all complicated, anyway. How this script even found its way to a studio, much less past a reader, is beyond me.

McGuigan, who's previous effort, Wicker Park (2004), was much loved by my mother (for some reason) and contained some moments of promise, also directed the acclaimed Gangster No. 1 (2000). He was, I thought, a better filmmaker than this. The 180 degree rule thing I spoke of earlier was not an isolated event. The entire film is littered with stuff like that, making Lucky Number Slevin a stylistic piece of fluff that collapses under its own weight. The script is a disaster, sure, but McGuigan does little to fix that problem. He just throws flashy images up on screen hoping we'll be distracted by something shiny, and I suspect a great number of people will be, but that doesn't make it acceptable. McGuigan's more talented than this film indicates. Here's hoping he just got lazy.

[1] The 180 degree rule is, according to Wikipedia: "a basic film editing guideline that states that two characters (or other elements) in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other." Pretty simple stuff.

[2] Except for the airport itself, which feels very much like a cheaply constructed set. To be fair, it might easily be a bus terminal, not that it matters.

[3] The one that includes Pulp Fiction (1994), The Usual Suspects (1996), and other such films.

[4] Although, Hartnett isn't exactly someone who shows up in a lot of the films I go see, so I don't exactly have an exhaustive knowledge of his work.


mattreed said...

how does fluff collapse under its own weight?

lucas said...

like a souffle?

leone said...

Maybe he's trying to move away from such a well worn movie genre and I think that just maybe his viewing public might be sophisticated enough to at the very least enjoy not being patronised by the - what was it again? - errre - 360 degree rool? Huh?

It seems to have upset your sense of order - oh dear , dear.....

lucas said...

"his viewing public might be sophisticated enough to at the very least enjoy not being patronised by the - what was it again? - errre - 360 degree rool? Huh?"

in this case, i doubt that very much. consider that the 180 degree rule isn't very well-known at all.

joshua said...

the cool cinematography and "shiny objects" dont distract from the poor script, but it does make the film more enjoyable to watch.

lucas said...

well, that's something.

Bret said...

the 180 degree rule is followed so viewers do not get disoriented as to where characters/props are within the scene space. if not followed, it disrupts the viewers experience. i think it's ridiculous to say the film is a bust because the opening scene doesn't stay on one side of the plain. filmmakers are free to play with or break this rule as long as we understand where we are within the film. Correct? I personally didn't think it disrupted anything within the film.