on 6 May 2012
I don't usually write reviews, but I've made an exception just to comment on the mediocrity of this film in the hope that future viewers might not have too high expectations.
There are some tellingly lucid shots and dynamic juxtapositions of scenes in this film (pole dancing twins performing for the ennui-stricken protagonist in his bedroom, followed by his young daughter performing a beautiful ice skating routine to his great applause) which bring into contrast the male-female relationships of an older rich man seducing young starry-eyed women and the same nonchalant, borderline middle-aged father attempting to show a paternal interest in his aspirational eleven-year old daughter.
The interplay of these scenes makes us question the thought processes of a main character exhibiting such a complacent, perhaps predatory, masculinity on the one hand, and a genuine attempt (apparently a novelty to him) at fatherly affection and engagement with his child. However, this level of intriguing social inquiry does not preponderate in the film, which ostentatiously aims to seduce us into the luxuriant lifestyle of a hollywood star, whilst highlighting the daily superficiality and mundanity of the 'professional' activities involved away from filming. We, the audience, are clearly to be tempted by this jet-set, sports-car, anything-at-the-press-of-a-button LA lifestyle, but at the same time to question its value and how much lasting enjoyment it might bring about for a seemingly 'average' kind of person such as the protagonist.
This engagement of the audience's empathy toward the hero is no doubt an attempt to build an authentic emotional backdrop for the psychological transformation that we are led to believe the protagonist has experienced by the end of the film. A precipitous and melodramatic ending, suspended by a tense (yet tedious) final drive up the highway - one which could only have been topped in its triteness by the hero letting his car ride over a cliff as he walks into the sunset - seems to be in aid of persuading us that this apparently good-for-nothing narcissus has had an overwhelming crisis of conscience. Enlightened to the vanity and aimlessness of his existence, he is leaving his material excesses behind and heading for a brighter, spiritually-emancipated future (amongst rolling fields of wheat and barley...).
However, the penultimate shot - the brave, smiling face of our world-weary, pitiful (his miserably fatigued face is captured in close-up throughout the film) protagonist gazing on the fresh pastures of northern california, bathed in the golden light of optimism and soundtracked by mellow, uplifting melody - was enough to tarnish any of the film's prior merits in my eyes. This scene's almost euphoric endorsement of the character's whimsical decision - to abandon a privilege-laden lifestyle for one of romantic bohemian wonderings - is the film's final, and deeply unsatisfactory word on the social world of the hero. Such a facile conclusion makes us feel as if the rest of the film were only a useful tension-building interim between the protagonist's anxious, interrogatory glances into his bathroom mirror and his happy, wilderness-bounded silhouette lumbering down the lone highway towards hazy Californian hills.
Apparently unimportant is the fate of his emotionally-isolated daughter, whose mother seems to have disappeared and whose father's future plans seem to be, as per usual (she remarks on this), far from certain. Indeed, we are left with little clue as to what, if any, resolution 'Johnny' has actually made. Is his apparent epiphany not merely a hormonal jerk-reaction to sinking into further mid-life depression; a hysterical intuition that things will finally go smoothly if he just lets go of the practical contents of his current, flawed life?
In the back of our heads we find ourselves wagering that he probably hasn't left his credit card behind, and wondering how soon he'll get hungry walking down that highway... This is the ultimate, and significant, weakness of the film: for all it's attempts to satirise the mode de vie of the protagonist's lackadaisical hollywood class, it depicts no realistic alternative.
Indeed, absent from the film's ending is any demonstration of the hero taking account for any duties to himself and others - for instance, offering to become his daughter's full-time guardian and determining to find out a new lifestyle and or profession which occupies his time in giving him back his sense of self-worth (the which he is repeatedly shown to have lost). Equally, we will fail to discover in the film any other redeemable characters or even brief perspectives relating to a notion of duty toward the emotional wellbeing and self-worth of others and ourselves - this notion is strongly suggested by Coppola in the recurrent vindictive and anonymous text messages Johnny receives (from an old flame?), but no progressive behaviour is really hinted at (unless you count father-daughter bonding over ice-cream and Wii in between the former's romps and photo-shoots).
Instead what we are left with is another apparently fortune-blighted dreamer, a crestfallen golden-boy heading off to hollywood's idyll of 'some better place further on down the road', where he might find his true freedom - needing only the clothes on his back... and maybe his credit card in his pocket.
This utterly naive point of view is also indicative of the complete narrowness of vision of such hyper-real, postmodern film projects as this one (or 'Synecdoche'), imposing their own enclosed settings (in this case, the world of the hollywood star), where the lifestyles of any ordinary modern people are entirely excluded. For instance, those do not have the sense of security gained by wealth to leave nearly everything material behind in order to attain spiritual transformation, who are able to live by common values of decency towards others and dignity in spite of any emotional turmoil they may experience, and who, when happening upon the circumstances to transform their living situation, would not wander blindly toward the horizon in hope of finding fulfilment in grand scenery or another identikit Californian town.
Finally, this shallow conclusion to the film highlights the contemporary navel-gazing and conservative mindset of a Hollywood artistic set (the Coppola dynasty et al), for whom the hero is rich man, a stifled artist perhaps - a modern day prodigal son who seems finally to liberate his spirit through spending a little time with his daughter for once, temporarily abandoning his many possessions (not his bank balance no doubt) by the roadside, and, in short, doing nothing of any substantial good for anyone or the world at large. In view of this, the film seems to emerge eventually as merely a voyeuristic show-piece for crass modern american fantasies - all intelligence is forgotten, as a banal rolling-parade of pole-dancers, Italian sports cars, flash hotels, semi-clad models, beer bottles, cigarettes and one-night-stands unravels in our immediate memory - as superficially stylish, but as meaningless and useless as the lifestyle of it's film-star protagonist!
For an all-American one-man-struggle with wider concerns see the Grapes of Wrath, or maybe something by good old Frank Capra.