Three Kings


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Failing Vision
An overheated, dizzying hash of a movie, David O. Russell's Three Kings puts me in the rare position of cheering a filmmaker's inconsistency. Which is to say: If the whole of this seriocomic plunge into Operation Desert Storm were as awful as its first 20 minutes, I might've been driven toward wrist-slitting, or at least the exit. But things do get more complicated and interesting as Russell's strange odyssey rockets onward, so that we're finally left not with a fiasco, but a galloping case of creative schizophrenia.

When a colleague wondered aloud what conceivably connected Three Kings with Russell's two previous movies, Spanking the Monkey and Flirting with Disaster, I said, "One word: onanism." But that's too reductive, admittedly. Actually, three words are needed to characterize Russell's oeuvre-to-date: "avid to impress."


Spanking the Monkey came at just the right moment in the 90s, that brief, Sundance-kissed spell when a cleverly crafted, two-character, no-budget comedy could impress all the right people, score a modest success at the box office and launch a filmmaker's career. And Flirting with Disaster was just the right sophomore leap. Russell moved up to a Miramax-sized budget, a large, commercial cast and a narrative concept that confidently eased one foot into the mainstream. Never mind that Miramax reportedly decreed significant reshooting: the new ending worked, audiences responded and Russell's resume was made ready for the majors.


In a sense, few filmmakers' careers so succinctly chart the drift of young American cinema in the 90s, when ambition slipped free of idealism's crusty anchor. From lauded minimalist debut to substantial indie-level hit to high-profile Warner Bros. fall '99 release: Russell's progress shows how the game is played when it's played successfully. Indeed, the career and the films together suggest a guy who's a consummate operator?shrewd, deliberate, with just the right balance of aggressive and politic instincts.


Yet, like the President who launched the war depicted in Three Kings, Russell, along with many of his careerist bent, seems to have a slight problem with "the vision thing." As in, does he have any? And perhaps, does it matter if he doesn't as long as he entertains the millions? On the evidence of this new film, I would say that he belongs to a transitional generation of filmmakers, one that still knows enough to be bothered by the likelihood that all its skill is being wasted on froth and flash for idiots. From that kind of nagging doubt, creative schizophrenia may well be a natural issue.


Taking its title from the Christmas carol about the three kings who "of Orient are," the film opens not only in the closing hours of the Gulf War, but in full pomo-pandering mode. "Are we shooting?" calls out actor Marky Mark, too-cutely rhyming bullets with cinema. He, in any case, is shooting: he plugs a presumed Iraqi soldier in the neck, provoking a gurgling, pathetic death that he?the American sergeant played by Mark Wahlberg?turns away from even as his fellow grunts cheer and compliment him for taking out a "rag head." There follows a brief orgy of chugga-chugga rock 'n' roll, dancing in the desert and high-fiving, cut to an MTV beat.


In these early moments, when Three Kings suggests nothing so much as National Lampoon's Gulf War Vacation, replete with boorishly overcranked pop music and aura of stylish atavism, I thought I'd encountered the work that could beat out 8mm and The General's Daughter as the most despicable movie of the year. And it may be that Warner Bros. ends up wishing I had encountered that movie. Sad to say, but a more unrelievedly lowbrow and xenophobic Three Kings might fit the niches of marketers and wishes of audiences more than Russell's conflicted conceit will.


Still, the movie's initial reels take the low road in a particularly striking way. Russell's American soldiers have a kind of bantering familiarity that's creepily compelling because it so effectively meshes a very refined naturalistic acting style with jokey dialogue that subsumes an encyclopedia's worth of current pop attitudes and references. This, in effect, is the second-generation offspring of the Method and Saturday Night Live, filtered through the era of Seinfeld and MTV, and you have to wonder at the ultimate gist of its welter of surface sophistication: It's as if the truth-seeking impulses of so much of American pop art in the last half century have ended up in the toolbox of Madison Avenue, which now uses faux-hipsterish naturalism to sell everything from jeans to war.


One quibble, then on to the McGuffin. The title says three kings, presumably because the song does, but there are four. These are the American soldiers?played by Wahlberg, George Clooney, Ice Cube and director-moonlighting-as-actor Spike Jonze?who, on discovering evidence of stolen Kuwaiti gold being hidden by Iraqi soldiers nearby, light out into the desert on their own treasure hunt. Is this plausible? Do we believe that such standard-issue GI conformists would risk everything on a wild scheme to snag tons of bullion? Well, not really, but one dubious side benefit of Russell's breathless, distracted style is that it doesn't allow time to ponder the realistic, human aspects of any situation.


With the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" booming obnoxiously on the soundtrack, the central quartet motors into the desert compound specified by their treasure map, where things suddenly get complicated. Yes, there's gold in them thar bunkers, lots of it. But the sandy fortress also contains Iraqi civilians who have risen up against Saddam at Bush's behest, and who now stand to be slaughtered by the Iraqi soldiers who are guarding both them and the gold. You can see the dilemma looming up for our heroes, and you will not be wrong in suspecting that it is crucial to what follows. In a nutshell, the next 90 minutes pits the GIs' greed against their consciences.


For a movie that might've arrived sporting a "Born to Be Stoopid" bumpersticker, this dramatic turn is a welcome development, undeniably. Russell has discovered that the Gulf War was no altruistic romp, and his objectives include not only showing the dark, cynical and callously lethal aspects of American policy, but also rendering its Islamic adversaries and victims as fully, complexly human, as almost never happens in our media.


On paper these aims, the latter especially, couldn't be more commendable. Onscreen, though, as part of the sensory-overload thrill ride that Russell constructs, their effects are far more ambivalent; it's as if the thematic weight they provide might be just another flourish filable under "avid to impress." In any event, their injection of ostentatious heaviness produces some odd juxtapositions. In one adroitly absurdist moment, Wahlberg's character, desperate behind enemy lines, finds a cell phone and is able to call not his command, but his uncomprehending wife back home. Soon after, he's forced to listen as a furious, brokenhearted Iraqi tells how American bombers killed his little boy in his bed.


When Wahlberg provides this same anti-Saddam Iraqi with a list of American policy objectives in the conflict, the angry man says nothing but grabs a can of oil and forces it down his American prisoner's throat. This is a startling, chilling moment, but it's one of several such that the film has an impossible task in trying to contain. Put simply, Three Kings wants to be fun and profound at the same time?i.e., it wants to really impress?but ends up straddling an impossible divide, torn by its own disparate urges.


You could say that the story's greed-versus-conscience thrust mirrors, however unintentionally, Russell's own position as a determinedly upwardly mobile would-be artist. Yet I don't think the basic problem here is essentially personal. Overall, cinema is currently seeing the old auteur idea fragment, break apart, under pressures that are detectable in everything from audience expectations to film style.


Consider, as a prime example of the latter, Three Kings' helter-skelter visual language. Besides using a "bleach bypass" process (seen to good advantage earlier this year in Payback) that gives the film a dazzlingly bright, ruggedly contrasty look that, not incidentally, recalls certain video formats, Russell serves up rapid-fire editing and fancy camera angles nonstop, together with the intercutting of other film stocks and formats. The effect is relentlessly eye-grabbing, of course, even if it ultimately works against character development and dramatic coherence. Yet its biggest downside is that it seems so suited to a Levi's 501 ad.


Thirty years ago individual filmmakers used stylistic elements eclectically and found themselves imitated, sooner or later, by the makers of tv shows and commercials. Today advertising and tv?and their bastard spawn, music videos?create the language (borrowing liberally from the experimentalism of decades past, of course) and filmmakers like Russell scramble to employ it. Why? Because audiences have come to expect it of movies that mean to convey "cutting-edge" and "hip" and "outrageous," right?


Well, yes and no. No doubt many audiences are completely in thrall to the stylistic cliches that have been successfully dispersed by the advertising industry, yet there are other viewers?perhaps including those most amenable to Three Kings' serious aims?who will read such fevered mannerism as the height of glib insincerity and annoying trendiness. Do these audience segments break down along generational lines? To some extent, perhaps. But the split's effect, which has nothing essential to do with age, means that "authors" today have a hard time conveying authority because film style no longer does; and that has everything to do with how audiences' understanding of style has been, and constantly is being, fractured and remade by forces that care nothing about art.


Splashy camerawork aside, Three Kings overall is not as adroit as its strongest elements might suggest. To cite only one conspicuous blemish, there's a supposedly comic subplot about a Christiane Amanpour-like reporter (C.A. should sue) and a Gomer Pyle-esque grunt that's so inept and misogynistic it should be excised even at this late date. Here, too, the problem isn't that Russell is lacking in talent; it's that his vision is shackled to his desire to dazzle.


Reeling
Call this a footnote to the discussion surrounding American Beauty, a film written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes. I've agreed with much of the praise awarded this unusual, stylish comedy-drama, including that in Matt Zoller Seitz's recent review. But American Beauty also strikes me as a film that's peculiarly liable to be overpraised, because its many virtues dominate its richly drawn dramatic surface while its flaws reside underneath.

In fact, the few, vague doubts I had about the film while watching it didn't crystallize until its last five minutes, which sent me out of the theater certain that screenwriter Ball must have a background in television. (Turns out he does.) By this point in history, of course, tv dramaturgy has so pervaded movies that it's perhaps quaint to attempt drawing any distinctions between the two media; but here goes anyway.


Tv is about the moment and characters that don't change, and thus movies infected with tv values are those that simply riff on character quirks rather asserting a dramatic logic based on the potential of characters to change. Of course, such riffing doesn't "feel" like a movie since movies traditionally go somewhere. Typically, tv-trained writers solve this problem by tacking on a big, powerhouse ending that, because it feels "dramatic," makes the whole thing seem to have the underlying logic of drama.


I started thinking about this at the time of James L. Brooks' Terms of Endearment, in which very quirky, appealing characters played by terrific actors do funny, sitcommy things until the third act arrives and, whammo, someone gets cancer! Such last-inning, deus ex machina heaviosity is one way tv writing tries to ape the seriousness of serious movies and drama.


Edith Wharton supposedly said, "What Americans really want is a tragedy with a happy ending." What tv-schooled screenwriters want, though, is just the opposite: an hilarious sitcom with a magnificent, tragic finale. A Seinfeld that ends as Hamlet.


The tip-off is the heavy ending that's imposed rather than earned, but is extremely necessary in order that the film not seem like a sitcom. So it is with American Beauty. Its brutal ending, which manages to be both misogynistic (as the film's entire portrayal of Annette Bening's two-dimensional character is) and indirectly homophobic, is effectively announced in the film's opening moments and regularly foreshadowed thereafter. This is surely one of the cleverest things about the movie, because it manages to make a conclusion that's extremely artificial seem organic and foreordained. It also helps disguise the unattractive quality at the heart of Ball's curious story: male self-pity.


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