Monday, May 18, 2009
Used Cars (1980)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Do you have one of those friends who seems to think it's not enough to throw a good party, it has to be an unprecedented statement? They have to hire a circus to perform, or there has to be fireworks and everyone gets an iPod? This is the way Robert Zemeckis makes movies now.
While he has made dumb junk (1992's "Death Becomes Her") and suspense fluff (2000's "What Lies Beneath"), he now specializes in a rare brand of big budget, technologically sophisticated projects that skate by on ambition and star power. I'd put Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg into this camp too.
"Forrest Gump" (1994) got Zemeckis there, a high-tech show with a charismatic actor, two things that distracted from an over-bearing performance and maudlin storytelling. Movies such as this don't have to be good, they seem automatically ushered in to some film pantheon, like fraternity pledges with legacy status. The style is as subtle as a plane crash, and as if to make that point, his 2000 film opens with one: "Cast Away," part two of his Tom Hanks trilogy. Then came "The Polar Express" (2004) and "Beowulf" (2007). Later this year will come a remake of "A Christmas Carol," starring Jim Carrey, an actor not known for underplaying roles.
However. In 1980 a little movie called "Used Cars" made a small profit to Zemeckis started. In contrast to where his career was headed, this is a normal little comedy. For its time it had enough story to hold your attention, enough edge to be provocative, and enough star power to get asses in seats. Zemeckis co-wrote the story, which is not worth re-capping here but is engaging and funny. Two used car lots battle for customers amid municipal corruption and family dysfunction. Some of it's dumb, it doesn't all work and the third act is sort of ridiculous.
But movie making is a bit of a magic trick and sometimes the most impressive ones are the ones that happen close-up, with simple objects. In "Used Cars," Zemeckis proves that without billions of dollars worth of technological gimmicks, even as a kid he was a competent director.
Maybe Zemeckis hates actors. He seems to like Tom Hanks and wants to work with him but not other actors. Because once you get to the point Zemeckis at creatively, where so much of the moviemaking is pre-production, special effects, post-production and editing, directing means working with technical staff more than actors.
Note that since "Cast Away," Zemeckis has made films of long-existing and highly familiar books. He's not particularly interested in storytelling, he's interested in moviemaking, and the less the story is likely to upstage his craft, the better. Thus the forthcoming remake of "A Christmas Carol" and, if my prediction bears out, a 2011 combination live-action and motion-capture production of "This Little Piggy Went to Market" using only Oscar winners that will be shot on the moon.