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Sticks and Stones

A few reasons movies are not better than ever.

Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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So I had a rare Saturday night to myself and decided at the last minute to go to the movies—and owing to scheduling, found myself with four possibilities. There was Rabbit Hole, for which Nicole Kidman has received an Oscar nomination. There was Blue Valentine, for which Michelle Williams was nominated in the same category. And there were two movies starring the woman who will deny both Kidman and Williams an Oscar in a few weeks—Natalie Portman, in a drama called The Other Woman and a sex comedy called No Strings Attached.

Sticks and Stones

Three of these movies had cultural provenance going for them. Rabbit Hole is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The Other Woman is based on a highly readable novel by Ayelet Waldman. And Blue Valentine has received the kinds of glowing reviews for its young writer-director, Derek Cianfrance, that must be making his grandmother swoon. But I couldn’t bring myself to see any of them.

And the reasons for that offer some insight into the common complaint that moviegoers are no longer offered character-driven dramas about the kinds of difficulties and problems people face in the real world. For these three films are exactly those kinds of dramas, and I am exactly the kind of person who bemoans the fact that there aren’t enough of them.

Except for this: Rabbit Hole and The Other Woman have a key plot point in common, and that plot point is the death of a very small child. The baby in The Other Woman is three days old when she dies. In Rabbit Hole, the child is four years old and is killed by a passing car. It goes without saying that matters of life and death are the elemental subjects of drama, that real people must cope with such trauma every day, and that part of the purpose of art is to examine these issues, to stare them boldly in the face, and help us resolve our complex emotions about them.

I know all this. It’s just that the thought of watching a movie with such a central plot point is almost literally sickening to me, and has been ever since my first child was born six and a half years ago. Before her birth, for the first four decades of my moviegoing, I had no difficulty whatsoever watching all manner of fare that offered stark portrayals of life’s consequences on innocent life. But now I have three very little kids, and not only can’t I tolerate the thought of spending two hours in a movie theater watching someone else mourn the death of a child, I have increasingly found it impossible to watch anything in which someone young and vulnerable is in any kind of jeopardy.

Case in point: I downloaded the Swedish movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a few months ago and watched it on my iPad on a long flight. In the middle there is a rape scene. It is brutal, and it is supposed to be brutal. The victim is the title character, a cold and bizarre creature who bears no resemblance whatever to my own extraordinarily winsome daughters. And yet, watching it, I found myself bursting into loud and agonized sobs on Virgin America’s Flight 23 to San Francisco.

So I’m not watching any kids dying anytime soon, even if the movie in question is greater than The Godfather. As for Blue Valentine, it is by all accounts a stark, vivid, and punishing portrait of a mismatched and miserable marriage whose primary victim is a five-year-old girl. The bad marriage portrait would be fine; after all, how many great novels are about good marriages? But the pain it inflicts on the child ruled
it out.

That left me with No Strings Attached, in which Portman is a young doctor who ends up in a purposefully casual relationship with a would-be writer played by Ashton Kutcher. It is the conceit of No Strings Attached that it is revealing a great and hidden truth about twentysomething boys and girls today, which is that they talk casually and without affect in the grossest possible terms about each other’s body parts in dialogue so disgusting that I can’t even use asterisks to bowdlerize it sufficiently to give you a sense of what it’s like. And that this sort of thing is supposed to be charming, kind of like Harry and Sally, only more tough-minded and raw.

I didn’t buy a word of it—or rather, I bought that the young screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether figured out that one way to sell a script in Hollywood is to titillate the men who buy the scripts and green-light the movies by having women characters talk about themselves in the way Andrew Dice Clay talked about them 20 years ago on his comedy albums, or the way Howard Stern talks about them.

And of course, all I could think was: My daughters are going to love Natalie Portman when they’re older, in part because she’s proudly Jewish, and somehow they are going to stumble on this horrendous pile of dung, and they are going to think that they should talk and act this way, and .  .  .

After 90 minutes watching it, I might have been better off seeing a thousand children getting killed onscreen, because the depiction of the lives of the overaged children in No Strings Attached is, in its own way, as nightmarish and appalling as the rape in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I guess I should have just stayed home. As more and more people are.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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