Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Case for Snow Food

I went into the movie Snow Cake with two preconceptions floating around in my head:
1) Movies with a lead character with a mental illness tend to do nothing for me, and
2) Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are amazing actors who may be able to pull 1) off.

To start off with, Alan Rickman (Alex in the film) was incredible: sympathetic but a bit of a b@stard; a bit depressing but still lighting up the screen; and definitely leading man material, though in an unconventional way of course. In the biggest stretch in plausibility, the beauteous Carrie Anne Moss did her best to portray a woman who could say no to Mr Rickman’s advances. Together, they kept me interested in the film and added a bit of warmth and depth to the otherwise depressingly cold and bleak Canadian backdrop.

Unfortunately, while Sigourney Weaver is an amazing actress, playing an autistic character in a way that makes them interesting and sympathetic and something beyond just someone with strange personality quirks was always going to be a tough challenge.

I have never seen Rainman, but I have been told that Dustin Hoffman pulls off playing an autistic very well. However, almost every time I have seen a competent actor trying to portray a mentally challenged person (as opposed to a person with a physical disability but with mental faculties left more or less intact), I have been left less than impressed. I am sure the actor involved think that the role is demanding as it is playing someone quite different to him/her self, but in the end, playing someone who the audience knows only through physical ticks and strange behaviour can lead to a character that is completely two dimensional. The character has no depth because you are not meant to be able to understand them. What is on the surface is what is, and whatever might be behind those actions and deeds is based on some internal logic that defies understanding and/or social convention.

And so, eventually, I am a person who is left feeling that Forrest Gump is really no different from Mr Bean, two characters that live entirely on the surface, have different ways of looking at the world, and really don’t appear to have a whole lot going on behind them. It seems cruel to equate a mental illness with a comic character, but the smattering of laughter at the strange behaviour and the odd touch of sentiment and “endearment” that these characters portray end up being based on the same sorts of behaviour.

So I was not surprised when one of my fellow moviegoers admitted afterwards she had the barely suppressed urge to laugh every time Sigourney Weaver’s character (Linda) appeared on screen. The film is mainly about dealing with loss, but while Alex shows his grief in many ways and about many things (he has a fairly convoluted back story that I chose to ignore to enjoy the performance), Linda does not deal with the loss at all. It’s hard to feel empathy for someone who doesn’t actually feel the emotions the film is meant to be portraying. Linda is apart from everyone and everything in the film, an island, and ends up almost as a redundant character.

There is one strange attempt to try and get inside her head and portray what is going on there, but that is one of the most hollow parts of the film. By trying to make me understand what she is thinking or feeling, I felt they destroyed the whole idea of her motivations being “un-understandable”. It felt like a shallow attempt to get the audience to sympathise with Linda at the very end after she disrupts everyone else’s time of (not always sincere) grieving.

It’s hard to really sum up Snow Cake. It’s almost like two movies: Alan Rickman and Carrie Anne Moss are in a strange, interesting adult relationship out of an art house film; while Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are in a strange, interesting buddy relationship out of a Disney flick. I did enjoy it, possibly because of the power thespians on screen rather than because of the film having a huge amount of merit. But it was also a bit disappointing. And it really did not make me want to go to Canada.

Verdict: Stay inside and stay warm


Andrew said...

Meh, I thought Hoffman got credit for his turn as an autistic man in the same way that Meryl Streep got credit for her Australian accent.

Ah, the Hollywood aristocracy of the 1980s...

Not Kate said...

Me and my brother have a long-standing theory that if you play someone with a mental illness, you are highly likely to win (or be nominated for) an Academy Award.

Jack Nicholas as the OCD guy. The Aussie guy in Shine. Leonardo in Gilbert Grape. Russell Crowe in Beautiful Mind.

Maybe not so much the autism.....

But it's generally a pretty good formula for a statue.