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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 20, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Golden Globes, Gervais, Best Films of 2010

I don't know Ricky Gervais personally, and so I assumed that the smarmy, socially blind, thoughtlessly cruel character he played on the British original of The Office was fictional.

Even so, he made me so uncomfortable that I couldn't bear to watch the show.

But when Steve Carell plays the same character on the American version of The Office, you still get the feeling that he is earnest and means well -- or at least that he's desperate to be liked.

This is not in the script. It's something in Carell. From people who know him, that is the universal opinion -- Carell isn't just nice to people, he's decent and kind to the core.

Gervais, on the other hand, seems to get worse the deeper you go. As he "hosted" the Golden Globe Awards show on Sunday night, one thing quickly became clear: He thought he was funny.

Humor depends on the teller and hearer of the jest standing in the same place. The joke moves you away from sympathy to view something from a different, often more distant perspective.

If the butt of the joke is willing to stand with you and view his own actions from the new perspective, he can laugh with you.

So as I listened to Gervais's "jokes," I realized immediately where he was standing -- and I not only couldn't stand there with him, I didn't want to. The audience at the Globes felt the same way.

Because Gervais is like those people who dominate their social circle by being the cruelest of them. They are the people who start from the assumption that everyone else is ridiculous. They have only to say a person's name, and they all start laughing.

Gervais assumed that everyone in the room thought that everyone else in the room was absurd, so he didn't actually tell any jokes. He thought he had merely to mention somebody and everything he said about them would automatically be amusing.

But nobody was standing with him. Nobody.

Remember when Chris Rock hosted the Oscars. Mostly he was great, but there was one terrible moment when he misunderstood his audience completely. That was when he singled out Jude Law for having played the lead in an unusually high number of films that year.

Rock's "joke" was basically "who is this guy and why was he in everything?" Rock was speaking as an outsider, an audience member; to him it was funny that an actor he had never heard of was suddenly getting all these leading roles.

But he was talking to a roomful of insiders, most of them Jude Law's fellow actors. They might have envied Law's good fortune, but they all knew what it was like to be out of work and then suddenly get a lot of work.

The deep disrespect of Rock's comments stung them all. Why should Law be singled out for abuse because he was working?

Rock made one big mistake. Every time Gervais opened his mouth it was a mistake, and it took away from the evening.

The second half of the show we hardly saw Gervais at all; his job of introducing the award presenters was taken over by the voice-only announcer, and everyone breathed easier.

Besides, Robert Downey, Jr., had come on and demonstrated everything that Gervais wanted to be and thought he was but actually wasn't.

First, Downey jabbed Gervais -- and the entire audience stood with him as he did! -- by saying, "Aside from the fact that it's been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I'd say the vibe of the show's pretty good so far, wouldn't you?" The audience roared.

But then Downey demonstrated a level of irony and outrageousness that Gervais was certainly trying for but was simply incapable of achieving, as he made the audience gasp by saying (and I paraphrase), "I've always believed that an actress can't really give her best performance until I've slept with her."

Now, given Downey's colorful past, it was plain he was mocking himself; and as he went on to mention the nominees for best actress (in a comedy or musical) one by one -- none of whom he has ever been romantically linked with -- the joke was that he marveled that they were doing so well without his "help."

It was outrageous, hinted at scandal -- and yet everyone understood that he was joking and that he himself was really the butt of his own joke.

I say let's have Robert Downey, Jr., host the next awards show.

One thing Gervais achieved, however. By being an annoyance and an embarrassment, he stole the show, rather the way all you might remember from going to the circus is the kid who threw up next to you.

Since the Golden Globes are voted on by a bunch of foreign reporters, the results of their voting are often odd. American things don't speak to them the same way they speak to us; they are also likely to be more susceptible to the posturing of jaded film critics who only like things that are dark and/or new.

But they're also human beings, with normal human responses no matter how cool they might wish to be, so Toy Story 3 won in its category. And they know brilliant acting when they see it, so it wasn't a popularity contest. Not that Claire Danes and Colin Firth aren't popular, it's just that their acting was so perfect and natural that it's possible not to realize just how great their achievement was. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association did realize it, and voted them the awards.

The only other category that I actually cared about was best picture. I haven't seen Black Swan and won't see it -- life is short, the story is too dark, and I know just how easy it is to make a character suffer. "Going mad" is what second-rate writers resort to when they don't have a finish.

I may yet see The Fighter.

I loved both The King's Speech and Inception, but the cheap-trick ending of the latter still left a bad taste in my mouth and I rather hoped it wouldn't win. Besides, I loved The King's Speech and it had no missteps as far as I could see.

Then there was The Social Network. I had read -- and hated -- the book it was based on (The Accidental Billionaires). The book's writer was very impressed with his own artiness, but in fact the book was clunky, amateurishly written, glacially slow, and -- above all -- grossly unfair to the real-life people portrayed in it. It was clear that the author had never talked to Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, and yet had chosen him as the villain of a book that was supposed to be "true."

But the film would be different from the book -- it would have to be. The key ingredient was writer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is everything the book's author wanted to be and thought he was but wasn't. Sorkin is in fact a superb writer, not just of clever dialogue (though nobody working today is better at it), but also of interesting characters. He's good at exploring their motivations in ways the audience can grasp.

Unfortunately, Sorkin is also a complete captive of his piety. As a dedicated member of the Church of Political Correctness, Sorkin's scripts never show him doubting any portion of the dogmas of his religion, and his work in television is utterly devoid of any kind of recognition that it is possible for excellent and intelligent people to hold different views.

So it was a coin toss whether I would like Sorkin's script or want to throw my shoes at the screen. (I was watching it on a screener at home, so that was a distinct possibility. In a real theater, I wouldn't have the arm to get my shoe all the way to the screen.)

I was delighted with Sorkin's script. No, I was thrilled with it. For once, here was a script about smart people written by -- get this -- a smart person. Sorkin actually knows how smart people think and talk; more to the point, he knows how exceptionally smart people think and talk, and how different it is from ordinary smart people.

What I loved was that Sorkin's script does not hate Mark Zuckerberg. I even found myself wondering if Sorkin had done what the book's writer didn't (or couldn't) do: talk to Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe he did, or maybe he has what I have -- actual close friends who are as smart and at one time were as socially naive as Zuckerberg was at the time of the events in the film.

Zuckerberg is not made into a tragic hero -- in the film he's more like a child prodigy caught in a world of grownups with strange agendas. He has power and no idea how to use it. He lies the way a child lies, in order to make people go away and leave him to his play. But when it comes to his work (or, really, his playtime) he is in dead earnest: He is committed to his vision.

Sorkin's portrayal of Zuckerberg is, in fact, a portrait of the artist as a young man. The mere facts of Zuckerberg's life compared with similar periods in the lives of, say, Picasso, Dali, Freud, Marx, and many other superstar "geniuses" leave Zuckerberg smelling like a rose. The only reason his moral lapses -- which were, in their nature, quite minor -- matter at all is that so much money was involved.

The deep selfishness we (mistakenly I think) indulge in our artists and celebrities take on a very different moral meaning in our society when big money and big corporations are involved. Self-aggrandizing, ambitious, life-wrecking behavior that sends "artistic geniuses" into long thought-pieces in The New Yorker sends businessmen to jail -- or, in Zuckerberg's case, into court.

The film centers around two lawsuits. In the one, where a pair of athletes claimed he stole their idea, the case was actually meritless -- Zuckerberg was deceptive in his dealings with them (mostly to make them go away), but he did not steal their idea or their work product. Compared to Bill Gates, Zuckerberg was a Boy Scout.

But in the second lawsuit, Zuckerberg was completely in the wrong, having cut out of the company his only friend, Eduardo Saverin -- who had provided 100% of the money to start Facebook and whose only sin was not tagging along to California when Zuckerberg followed one of his idols there.

Sorkin's script does not conceal or paper over any of Zuckerberg's misdeeds, but it does give us a real chance to stand where Zuckerberg is standing. There is a completely made-up girlfriend whose approval Zuckerbert-the-character continues to yearn for even when he has triumphed over all; that's a good move to "humanize the main character" but I bought into Sorkin's version of Zuckerberg without it.

I actually found his blunt arrogance both refreshing and earned. He had contempt for people who were, in fact, wasting his time, and was unafraid to show it. In our society, mental athletes are expected to conceal their prowess and modestly pretend they're not anything special -- which is absurd.

Zuckerberg knows that he's brilliant at what he does best and refuses to pretend he isn't just to help other people feel good about themselves. I liked him for it -- even though I also would never seek to be friends with the character as portrayed.

The unsung hero of this movie is the actor, Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Zuckerberg. Few people understand how hard it is to play intellectual brilliance. Eisenberg is, after all, an actor, not a genius-level computer programmer, yet he is always spot on in his delivery of the powerful lines Sorkin gave him to say.

Moreover, when the camera shows him simply regarding other people blankly, the actor brings life to the supposedly empty expression. Eisenberg reveals depths that are only implied in the script. I don't know of many actors currently working who could have brought off this character.

Certainly Justin Timberlake, playing Napster creator Sean Parker, showed himself incapable of playing anything but the surface. His version of Parker was all playboy and showman -- but the real Parker is also a coder almost at the level of Zuckerberg. Where was the intelligence? Not there.

I promise you, sequins and pretty girls and cool celebrity stories were not why Zuckerberg was impressed with Parker; if Parker were not a first-rate coder Zuckerberg would have regarded him with disdain.

That doesn't mean Timberlake is a bad actor -- he's not, he's very good. But playing genius is hard. I mean, it's relatively easy for an actor to play a character who is not as smart as he is, but devilishly hard to play a character who is markedly smarter than he is.

It's easy to play limitations, hard to play abilities. Eisenberg brings it off beautifully; there's no sign that Timberlake even knew that he was supposed to try. It's a weakness in the script that the Sean Parker character is written to dazzle the audience, but that we are never shown why he was able to dazzle Zuckerberg.

But Timberlake might have done it, if anyone had asked him to, and the film would have been the better for it. (This kind of flaw is always the director's fault, and the cause is usually this: Most directors direct the camera and have no idea how to direct the performance. They have no help to offer an inexperienced actor or an actor facing a really difficult challenge. Woody Allen, for instance, is terrible with actors who need help; Elijah Wood's missed-it-all performance in Lord of the Rings is entirely the fault of Peter Jackson.)

So now Social Network has won the Golden Globe and seems the front-runner for the Oscar. Does it deserve it?

There were three films this year that I think were better than The Social Network -- but they were all animated and so have a category of their own (rather the way the children's book bestseller list in the New York Times was created to remove the Harry Potter books from competition with the adult books that simply couldn't match their sales).

There are films this year that I think are every bit as excellent in their achievements and are better than the others in some ways: Inception, The King's Speech, True Grit. (The movie 127 Hours may also be that good, but I simply will not see it, because the better it is as a movie, the more unbearable it would be for me to watch it.) But there are ways in which Social Network is better than the others, too; it certainly belongs on that list of excellence.

Any one of these films would be far more appropriate choices than some past winners, like the undergraduate-writer storyline of American Beauty (thinking of the most loathsome example).

But few of these are films for the ages, for rewatching again and again, the way we'll rewatch Toy Story 3, How to Train Your Dragon, or Tangled.

And yet ... is the test of a movie's quality whether you want to see it again? Or how it lives in your memory after a single showing?

If the latter is the test, Social Network, Inception, True Grit, and The King's Speech all are still vivid in my memory, along with the pleasure I felt in watching them. Whereas other films from the past year have mercifully faded into oblivion.

Iron Man 2, The Other Guys, Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, Alice in Wonderland, Date Night, Robin Hood -- I saw them on the list of films of 2010 and my only response was, Oh, yeah, I went to that, with maybe a wistful thought that they could have been so much better.

And there are movies I'm glad I saw, but which are simply not best-picture material:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Despicable Me

Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

The Karate Kid

Knight and Day

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Charlie St. Cloud

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Shrek Forever After.

I remember these with pleasure, even if I do not see them as exemplary.

As opposed to my reaction upon some titles in the list, which is: These got made. I can't get any of my film projects made, but these got funded and actual actors agreed to be in them:

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Gulliver's Travels

Tron Legacy

Tooth Fairy

Little Fockers

But at least I had brains enough not to go.

To my shame, though, I actually went to Valentine's Day, which wins my prize for Worst Movie I Actually Saw This Year. It was a film so bad (which should have been good) that it still makes me angry just to think about it.

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