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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 7, 2007

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


Becoming Jane, Sydney White, and a Drought-year Election

After a long drought of good movies -- or at least good movies that I'm interested in seeing -- finally, two in the same weekend that I highly recommend.

They could not be more different from each other, however. Sydney White is an update of Snow White -- as a college comedy. Think Revenge of the Nerds as a romantic fairy tale.

While Becoming Jane is a sort of fantasy about the romantic life of the greatest writer of English novels, Jane Austen.

If you know Austen's books, you'll recognize bits of each of them in this movie, with the pretense that this might be where she got her ideas. But the movie is careful to have another female writer, Mrs. Radcliffe, point out that whatever you don't know from experience, you take from your imagination.

It was a nice juxtaposition, Jane Austen and Mrs. Radcliffe. The latter was the doyenne of the English gothic novel, where eerie, perilous adventures transport readers into a fantasy life; Austen, by contrast, kept herself firmly in the here-and-now, finding her pleasure in exploring the lives of women in a man's world, and of financially unblessed families in a world where everything was about money.

Becoming Jane is true to the spirit of Jane Austen novels -- a very tricky thing to do. The writers, Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, had worked exclusively in television before this feature film -- but television is a writer's medium, and it shows.

They felt no obligation to fill the screen with spectacle. Instead, they filled their couple of hours with people -- interesting ones, and believable as well. Where Dickens's characters were always a bit exaggerated, hovering on the cliff-edge of caricature (and sometimes falling over), even Austen's most eccentric characters stayed firmly within the realm of reality, and Becoming Jane does likewise.

Above all, though, Hood and Williams created characters that fine actors could make something out of. Everyone had something interesting to do or say; every actor had at least a single moment in which to bring off a particularly telling speech or look. They are all memorable.

And it was fun to pick out characters and say, Look, this one gave her this aspect of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, and that one shows us a bit of that stupid younger sister Lydia in Pride and Prejudice -- but no one is exactly the Austen character.

In Sydney White, there's a good bit of recognizing and pointing out characters. Because SW is an update of Snow White -- specifically the Disney Snow White -- the writers had great fun recreating the dwarfs as nerds in a falling-down college frat house, figuratively in the wilderness.

Some of them are obvious -- Sleepy is Embele (Donté Bonner), the exchange student who has somehow remained on Nigerian time and can't stay awake in class; Sneezy is Lenny (luminously played by Jack Carpenter, who is capable of leading-man roles), the sweet and wise young man who is cursed with allergies.

Others take a bit more thought, but sure enough, they all emerge: Grumpy, who writes a rage-filled blog that nobody seems to read; Dopey, who can't even tie his shoes; Bashful, so shy he talks only through a hand-puppet; Happy, who really does believe every woman is ready to fall in love with him; and, of course, Doc (Terrence, played by Jeremy Howard), who has stayed on at college years after getting his degree "because there's so much left to learn!"

These characters are meant to be caricatures, and yet the actors bring such talent and sincerity to their roles that I found myself liking them and believing in them more than Chad Gomez Creasey's clever script actually required.

But in a way it's fairly easy to write and play eccentrics. It's the Snow White and Prince characters that required both writer and actors to stretch themselves. And that's why Sydney White works so well. I had only previously seen Amanda Bynes in Hairspray, where she was delightful -- but it was not her movie.

Sydney White is her movie to make or break, and she makes it. She is by no means cover-girl pretty; in fact, you could cast her as "the plain girl" or "the shy girl" and be dead on. What makes her glitter on the screen is the intelligence with which she speaks and the emotion behind her eyes. She is so alive that you think she's beautiful; you believe that people might very well be drawn to her.

Plus, she's funny without ever seeming to try to be. As a girl raised on a construction site, handier with a hammer than a mascara wand, she makes her delightful mix of deftness and clumsiness seem completely natural, so that we laugh without losing our belief in her character.

Matt Long, a survivor of Jack and Bobby on TV, has the usually-thankless task of playing the rich pretty boy who is too nice to hang out with the bad rich people. But his low-key, real performance, and a script that actually gives him good things to say and do, together make a memorable character out of him.

Alas, the only part for which the script does absolutely nothing is the Wicked Witch, student body president and head of the sorority Rachel, played by Sara Paxton. Fresh from playing the mermaid in Aquamarine, Paxton relishes her nasty-sweet role and she's fun to watch; she did everything the script asked of her. I only wish she had been given a chance to make her into a person. But perhaps that's asking too much of the wicked witch!

The surprise of the movie was Crystal Hunt as Dinky, the goofily enthusiastic roommate who also joins the sorority at the same time as Sydney. Dinky at first seems like an airhead; but we watch as a real person surfaces, and Hunt handles the transformation perfectly.

The Oscars and Emmys almost always go to actors playing dramatic roles; what people don't seem to realize -- even people inside the industry -- is that the techniques of drama are relatively easy to learn. Any actor can cry -- give me ten minutes with them and I can teach them the physical techniques that with practice let anybody cry their little hearts out at the drop of a hat.

But comedy -- man, that's hard. Comic timing is so exquisitely difficult that I don't think it can be taught. That is, it can be given to an actor -- I have often helped young actors beat out the pauses that set up a line for a laugh. But I don't know that I've ever seen somebody who lacks innate comic timing acquire it.

That applies to directors and film editors as well. In the absence of a living audience, the director and film editor have to feel the rhythm of the laughs and cut together a version of the film that doesn't step on any actor's comic gifts.

I've seen many a would-be comedy die a miserable death precisely because the editor and director had a leaden ear for comedy: They kill the performances of a talented cast. While a good comedy director can make even a tin-ear actor like Matthew McConaughey seem funny.

Julian Jarrold, the director of Becoming Jane, comes from the world of literary TV movies -- All the King's Men, Crime and Punishment, the Ioan Gruffudd Great Expectations. The surprise in Becoming Jane is not that he could do costume drama, it's that he could allow the witty script to bring forth the laughter that could so easily have been buried in pretentiousness.

Instead, we watch gifted actors truly shine, because the director does not interfere with their performances and indeed enhances them. Anne Hathaway is the headliner -- in all likelihood, her signing on to play Jane Austen was part of the reason this film got funded.

Yet Hathaway was really a long shot for this role. What has she played before? Klutzy endearing fish-out-of-water comedy, sort of Sandra Bullock lite. She was fine in The Princess Diaries and a pleasure in the thankless role she played in The Devil Wears Prada (a movie designed to be dominated by Meryl Streep).

But nothing she did could save the monstrously bad movie Ella Enchanted in which she was tormented to death in the title role, and while those who saw Brokeback Mountain commented favorably about her performance, it is not out of such roles that stars are made.

This was Hathaway's breakout role. We must regard her as a real actress now, because she made her Jane Austen believable, endearing, funny, and moving -- all without ever making us notice she was an American playing, not just an Englishwoman, but the quintessential voice of English women.

In short, I forgot I was watching Anne Hathaway, and for those two hours found myself watching Jane Austen.

When you consider that I came into the movie with a chip on my shoulder -- Anne Hathaway? As Jane Austen? -- it was quite an achievement for Hathaway to be able to overcome my prejudice.

But she is not alone in this movie. James McAvoy (playing Tom Lefroy) has come a long way since he played Mr. Tumnus, the Faun, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He seemed faintly embarrassed by his silly costume in that role, as if he were dying to put on a shirt.

In this movie, however, he commands the screen whenever he's on it, and his character is beautiful, not because of his face, which is rather quirkily made, but because of his intelligent intensity. And when he's boxing, he never once seems to want to put on a shirt.

As I said before, even the actors in minor roles are given wonderful things to do. I especially point out Joe Anderson as Jane's hunky-and-horny brother Henry; Ian Richardson as Lefroy's terminally grumpy uncle, Judge Langlois; the ethereal Anna Maxwell Martin (who played Esther in the brilliant Bleak House of 2005) as Jane's sister Cassandra; and Julie Walters (first seen in Educating Rita back in 1983) as Jane's mother -- a role in which Walters essentially got to play all the mothers in Austen's novels rolled up in one!

Of course Maggie Smith (known to many as Minerva McGonagall from the Harry Potter films) was brilliant as Lady Gresham; of course James Cromwell (Babe, Star Trek: First Contact, Deep Impact, I Robot) was powerful in the role of Jane's father.

But the real triumphs were the performances of two actors in small but complex roles: Laurence Fox as Mr. Wisley, the rich young heir who is clumsy and shy and oppressed by his aunt, Lady Gresham, but truly loves Jane and is smarter than he seems at first; and Leo Bill, as the Rev. Collins-esque John Warren, the kind of man you really don't want to have falling in love with you, however earnest he may seem.

It would be hard to imagine two movies more different than these; yet within the confines of their genres, they are both surprisingly good and should both appeal to an audience beyond the core of those who know they like each kind of film.

In other words: If you would rather die than sit through a costumed chick-flick, go ahead and let the women in your life drag you to Becoming Jane; you won't die after all.

And if your idea of hell is watching college comedies like Revenge of the Nerds (which, by the way, was also better than its genre), go ahead and go on the date to see Sydney White -- you'll like this better than you thought you would.

*

I write this on primary election day in Greensboro. There are only two issues: Our corrupt-or-negligent, power-maddened, and unjust city manager; and the fact that years after the Randleman Dam reservoir was filled, and despite memories of Greensboro's last drought where the whole city nearly had to be closed down, our current city council has still not brought the Randleman water to Greensboro.

Never mind if the water could not have been online yet in the best-case scenario. A competent city council would at least have been close.

And the fact that our elected clowns have done nothing to curb our city manager despite his obvious mishandling of ... let me count ... everything suggests that democracy will not work as long as we keep electing people to be his boss who act as if they work for him.

So I voted. Did you? If not, then it's partly your fault that Greensboro is drying up -- while our basic services languish and our police force has been deprived of so many who stood against corruption.

We get the government we deserve. Looking at our current city government, we must have been very, very bad, because we are certainly being punished now.

As to the water restrictions: Fine me all you like, City Government, but I am going to refill my pond even if I have to bring in bottled water from out of state to do it, because I may have to let your incompetence kill my lawn, but I will not let you kill my fish.

That's the raccoons' job.


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