Last night, I watched Stephen Daldry's film The Hours, and a similar problem arose for me. Every time Nicole Kidman was on screen as Woolf, I couldn't help but wonder who was in charge of that prosthetic strapped to her nose. Nearly all the dramatic wind was sucked out of Woolf's sails by that silly makeup job; I couldn't take anything she was saying completely seriously, and it didn't even make her look more like the writer. That's just one man's opinion though. She did manage to take home the Oscar for best actress.
The other technical issue I had with the film was the music, particularly during the Laura Brown story line. I would find myself in a seemingly innocuous moment of a scene, when suddenly my heart would start to race, and I would have no idea why:
Laura: I'm going to make a cake. That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to make a cake for daddy's birthday. [music: a swelling, swirling crescendo of strings and piano].
I was on edge the entire time she was on screen. Now, I know what you're thinking: well, duh. that's the point; it's part of the suspense. I maintain, however, that there was no suspense at all. Nothing actually happens with the Laura character, except the metastasizing of her vague, selfish unhappiness. When I watch a movie or read a piece of fiction, I appreciate actual drama, not melodrama. In fact, nothing irks me more than melodrama; I find it disingenuous, and it undermines the value of a work for me.
This brings me to my main contention with this film (or perhaps even Michael Cunningham's book, which I have not read). I disagree entirely with Justine's assessment of Laura. Justine wrote, "I really admired her acknowledgment of her unhappiness and the urgency of having to do something about it; of having to think of herself before others." I believe the opposite to be true. Laura had an obligation to Richard and his sister, from which she fled. What is this film saying about personal responsibility? About the abuse of the American dream? -- start over whenever you feel like it? What about the responsibility to accept the consequences of your choices? (I never believed, for a moment, that she "had no choice.")
Claire Danes, despite what many say about her acting abilities, actually plays a pivotal role in this film. When Laura arrives at Clarissa's apartment in New York, Julia says, "So that's the monster." Yet after Laura's vague, quasi apology for her disappearance, it is Julia who embraces Laura, as if to accept her apology, as if to reach an understanding of why she needed to escape dreaded unhappiness. But I remained unconvinced; what on earth does "It was death. I chose life." mean? It seems to me that she had a comfortable life in LA to which she chose to be oblivious. (I was upset that I couldn't stand Julianne Moore's character, when I love that actress. Maude Lebowski, anyone?)
I remember something Denis Leary said in one of his stand-up specials several years ago: "Nobody's happy. Ok? Happiness comes in small doses, folks. It's a cigarette, or a chocolate chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm. That's it. Ok?" Every time I watch a film with the central theme of "well-off person searches for happiness because they don't recognize their fortune at having food, a warm house, and comfort," I get angry and end up ranting like this.
The saving grace I found in this film was Meryl Streep's Clarissa. Because she devotes herself to Richard and to throwing his party, she is the only character in the film who acts in someone else's interest. Though she breaks down for a moment in front of Louis, her reason is plausible; she is witnessing the physical and mental decay of her dear friend. She is the only character who realizes that showing love for others is the road to any kind of happiness. Streep saved me from hating this film, with her small glimmer of hope.