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The Charms of The 'Good Enough' Movie

Plane (Jean-François Richet, 2023, EUA)
Your Place or Mine (Aline Brosh McKenna, 2023, EUA)

by Filipe Furtado

         One of the paradoxes of contemporary cinephilia is how the desire for a populist cinema is contradicted by the relative absence of the good genre movie, at least in Hollywood cinema, which, for better or for worse, continues to occupy most of the spaces and, consequently, discourses about popular cinema. One can notice this in the commotion around S.S. Rajamouli's RRR, which broke the usual barriers of the popular Indian cinema ghetto and was widely fetishized in film circles and turned into hundreds of clips on social media to which it lends itself very well, in the good will towards the latest Top Gun and Avatar or in general towards film franchises with good quality control and enough personality like Mission Impossible or John Wick (no judgment here let it be clear).  It is something that is very much reflected in a desire for a certain genre cinema more geared towards its own small satisfactions and pleasures, something that used to routinely occupy the theater spaces between bigger movies that no longer make sense in the current maximalist and predatory economy of the multiplexes. It is certainly easier to look with sympathy at the popular film that doesn't seem to suffocate all the others, and these films stir up memories of so many other screenings between more flashy movies. I understand this desire all too well, after all I spend hours, each year, keeping up with the latest films by Scott Adkins or Emma Roberts.

           This leads to what I usually call a good enough movie, this is not a value judgment, these are not necessarily mediocre movies, although some are, but movies that are first and foremost about a mix of familiarity and competent craft, the greatest quality of the good enough movie is its ability to transport the viewer to a popular movie theater of the late 1990s, early 2000s. A good enough movie is an exercise in nostalgia, and not nostalgia for some lost golden age (the studio system, the New Hollywood, it doesn't matter), but for a form of purgatory, of going back in time far enough that some developments of the last 15 years of mainstream cinema didn't exist: the end of film projection, the collapse of the home video market, Disney's semi-monopoly, etc. The most perfect good enough movie of the last decade is probably the first John Wick, a vehicle for good stunt work, clear action, and creative choreography so effective in its goals that it is easy to forget its humble origins, since each of its sequels seems to cost twice as much as the previous one.

         The early months of the year beyond Oscar season‘s many dull films, there’s usually a prolific number of good-enough movies and this year I found at least two, Plane, the latest action movie from Gerard Butler, one of the last actors who can headline mid-budget action flicks playing in theaters, and Your Place or Mine, the latest of Netflix's quarterly attempts at a romantic comedy, this time starring Reese Whiterspoon and Ashton Kutcher, two of the biggest stars of the genre's last boom period. I single out the leads before their respective filmmakers because one of the things for which a good enough film is nostalgic is a functional star system; these movies mostly star actors who were already associated with their genres 15-20 years before.

           Both of these are the work of directors with long experience in their genres.  Your Place or Mine is the first movie directed by Aline Brosh McKenna, who as a screenwriter has worked in romantic comedy intensively since the 2000s, most notably on the very popular The Devil Wears Prada, one of the last films of the genre to be shown non-stop on cable channels. She also co-created the very good TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is predicted very much in the ways that romantic comedy fantasies are perceived and affect their audiences.  Plane, meanwhile, is signed by Jean-François Richet, a French filmmaker who started out in the banlieue film of the 1990s (Ma 6-T va crack-er is great) and has spent the last two decades trying to fit into a more mainstream and accessible form. His French movies, usually starring Vincent Cassel, are big local productions boasting the best of what the French industry can offer (like the Napoleonic studio Paris of 2018's The Emperor of Paris), while his occasional English-language films, this one, the remake of Assault at Precinct 13, Blood Father (2016) tend to be more rough and crude. There is quite a bit of a movie from a foreigner in how they view the restraints of the material and in a general willingness to spot a barbarism in Americans and their favorite narrative forms.

         There is by consequence in both films a very conscious study of their own worn-out forms and a willingness to follow the more conservative elements inherent in their traditions, of the post-Nora Ephron romantic comedy in one case and the action movie modeled on Die Hard in the other.  Your Place or Mine suffers somewhat from the romantic comedy trend of the last two decades to lean on the clever concept, in this case Whiterspoon and Kutcher spend the entire movie on opposite coasts of the U.S. (the film's big joke is that they switch addresses) and until the climactic meeting just talking with each other on the phone. It takes something away from the pleasures of a romantic comedy to only hook up your central actors by editing, and each half of the film suffers from not being able to imagine anything much beyond the immediacy of the individual characters, for example both parts rely on not-so-funny supporting characters who exist solely to listen to the leads to advance their dramatic arcs and don't make much effort beyond casting to give them any distinction. On the other hand, the movie knows how to use this immediate space and explore the idea of those two neurotic characters minding each other's business as they encounter it, which offers both actors good material to work with.

         Plane also suffers from a certain limitation of imagination for an action movie. Its main scenes are distinguished more by sudden moments of violence than by more elaborate choreography, as in the best low-budget examples in the genre. We tend to remember it more for the minor key with which it develops, putting a physical and tactile presence ahead of the large-scale destruction dominated by CGI artifice of its bigger peers. The movie holds up much more on the safe chemistry between Butler and Mike Colter as the "dangerous" prisoner he was transporting. The clever buddy movie idea is to allow Colter to take on the role of the more capable man of action while Butler stands out more for his determination, and the two fine actors know how to get a lot out of the dynamic established between them. As we are in 2023, there is a subplot between authorities that exists solely to comment on (and sell) the action that sounds all the more irritating for the limits of what the movie offers in the area. The familiarity in both cases is quite effective, if whatever it is is an approximation of being in a late 90s multiplex, Your Place or Mine and Plane are more than good enough carbon copies.

        The two movies would probably be better if they were made in 1998, they would be shot on film and would not suffer from some of their worst contemporary tics or rather have their tics aged as something distinctive of their era like many of the lightweight movies they model themselves after. For better or worse they would probably be less distinctive in a period context, their appeal as industry products depends very much on this desire for the idea more than sometimes reality of a lost craftsmanship. 

April, 2023

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