October 8, 2009

Justify My Netflix: Gods and Monsters

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Gods and Monsters

Today's movie: Gods and Monsters, 1998 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because it was a surprise Oscar-winner and sleeper hit when it first came out in 1998 (one of the first movies as well to prove that action hero Brendan Fraser actually has acting chops), which uses the basics behind the real life of 1930s horror director James Whale (Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and more) to take a sophisticated look at openly gay life in pre-Stonewall America.

The reality: Slow, smart and fascinating. And that's because writer/director Bill Condon (adapting his screenplay from the speculative novel Father of Frankenstein) takes what could've been a real snoozer of a story, and instead injects it with a high concept just ridiculous enough to really work -- that is, Whale in his old age (played memorably by Ian "Gandalf" McKellen) ends up telling his very fey life story little by little to his hulking, blue-collar gardener (Fraser), whose casual similarity to Frankenstein's monster (all the way down to the square haircut) is alluded to just enough to make it interesting but not cheesy. (And this isn't the only sly reference in the biopic to Whale's actual horror movies -- in another unforgettable turn, Lynn Redgrave plays Whale's prickly Hungarian caregiver, who is constantly spitting out such Igor-like phrases as "The master will see you now" with a completely straight if not pissed-off face.) By having Whale so interested in his gardener because of his attraction to him, as well as his reminiscences caused by his recent stroke and resulting semi-senile state, Condon creates a perfect excuse for such a story to be told in the first place, one that's as straight-ahead as an encyclopedia entry but that never feels forced; and by having these stories being told to a low-class bruiser who nonetheless becomes fascinated with Whale's ribald tales of pre-war "anything goes" Hollywood, Fraser in effect becomes a stand-in for the audience itself, providing an ingenious foil that adds lots of conflict to what would otherwise be a pretty ho-hum script. It's one of those screenplays that writing students would do good to study in depth; and by matching it with three fantastic lead actors, it virtually guaranteed the sleeper cult status it now has. It comes highly recommended to those who love intelligent character-based dramas, as well as those simply interested in gay life in 1930s America.

Strangest piece of trivia: This is one of only three movies in history to win the Best Screenplay Oscar but not get even nominated for Best Picture. Also, many of the drawings and paintings seen in the film actually were done by James Whale in real life.

Worth your time? If you're a fan of talky, smart movies, by all means

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:42 PM, October 8, 2009. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |