August 10, 2010

Justify My Netflix: Precious

(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.)

Precious: Based on the Novel

Today's movie: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, 2009 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because as regular readers remember, I was fairly blown away by the cutting-edge 1996 novel Push when first reading it earlier this year, so have been eagerly waiting to see how the Oscar-winning film adaptation would stack up against it.

The reality: Believe the hype! And in fact, today is a case where introspection turns out to be a truly great thing -- because when I first watched this fairly by-the-numbers adaptation a month ago, I thought it a well-done but unremarkable version of the much more complex and rewarding book; but upon reflection, I'm coming to realize that the movie is actually a much better thing than this, and that there's a good reason it came out of seemingly nowhere last year to suddenly dominate the entire awards season. Now, in my defense, it's easy to have that kind of initial reaction when you're already a fan of the book -- originally written by celebrated slam poet and master of language Sapphire, the novel is actually more like the science-fiction tale Flowers for Algernon than so-called "urban fiction," telling a fairly typical story of a trod-upon, AIDS-riddled, incest-surviving, borderline-retarded, grossly overweight illiterate black girl who somehow beats all the odds in order to eventually become a normal, functioning member of society, but then with this story actually told through the remarkable filter of Precious's own first-person journal, where the dramatic changes in both her grammar and simply the way she starts seeing the world around her tells us profoundly more about her transformation than anything the cliche-laden plot itself could convey.

It would be hard for any movie to adequately transfer the literary goodness seen in the book, but this adaptation by writer Geoffrey Fletcher (his film debut) and director Lee Daniels (a Hollywood newbie as well, although one of the producers of the fellow Oscar-winning Monster's Ball) certainly makes a good go of it, combining in an engaging ratio a type of cinema verite and a heavy touch of magical realism, a combination which lets the filmmakers visually transfer a surprising amount of Precious's inner-brain thoughts about the world, for example her ongoing fantasy over what it must be like to be a thin, good-looking white girl who everyone automatically cares about. And of course, let's admit that superb casting goes a long way towards making this film such a success (in fact, I didn't realize that Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz were even in this film until watching the closing credits*); and that makes it even more interesting, I think, that Daniels actually started by auditioning a whole series of inner-city non-actresses who were essentially real versions of Precious, until eventually picking the bubbly and nerdy professional actress Gabourey Sidibe for the part, after coming to feel that picking one of the non-actresses would (in his words) "feel like exploitation." That says a lot, I think, about just how much artifice actually goes into the making of a realistic-feeling artistic project, a difficult cocktail that Sapphire gets almost exactly perfect in the original book; and while the film naturally fails at holding itself up to that high a level, it's still a rather remarkable piece of cinema, and in my opinion deserves all the accolades it's received. It comes highly recommended today.

Strangest piece of trivia: Helen Mirren was originally slated to play Mariah Carey's part (a tough and not necessarily very good social worker who nonetheless helps push Precious into her journey of self-discovery), but had to suddenly drop out literally two days before filming began. Oh, and also, this film now holds the all-time record of most money made per movie screen, for a film that played in less than 50 US theatres -- it in fact generated an average of $100,000 at every single theatre where it was shown. Oh, and this as well, that the movie generated a number of firsts in the film industry -- it was the first Grand Prize winner of Sundance to ever get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, was the first Best Picture nominee in history to be directed by a black person, and Fletcher became the first black person in history to ever win the Best Screenplay Oscar as well.

Worth your time? Yes

*But of course the same disappearing subtlety can't be said of Mo'Nique, who won an Oscar for her role here as the Tea Party's worst nightmare, a welfare-cheating, fast-food-chomping, child-beating, game-show-addicted monster of a mother, whose entire existence is defined almost exclusively by how much of a drain on hard-working society she can be; it's one of many character archetypes found in both the book and movie that has earned it a surprising amount of criticism from the very African-American community leaders you would think would be the story's biggest champions. And in fact I think it's a very intriguing question to ask yourself as you watch this film, especially if you're a white person -- of whether you're responding to it as intensely as you are because ultimately Precious supports many of the most offensive stereotypes about black people that are out there, essentially becoming the 21st-century version of Uncle Tom's Cabin; I'm not sure how much I either agree or disagree with such a theory (it could be equally argued, as author Sapphire has in the past, that it's simply a highly realistic look at what actual life was like within black neighborhoods in '80s New York), but certainly I think it's a strong enough argument that you should at least be keeping it in mind while watching the movie yourself.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:16 AM, August 10, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |