Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Movie misfires are all too common, but some merit a closer look. Tomorrowland is one of those films. A $180 million budget; the Disney marketing machine hyping a film that flogs an attraction at its venerable theme park; George Clooney; big brained architects in screenwriter Damon Lindelof (of World War Z, Star Trek and Prometheus fame), and Brad Bird, the Iron Giant helmer who transitioned seamlessly to live action with the thrilling Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Rather than soar, Tomorrowland is an early summer casualty. Surrounded by sequels, superheroes and escapism, is it just too difficult to try launching challenging themes in the summer?
BART: My problem with Tomorrowland, Mike, is that it’s a movie with a theme in search of a protagonist. Further, its emotional core is oddly alienating rather than engaging. Having said this, it’s disturbing to criticize a movie when I respect its filmmakers and also the motivation for making it. Brad Bird wanted to present a vision of the future that was positive, not dystopian. Cool idea. And he wanted to show us a super-world, not a superhero. He ended up making an oddly cold movie with a built-in trap. The only way to warm up the story would be to warm up the relationship between the central character, played by George Clooney, and the female lead. But the female lead is a very young girl and there’s no place you can take it without hitting the self-destruct button. So while I admire the film, I would shoot myself if I had to sell it. Sure, I could put Clooney in a trailer telling audiences, “Here’s a really smart movie that will encourage you to use your imagination and think positively about the contribution you can make to the future.” Let’s get real: it’s easier to sell a superhero picture that will blast your imagination into a state of numbness. That’s why I have never been in marketing.
FLEMING: I feel similar to Tomorrowland as I do about Aloha, the new Cameron Crowe movie that was fed through a wood chipper in those stolen Sony emails when studio higher-ups were trying to fix it, putting a stink on the picture it could never shake. I love Crowe’s movies, even We Bought A Zoo, and especially Jerry Maguire, Say Anything, Almost Famous and Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which he wrote. I want to see him touch the stars and take big swings, and drop in lines that could seem spectacularly corny, but which worked so well in Jerry Maguire. Likewise, Tomorrowland was teeming with noble ambitions and big ideas, but it just didn’t work as a film because you didn’t have enough reason to care about the characters. I liked the look back at the 1964 World’s Fair (one of my own earliest memories), and the idea that the future was so bright back then, and now it’s dire and all about droughts, political and religious unrest and global warming with kids distracted by video games and other digital overload. I like the movie’s challenge to young people to become aware, pay attention in school and think about fixing the mess we are leaving them. The film reminded me of Interstellar, so complex that it was confusing, but what Christopher Nolan’s movie had that this didn’t was a fully grounded relationship between Matthew McConaughey and his daughter. That kept me in the game even when I had no idea what was going on (why was he in that bookcase, again?) Like you, I think it’s too simplistic to say you can’t launch original IP in summer, but you need a handle to sell it. That conversation should have been had with Lindelof and Bird before they got underway. Who wants to make an ambitious movie only to find there’s no way to sell it, or even properly describe it in a couple sentences? There is a scene where the lead girl (Britt Robertson) travels to a sci-fi collector store and gets into a wild battle with two strange alien-like proprietors played by Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn. I went to see this movie to see what went wrong. I remember when the musical Pippin first played Broadway and it was failing because it was hard to market and they ran TV ads simply saying, Here’s a minute of Pippin, and the exuberant Ben Vereen song and dance number–which did nothing to explain the premise–saved the show. This Tomorrowland scene was so over the top and cinematic, that it might have brought kids in had they just shown it and said, there’s more where that came from. Sue Kroll at Warner Bros did something similar with Nolan’s Inception; she didn’t even try to explain an unexplainable movie; instead she made it must-see, just showing mind-bending footage no one had seen before. What Disney did instead in its trailers was hinge the whole thing on the star power of Clooney. Trouble is, he plays a dour, beaten man who doesn’t arrive until an hour in, really. He is also the guy who, after Batman & Robin, deliberately stepped off the blockbuster path and therefore has little currency with the young demo this movie is aimed at.
BART: All of this also makes we wonder about the career choices of Clooney, who is just about the smartest actor I know, and Bryan Lourd, his agent, who is the savviest dealmaker I know. Why did Clooney decide to play the non-character in Tomorrowland? I vividly remember Clooney in Good Night And Good Luck, but I’m worried that he’s run out of the good luck. Anyone can have a miscue like Monuments Men, which tried to inject comedy into a somber plot line. But I’d expect someone as nimble as Clooney to follow that with a winner. Now, I understand Clooney’s dilemma. In interviews, he has reiterated his determination to avoid the pitfalls of conventional leading man roles. He wants to make interesting films with interesting filmmakers – or to focus on his own film making career. In Tomorrowland, however, Clooney has set himself back. He plays a character who always looks uncomfortable about being in a particular place at a particular time. And that’s beginning to seem like Clooney in most of his films.
FLEMING: I think he drank the Kool-Aid here and signed on early because the film’s premise and the lofty goals and enthusiasm of Lindelof and Bird made him think the film could make a positive global statement. I once sat in his office at Warner Bros and asked him why the only photo on the wall was him, in the Batmask. He said it was there as a reminder to not make career choices for the wrong reasons. He has made so many good movies based on that hard lesson—Out of Sight, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Good Night And Good Luck, Three Kings, Up in the Air, The Descendants—that he has nothing to regret. I see media reports contrasting him to Dwayne Johnson. Both are guys I love being around, but they are running on completely different career tracks. Johnson, who opened this weekend in San Andreas, is so intent on filling the Arnold Schwarzenegger role by making the most blatant commercial choices, including joining pre-existing and already successful franchises and referring to himself as “franchise Viagra.” I wonder if he would be taken seriously if he tried to turn in a real actor performance in, say, a movie about Hawaiian King Kamehameha, which at one time was his dream. I admire Clooney’s career, how he has worked for discount to get worthy movies made, how he saved Gravity after Robert Downey Jr walked, taking a role that offered little to a male star because it so deferred to Sandra Bullock. He did that because he admired the script and the director and recalling that hit’s rocky origins, I’m not sure that picture gets made without him. I want to see how he does, adapting the British tabloid scandal Hack Attack, a tough subject because it lands at the doorstep of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
BART: In Hollywood, top stars have always resisted their true persona — and hence went on suspension. Gable didn’t like being Gable or Bogart being Bogart. In the case of Clooney, my wife always says, “He’s Cary Grant. Why won’t he give us a Cary Grant movie?” The answer is that he doesn’t want to. Shucks.
FLEMING: It is so hard to create new stars I’m beginning to think you can’t, anymore. When he got Star Trek and Jack Ryan, Chris Pine seemed poised to be the next Major Star. Jack Ryan flopped, and Pine just made a deal to play the boyfriend of Wonder Woman in the DC Comics Warner Bros movie. So the one time next Major Star is now holding Wonder Woman’s pocketbook? The truth is, you go through that hype period, try not to say anything dumb in endless press interviews around the world. Maybe you have a string of hits that propels you to super-stardom, but more likely you learn to satisfy yourself with quality of work, like Clooney has done. The audience is too fickle and studios no longer believe in the star system. When first dollar gross legacies like Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise hang it up, the bankable star might go the way of the dinosaur.
The next guy to make that assault on super-stardom is Chris Pratt, who came out of nowhere to establish himself as a funny, engaging star of the surprise Marvel hit Guardians Of The Galaxy. Steven Spielberg tapped him to star in Jurassic World, and wants him for Indiana Jones. As he set out to promote that film, Pratt, formerly a paunchy journeyman TV actor who has aerobicized himself into leading man form–his move from CAA to UTA with defecting agent Jason Heyman was potentially the most lucrative part of that drama–seems quite an engaging character. In this era of gotcha press junkets, Pratt did a funny thing by apologizing in advance on his Facebook page for all the dumb things he would inevitably say. Pratt wrote: “I want to make a heartfelt apology for whatever it is I end up accidentally saying during the forthcoming #JurassicWorld press tour. I hope you understand it was never my intention to offend anyone and I am truly sorry. I swear. I’m the nicest guy in the world. And I fully regret what I (accidentally will have) said in (the upcoming foreign and domestic) interview(s). I am not in the business of making excuses. I am just dumb. Plain and simple. I try. I REALLY try! When I do (potentially) commit the offensive act for which I am now (pre) apologizing you must understand I (will likely have been) tired and exhausted when I (potentially) said that thing I (will have had) said that (will have had) crossed the line. Those rooms can get stuffy and the hardworking crews putting these junkets together need some entertainment! (Likely) that is who I was trying to crack up when I (will have had) made that tasteless and unprofessional comment. Trust me. I know you can’t say that anymore. In fact in my opinion it was never right to say the thing I definitely don’t want to but probably will have said. To those I (will have) offended please understand how truly sorry I already am. I am fully aware that the subject matter of my imminent forthcoming mistake, a blunder (possibly to be) dubbed “JurassicGate” is (most likely) in no way a laughing matter. To those I (will likely have had) offended rest assured I will do everything in my power to make sure this doesn’t happen (again).” Priceless.
BART: I am not ready to endorse the idea of pre-emptive apologies. We are all being smothered in political correctness these days and hence are too ready to apologize for everything we say. But if there’s anyone who deserves apologies, it is the aforementioned Cameron Crowe. I saw Aloha last night and, with all its flaws (and its over-stuffed plot) it is a delightful movie. It is also the movie everyone loves to bash – those Sony executives in their gibberish “notes” (albeit hacked), the bitchy critics, the daft bloggers. But Crowe has given us some daring ideas, some brilliant dialogue (delivered by a great cast), a marvelous score – and one weird scene which, I assume, he didn’t know how to write so his characters simply stare at each other and Crowe shows us subtitles. OK, Cameron didn’t quite get it together this time but he deserves a pat on the back, not extinction.
FLEMING: Pratt will undoubtedly gain polish after stumping for a few of these blockbusters, but he showed a lot of unvarnished candor in his GQ cover story. He noted how for years, he held the purse of his actress wife Anna Faris and swallowed hard while actors and deal makers blatantly hit on her, right in front of him, disrespectfully treating Pratt like he was invisible. The same people are now telling him they knew all along he’d be a big star, and Pratt says he remembers every slight. His preemptive Facebook apology was probably smart as he veered into a discussion of how road rage helps his acting, and admitted he and actor pals Adam Scott and Nick Offerman trade email photos of their bowel movements. Like when, on Offerman’s birthday, Pratt sent one with the note, “You guys have the same birthday.” Let’s hope he limits this bizarre bonding ritual to his small circle of friends. Spielberg might have ordained Pratt as his next Indiana Jones, but I doubt the director wants to bond with a close encounter of the turd kind.