Friday, December 17, 2010

Love (but just barely): 127 Hours

Let's make one thing clear right off the bat: if it weren't for James Franco's performance, 127 Hours would not be receiving the rating it has.  It is Franco that makes this movie what it is.  Otherwise, this film is a stone cold Squalor.  You can believe in Franco, you can read the panic and struggle in his expression.  He's putting his physical self into a role which involves very little in terms of believable dialogue or noteworthy relationships.  James Franco is the saving grace of 127 Hours.  Otherwise, Danny Boyle's first outing since Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire is a remarkably overrated low-budget thriller that has somehow been raised up towards art house distinction when it is anything but.  What it feels like instead is a neatly performed bit of student film, the Handycam dry-land cousin of Open Water or Frozen, another hopeful bit of survivalist fancy based on a true story and peddling its cheap shot horrors for an audience who by now should really be more discerning.

The film follows Aron Ralston (Franco) on his trip canyoneering alone in Utah.  Ralston is the sort of impetuously stupid type of human being who for some reason believes that they can triumph over nature by merely embracing it.  He's a selfish human being who is only lightly shaded as such.  For him, nothing is quite as important as proving via self-photographed documentation (though I'll be damned if I know who cares) that he can conquer biking 17.3 miles in three hours, that he can guide lost strangers through no-man's land, and that he can jump, squeeze and rappel with more ease than you...all with his head phones completely cancelling out the silence of the landscape.  He's such a selfish human being, in fact, that it never occurs to him that it might be important to mildly inconvenience himself and alert someone (parents, friends, siblings, co-workers) of exactly which desolate landscape he plans to conquer on his little Phish scored journey of consumer naturalism.  Ralston, is cocksure and under prepared.  He has no real Swiss army knife.  He has a supply of water and food that seems much too limited when you consider the dude was planning on biking 40 miles, in the desert, both ways.  Why does he do this?  Because he's careless and invincible. 

Of course, Ralston finds himself trapped, his arm crushed by a boulder he's unable to move. Yet, instead of truly critiquing Aron's actions, the film gifts him what will undoubtedly be an Oscar nominated adaptation of his idiocy: complete with the supposedly uplifting epilogue informing us that Ralston (now with one hand) is still out there doing exactly the same thing, only this time he does it at the expense of his wife and child.  I can't be the only one who finds this less inspiring than painfully symptomatic of some sort of societal idiocy.  Sure, as harrowing tales of survival go, Ralston's story is indeed rather remarkable.  Yet, the fact that he was placed in that position is no one's fault but his own.  As a human interest curiosity in the news, Ralston's story holds more water.  Here, it just feels inescapably pointless, overdone, and guilty of valorizing a dude who apparently qualifies as a hero because he managed to save himself from himself.  Some critics will tell you that the film does not make Ralston a hero.  I couldn't agree less. Every shot, down to the close-ups we're fed along with the triumphant, overwhelming music that scores his trip out from the canyon, seems to point to Ralston's sacrificial self-preservation as something deserving of a hero's reception.  If you can honestly watch that epilogue and believe that you're not supposed to believe in Aron Ralston as a man better than you, you're fooling yourself.  Yes, this is a movie about Aron Ralston learning a lesson the hard way.  Aron Ralston learns that people, even independent people, need other people, and we're supposed to jump from our seats and cheer.
People will, for some reason, love this film.  That's because, in my experience, people love watching the stories of others who have things worse than them.  Those cheap thrills I mentioned will hook certain members of the population to refer to 127 Hours as an intense, grueling experience.  Intense and grueling seem to be buzz words for many as to what makes a successful drama.  However, with 127 Hours, the intensity is spun not solely from the fact that Aron is trapped for five+ days, but from faux, artificially created hallucinations that allow Franco to shine even as they drag the film itself into some cheaply filtered attempt at transforming Ralston from American idiot to motivational hero.  In certain ways, 127 Hours is a dressed up breed of torture porn horror.  There is no serial killing menace, of course, but the film is a series of tests and traps all built around the conceit of having to do the unthinkable in order to save yourself.  Of course, the audience this film attracts and is being marketed towards is much different than the one Saw shoots for, so, it's easy to consider the comparably uneventful gore involved in Ralston's amputation as something far apart from what those outright horror films present.  You see, 127 Hours is human.  It has humanity.  Alright, but it also has tedium.  An occasionally entertaining tedium, but tedium nonetheless.

Granted, Franco and Boyle managed to inject a surprising amount of life into the story of man beats rock.  While forced to face his decisions, Ralston becomes considerably more likable.  There are charming bits here and there in which he has conversations with his camcorder or comes up with very clever solutions to whole new sets of problems.   These are the brightest moments in the film, yet, the film never feels that emotionally vulnerable.  There's a risk to it, but never a fear.  Danny Boyle has lost something.  It's my opinion, actually, that Boyle's films were best when their "choose life" approach was met with an inherent nihilism.  He used to be fairly fearless.  The success of Slumdog Millionaire, however, seems to have pushed him permanently away from his hipper-than-thou comfort with postmodern sleaze and towards some new embracing of small, underdog triumphs.  I'll be flat out honest: I have no interest in this new Boyle.  As we march forward, he seems to be deteriorating as a director in quite a few respects.  His films lack the daring, the sheer style of his earlier works.   Even their construction feels shoddy.  There's a homemade quality to many aspects of 127 Hours that feels appropriate.  Sure, when Ralston is trapped in the canyon, the camcorder works wonders in making his struggle all the more personal.  It's true, also, that amazing films can be made with simple techniques and equipment.  David Lynch proved this.  However, I have to admit I found quite a bit of the film amateurishly edited.  It felt cheap, to me.  The split screens, the assemblage footage designed to amp up something unexciting, they're the sloppy cuts of a film student;  as though instead of working with the man who made Trainspotting, Franco were collaborating with a classmate at Yale.  Boyle has forgotten how to take real risks.  He does not let Ralston wax truly nihilistic.  He does not slip fully into the darkness of that experience.  The imagination is limited to superficial realizations and haunting images of inflatable Scooby Doos.

In some ways, this film reads like the male version of Eat Pray Love (a movie in which, coincidentally, Franco played a character who could be Ralston's actor bro).  Ralston is, in many ways, just as selfish as Elizabeth Gilbert and, like her, it takes a lot for him to arrive at that realization.  While 127 Hours is nowhere near the level of indulgence Eat Pray Love takes part in, it gives us a motivational icon of self-improvement who might be as ridiculous.  The saving grace, again, is that Franco is the star.  So, Academy, for your consideration: nominate James Franco as many times as you'd like, but please don't give this silly little movie a Best Picture nod.  Trust me, a few years down the road, it won't be worth remembering.     

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