How the Grinch Stole Christmas
dir.: Ron Howard
PG, 98 min.
Now showing at area theaters
When Theodor Geisel wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957, the book continued his drift away from the fanciful stories with kid-sized morals that he began writing and illustrating in the late ’30s under the pen name Dr. Seuss. The Grinch sprung alongside 1954’s Horton Hears a Who (an early conservationist tract) and 1958’s Yertle the Turtle (a not-so-thinly veiled anti-fascist allegory), and taken together, those three books (and later works like The Sneetches and The Lorax) showed Geisel railing against social ills while maintaining his gift for the whimsical distortion of reality. Specifically, The Grinch was a parable about the commercialization of the holidays, as a Scrooge-like green monster learned that the Christmas spirit had nothing to do with the noisy toys he loathed, but instead involved a feeling of warmth and togetherness that transcended the mere exchange of material goods.
The story was simple and elegant, but it didn’t really take hold in the pop-culture consciousness until 1966, when CBS commissioned award-winning animation director Chuck Jones to spin 32 pages of rhyme into a 26-minute cartoon. Jones did so masterfully, with the help of Boris Karloff’s voice, a clever Seussian song, and some hilarious action sequences that padded out the tale. Now The Grinch has been padded out even further, into a 100-minute live-action feature starring Jim Carrey as the title meanie. The question is: How much expansion can this tiny tome take?
Not quite this much. To get The Grinch to feature length, director Ron Howard and screenwriters Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman have made some additions that work quite well, but some make such a noisy thud that they threaten to drown out the cheerful sound of Christmas bells.
On the positive side, they’ve provided a backstory. We learn how the Grinch first came to the hamlet of Whoville, and we see how the taunts of cruel townsfolk chased him away to his cave atop Mount Crumpit, where he wallows in the filth that the Whos of Whoville discard. The filmmakers have also expanded the section prior to the moment when The Grinch cooks up his devious plan to dress up as Santa and swipe all the Whos’ Christmas fixins. Now we get the efforts of Cindy-Lou Who (a mere blip in the original story) to make The Grinch a part of the Whoville yuletide festivitiesefforts that go awry when The Green One is reminded of his previous Who-related ignominy and subsequently goes on a rampage.
It’s the final rounding out of the story that takes an ill turn. To give the Whos more shading, Price and Seaman create a callow mayor (played by Jeffrey Tambor) who hates The Grinch, encourages his townsfolk to indulge the shallowest of Christmas pleasures, and essentially serves as the villain of the piece. And his villainy somewhat diminishes the good vibe we felt about the Whos in previous versions of this story.
Some critics have complained that this newly discovered venal side to Whodomcombined with the expressionistic sets and the general nastiness of The Grinch himselfmakes the film too dark and dispiriting for its intended family audience. But this needle isn’t really that sharp; Dr. Seuss stories generally have a grotesque air, and that hasn’t diminished their popularity among the kiddie set.
If anything, Carrey’s astonishing performance as The Grinch softens much of the harshness that attended earlier incarnations of the character. Carrey here is as controlled as he’s ever been, sulking dynamically and delivering almost every line in a slightly different voice (particularly in his spirited rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) before reverting to an accent that is somewhere between Sean Connery and a South Park character. He’s having a blast being awful, and his sense of fun is infectious and sympathetic.
As for Geisel’s original message about brotherhood and togetherness, well, it’s still there, even though the farther away the finish line is, the harder it is to see. But given that The Grinch has always had a hole in its heartthe Christ-shaped hole at the center of most secular Christmas storiesit’s not worth getting overly upset about how the impact of the moral is lessened. Each rendition of this story has been more about the frills than the cloth; the real entertainment has come from Seuss’ wordplay, Jones’ visual wit, and now from Carrey’s fuzzy frenzy. Even at the end, while mangling the “Whos’ Welcome Christmas” song, Carrey’s Grinch retains a curmudgeonly edge. That may be an even better, more spiritually righteous message than this perennial has ever had: Now even a true Grinch is welcome at the Christmas table.
The needle and the damage done
Student filmmakers love shooting bad-drug-trip movies. The genre has built-in moral righteousness, it offers no end of vicarious degradationand best of all, it’s a handy excuse to let it all hang out stylistically. On this count, writer-director Darren Aronofsky shoots the works (no pun intended) with Requiem for a Dream, his punishing, technically astonishing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel.
Aronofsky follows the delusions of four Brooklynites as each slides into a habit he or she can’t kick. Junkie Harry (Jared Leto) dreams of making a big score as a dealer with his partner Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). All he needs is one push, and he’ll be set up in bliss with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), who’s turned on by dangerous thrills. It also means he won’t have to break into his mother’s apartment every month to hock her prized TV. His mom, Mrs. Goldfarb, played by Ellen Burstyn in a terrifying performance, sits in front of the tube for hours each day, nursing dreams of stardom on a motivational infomercial. Addiction is a way of life, whether the drug of choice is food, TV, or pills. The only difference is whether it kills the soul, the brain, or the body, and how fast.
In Selby’s searing vision, it’s not the junk that’s the killer, it’s the false hope of escape. There’s nothing worse than getting hooked on hope. The drugs may be the fastest path to the bottom, but it’s the fear of failure and the dangled carrot of Easy Street that drives the characters to dope. In this sense, as well as in its chilling distortion of widescreen space, the movie calls to mind Nicholas Ray’s amazing 1955 drama Bigger Than Life, in which professor James Mason gets hooked on cortisone to feel like an all-American big shot. Here, worried that she’s too fat to appear on TV, Mrs. Goldfarb begins popping diet pills: Her goal is to fit into a red dress that comes more and more to resemble a straitjacket. Harry’s get-rich-quick schemes end up fueling his habit, which kills off his libido, his love, and his aspirations in short order. There are 12 steps out of this dope-stoked spiral, and they all lead down.
The most empathetic drug movies, like Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy, generally convey the elation of drug use as well as its flame-out. Aronofsky and Selby, who cowrote the script, refuse even this hint of release. The first time someone shoots up, Aronofsky depicts the rush in a rapid-fire montage, from needle to plunger to constricted pupil, that’s amusing in its machine-like precision. From there, though, the string of images is repeated so many times it becomes deliberately irritating. Ritualized pleasure becomes mechanized grindthe sweet needle as dentist’s drill. Aronofsky’s robotic crosscutting among the four principals assumes a lockstep rhythm that accelerates as their lives circle the drain.
As impressive a filmmaker as Aronofsky is, he remains something of a style in search of a subject. His first film, the digital-era sci-fi shocker Pi, yoked a dazzling, even visionary visual sense to distressingly timid ideas: For all its feverish black-and-white imagery, the movie had little more on its mind than the moldy egghead rebuke, “There are some things man wasn’t meant to know.” Here, working with Pi cinematographer Matthew Libatique and editor Jay Rabinowitz, Aronofsky batters the viewer with sped-up motion, shock cuts, and jittery waist-level shots that practically impale the subject, accompanied by bursts of noise that are alternately lulling and assaultive. (It probably looks really cool on drugs.) But his ideas, at their most banal, boil down to drugs-are-bad boilerplate, which raises the suspicion that he was drawn to the material by its potential for nonstop shock value.
Even so, the best scenes have a ferocious, intrusive intensity that doesn’t let up. Most of those scenes involve Burstyn, who, in a kind of flipside performance to her cracked-up beauty queen in 1972’s The King of Marvin Gardens, gives a devastating glimpse of a dream decomposing. As the four characters’ assorted hopes crash and burn, bottoming out in madness, mutilation, and worse, the movie culminates in a 20-minute trainwreck of illusions that’s as relentless as it is virtuosic. Filmmakers will be stealing from and emulating this sequence for years to come. That doesn’t make Requiem for a Dream any easier to sit through, but consider yourself both warned and encouraged to make the effort.
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