Perfect timing: when global mood dovetails with a film's message

The Baltimore Sun

When The New York Times interviewed producer Jerry Bruckheimer about bringing out an upscale consumer farce called Confessions of a Shopaholic during a global economic crisis, he denied that he performed any major last-minute tinkering. Even the shopaholic's father's most relevant line - "if the U.S. economy can be billions of dollars in debt and still survive, so can you" - was part of the script before everyone was talking about a catastrophic recession.

Will the plot about a woman disentangling herself from credit cards generate business or deflect it? Probably neither, just as the political merits of today's other big opening, The International, won't enlarge the audience for that sober corporate espionage film about an international bank that enslaves countries to debt. Movies rarely work on filmgoers as simply as pundits think they do.

Although Shopaholic's antiheroine concocts dithyrambs to the joy of luxury purchases, the movie also trashes the world of boutiques and fashion magazines as the antiheroine pratfalls her way through Manhattan in outrageously high heels. The International points a sharpshooter's rifle at the greed that spurs the arms race. Yet it also conjures a jet-setter's fantasy view of the high life with its portraits of impeccably turned-out executives conducting business in sleek and sometimes swooping offices and retreats.

Yes, The China Syndrome, the Michael Douglas production about the coverup of an accident at a California nuclear plant, gained more box-office traction and journalistic respect when the nuclear power plant at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island experienced failure 13 days after the film's release. But that was a stunning, specific congruence of film and event. The movie offered audiences easy access to the suddenly red-hot subject of nuclear energy, which the mainstream news media had rarely covered with adequate lucidity or momentousness.

Yes, the Allies invaded Casablanca in real life on Nov. 8, 1942, and Casablanca premiered in New York two weeks later on Nov. 26. But the filmmakers resisted the urge to add an epilogue linking the preinvasion story to current events, and their movie didn't enter wide release until January 1943, when the real city no longer occupied the front page. And no one ever thought of Casablanca as a "wake-up call." It was a stirring romantic adventure.

Too often, movie companies err when they bind their releases too tightly to breaking news. Everyone who saw The Right Stuff in advance thought it would be a $100 million movie (in 1983 dollars). After all, it was a new kind of epic, hip and funny as well as stirring, with a cast full of stars-to-be, notably Ed Harris as John Glenn. But the film emerged during the real Glenn's presidential race and, as a result, received a stuffy, Very Important Picture send-off, including national stories tied to Glenn's campaign. The theatrical release grossed $21.5 million. It took years for The Right Stuff to come into its own as an American classic.

Usually, a movie crests at the box office when it captures a national or international mood or spirit, not when it seizes on events - and these intangibles become apparent only over time. Take Slumdog Millionaire. The materialist frenzy that crisscrossed the globe and fueled the emergence of shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire began in the 1980s and gathered steam throughout the '90s. The idea of the original author, Vika Swarup, to contrast the monied dreams of these shows' poorest fans with their bitter reality, has more currency now than it did when his source novel, Q&A;, appeared in 2005.

One exhilarating aspect of a film like Slumdog Millionaire is the communal good feeling it conjures from an audience. But, far more often, the clearest evocation of a country's quality of life comes from filmmakers who address, not a mass audience, but each individual moviegoer, one to one. Wendy and Lucy, hanging on in art theaters nationwide, captures an alternately noisy and quiet desperation not often found in American portraits of marginal or working-class life. It locates the full pathos, even tragedy, in the kind of incidents that grab headlines only when a celebrity melts down. Wendy and Lucy makes you understand, for example, how humiliated Wendy feels when she shoplifts dog food for her mutt, Lucy - and how defeated she becomes when she is caught.

Frozen River, too, which has won Oscar nominations for its star (Melissa Leo) and its writer (director Courtney Hunt) and is out on DVD, now appears prescient in its evocation of how economic shortfalls can crush the most modest, mundane dreams. It contains shriveling depictions of the petty mortifications that can beset workers and customers in a dollar store or a bingo joint. Yet this story of two struggling mothers, a white woman (Leo) and a Mohawk Indian (Misty Upham), who team up to smuggle illegal immigrants from Canada to New York across the Mohawk reservation, is also American in its true grit and hope. Neither woman gets exactly what she wants, but each gains empathy and insight, and unexpected friendship.

Both Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy are tributes to qualities that have never been in more urgent demand: resourcefulness and resilience. Like Slumdog Millionaire, The Right Stuff and Casablanca, albeit on a smaller scale, they transcend the particulars of geography and time with their vitality and feeling.

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