Monday, June 13, 2011

Worst of the Worst: #52, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

On this list, there have been a number of movies with names attached to them that have belied the actual lack of quality of the movie. One would hope that Guy Ritchie could do better than Swept Away, that Ben Kingsley wouldn't show up in any of these, that Al Pacino would never have sunk to where he is now. Alas, big names attached to a movie do not a great movie make. But that seems nearly impossible when it comes to The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It's based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Thornton Wilder, the 23rd best American novel of the 20th century, according to Time. It stars Gabriel Byrne, Robert DeNiro, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, and Kathy Bates. There's no way that it could be that bad, right?


It's really bad. Really, it's more boring than anything else (exacerbated by the fact that over the weekend, I saw two of the most extraordinarily un-boring movies of the past year, Super 8 and Black Swan). The story involves an incident in Peru where five people fell to their deaths when a bridge collapsed. A monk was watching and he investigates the lives of the deceased to see if it is mere coincidence or if God really has a plan. Since he is questioning God, the Inquisition tries him for heresy. The movie ends up being a procedural with flashbacks where we learn about the lives of the people who will eventually meet their demise -- with five or ten minutes left to go in the movie, which makes them luckier than the rest of us. I imagine the book is better paced than the movie, which is interminable. Whereas the book splits the stories up so you're following one person all the way through, the movie mixes everything together so you can't tell what is going on at any given point (if you even cared to know it, in the first place).

The boredom is bad, but the worst part of the movie is the fact that, given the source material and actors, the inexperienced director (who nobody has ever heard of) squandered her riches by being utterly lost. The timing is abysmal. Her script is written to be read, not spoken. Can you imagine Harvey Keitel delivering really stilted Skakespeare-esque lines? Please try hard not to. Worst of all is that line delivery. I don't like when English-speaking actors are asked to use accents to signify that they are speaking another language. This, of course, is worst when it's people in Rome speaking in British accents for some reason, but it goes for people with Spanish or German accents. Ridiculous. And yet, I may have learned to get over that with this movie. The director had the actors use no accent at all other than their own. So, you get a Peruvian court case where Gabriel Byrne has his Irish accent defending himself against DeNiro with his New York accent. Kathy Bates seems to be the only person who even tries, but that could be because she has no discernible accent.

I think, in watching this, I discovered that a great actor can make an entertaining movie from a mediocre one. Denzel Washington has made a career on this. But not even the best actor can make an entertaining movie from a really bad one. Those actors who make only good movies are apparently really talented at picking the right movie with the right script and right director. To paraphrase Wilder's last line, good cinema is solid ground and an actor's choice is the tenuous bridge that break at any moment, plunging us all to the depths of a bad movie.

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