Monday, July 08, 2013

Key Largo, Identity Thief, and Jack-of-all-Genres Movies

Key Largo (1948):
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, directed by John Huston, based on a play by Maxwell Anderson

Identity Thief (2013):
Starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Bateman, John Cho, Amanda Peet, T.I., Genesis Rodriguez, Eric Stonestreet, Robert Patrick

I've always had a fondness for this John Huston semi-classic due to the fact that it features my favorite place on Earth. My grandparents retired to a spot in the upper Florida Keys (approximately three miles below the southern tip of Key Largo) and being in the Keys has always been a calming happiness-inducing experience for me so it's fitting that the film is thematically centered around the redemptive powers of Key Largo. If you think about it, there's no overt romance between Bacall and Bogart's characters, and his resolution comes through finding peace with his new place.

The story follows a World War II veteran Frank McCloud (Bogart) as he travels to a hotel in Key Largo to meet the father, Mr. Temple (a wheelchair-bound Barrymore), and widow, Nora (Bacall), of a fallen comrade in the Italian theater. Warm feelings are shared between the three and it's established that Mr. Temple is a beloved community advocate of the Indians.

Since the film can't be entirely about three people reminiscing, drama eventually happens when it's revealed that all of the hotel guests hanging around the lobby are employed by notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and in a sudden flash, the jovial atmosphere turns into a hostage situation. If you're watching the film blind (having no knowledge of  the plot), as is often the case when you're watching TCM, that split second where everything turns topsy-turvy is a very effective moment.

The film is adapted from a play so it's fitting that it takes on a meditative tone. As various characters point guns at and try to outmaneuver each other, there's a lot of philosophical discussion. At the core, the film is about Frank and his lost sense of idealism. Does he believe only in self-preservation or heroism? There's also a parallel sentiment among the gangsters who mourn the glory days of the prohibition. A number of these thematic undercurrents, however, are left dangling. One gets the sense that the remiss gangster who keeps muttering to himself that prohibition will be back again, or the relationship between Temple and the Indians are remnants of the stage version that dealt more fully with these issues.

In the third act, the film goes back to full-on action mode as McCloud becomes a man of action on the high seas. Many of Huston's films have an adventurous tone, and this is no exception. Although, Key Largo isn't as acclaimed as Huston's films African Queen or Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it has a lot of strengths relative to those films. It's more tightly scripted, succeeds better at creating suspense, and the final set piece tops any scene  from either of those two films. The film also won an Oscar for Claire Trevor

Ironically, anyone who's spent any time on Key Largo knows that the island's most famous classic movie landmark comes from another John Huston film: At the Holiday Isle resort, the boat from the African Queen is on display and visitors can even take a tour on it.  While most of the film was shot in Los Angles, the exterior shots of Key Largo were shot at the Caribbean Club and while the property still exists today, much of the old exterior was destroyed in a pair of fires.

In thinking about how Key Largo combines action, staged drama, meditative dialogue, quasi-romance and the gangster genre, I was thinking about a recent article I read that said that Hollywood is pressing movies to include as many genres as possible.

This is why the latest buddy films (i.e. Hangover, Horrible Bosses) and romcoms (i.e. Date Night) often have a few action scenes added in and why the super hero genre is being infused with massive amounts of buddy action (Green Hornet), humor (Iron Man), or light-hearted romance (Spiderman).

The latest example of this is The Identity Thief starring Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy which would be a perfectly substantial film if the characters' lives were never in danger. Rain Man; Planes Trains and Automobiles; Trial and Error, Every Which Way But Loose, and the very recent Due Date all work as road trip buddy films without needing to double as double as action films.

Nonetheless, Identity Thief works and it's hard to argue that the action scenes detract from it. The film is paced well, genuinely sentimental at times, and features surprisingly good chemistry between Bateman and McCarthy. I didn't jump on board the McCarthy bandwagon when she was unexpectedly nominated for an Oscar for Bridesmaids, but she won me over here. As great of a script as Bridesmaids was script, the humor serves McCarthy even better in this one (read: far fewer fat jokes).

It's also interesting in the wake of his slightly darker turn in Arrested Development's Season 4,  Bateman plays a guy who's unapologetically an asshole if he needs to be. It would be even more interesting if I saw Arrested Development and this film in the order they came out, but still.

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