MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Leap Year, The Sun

Leap Year (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.-U.K.: Anand Tucker

Leap Year — in which Amy Adams learns that a bad-tempered Irishman who runs a tavern/hotel is in many ways preferable to a smooth-talking Boston cardiologist with a Blackberry — is a sweet-natured picaresque romantic comedy blessed with spectacular Irish scenery and cursed with the usual niggling, cliché-ridden script problems.The scenery is often entrancing and so is Adams. Here, she plays a Boston apartment designer, Anna, who’s trying to get to Dublin by Feb. 20, Leap Year, so she can propose to smugly good-natured cardiologist Jeremy (Adam Scott), a self-absorbed operator who’s kept her on the hook for four years without popping a question. But, thanks to inclement weather and train problems, Anna has to undergo instead a nervous but highly picturesque tour of Wales and Ireland, walking, hitching or hiring a ferryboat, or employing cute but surly cab driver-pub owner Declan (Matthew Goode) to get from Cardiff to Dingle to Dublin by Feb. 29. Along the way, the ill-tempered, seemingly ill-matched couple of over-anal Anna and city-hating Declan — surprise! — takes the old It Happened One Night road, and pass from sniping and slamming at each other, to sharing a bedroom and falling in love.

The script’s flaws, which include the usual ratio of stale chestnuts and lapses in logic, mostly involve remarkable and even maddening dysfunctions and bad judgment in the couple’s travel strategies. But they’re not fatal, at least if you’re in an Amy Adams sort of mood. With her big warming smile and genuinely sparkly and crush-inducing gazes, she’s an actress who tends to pulverize grouchy disbelief — and Goode makes her a good, gangling, brogue-sporting romantic teammate. Many of the movie’s flaws are solved, at least a little, by Adams’s meltingly lovely eyes and her game gift for self-kidding slapstick and by the outward cynicism and inner boyish charm, of Goode.

Whatever is most appealing about Leap Year comes from this pair and the countryside around them, a landscape presented in eye-catching tableaux that suggest The Quiet Man re-shot by David Lean and Freddie Young. That all means that Leap Year is cast and directed well, but not so smartly-written, par for the over-dressed course in many modern romantic comedies, especially the ones about marriage.

So, when the trip has barely started, Anna tosses Declan’s sandwich and favorite tape out the car-window, leans on the car when it’s stopped by a seemingly immovable herd of cows and sends it careening down a hill and into a bog — whereupon the couple abandon the vehicle, wander through scenic castles, miss their train, forget to ask their bed and breakfast hosts about getting to Dublin, and otherwise keep thoroughly sabotaging their own trip.

Now, mind you, fiascos like all these are, in some measure, the actual driving engine of this kind of travelogue-ish romantic comedy. And one could even argue that Anna and Declan’s subconscious minds, already smitten with each other, are messing things up precisely to keep Anna from Jeremy. Well and Goode. But as smart as this twosome is supposed to be, you begin after a while to marvel at their constant ineptitude at the simplest things: at driving up a hill, for example, or leaning on a car or catching a train or dancing at a wedding without beaning the bride. The trick of comedy is to make the illogical seem inevitable. Leap Year often doesn’t. (By the way, isn’t the leap year proposal “tradition” operative here too?)

Director Anand Tucker usually has better scripts. (He directed Hilary and Jackie and Shopgirl and produced Girl with a Pearl Earring.) Here, he’s helming a kitschy script by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, whose Made of Honor had a similar plot: Patrick Dempsey lousing up a wedding in Scotland. Tucker shines it up some, though not all, of the time. The over-yuppied dialogue picks up early on, when John Lithgow (who knows how to transform lines) shows up for his one too-brief scene as Anna’s raffish father and gooses things up. (Lithgow could use one more scene, in which he expresses a qualm or two about what’s to come.) Adams mostly triumphs over her lines too, even when she runs into a priest on a plane (Ian McElhinny), who seems to have mastered all of Alec Guinness’s old distracted-whimsical expressions. She’s a cutie on a toot, and so, in his way, is Goode.

The movie suggests, not for the first time in an American romantic comedy, that rich guys with lots of ambition, slick haircuts and gifts of gab may ultimately be poor husband material, and that tall, scruffy, wisecrackers with natural charm and dreamy eyes are better bets. It also suggests that heart’s desire may be waiting back in Brigadoon, Brigadoon, or in the land of I Know Where I’m Going — or at least in Declan’s rural Irish barroom country, where the land is as green as an emerald and all the fuses can get blown if you try to charge up a Blackberry.

Meanwhile, let’s all raise a glass to Amy Adams, one lassie we’d really like to miss a train with.


The Sun (Four Stars)
Russia; Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005

Russia’s Aleksandr Sokurov is a great contemporary filmmaker with an interesting slant on tyranny — a cinematic obsession which may come from Sokurov’s experiences in the waning years of Communism. Sokurov sees dictatorship in its weird, mundane side (as in Moloch, about Hitler) and, in The Sun, about Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, he sees its sentimental, absurdly stylized aspect.

The movie is about how Emperor Hirohito (played by Issei Ogata) loses his Godhood as Japan falls, about his emergence from his mythic status as a royal deity; from his cloistered household and retinue of courtiers, servants and government ministers; and about his strange, ultimately momentous conversations with Japan’s sharp and somewhat theatrical conqueror Gen. Douglas MacArthur (played by Robert Dawson).

Hirohito lived far from the bloody tragedy of the war his ministers oversaw, and far from the sufferings of the common people, his subjects and for him to become human and socially harmless, and do what MacArthur wants, he has to renounce his supposedly Godlike estate. That he eventually does: a fussy, gentle-looking, detached little man who — as was often remarked at the time — looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin. (So did Hitler, as we are still reminded by The Great Dictator.)

In Sokurov’s 2002 masterpiece Russian Ark, he and his great cinematographer/Steadicam operator Tilman Buttner executed the greatest tracking shot in the history of movies: their film-long one-shot phantasmagorical tour through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, and through Russia’s history and culture. Here, in The Sun, which Sokurov shot himself, everything cinematic is simple, almost antique. The movie suggests a dimly colored curio rescued from the past, done discreetly, quietly, with an almost mystical calm, like a Japanese domestic drama of the ’30s by Ozu, Naruse or Shimizu. While we watch a tyrant and a God falls — but it’s only a sad shy little mustached man, not even Charlie. (Chicago, Gene Siskel Center.)

– Michael Wilmington
January 7, 2010

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