NYFF Centerpiece: Haynes’ WONDERSTRUCK Is Not Awe-Inspiring
The art of movie-making is the art of storytelling, and the art of great movie-making is to tell a story without seeming to do so, to immerse the audience in the experience of the picture despite the heightened (and also, limited) sensorial sensibility. The central flaw in the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival, Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, is that it feels more like going to the circus than going to the theater, more like watching a burlesque show on Vaudeville than like any of his other, more self-contained work.
Todd Haynes, who has directed lyrical odes to times gone by and provided fresh takes on different perspectives in work like Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, and Carol, is masterfully skilled at combining drama, emotion, and sentiment into several layers of the craft of film-making, usually adorning his products with ebullient scores, entrancing lighting, and layered costumes. Wonderstruck is no exception, boasting the swelling score of Carter Burwell (who has scored Haynes’ library as well as, for example, the Twilight saga), the colorful camera of Ed Lachman (another Haynes alum with extensive credits), and the exquisite garments of Sandy Powell (three-time Oscar winner, whose credits include Shakespeare in Love and The Wolf of Wall Street). This is Hollywood royalty, folks, and I have not even mentioned the story or the cast. But it bears starting with the craft of Wonderstruck because despite the considerable talent behind it, the movie serves as an example of how putting lipstick on a less than pristine project cannot save it.
The film is based on the book by Brian Selznick, who also created the story upon which the Scorsese movie Hugo was based. Like Hugo, Wonderstruck is teeming with nostalgia and the love of the art of cinema. The story focuses on two young children, Rose in 1927 and Ben in 1977, as they run away from home and head to New York City looking for something lost. Rose, who is deaf-mute, runs away from home in New Jersey, looking to meet a stage actress she idolizes (played by Julianne Moore). Ben, meanwhile, is living with his uncles after the tragic death of his mother (Michelle Williams) but, after being (wonder)struck by lightning and also losing his hearing, he runs to the Big Apple in search of his father. The adventure leads him, eventually, to the doorsteps of an old woman, a different character than the stage actress but also played by Moore.
“What is the connection between the two?”, the film teases you to wonder. Who is Ben’s mysterious father? What is that “book of wonders” that Ben carries around, and what connection do both children have to the Natural History Museum in Manhattan? These purported secrets play out, mostly in silence, given the conditions of the children, surrounded by the crescendo of Burwell’s score and by the in-and-out splice job of Haynes and his editing team.
But where some of Haynes’ other movies, focused on older characters that permit of moody personas to accompany the somber lighting, or of hypocritical, repressed impulses to contrast with the pristine décor of their surroundings, Wonderstruck, centered on theoretically more innocent and straightforward children, does not allow for that conversation between actors and stage, that fluid dynamic between the human and the still elements of what you are seeing.
Instead, the children, who Haynes tries endlessly to make seem sullen or temperamental, become caricatures that augment the bloated surroundings not in a good way, not to mention the fact that the answers to the posed mysteries are telegraphed almost from inception.
It is thus that the experience turns from subtle story-telling to ball-bouncing three ring extravaganza. Stripped of the secret that lies at its core, Wonderstruck becomes a fairy tale, yes a beautifully rendered one, with very little purpose. Unlike, say, Carol, where the question of what made those women tick lay frustratingly and rewardingly at the heart of the exercise, Wonderstruck makes you wonder little about its subject other than what the next step may be. Their motivations are straightforward, their destinies are intertwined and therefore decided a fortiori, and their trajectories are not particularly side-winding.
It is perhaps the first time I have seen a Todd Haynes movie I did not like. While I cannot take from it any of the technical achievements of its talented concocters, or the obviously on point performance by Moore in the different eras, it must be said that by the time the credits rolled, wonderstruck, decidedly I was not.
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