' ' Cinema Romantico: The McAdams Factor

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The McAdams Factor

The sprawling cinematic home of "The Family Stone" has just begun to stir on a chilly Christmas Eve. Sarah Jessica Parker's fish-out-of-water, dressed head-to-toe in black and complete with heels, her hair pulled back in an air-tight ponytail, shades of makeup dotting her face, is in the kitchen with the family's matriarch (Diane Keaton). It's as if Parker's character awoke with the roosters to begin putting herself together for a fashion inspection to be conducted by image-conscious townfolk. Or something. People in movies are always so immaculate in the mornings. Heck, even if they are supposed to be un-immaculate they are still immaculate. Remember Eva Mendes in "Hitch" when she wakes up unsuspectingly on Will Smith's sofa? Her clothes are still impressively pressed and we are pretty sure her makeup has not smudged. She is meant to be un-immaculate solely through her cluttered hair - which is, of course, most flawlessly and elegantly cluttered.

Into the kitchen lightly stomps the Stone's youngest daughter, Amy, decked out in soft pants (i.e. pajama pants), an old cardigan that's a bit too big and a tee-shirt. She is wearing old-school round glasses not having had the able body and mind at such an hour to insert her contacts. She mumbles a plea: "Is there coffee?" This is how people look in the morning.

"The Family Stone" is mostly a fracas of fakery, dependent on a Dermot Mulroney who simply cannot deliver the goods, its most dramatic moment being one in another movie - that is, the one glimpsed in "Meet Me In St. Louis" which a character watches on TV. The only authenticity to be glimpsed regularly throughout the proceedings is in the form of the aforementioned Amy who, it probably goes without saying at this point, is played by Rachel McAdams.

The two title characters of "Wedding Crashers" have cleverly withdrawn to the sprawling cinematic lakefront home of Treasury Secretary Cleary (Christopher Walken). Owen Wilson's John has felt his heart flicker for Cleary's oldest daughter Claire (McAdams) except, of course, she has the jackass Boyfriend she would never ever, not in a million years, have (Bradley Cooper). After a raucous dinner table conversation in which John has slipped a mickey (or something) into the Boyfriend's drink, Claire announces she is going for a walk. John says he'll join her. He goes upstairs to changes his shoes at which point Cleary's buxom wife (Jane Seymour) seduces him - kind of - by having him investigate her boob job. On the stairs John confesses to his pal Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) who is a bit, shall we say, explicit in inquiring about details. Finally John makes it outside to where Claire waits.

Now....we have just been through a dinner with a racist grandmother and Vince Vaughn's, uh, groinal region being mauled by the hand of Isla Fisher and the jackass Boyfriend getting sick and then the scene in the bedroom and then the profanity-laced encounter between Wilson and Vaughn on the stairs and now we're outside and now the movie is asking us to shift, awkwardly, into swooning rom-com mood and feel a twinge of sadness when Claire is called back inside to tend to her ill jackass of a Boyfriend and, well, there is simply no way in God's darkened cinema that this should work but....it does. John calls after her "Claire?" and McAdams stops and turns and asks "Mmmm hmmm?" and it is a moment and a line reading dripping in genuineness that is like Luke and Han's homing beacon in the emergency shelter in Hoth crying out for salvation. McAdams is merely the mandatory love interest. As scripted she is not a character, she is a chess piece meant to be radiant, and McAdams is radiant but she is also the real thing amidst so much madness.

To watch her face in the climactic sequence at her sister's wedding in the church when Wilson makes his inevitable desperate plea is not to see an actress who already knows how it all turns out because the script told her so but to see an actual human being trying to decide what she should do and to see this done in an Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn comedy with David Dobkin as director is awe-inspiring.

Stephanie Zacharek once wrote that "every great actor embodies an essential paradox" and if this is true than the paradox of the thus-far brief career of Rachel McAdams is a preponderance of medium-to-well done Hollywood fare. Oh, she'll branch out now and again for a vegan meal ("Married Life" and the upcoming Terrence Malick film) but the films in which she is typically featured are very much confined to that Safe Zone. Not that am I condemning her choices nor suggesting what she should do in the future and how she should do it. I am simply here to discuss her plaudits to this point and how, as my colleague Castor of Anomalous Material has repeatedly noted, she can "communicate untold depth and background about her character without the audience ever being explicitly informed" and how the majority of her performances are the wrought iron of potentially leaky ships.

In Wes Craven's "Red Eye" McAdams is Lisa Reisert, a workaholic hotel manager who finds herself victim of an in-flight kidnapping at the hands of (ahem) Jack Rippner (Cillian Murphy) who threatens the life of her father in order to gain her assistance in a plot to assassinate a government official on the premises of her hotel all of which leads to sky-high mind games, foot chases through airports, pens jammed into jugulars, and so forth. Plausibility, to put it mildly, is not the film's hallmark, yet McAdams' turn, resourceful but vulnerable, singularly keeps the film tethered to the real world. The esteemed Roger Ebert wrote: "When she's stalking a terrorist with a hockey stick, she seems like a real woman stalking a real terrorist with a real hockey stick. It's not as easy as it sounds." No, it's not, and anyone who thinks it is has been watching too many Cate Blanchett costume dramas.

Her only listless screen appearance came in last winter's blockbuster "Sherlock Holmes" in which she played - to quote A.O. Scott of The New York Times - "commercial contrivance" Irene Adler, the movie's necessary female, though a superfluous character, and her failure to turn the scraps she is given into anything memorable might be attributed to the film's (Guy) Ritchie World, a frenetic, CGI-inflicted victorian London with Robert Downey Jr. over-acting (in a good way). So often in commercial films she is the rhythm section and when the film is all solos, well, the bassist and drummer just kind of melt away, out of sight, out of mind.

But what Irene Adler does suggest is McAdams' decision to expand beyond playing girls and younger women and into the scary world of full-fledged adults. She had started steering herself in that direction before, of course, in "Married Life", a purported pschyological thriller in which she mainly just posed and primped, and especially in an earlier offering from 2009, "State of Play", which placed her in the company of a trio of Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee, though she takes them all to the cleaners.

Another Tinseltown-y production, Kevin Macdonald's journalism thriller tracks, amongst many other developments, Russell Crowe's print reporter Cal McAffrey and McAdams' online blogger Della Frye as they investigate the death of a staff researcher to McAffrey's close friend, Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). As Della a portion of her predictable plight centers around being dismissed as a nansy-pansy "blogger" (wait a second....), not of the essential skills to sit at the adult table. But, of course, throughout the proceedings Della will evolve into someone who is both willing and able, though, importantly, McAdams plays this so that the character's fundamental nature remains the same even while she undergoes a change. She's different but not different, developing a realistic arc in the midst of the gun-wielding third act mechanics. An exchange between she and Crowe over a little drink near the conclusion is critical.

He says to her "I look at you and I don't see a girl. I just see a reporter." and she replies "At last." You read these words here, of course, and roll your eyes and possibly sigh and maybe even groan. These sorts of exchanges are commonplace in cinema. One of those people pays other people to guide him to the top of Mount Everest and the sherpa dismisses him as a "rich tourist" and then at the end after their oxygen has run out and they've survived the snowstorm the sherpa says "You're a mountain climber" and the guy says "At last." Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these lines are played completely straight either to make them serious or to make them a spoof. But Crowe and McAdams go the other way. He says his lines with a little smirk and then she gets this grin that is not cynical as much as it is acknowledgement of the absurdity of his line but also a genuine pleasure that he has changed his stance and replies "At last." The way in which she recites these two words is utterly, indescribably perfect. It takes the scene in the only direction it could have possibly gone without feeling stale. She takes mush and makes steak au poivre. To dismiss her work simply because of the movie's material is like dismissing Lady Gaga as not being able to sing (because actually she kinda can, but thanks for playing) simply because she's wearing a lobster on her head.

McAdams is generally viewed in favorable terms but she too often gets saddled with the Julia Roberts comparison. Julia's got starpower, no doubt, but this is unfair to Rachel's considerable chops. They're there, people, hiding in plain view and in the near future there will come a day when everyone realizes that her character of the idealistic young actress in the Canadian TV series "Slings and Arrows" was not named (ahem) Kate for no reason at all. Consider Laura Linney, who was on display in the mainstream for years until she showed she was the real deal in "You Can Count On Me" at the age of 36. McAdams is 32. Be patient. Trust me.

And when it happens I will smile from afar and say aloud, "At last."


Castor said...

Good post Nicholas, this is exactly what I'm referring to in my review of Morning Glory, predicting that most critics will be lauding her work in the fluffy comedy but that everyone will have forgotten about it in a month's time.

By the way, see the movie. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Nick Prigge said...

Oh, I'll see it. If not today then definitely this weekend. I haven't read your review yet only because I've classified "Morning Glory" as a No Reviews Until I've Seen It movie. I want to go in fresh.

punctuator said...

Have you seen "The Lucky Ones," where Rachel plays one of three American soldiers roadtripping while on leave from the Iraqi war? Honest to God, she deserved a Best Supporting Actress nod for that one.

Nick Prigge said...

Yes. Agreed. Totally. She was brilliant in that film. I actually had written paragraphs on "The Lucky Ones" and "Mean Girls" but by that point this post was, like, 3 million words long and so I took them out. "The Lucky Ones" is just another case of brilliant acting/mediocre movie.