' ' Cinema Romantico: Local Hero & The Misleading Synopsis

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Local Hero & The Misleading Synopsis

Often I find people who will judge the viewing worth of a film solely on the trailer and/or synopsis. This is unspeakably dangerous. Have you ever seen the trailer for "Sugar," the miraculous 2009 film about a Dominican baseball prospect who comes to the States? The trailer presents it as an utterly typical sports movie, following the expected beats, the cliched EKG format, through its entire two minutes, making it seem as if the film will conclude with our pitching hero on the mound with the ball in hand to win the Big Game.

The movie could not be more different. There are a few expected developments, sure, but those are handled with a realistic grace and not only does it not conclude with the Big Game, it does not conclude (figuratively) on the baseball diamond. The last act is so unexpectedly refreshing when I watched it in the theater I could have sworn I was smelling the sweet grass of a dewy meadow. (A dewy meadow?) The point is, if you judged that film by its preview, you would have missed out.

The synopsis for "Local Hero" (1983) on Netflix is as follows: "In this good-natured fish-out-of-water comedy, disenchanted Texas oil tycoon Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) sets out to buy an entire Scottish town in order to drill offshore. When one curmudgeon stands in his way -- he refuses to sell his precious beach -- Happer calls off his negotiating dogs and visits the town himself to finish the deal. Of course, it's not long before the quirky, small-town vibe works its magic on this cynical outsider."

Reading this, you think one thing: I've seen the movie. Except you haven't. Not even close. My God, is this synopsis off. First things first, Lancaster's Felix Happer isn't even the main character. No, the main character would be MacIntyre (Peter Riegert, who you most likely "remember" as fictional NBC President James Kimbrough on the "Seinfeld" series finale). He's the hotshot salesman at the oil company sent by Happer across the Atlantic to buy an entire Scottish town in order to drill offshore. He's the cynical outsider on whom the quirky, small-town vibe works it magic.

Except to say that is sort of a disservice because 1.) The dude isn't presented as all that cynical, just a little wary because Happer thinks he has Scottish roots when he doesn't and 2.) The film is so low-key, so understated, so intent on refusing to throw a quirky, small-town vibe pie in the face of its audience. The locals may be colorful and they may be personable but they're not wacky and they're not all up in your face. They just sort of let the town's aura quietly and slowly wash over MacIntyre rather than force it on him, and MacIntyre's transition is so easy-going it's almost as if the character hasn't even realized it's happened once it has.

Even better, though, is Happer. Again, reading the synopsis one easily conjures up the image of Burt Lancaster in a ten gallon hat, shouting "yee haw!", and wondering when the Highlands are going to incorporate rodeo. Instead we quickly learn that Happer's #1 passion isn't oil, it's astronomy. He seems less concerned with MacIntyre's reports on the potential sale of the town than on MacIntyre's reports of how the wide open Scottish sky looks. The film's most beautiful moment is a slighly drunken MacIntyre doing his best to report on the aurora borealis via telephone to Happer back in Houston. And Happer just sits there, smiling, at his desk, and the way Lancaster says the line "You're a lucky man, MacIntyre" makes you know he really means it. Procuring the sale is insignificant in the face of the honest-to-goodness northern lights, and when Happer finally, inevitably, shows up on the scene his presence just illuminates that thought.

The way the town and the area and the essence gently reveals itself to MacIntyre throughout made me realize that if I'd judged the DVD solely on its Netflix synopsis, the movie never would have done the same thing to me.

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