' ' Cinema Romantico: Oz: The Great and Powerful

Monday, March 25, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

It is important to note that the actual movie title “Oz: The Great and Powerful” is a misnomer. Oz, as in The Wizard of Oz, really is not all that great nor very powerful. On the contrary, he is a hustler, a poser. Yes, the Wizard of the original, much beloved Technicolor 1939 opus was played by the personable Frank Morgan but let’s not forget that he is the man behind the curtain, merely pretending to be “the great and powerful”, nothing more than plumes of smoke and fireballs, outing himself as – his words – “a humbug.” That’s an easy detail to overlook – the fact the Wizard has been duping The Emerald City for years. James Franco knows this and, in a performance that is less a callback to Morgan than entirely his own, plays straight to it. That is the movie’s strength......actually, that's not right. It could have been the movie's strength and instead it's more of a problem.

With a respectful nod to 1939, the film opens in handsome black and white on the Kansas plain where Oz, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), runs a magic show with a traveling circus. Right away he is revealed as a fraud, able to make a woman “levitate” but unable to cure a young girl of an inability to walk. He spouts some nonsense to his would-be-lover (Michelle Williams) about becoming a great man but – and this goes back to the way Franco plays the role – we sense his idea of “greatness” differs from a sense of moral goodness. Eventually a tornado descends and with it the not-so-good Oz is whisked away to magical land somewhere over the rainbow that appears to have literally been named for him.

At least this is how Theodora (Mila Kunis, painfully robotic) makes it sound when she happens upon him and tells of a prophecy which says a great and powerful Wizard will fall from the sky to save the Land of Oz. Diggs, outfitted with a Franco grin that is all sinewy insurance salesman, recognizes an opportunity to play a con and achieve the fame and fortune to which he feels so entitled.

Plot develops. The Emerald City – consciously portrayed more as empirical Rome than the let’s sing & dance version we all know so well – is under the rule of Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora – comrades on broomsticks – who are pit in a witchy war against the good Glinda (Williams again) with whom Oz will eventually unite. This is where the story breakdown begins to occur.

The real protagonist and antagonist of “Oz: The Great and Powerful” is not so much Oz as it is Glinda vs. Evanora (and Theodora). This trio, however, is written with no depth or illumination. Weisz, by far, manages the most mileage simply because she manages to convey some sense of inner turmoil beneath the glossy exterior, but Williams is just Mother Theresa and Kunis, trying desperately to quote Margaret Hamilton, emerges as shrill rather than wicked and her reasons for transformation are too hasty, and thus, unconvincing. Meanwhile Oz deliberately skirts the middle ground, unwillingly caught up in a revolution, William Wallace if William Wallace was an emotionally crippled huckster. Glinda may believe in him totally but others are suspicious, and even if his arc is pre-determined, well, I swear that Franco is fighting back against it with subtle cynicism every single step of the way.

That is the overriding issue. Everyone will want to compare this film to the 1939 version, there is no way around it, and so director Sam Raimi finds himself at an impasse. He works in special effects that do little more then hang around to try and be impressive (while also paling to the old-school matte paintings) and saddling Oz with his own version of a Dorothy Gale-esque quartet that is significantly under-imagined and stricken with terribly pat payoffs because, well, he has to, I suppose, even as a more twisted film lurks all the while, threatening to emerge but never quite doing so.

The high point is the third act Emerald City showdown which harkens back to 1939 while also working entirely on its own. This, of course, is meant to be Oscar Diggs truly becoming Oz, learning the difference between right and wrong, and I have no doubt this is what the screenplay intends.

But then here comes that Franco smirk again. Study it closely because I swear it’s conning us. His closing lines read as sincere but the spin Franco puts on them and the way he looks saying them betrays our trust. He might just go on to be someone who for, oh, say, twenty-five years manages to dupe The Emerald City into thinking he’s great and powerful.


Rory Larry said...

Respectfully, I disagree. I think you are reading to much into Mr Franco's acting choices which I suspect are not choices at all but just James Franco as James Franco as the Wizard.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, that's a fair point. You could very well be right. I don't know, though, because I feel like I've seen him in other things where he wasn't smirking so much. But maybe the smirk is just his natural state of being.

Maybe I just really liked James as James Franco as the Wizard.

Or maybe I was just trying desperately to latch onto something to keep me involved.