Foundas on Film: Thor, Something Borrowed
Was it the intention of Thor to turn back the clock on large-scale superhero movies by a couple of decades, before visionary directors like Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, and Sam Raimi had enlarged our sense of what such movies could deliver, and proved that the mark of an auteur director’s eccentric personality could be a box-office asset rather than a liability? Did Paramount and Marvel Entertainment actually set out to rekindle long-suppressed memories of Masters of the Universe and Supergirl with this unrelentingly cheesy, Day-Glo version of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s take on the mythical Norse thunder god? If so, then they have surpassed themselves.
Where the best of the recent superhero movies, like Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Bryan Singer’s underrated Superman Returns, pushed beyond conventional good-versus-evil dynamics to give us emotionally and psychologically complicated heroes and villains who sometimes appeared more alike than different, Thor seems almost comically retrograde. The characters are cardboard-cutout warrior gods, Machiavellian usurpers, and wide-eyed distressed damsels. The story is that old chestnut about two princely brothers—one valorous and noble, the other cowardly and calculating—vying for the affections of their royal father. (For those keeping count, this was also the plot of the recent medieval stoner comedy Your Highness.)
But Thor comes at us with the puffed-up seriousness of Jacobean theater, which is perhaps not surprising given that the director is Kenneth Branagh, a Shakespeare prodigy who earned comparisons to the young Olivier—and two Oscar nominations—for directing and starring in a very clever low-budget Henry V at the tender age of 29. In the two decades since, Branagh has strived with great difficulty to duplicate that success, delivering several more Shakespeares (including a top-heavy, full-text Hamlet) and two phenomenally ill-conceived remakes, of Frankenstein and Sleuth, that were travesties of their source material. Nowhere along the way could Branagh be accused of bearing a light touch—even his Much Ado About Nothing seemed desperate to be about something—which perhaps made him seem ideal for a movie whose title character takes on his challengers with a blunt, all-powerful hammer.
So Branagh’s Thor alternates between two modes: strained self-seriousness and strained comic levity. The movie begins in the former, in a celestial kingdom called Asgard, which looks rather like an Oz stripped of all its emerald and yellow brick, gaudy chrome substituted in their place. (The visual palate of the movie can best be described as neo-Yes album cover, complete with enchanted ice bridges and purple skies, and Branagh films it all reverentially, in screen-filling wide shots, reaching for mythic resonance.) Here, a brave Norse warrior people—save for a few conspicuous concessions to “colorblind” casting—live in relative peace, having reached a truce with the fearsome “frost giants,” icy blue creatures from a neighboring planet whose very touch can literally freeze a moment in time. When some of those beasties turn up unannounced during an Asgardian day of celebration, the impulsive Thor (Australian actor Chris Hemsworth) takes off in hot pursuit, and in full defiance of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), wreaking so much frost-giant havoc in his wake that he is promptly stripped of his powers and banished to the outer reaches of the galaxy.
Cut to somewhere in the New Mexico desert, where Thor falls through a space-time wormhole and into the lives of research scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her mentor Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). This, ostensibly, is where the movie should shift gears—and not a moment too soon—from Shakespeare to slapstick, as the disoriented, newly mortal Thor tries to get his bearings in this strange land. And Hemsworth, who certainly looks the part and plays a few scenes with real deadpan grace, seems up to the task. But when Branagh tries to do fish-out-of-water comedy, it’s a bit like watching some hopelessly buttoned-up chaperone cutting loose with the kids at the school dance, and the harder he tries the worse it gets. In fairness, the writers (of which there are five) don’t give Branagh or the actors a lot to work with, forging ahead dutifully with the plot when a few character-building moments would do nicely (à la the gold standard for cosmic-travelers-waylaid-on-earth movies, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).They’ve also imposed a truly dire parallel story structure that keeps returning us periodically to Asgard—scenes that might be prefaced “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” On neither planet does Branagh get any kind of consistent rhythm going, and in the earth scenes, which have a chintzy, studio-backlot look and feel, he seems particularly at a loss, placing the camera at pointlessly canted angles and cutting haphazardly in an effort to generate some kind of visual energy. This is like a movie directed by a drowning man.
There is more, including some meddlesome government men in black (one of them Iron Man’s Agent Coulson, played by Clark Gregg) and a few all-too-obvious setups for the forthcoming Marvel all-stars romp, The Avengers. But Thor is such a joyless affair that writing even this much about it is nearly as exhausting as sitting through the movie. Thor’s mighty hammer, we’re told early on, was “forged in the heart of a dying star.” Thor the movie seems to have been forged in the leftovers.
Counterprogramming of the most insidious variety, the noxious romantic dramedy Something Borrowed opens with a surprise 30th birthday party for New York lawyer Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin), given by her lifelong best friend, Darcy (Kate Hudson), who uses the occasion to publicly thank Rachel for introducing her to her picture-perfect fiancé, Dex (Colin Egglesfield). The catch is that, back when they were law students together, Dex and Rachel had major crushes on each other, the latter keeping her affections secret—even fixing Dex up with Darcy instead—out of some weird mix of self-loathing and body dysmorphia. (You know you’re seeing Hollywood at its worst when a movie keeps proffering the cherubic, bedroom-eyed Goodwin as a hopeless ugly duckling.) By the time the birthday party’s over, Dex and Rachel have fallen into each other’s arms, and into her bed, with the expected complications to follow.
Watching Something Borrowed, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt more actively hostility toward characters who are clearly meant to engender the audience’s affections. Partly, that’s because the movie itself doesn’t seem to like the characters very much, who come across less like lovelorn romantics and more like a bunch of naval-gazing narcissists and neurotics. If you met any of these people in real life, you’d head for the hills; here, we’re trapped with them for the duration, and it feels like a season in hell.
Directed by Luke Greenfield (who made the modestly charming Risky Business knock-off The Girl Next Door) and adapted by TV writer Jennie Snyder Urman from a purportedly best-selling novel, Something Borrowed has a coarse, garish look and a somewhat vulgar tone. Like a lot of Hollywood “chick flicks,” it also has a rather low opinion of its target audience—so low, in fact, that it makes the work of Nancy Meyers seem positively enlightened by comparison. Where Meyers is at least willing to give her female characters until 40 before sending them up river, Something Borrowed says that a woman is cursed if she’s still single at 30, and it views women only in the most reductive of types: hot-to-trot, bubble-headed sexpots like Hudson (who seems as keen as her sometimes co-star, Matthew McConaughey, on squandering her once promising talent); frigid spinsters-to-be like Goodwin; and cloying helpmeets, like one played here by Ashley Williams, who strike such fear in the heart of men that they pretend to be gay just to avoid sleeping with her.
After two full hours of watching Goodwin play the self-pitying wallflower, pining for toothpaste-model Dex while ignoring the obvious affections of nice-guy Ethan (John Krasinski), with occasional detours to a palatial beach house in the Hamptons, I found myself hoping against hope that the white-gloved home invaders from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games might show up and put all these beautiful, obscenely privileged people out of their misery. As entertainment, Something Borrowed is a disaster, but it may yet find its destiny as a highly effective tool for interrogating prisoners.
Thor and Something Borrowed now playing nationwide.