Last Sunday, at the Closing Night Gala of the New York Film Festival watching Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER and Wednesday, at the Anaheim International Film Festival’s Opening Night Gala screening of WILD TARGET, I had the thought and then confirmed that thought that we needed a brand new film category:
The Easy Listening Movie
Now, I say it’s a brand new category because I haven’t heard anyone describe a movie like that before and I’m just full of myself enough to believe that I have coined the term. So, if you or someone you know has done this or heard about it then great, but keep it to yourself since this is my column.
Anyway, I first had the thought during Eastwood’s foray into the mysteries of what happens when we die and whether we can communicate with our loved ones that have passed and can we buy Matt Damon and Jay Mohr as cinematic brothers. Seriously, I believe that for both those of us that found Will Ferrell’s impersonation of John Edwards desperately trying to “cross to the other side” using the first letters in his television audience’s dead loved ones names AND for those that are brought to serious tears watching the real deal do his thing, HEREAFTER benefits from Eastwood’s straightforward instincts as a director and storyteller. Damon’s performance is very affecting as someone that has an otherworldly talent and is tormented by it rather than fulfilled. And while I personally appreciated two of the key storylines (Damon’s and one involving a little boy trying to deal singlehandedly with the aftermath of a tragedy) versus a third (following a female French reporter coming to grips with her own near death experience), the film as a whole had me in its grips until the end.
And that was where I was left wanting. Now, I want to be clear that the ending did not “ruin” the film in any degree, but it also felt just a little too comfortable. Everything that led up to the ending had the potential to deliver something of true spiritual resonance in my mind, but it didn’t quite cross the finish line.
So, as I discussed the film afterward with a friend of mine who is a film student at NYU and another friend who is an award-winning screenwriter, I started formulating this idea that HEREAFTER was what I would call an “Easy Listening Film.” Because the ending was fine, it was proper, it made sense – but most importantly it didn’t mean in any way to challenge the viewer. You could arguably say it was a “happy ending.” But the point is not the “happy,” the point is the “comfortable.” Therefore, I could envision the film playing very well across the country. I could see it being a cable-run staple. An easy pick at the Red Box, an eventual satisfy-everyone-in-the-house DVD purchase at your local Best Buy.
Back in the olden days of record stores, there was an Easy Listening section. And that section had artists like Andy Williams, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters – crooners and singers and musicians that had no intention to rock your world or get into your head or inspire you to dance to that beat. They just wanted to sing a nice, pretty song and maybe inspire you to hum along. That’s all. It was music for your parents and grandparents and if you were feeling schmaltzy or romantical or just wanted to relax and have a “soundtrack” to take it easy to – then maybe for you too.
And I believe there are a number of films that could be categorized in much the same way. And I also believe they transcend the typical drama or comedy labels. Case in point, my next easy listening film experience: Jonathan Lynn’s WILD TARGET. The story of a dedicated but loner hit man (Bill Nighy) whose well-ordered career and existence is thrown into a tail spin by his hesitance to kill a beautiful thief (Emma Blunt) and the happenstance of accepting an impromptu apprentice (Rupert Grint) during the course of it all, defines the word “charming.”
The film recalls very happy memories of Lynn’s NUNS ON THE RUN and even borders on the classic Ealing Studios comedies. It’s a tightly constructed little film that simply wants to deliver delightful characters that will charm you and make you laugh, but not outrageously (see the collected works of Adam McKay and Will Ferrell) or subversively (think most things declared comedy that premiered at Sundance) and certainly not darkly (I’m looking at you, Coen Brothers). On the flip side, WILD TARGET is not dumb comedy. It is as British as it gets and just as clever and cheeky as you could hope for. No ham fisted, aim for the lowest common denominator Adam Sandler/Kevin James crowd set pieces or watch Katherine Heigl get stuck with a lout or a lug she’ll eventually fall in love with crap – no, this is from the Witty and Entertaining 101 class.
But it is still Easy Listening.
And, possibly the fact that these films resonate in this way to me has much to do with the fact that I am well past my days of needing to be first in line or maybe even at the preview midnight screening of that weekend’s big, hotly anticipated studio movie that is sure to be the most awesomeness thing ever. I’m reminded of Patton Oswalt’s comedy bit about the difference in the level of excitement one can reach when you’re in your 20s versus 30s and then 40s. My NYU student friend actually stole a banner-sized poster of SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD from a theatre because he just had to have it dominate his living room. He loved the movie that much. That’s not likely to happen with me, and I’m guessing for many people like myself. While I prefer my films to challenge me, enlighten me, excite me, and surprise me, I can definitely appreciate the well-made film that doesn’t intend to shake the ground beneath my feet. That’s Easy Listening.