What’s missing? In a word, the edge. The man’s films lack edge.
Maybe it’s unfair to lob this criticism at Ron Howard. Most big budget, big star movie spectaculars couldn’t be less edgy. He’s not even the only former sitcom star to churn out a host of vanilla blockbusters (see Rob Reiner). But for many years, Ron Howard has been one of the most celebrated filmmakers in Hollywood, creating smooth, slick entertainments for the masses that strive to be taken more seriously than they ever deserve to be.
Smooth, slick entertainments for the masses. What’s wrong with that? Well, nothing, but look at the personality injected into movies fitting that description by other contemporary directors, like Scorsese and Michael Mann. Heck, even Spielberg and Zemekis mark their works with a stamp of artistic authorship, and it’s hard to get more Disneyland than those two. The only recognizable thread that can be tracked through most of Howard’s work is a blandness, a glossy dumbing-down of an intriguing premise.
It’s the premise of the average Howard movie that provides aggravation – it’s usually really interesting and really promising, so it’s incredibly painful to see what deadweight the movies turn out to be. This wasn’t always true: at the very beginning of his career, Howard released a trio of charming, ditzy comic fantasies – “Night Shift,” “Splash,” and “Cocoon” – that suggested a goofier Spielberg had arrived on the scene. Unfortunately, those movies were followed by the overwrought “Gung Ho,” the uneven “Willow,” the bloated sitcom “Parenthood,” and some outright disasters like “Far and Away,” “The Paper,” and EdTV.
I know I am in the minority here, but I find even his commercial and critical successes to be staggering bores. “Apollo 13” felt flat and overlong to me, conveying virtually none of the awe and fascination of the early space program. “Backdraft,” while intermittently exciting, came across primarily as clumsy and unimaginative to me. How the Grinch Stole Christmas struck me as a creepy, candy-colored migraine, but granted it wasn’t made for someone my age. And “Ransom,” oh “Ransom.” My God, what an exciting premise, the desperate father offering his child’s ransom money not to the kidnapper but to the person who hunts that man down. And that trailer! The phone hitting the floor and the title’s letters careening together, Mel Gibson screaming “Givemebackmyson!” – I could hardly wait! To have the film turn out to be a lumbering, warmed-over “Jake and the Fatman” rerun was enough to make me dread ever seeing the words “The New Film from Ron Howard” in a trailer again.
I met Mr. Howard at a party a few years ago, and I found him to be very down-to-earth and very nice, a genuinely warm guy. And that’s exactly how I would describe his films – pleasant enough, but not what constitutes great, stimulating cinema. Oscars or not, I suffered through every poorly structured, melodramatic moment of A Beautiful Mind, although I did enjoy Russell Crowe’s aging makeup (who is that, Jack Warden?). If ever a premise called out for some edge, for some stylistic bite, that was it. Imagine what even some less-experienced directors, like PT Anderson or Tom Tykwer, might have done with that story.
Happily, I can report that Howard’s new film, The Missing, is a huge step in the right direction. A western in which Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones track Blanchett’s kidnapped daughter across the unforgiving frontier, the movie owes a lot thematically to “The Searchers” and stylistically to “Unforgiven,” so it’s in no way a blindingly original work. But it is unquestionably tough. Many critics have derided the film for its relentless, brutal violence and gore, but I think that’s only because it’s coming from America’s Favorite Vanilla Director. If Scorsese had directed this film, no one would have mentioned it.
This brutality is uncharacteristic of Howard, and that’s a good thing. There’s a grit in the harsh physical and emotional violence of The Missing, and while it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s now a filmmaker whose talent should be held up alongside most of his contemporaries, it does show that he’s taking some chances. Perhaps he’s finally at a stage in his career where he can demand the astronomical budgets and marquee names, and still take artistic risks. All I know is that The Missing is the first Ron Howard film I have seen in more than a decade that really engaged me, and for the first time in ages, I look forward to seeing what he does next.