Last week, it was Brokeback Mountain setting gay cinema back decades. This week, it's Japanese culture's turn to be shrunken for the masses in Memoirs of a Geisha -- all the way back to Hollywood circa 1944, when white actors could don yellow-face and prattle in broken Engrish. As anybody with the slightest nose for scandal already knows, the Japanese roles have been filled by Chinese and Malaysian actresses; maybe an even more salient sample of cultural insensitivity, for it implies that Asian is Asian to viewers' eyes, so who cares as long as the public gets the gals from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Or maybe no Japanese actress was willing to trade in her dignity for a check in a view of a foreign culture right out of the Flower Drum Song school of exoticism. Unfortunately, studio heads sport no such scruples when it comes to making the mighty box-office buck; how else to explain the selection of Rob Marshall, he of the soulless Chicago chutzpah, for the director's chair? An outsider wrangler to compound the outsider's Orientalism of Arthur Golden's source novel? In any case, the results are titanic fraudulence from the start, with 9-year-old Sayuri, the title's geisha-to-be, separated from her family and sent off to a Kyoto geisha house, for years of slavish toil and cruelty at the hands of reigning "Mother" (Kaori Momoi) and, most notably, housemate Gong Li, who doesn't fancy competition when it comes to men's attentions.
She's got good reason to worry, since Sayuri grows up into It-Girl Zhang Ziyi. "I shall destroy you," Gong hisses at her, channeling María Casares in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, though Memoirs of a Geisha, in a world of similar ritualistic rigor, has zero poetic delirium. The turn of a fan, the powdering of a neck, the gait hidden under a silk kimono -- what to Naruse or Mizoguchi are pieces of a system erected upon the aesthetic subjugation of femininity, is to Marshall grain to his boorish pageantry mill, as utterly fascinated with the colorful brocades as he is disinterested in the characters wearing them. The rivalry between Zhang and Gong, milked mercilessly for catfight anticipation, is symptomatic of a patriarchal order where exploited women become enemies rather than allies, but that might be an insight better left to Life of Oharu, with Marshall much too busy choreographing raining blossoms or injecting a dollop of Chicago into the heroine's big kabuki dance in blue light and fake snow, which promptly triggers the bidding for her maidenhood. Vulgar tourist that he is, the director makes sure the scheduled stops include at least one sumo match and tea ceremony before WWII is precipitated to bring Zhang and moneyed, beloved, unattainable Chairman (Ken Watanabe) together after an eternity of longing and chintzy "sumptuousness." Of the cast, Michelle Yeoh and Gong come off best, subtly distancing themselves from the lingering smell of studio "Asianness," always ready to stage a young woman's journey into servitude as the realization of a dream. Cinderella, really, or Mulan; the same to Hollywood's eyes, after all.
Despite extensive theatrical experience, Marshall has no idea what to do with the camera; accordingly, the only thing transferred from page to film is the novel's Western condescension. Breakfast on Pluto is another adaptation, though Neil Jordan more than knows his way around the lenses -- the opening takes a soaring robin's POV, and the camera scarcely stills from then on, visually or aurally. CGI birds trade witticisms in subtitled twitters, but the main creature remains one "Kitten," nee Patrick Braden (Cillian Murphy), abandoned as a baby on the doorstep of priest Liam Neeson in a provincial Irish town. Patrick is taken to a foster home, then becomes taken with dresses, effectively pissing on local the codes of masculinity; a school composition becomes a flamingly magical-realist imagining of his conception, Mum (a Mitzi Gaynor ringer) and Neeson busy on the kitchen floor while the author gets sent to the principal's office for his trouble. Mum is indeed Patrick's phantom lady, long swallowed up by London, so off he goes, decked in curls, bellbottoms, fluffy shirts and husky-breathy voice, searching for her throughout the pop tumult of the late '60s and early '70s. A tranny Giulieta Masina, optimist to his-her last breath, complete with Nights of Cabiria hypnotized humiliation during a stage show managed by Stephen Rea, just one of many Jordan stalwarts peopling the rollicking narrative -- others include bellicose Brendan Gleeson in a dinosaur suit and Ian Hart as the bad half of a bad good-good cop duo.
Extending to pulsing movement, music and editing, Jordan's stylistic exuberance in Breakfast on Pluto is the antithesis of Lee's tastefulness in Brokeback Mountain, just as Patrick/Kitten's spilling-over emotionalism could be everything the taciturn cowpokes in that pathetically closeted movie were meant to keep under wraps. (Almost as a response to their repression, Jordan stages a duet between Murphy and Gavin Friday, the raucous pub-rocker who becomes his first love, with both dressed in native-American garb.) Like Hector Babenco, Jordan (The Crying Game) is a straight director fascinated with the various zones of transsexuality, though the fascination extends beyond camp affectation and into the areas where sexual ambiguity and political matters fuse in searches for identity. "Serious, serious, serious," the hero/heroine mock pouts as a manifestation of the Irish Troubles threatens to dampen the frivolous mood, yet the movie fully understands that the character's vampy frilliness is a political act, even if a bomb planted in a disco and an outlandish fantasy sequence (Kitten saves the world as a vinyl-clad Mata Hari with a bottle of Chanel No. 5) are needed to plunk it into context. Lighter in anguish than Fassbinder's In the Year of 13 Moons or Almodóvar's Bad Education, the film is no less steeped in a faith for ecstatic, redemptive pop, expressed in a nonstop barrage of songs from Dusty Springfield to Harry Nilsson to Van Morrison to T-Rex, channeling the euphoria of a time when gender-blurring was one of several joyous shifts, and of the celebratory subversion of Jordan's compassion.
More regression with The Producers, not just in the throwback to '60s "sick humor," elephantine musical numbers and "fag" jokes, but also in technique -- Susan Stroman's is Hollywood circa 1929, the camera toiling in flat spaces and medium distances to embalm a pricey Broadway property, namely Mel Brooks' much-toasted musical version of his 1968 cult flick. Critics bitch about the heightened pizzazz and the demonstrativeness of the staging, the better to dust off theatre-vs.-cinema arguments which were gray-bearded when the first movie hit screens; then again, what more appropriate way to shoot vulgarity than vulgarly? Stroman fails to "rise below bad taste," as it were, though the bracingly tacky twinkle of Brooks' showbiz opus seeps through, despite the most obvious of glitches: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick have played Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom too often for their polished hamming to hold surprises, a far more much damaging limitation than any comparison with the original incarnations of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Still: the scabrous, cabaret pungency of "Springtime for Hitler" (if only Schindler's List were half as aware of its own degradation of history), Uma Thurman singing "Flaunt It," Will Ferrell's vigorous cartooning, the drag burlesque of Gary Beach and Roger Bart, and Andrea Martin and Debra Monk as two horny little old ladies, just to rattle off some of the joys of a cannily canned old joke, no matter in which medium.
Reviewed December 29, 2005.