Monday, March 03, 2008

The eighth time isn't the charm

Vantage Point
2 ½ out of 4 stars

Some of my favorite novelists have become famous for messing with traditional narrative structure. Joseph Heller wanders so much in his prose with references to future and past events that Catch-22 becomes more of a portrait of WWII than a linear story. Kurt Vonnegut takes a more explicit route, and completely detaches his Slaughterhouse-Five protagonist from time altogether, choosing instead to bounce him back and forth throughout time so that one minute he’s in his 20’s in a POW camp, and the by the next page he’s in his mid-40’s during an alien abduction.

A lot of movies these days do the same thing. “Pulp Fiction” did it. “21 Grams” did it. “Memento” tells its story in reverse. Experimenting with the narrative structure has breathed a lot of life into some otherwise boring films.

“Vantage Point” tries to do the same thing, but once the credits rolled, I wasn’t sure it needed to. Basically, the film tries to tell the story of a political assassination attempt through the eyes—or vantage points—of several of its involved characters (Dennis “Randy is my cousin” Quaid, William “I did lots of drugs in ‘Big Chill’” Hurt, Sigourney “I used to fight aliens in outer-space” Weaver, and four or five others). The first two thirds of the film is nothing more than the same event presented through eight different perspectives. But the whole story, from the event itself through the conclusion that extends beyond it once we get past the vantage point gimmick, only lasts about forty-five minutes in real time.

It is kind of interesting to see the layers peeled back one by one, and to learn little details that color previous scenes when you have the additional information, but I’m not sure it was all necessary. It felt more like the structure dictated the story rather than the story dictated—or necessitated—the structure. And if there has been one thing I have picked up as a writer, it’s that you shouldn’t be clever for the sake of being clever. Do it because the story demands it.

Of course, as is usually the case, most of the audience won’t care too much about whether the story needed to be told eight different ways. They might get a little bored when the film rewinds for the fifth and sixth times, and they realize they’re about to see the whole scenario yet again. But people will still enjoy it, even when an otherwise plausible film goes AWOL the moment the obligatory “insane and completely ridiculous car chase” begins.

All I’m saying is that this is a film people will enjoy now—I’ll admit I did, but when they find it three years from now in the Wal-Mart $5 bin, it won’t be a favorite. Thus…2 ½ stars.

“Vantage Point” is rated PG-13 for lots of explosions and loud stuff, plus some profanity I can’t remember too well because I picked the spot in the theater between the woman who had to answer her brightly flashing phone, the girl who had to text her friend every five minutes (until I kicked her seat) and the other woman who started to laugh hysterically during the last fifteen minutes of the movie.