Even the comedies are black this awards season


A bleak, even nihilistic, worldview pervades many of the movies contending for the 80th Academy Awards, a direct reflection of the social and political turmoil roiling the United States.

"A lot of filmmakers are gravitating toward a dark world these days because we are in a state of gravity in our lives," says Craig Zadan, who, along with Neil Meron, produced one of the few upbeat awards season contenders in New Line's musical "Hairspray." "The war and everything connected to it has put everybody in a very sober mood, and in talking to filmmakers, I see that everybody is leaning toward being very serious."

No kidding. The Coen brothers' Miramax release "No Country For Old Men" makes a Peckinpah-esque connection between America and violence; Sean Penn's Paramount Vantage drama "Into the Wild" reaches a pessimistic conclusion about one man's journey of self-exploration; Tony Gilroy's Warner Bros. thriller "Michael Clayton" centers on a tarnished hero who is surrounded by a culture of lies and deceit; Paul Haggis' Warner Independent Pictures drama "In the Valley of Elah" offers a meditation on war and its consequences.

It might as well be the 1970s all over again. "I was very struck at (the Toronto International Film Festival) that there has been a kind of return to a 1970s style of filmmaking -- very dark and ruminative," notes Newsweek critic David Ansen, who singles out Warner Bros.' "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" as a case in point. The film is devoid of heroes entirely.

Nor is the landscape likely to become any less bleak any time soon. Universal's "American Gangster," set in the 1970s, cleaves to that decade's cinematic aesthetic, and films like Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" both promise, among other things, copious amounts of the sticky red stuff. At press time, certain studio executives were almost jittery about the fate of such projects and whether they would be rewarded with commercial success, let alone Academy Award recognition.

"That's the $64,000 question," says Matthew Michael Carnahan, writer of MGM's "Lions For Lambs."

The fact that films like these are being made, however, should come as no surprise, says Ansen, "given that most people feel we are living in an extremely dark time, and it is inevitable that artists are going to reflect that. Not only are we getting very dark movies. We are getting an unusual number of political and topical movies, which is part and parcel of the same thing: People are feeling this country has gone seriously off course."

Still, getting topical films made inside the studio system has never been easy -- the very economics of Hollywood work against filmmakers looking to make topical projects. Making profitable pictures that can reach the widest audience possible is typically the studio mandate, and the filmmaking process itself can take years, even decades.

This year stands as something of an exception, though, with so many political films in the marketplace: "In the Valley of Elah" tells the story of a Vietnam veteran (Tommy Lee Jones) whose son, a soldier, goes missing after he returns from Iraq; Gavin Hood's "Rendition" (New Line) tackles one of the most controversial policies of the Bush administration, which was making headlines even days before the movie's release; and Robert Redford's "Lions for Lambs" is a deeply skeptical study of the war and its connection to the lives of a university professor (Redford), a journalist (Meryl Streep) and a U.S. Senator (Tom Cruise).

But the topicality of "Elah" made it a hard sell, Haggis admits. "It was very difficult to get this going," he says. "It took Clint Eastwood to champion it. Clint took it to Warner Bros. and asked (Warner Bros. president) Alan Horn, personally, to do it. They were rightfully nervous about this project. If anything had happened from the time that we started preproduction to the time it came out -- if there had been another attack on American soil or if the war had gone really well -- the film would be useless and wouldn't have any value."

Although some critics praised the effort, at press time "Elah" had only earned about $6.7 million, despite its A-list cast.

Carnahan admits that he worries his project might not perform well with an audience that does not want more darkness in its life. Indeed, it is surprising that in such dark times Hollywood is making such dark pictures. "The irony is that, traditionally, in dark times audiences want to see light fare," Ansen says.

With the exception of "Hairspray," that might be difficult to come by. The indies and specialty divisions are also offering plenty of bleak, unsparing fare. Take Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," one of Miramax's biggest Oscar bets, which won Schnabel the directing award at the Festival de Cannes in May. That story of a brilliant magazine editor who is almost completely paralyzed following a stroke and only able to communicate by blinking one eye might make one marvel at human courage, but its ending is no more optimistic than that of "No Country" or "Elah."

Even Ang Lee's Focus Features drama "Lust, Caution," set during the Japanese occupation of China in the 1940s, turns what might have been a conventional spy story into a metaphysical analysis of the battle between love and tyranny, with a deeply pessimistic conclusion. By the end of the story, death seems the inevitable fate for all the participants -- only the "villain," the Chinese strongman who has sold out to the Japanese invaders, seems to stand a chance of lasting a wee bit longer than the heroes.

Nor is it wrong to interpret a film like Lee's as a mirror of our times. "It's a completely legitimate exercise to look at the movies coming out of the imagination of the culture, that are a representation of the culture, and go, 'Reading the tea leaves, are you guys as confused as we are?'" says Gilroy.

Even Zadan's been touched by the hand of depression. His other project with Meron, Warner Bros.' comedy "The Bucket List," revolves around two men, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who embark on a high-spirited journey together -- after meeting one another in a cancer ward. "Our two movies this year are dealing with very serious subjects but in an entertaining and positive way," Zadan says, referring to "List's" examination of life and death and "Hairspray's" racial themes. "We are using the darkness as subtext rather than text."

In other words, as publicist Tony Angellotti notes: "Even the comedies are black."