Saturday, November 21, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Well...we’ll definitely be hearing about this picture when the awards start coming down. I hope, however, that we’re hearing just about the performances, and not about the picture as a whole being a strong (or even not-so-strong) contender for Best Picture. The story is of Precious - or Job, had Job been a teenage black girl growing up in late-1980s Harlem - a girl who has pretty much everything going against her. She’s morbidly obese, illiterate, and pregnant with her second child - both of whom were fathered by her own father; and she is played remarkably well by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who will rightly get some awards consideration for her performance.

But it’s Mo’Nique, playing Precious’ mother Mary, who should not only be considered for a number of acting awards, but also win them all. She plays the part beyond well, but it should also be noted that her character is so vile, so absolutely evil, that it must have taken tremendous courage for Mo’Nique - or anyone - to have signed up for the part at all. I honestly can’t think of any quasi-real-life character that I have ever seen on screen who is anywhere near as awful as Mary. There are characters who are vile and repugnant, to be sure; but they are often either wholly fictitious (Voldemort) or anti-heroes (Hannibal Lecter). Even Norman Bates is sympathetic, to a certain degree, because he is mentally ill. Mary is none of these things. She is just an awful human being. (Unfortunately, we get far too little of her back story - apart from an emotional scene toward the end; but that relates to my next point, which has to do with what I thought was some serious tunnel vision going on in this picture.)

Having said that, though, I also have to say that a movie has to stand on more than just its performances; and this is where Precious stumbles. The biggest problem is a major fundamental flaw in the story - which is that there are no real sub-plots. Anything masquerading as a sub-plot - the history behind the abuse Precious suffers, the personal life of Precious’ teacher, the stories of the other kids in Precious’ class, the aforementioned back story of her mother - exists in the story only insofar as it has some bearing on Precious. The focus remains entirely on this one girl, and the story has little room to breathe; and yes, I understand that this is partly by design, but it begins to wear after a bit. While it’s not hard to imagine that an inner-city teenager might have a life full of problems, it does tend to stretch one’s patience when the poor girl continues to be set with problem after problem after problem. I’m not going to go through them all, as there is some (but not much) dramatic tension at work in the reveals, but they just keep rolling along; and the last one, toward the end, is just gratuitous. The reveal even makes it sound like they just tossed it in for kicks.

The herky-jerky editing, ubiquitous close-up zooms, and seemingly blind faith in the virtues of natural light all combine to give the film an air of indie authenticity; but they also feel a little bit forced, like director Lee Daniels and company wanted to make sure people knew they were making an art film. Anymore, I tend to think that this kind of thing is an attempt at misdirection, one that tries to fool the viewer into thinking they’re watching an interesting movie because some of the technical bits are edgy and hip. The folks who made (500) Days of Summer tried the same thing, and fooled quite a lot of people into thinking they were watching an interesting movie - which they were not. They were watching a movie that sucked. Precious doesn’t suck, but it’s not nearly the masterpiece that Oprah and her acolytes would have you believe that it is.

It’s a moderately flawed film that nevertheless manages to do a pretty good job of showing the slow evolution that takes place in the soul of Precious Jones. The shock-for-the-sake-of-shock elements - which, if removed, would reduce the movie from a feature to a short - are visceral, but this is a contemporary movie landscape that has birthed eight - count ‘em, eight - iterations of Saw and Hostel; eventually, you just get desensitized. It’s a well made film, but it just tries a little too hard to say a little too much. Also, I may be a bit too cynical about Oprah (who has an executive producer credit here, along with Tyler Perry). There are millions upon millions of brainless Oprah followers out there who do what she says just because she says to do it, and I can’t really shake the feeling that this movie, in an Oprah-less world, probably would have come and gone with little or no notice.

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