Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bob Reviews: The Saddest Musical in the World

* It's my Birthday, so I get to pimp my friend out one more time for a review. It's official this time. *

So, I ended up liking Al's first choice for his birthday review- Melancholia. He wanted a good angry rant out of me for his birthday gift, so I foolishly let him give me another film to do, which turned out to be The Saddest Music in the World. I need to stop giving him second chances.

What a stupid, stupid film.

Okay...I've pretty much abandoned all pretense of constructive criticism in the early going, here, and I do apologize for that. If anyone who worked on the film happens to stop by here, I do apologize and I have nothing against you personally and I don't wish to give offense. But I have to state my opinion here, and my opinion is that this film is an amazingly insipid, pointless, utter waste of time. That's it. End of review.

Oh, all right, Al. I'll give you something longer than that.
So, let's talk concept first. The Saddest Music in the World focuses on a contest held by a woman who owns a beer company aiming to find the saddest music in the world. She's holding this contest because Prohibition in America is about to end, and her Canadian beer company can make even more money when people run back to the bars if those people are amazingly sad when they do so. So, nations from around the world come to the contest to show off their best sorrowful music. In the midst of this, two brothers--one a man absolutely consumed by grief for his dead son (Roderick), and the other a man who seems incapable of feeling sadness at all and reacts to everything as though life is one big joke (Chester)--both join the competition. Their father--a former doctor who left the practice after he drove drunk, caused an auto accident, and cut the beer company owner's legs (both, because one was pinned and he cut off the wrong one first)--also joins. Chester also has brought his rather odd girlfriend along for the ride, and a strange old fortune teller has prophesied that if Chester doesn't come to understand sadness soon, he'll be a dead man.

It has potential, honestly. You could do a nice comedy with that, mix in some decent family could be a very fun film. Unfortunately, the film never really lives up to its potential, and turns out to be a surprisingly dull affair. In some's hard to say why. I don't mind the absurd, and this film certainly has some of that (the beer company owner's eventual glass, beer-filled prosthetic legs, for one thing). It also has some good character concepts, and some nice musical selections for the contest. There are a lot of things that do work about the film, so let's go into some of them first.
First off, the general character ideas have potential. Chester and Roderick in particular are a good idea, considering the film's central premise. We have a man in denial of sadness itself positioned against the very personification of sorrow. The contest provides them the grounds to show their differing ideals, while their father tries simultaneously to get the family back together and gain forgiveness from the owner for his mistakes of the past. And in the middle of it all you have Chester's strange girlfriend, who is, shall we say, connected to Roderick. That connection tosses a further wrench in the works in the middle of the film.

We have some nice musical choices, as well. The contest focuses on sorrowful music from around the world, and thus, we get to hear some sorrowful music from around the world. Some of it is indeed quite good, and at the very least there's nothing irritating in there (I can say that, you see, because I actually like bagpipes. Others may find that part at least a bit annoying.). The father's performance of "Red Maple Leaves" isn't particularly good, but even it has a certain sincerity to it that let me listen to it without cringing. The best has to be the violin piece, "The Song is You"--the film builds to Roderick's performance of that piece, a piece which has deep meaning to him, and it's a good choice.
Chester's various Broadway-style shows for his submissions to the contest are interesting as well, if...rather odd most of the time. I could have done without the final Eskimo-themed one, but there are some quirky but fun ideas in the couple of others we get to see. It's also a good way to display the lack of respect that Chester has for sorrow: he bases the performances mostly on various tragedies from the past, and presents them with a perky, upbeat stage show style, grinning like a fool the entire time.

The final 5-7 minutes of the film were also quite good--and I mean that honestly, not in a "it was good because it was over" kind of way. Somehow things just come together in those final moments, and the characters feel more real than they do at any other point in the film. Trying to avoid giving everything away, we get a stirring violin performance by Roderick, a tearful reunion, some somewhat absurd but fairly appropriate comeuppances, and a hint that Chester might finally understand what he's been missing. It's actually quite a strong ending--still strange in many ways, but strong nevertheless. This part of the film finally, finally contains actual emotion, and as a result, I could finally feel for the characters. It's just a shame it takes it so long to get there.
So, the problems. The largest, I think, is that the film just can't really decide what it is. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? The Saddest Music in the World tries to be both, and while that is certainly a possibility if handled appropriately, it just doesn't work here. It tries to mix absurdist comedy with moving, sorrowful drama and an exploration of true emotion, and the two sides of the film never work together. A good example is Roderick, whose very palpable sorrow (the loss of a child must be a horribly devastating thing, and it is understandable that it would drive a man to such depths) is crippled by his over-the-top complaints of various illnesses, random bouts of lunatic references to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that started the Great War (Editor: Always a funny subject!), and most notably the fact that he keeps his dead son's heart in a jar filled with his own tears. We can't laugh at the strangeness, because the sadness is too deep. But we can't feel the sadness, because the absurdity keeps the character too distant so we can't identify with him. That's emblematic of the film as a whole.

The characters in general end up being another problem, because we really can't identify with any of them, or cheer for any of them. Chester--who the film largely follows, in a rather huge mistake--is an outright scumbag who can't acknowledge anyone else's pain, takes advantage of anyone he meets, bullies and mocks Roderick and his father, speaks at length about how stupid displays of grief are and how everyone's faking it, and at one point even tries to recruit a woman who tearfully tried to sing at a funeral to perform in his stage show so he can win money (and offers her about a buck to do so). The movie seems to think he's the "charming rogue" sort of character, but the trouble is that the charm just got lost somewhere along the way. He has the one-liners and the winning smile and the conman's games, but the character is just so genuinely unlikable that nothing he does ends up being amusing. He's an insulting, arrogant, selfish jerk. That would be fine if the film focused on a slow transformation and we started to see some parts of him we could latch on to and like, so we could root for his redemption (whether or not it eventually came), but...he doesn't change at all, until perhaps the final moments of the film. So, we're stuck following a person we don't like in the least for the vast majority of the picture.
And our other focus characters... There's Roderick...I've already explained the problem with him, but he's the closest thing to a character we can feel for. There's the owner...but she's a selfish sort who is motivated by greed, abuses other people, displays hate or loathing for the other protagonists (admittedly a bit understandably, since Chester and his father were both involved in the wreck that cost her her legs), and ultimately participates in stacking the deck against Roderick (who, again, is the character a viewer will probably attach to on some level). There's the father...but he's not much more than a crazy old man stereotype and is hard to identify with (and the film itself barely bothers to react to him at times, so why should we?). There's Chester's girlfriend, but...she spends most of the film in a sort of daze, and is definitely secondary to Chester and Roderick in any of their scenes together. We don't have any character we can cheer for, really, on any major level. Lacking a character to root's hard to care about the events of the film. We have to have someone we can get behind and want to succeed.
Finally...there seem to be a lot of conflicts in the film, but most of them are difficult to really care about. We have Chester and his "you must learn what sadness is" plot, but that doesn't go anywhere for most of the film until we get some sudden development at the end. We have the father and his quest for forgiveness, but that's oft-ignored, and ends midway through the film, brushed off pretty perfunctorily...and it doesn't help that three of the four characters who could react to the end of the plot--Chester, the owner, and Chester's girlfriend--have varying reasons for not really giving a crap. Roderick does, of course, but if three out of four characters are telling you not to give a crap, you really have to struggle to do so.
We have the Roderick and Chester plot, and that's certainly a source of conflict, but it's a conflict that is never resolved and never really progresses--it provides some angry confrontations between the brothers, but there's only so many times you can hear the same argument before it fails to get a reaction. We have the contest itself, but that's clearly just a backdrop for the other things that are going on, and there's no tension in it. It's rather telling that the only plot that has any impact is the plot between Roderick and the girlfriend--it involves actual emotion from Roderick, a slow transformation from the girlfriend, and some jealousy from Chester, and the film keeps coming back to it enough that it feels reasonably complete. The whole "kid's heart in a jar" thing threatens to spoil it, of course, but it manages to push past and draw out some genuine emotion regardless. It helps that it is tied pretty strongly to the "The Song is You" piece, which is used in various ways (and versions) throughout the plot. isn't the primary focus of the film.

Next we have the general aesthetic of the film. The film goes to great pains to appear like a 1930s film, which is a rather nice idea...but it's still kind of irritating to watch a film made recently and see the sort of grainy, blurry, too-dark look that we tend to get from badly-restored old movies (Editor Note: You'll hate The Artist then, Bob). It just goes too far, and it doesn't help when it pulls other odd artsy tricks...such as dying flashbacks blue or very occasionally, strangely, mixing in color footage instead of the film's usual black-and-white (Editor Note: Damn you, Sin City!). I get the idea, but to me, it ends up being pretty distracting and it can make some parts of the film difficult to watch. Still, that's a relatively minor problem. There's also a relatively minor issue with the general pacing and hangs for an inordinate amount of time on some relatively unimportant things, repeats concepts fairly frequently (most notably Chester's repeated recruitment of the other performers to be part of his shows and general attempts to recruit other people), and honestly focuses far too much on the contest considering that said contest isn't really all that important to the overall plot.
But really, I think most of the film's problems are solvable. The biggest issue is just that it needed to be tied more tightly together, conceptually. It needed to either be a drama with some light--but not absurd--comedy, or a comedy with some light--but not deep and emotional--drama elements. Instead, it's an absurdist comedy with deep, emotional drama, and the two things just clash far too much. focuses on its least likable character. If it focused more strongly on Roderick, I think it would have ended up as a stronger film overall. Chester is just too smarmy, too smug, too much of a jerk, to be the character we follow. We can't root for him at all, and that really damages the film's chances of maintaining interest.

It should be noted that while the cover shown on Netflix contains mention of this being a musical (though I suspect the cover is something of an elaborate joke on the part of the film's creators), it really isn't. Yes, it has music in it, and there are moments when the characters in the film perform musical numbers, but this is always in the context of a show on stage, and is actually pretty rare.
There's one odd little moment where it feels like the film wants to be a musical--when Chester is first trying to convince the owner to let him into the competition, they discuss their past with a band playing in the background and it sounds like it is building to a song, and then Chester and the owner actually do sing a couple quiet notes in the middle of their talk...and then that's just dropped. Note that I don't particularly care for musicals, so the fact that this isn't one is actually kind of a positive, but it still felt a bit odd. In any case...this is no more an actual musical than, say, Mr. Holland's Opus. (Apologies to Mr. Holland's Opus for mentioning it in this review of The Saddest Music in the World.)

Overall...this was quite definitely a hard film to get through and rather irritating at times. It's a comedy, but it's too serious to be funny. It's a drama, but it's too absurd to be taken seriously. It has unlikable characters. It needs work on its focus. It doesn't bother to try to convince us to care about much of anything. And when it finally does get its act together and show some actual is far too late. In the end, The Saddest Music in the World is an interesting, odd concept betrayed by its poor execution, and whatever promise it might have is buried far beneath too many mistakes.
Happy Birthday, Al.

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