Sunday, November 15, 2009

399) Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

399) Where the Wild Things Are (2009) Dir: Spike Jonze Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: November 15, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

On the DVD for Spike Jonze's first feature film, Being John Malkovich (1999), there is a "Special Feature" that explicitly tells you what you're looking at before you select it: "Don't enter here, there is nothing here." That empty space, neatly tucked away as a throw-away gag, is an integral part of his films' worldview. There are always blank spots to be addressed, places that connect one world of stymied realities with another of promise and possibility: in Being John Malkovich, the tunnel that nebbish puppeteer Craig Ferguson uses to connect the "real world" with the inside of actor John Malkovich's brain; in Adaptation (2002), it's the blank page that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman confronts as he writes his next script; in Where the Wild Things Are, it's the desert that connects the forest where the most of the Wild Things live and where Carol (James Gandolfini), their most emotive resident, has built a miniature model world to project all his fantasies of a pain-free paradise onto.

The trouble is in that Max (Max Records), the boy who travels to the Wild Things' world to escape the "real" one, does not engage with that place. This is Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers's script's biggest logical flaw in their adaptation of Maurice Sendak's tellingly mute children's story: it's all about Max's regression, even when it's ostensibly about him growing up. The big lesson Max takes away at the film's end is that it's easy to hurt people when you're trying to make things up to them. But Max never really tries to engage with his Wild Things. Unlike The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy Gale, who doted on her companions' various neuroses, Max is more interested in distracting his creations from their depression than in actually confronting them. His answer is to build a fort, sleep on top of each other, throw dirt clods at one another, mistakes he's supposed to learn from when none of them actually solve the Wild Things' problems. But he doesn't. Max gets to sail away and remain a hero in their eyes, even after he's exposed as a fraud (he claims to be a king but is later revealed to be "Just Max," which according to Carol, "Isn't much of anything."). As he sets sail back to his home, the Wild Things cry for him and miss him dearly but they don't get any kind of support from him. If everybody hates a tourist, why don't these guys?

More than likely, Max's simplistic redemption comes from the fact that nobody, not Max and certainly not any of the Wild Things, wants to engage with the vast desert in their midst. Its the one in-between place in Wild Thing Land, that stands out because, as Carol tells Max, there's nothing there. Nevertheless, that's where everything comes together in Where the Wild Things Are, the neglected intermediate space where nothing happens and children grapple with their mistakes. Max never reflects on that place like Kaufman does with his typewriter or Ferguson does with Malkovich's portal. That lack is a critical omission because it ignores one of the most crucial parts of being a kid: the inescapable urge to grow up faster, to see things not as a child might but as an adult does. Max only sees things in his own terms, never daring to use the language of his single mother (Catherine Keener) or his teenage sister (Pepita Emmerichs) to get closer to them. One can hardly call that growing up.

Note: Yes, yes, I didn't address how pretty pretty shiny shiny the film was. That's because for me, that's a given when it comes to Jonze. His unique aesthetic sensibilities have never failed him and even if I don't think the film is as smart as it thinks it is, I have to say, it did look good while thinking it.

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