I thought, hm. I haven’t see a movie in a while. Perhaps tonight, since the birthday party for my now year-old nephew broke up at a decent time. What do I want to see, though? I picked through the dismal options at the local theater and settled on Ladder 49, mostly because I’d seen Backdraft on TV earlier this week and was interested to compare.
That, it turns out, was a mistake. Most of the negative things I want to say about this movie are cunningly summed up in the Chicago Tribune review by Allison Benedikt. I’ll cut a bit out to say what I think:
- “Manage to wiggle out of the film’s muscular and manipulative grip and you’ll see it for what it is: a condescending and cloying melodrama, constructed around the almighty flashback and slick in pretending to tell the human story.”
- “In order to make sure that the audience feels the utmost pain for Jack the fireman [played by Joaquin Phoenix], screenwriter Lewis Colick and director Russell (“My Dog Skip,” “Tuck Everlasting”) simplify. Instead of nuanced, complicated and dimensional, Jack is a just-peachy, you-betcha, no-problemo, happy-to-help nice guy.”
- “Phoenix, a fine actor with another bad script, tries his best to imbue Jack with shades of gray, but the story clearly calls for an emotional robot: Jack acts happy at wedding and sings The Ohio Players’ “Fire” with buddies. Jack acts sad when best friend dies in fire. Captain Mike acts brave to console Jack. Press this button for conflicted.”
And on and on. I thought the direction/filming was actually not that great, either. Parts of the film were really hard to follow. Some of it was intentional, I’m sure, to imply the confusion that comes within a raging fire — but the fact that I was lost even out of the burning buildings probably wasn’t intentional. I never built any real connection with characters other than Jack, the movie’s protagonist, even though there seems to be ample chance. Ninety percent of the movie is told through flashbacks as Jack lays in a burning building and his mentor, Mike (John Travolta) rallies the troops to rescue him. As fire flickers and the building — which is made of concrete and apparently attached to a grain elevator, though I’m not clear on what exactly its function was — groans, Jack recalls all the important moments in his firefighting life through a series of complex flashbacks.
Every moment that exists between Jack and the other characters is pretty richly clichéd. Part of this is just part of the flashback pattern — I could literally sit in the theater and say, “Oh, I bet this next scene will be the scene in which he saves someone and earns a medal for it” or “oh, crap, someone’s gonna die in this one.” Though the movie tried to take an unpredictable route with who was going to be injured/left behind, I could always see it coming.
Partly, though, the movie just suffers from bad writing. I never found out enough about Mike’s character, for instance, to feel much for him; Jack’s wife was never developed beyond a few predictable “I’m worried but I’m strong” scenes. Even the guys at the firehouse were indistinguishable from one another — I think one guy was supposed to be the bad fireman (cheating on his wife, blaming the dead guys for making mistakes) but even that was a shallow attempt at character development.
Among my other questions: how and when were these guys drinking so much, if they worked nights? It was always dark when they were at the bar, which is a little worrisome.
Finally, the high point of the movie: Watching Martin O’Malley, AKA my favorite mayor in the entire country, give a few brief lines when the firemen got their predictable medals.
I don’t know why I have such a need to demonstrate my dislike of this movie, but it was just… so richly disappointing. Good actors, bad script, mediocre directing. Oh, for a few hours alone with the idiots who let some of those lines slide in…
I may have to cleanse myself of this movie by seeing something else tomorrow night. Choices include: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Friday Night Lights… uh, Wimbledon? Taxi? I need to see Sky Captain in the theater, probably, but I also feel I should maybe be in the mood for it before I go. Friday Night Lights might be my choice — particularly since I have an inexplicable weakness for football movies.