The Spirit (2008)

 

Crimes:

• Turning Will Eisner’s iconic series about a heroic Boy Scout type into an overwrought, sexed-up noir version of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight books 

• Echoing the all-green-screen, high-contrast, slo-mo-then-sped-up look of 300 and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, for an aesthetic that looks cheap and shallow

• Having no sense of pacing or momentum

• Giving the actors terrible, cheesy lines, then letting them get away with horrifically flat or cartoonishly emphatic line-readings

Defenders: Writer-director Frank Miller, producer Deborah Del Prete

Tone of commentary: Playful, teasing, collegial, and weirdly at odds with the film’s overwrought, fakey grittiness. Both participants sound like they’re constantly on the verge of laughter, with Del Prete frequently giggling. Their verbal volleying is cheesy, but they’re far more lighthearted and fun to spend time with than the movie is: When Miller turns up in a bit role, Del Prete says “Oh, look at that actor! We had to go very far and wide to find the actor to play this role.” Miller responds “Isn’t that Anthony Hopkins?” Del Prete cracks up. Later, when his character is decapitated, she brings his role up again. Miller says gravely, “Deborah is not a nice woman.” She cackles again and ripostes “I’m lovely.”

They’re so keyed-up and gleeful about their box-office flop that they fall over each other to call attention to specifics—they both say “Look at that!” a lot while pointing out everything from the effects to the costumes to the composition. The overall effect is of two old friends telling a third buddy—whoever is listening to the commentary—about the happy hijinks he missed out on at the bar last night by heading home early.

Granted, most of their insights are minimal. They frequently spell out things that are patently obvious, from what the characters are thinking or feeling at every moment to specifics about the big, bold, obvious symbolism. (Del Prete: “And if you note, the smoke is octopus-shaped!”) Weirdly, they proudly point out several touches taken directly from Will Eisner’s original Spirit comics—always ridiculously minor things, like The Spirit tripping at one point, or Commissioner Dolan having a pipe, or the precise construction of a sewer grate—as if those things compensated for the fact that the film otherwise in no way resembles Eisner’s work.

Del Prete does sometimes tell little stories from the set, often involving men—Miller especially—caught up in the film’s focus on titillating imagery and women in skimpy or highly sexualized costumes. At one point, both participants titter over a scene where love interest Eva Mendes sits on a photocopier, copies her tush, and waves the photocopy around while pointedly calling someone “a perfect ass.” Del Prete says the photocopy was one prop the art department really enjoyed creating; “they kept getting girls to audition for it… We had a lot of volunteers to work on that project.” Miller stammers “I-I just come up with this stuff, I-I-I-I don’t comment on it.”

The mutual delight—not actually a mutual admiration society, since they aren’t praising each other so much as enjoying themselves—only breaks down once, when Miller gets a little weird:

Commissioner Dolan, onscreen: “Is every goddamn woman in this goddamn hellhole out of her goddamn mind?”

Del Prete: “What do you mean by that, Frank, exactly? [Laughs.]”

Miller: “Well, I was working with OddLot, there’s a lot of women in there—”

Del Prete: “Uh-huh! My partner and I own the company, we’re both, yeah, women.”

Miller: “And so is everyone who works for them.”

Del Prete: “Yeah. Well, not every—just most.”

Miller: “And you’re all out of your goddamn minds.”

Del Prete: “[Pause.] Well, maybe. Just maybe. [Longer pause, then muted:] “That’s the danger of hanging out with writers. They’re always writing something about you somewhere.”

What went wrong: The dynamic duo isn’t focused on problems; everything about the production was fun or exciting. Del Prete does laugh over an early scene shot on a mud flat, and how everyone hated dealing with all the mud, and the difficulty of finding “mud that wouldn’t, you know, kill the actors, that was important.” She also says they had to seriously tone down a scene where the antagonists melt a kitten for no real reason; the original effect was so graphic that she and Miller were both horrified.

Also, Stu Maschwitz, the senior effects supervisor, was reportedly dumbstruck when presented with Miller’s storyboards for a sequence featuring a squealing, hopping foot with a head growing out of it. Del Prete says that looking at them, “he had a heart attack… he turned white.” Whereupon, Miller says, “I started to play the fierce director and said [Petulant, pouty voice.] ‘Well the hell with it, then, let’s just not do the movie.’”

Comments on the cast: Miller and Del Prete have surprisingly little to say about the male half of the cast: They dissect the actions of Samuel L. Jackson’s character and talk about his weaponry and tattoos, but never once discuss working with him, or with star Gabriel Macht. Dan Lauria (as Commissioner Dolan) does come in for hefty praise as someone who elevates everyone else’s performance, and who formed an almost father-son relationship with Macht. (Miller says he wrote Dolan as “a very, very mean Will Eisner,” which Del Prete says makes him “a very realistic character. You believe this guy is really a commissioner.”)

Mostly, they talk about the women—or at least about how they look. After Del Prete asks viewers to note something in a scene where Eva Mendes appears nude in silhouette, Miller adds “And note Eva.” Del Prete laughs. “I think everyone’s noting that. I don’t think you have to tell them to watch that.” Miller: “When Eva expressed a little bit of doubt about that shot, I told her I’ve been trying to draw that butt with a brush for 20 years.”

Later, Paz Vega appears in a skimpy belly-dancer costume. Del Prete: “Let’s talk about what was the hardest thing about having this scene being shot on the set. [Laughs.] Getting the men to pay attention to what we were doing that day!” Miller: “Ah, no, actually, you could be more precise—” Del Prete: “The director! [Laughs.]” Apparently Miller was so distracted by Vega’s charms that he said “Cut!” instead of “Action!”, and Del Prete “nearly tipped over, laughing so hard.” Del Prete: “I was like, ‘Okay, are we gonna be like this all day?’ And you know what? We were like that all day!”

Later, when Vega shows up again, Del Prete and Miller act out this comic playlet:

Del Prete: “And here’s the reappearance of the hypnotist, as I call her. Keeps all the men hypnotized.”

Miller: “Did you say something?”

Del Prete: “And for those of you who are not completely hypnotized, you’ll notice her costume is swords everywhere, including the straps of her top.”

Miller: “Did you say something?”

Del Prete: “Yeah, exactly. I’m telling this for the female fans in the audience, the ones who are not hypnotized at the moment.”

Miller: “What?”

Del Prete: [Laughs.]

Inevitable dash of pretension: The filmmakers wax shockingly rapturous over Stana Katic, who gives what’s easily the film’s worst performance as a police rookie whose every line is brayed at top volume. Del Prete boasts that in a scene where Katic stands silently in the background, making exaggerated grimaces as Macht and Lauria yell at each other, “she’s got all the subtext of what’s going on there on her face.” Miller: “It’s like watching Bette Davis when someone’s yelling at her. She’s more interesting than the person who’s yelling at her.” Later, according to Miller, Eva Mendes also “turns into Bette Davis,” during the nude-in-silhouette scene. 

Commentary in a nutshell: Del Prete: “When we first were working on the movie, we said we’d like to have the girls look underwater the way they do in comic books: perfect makeup, perfectly beautiful. Because in comics, there’s no water, just drawn bubbles.” Miller: “And speaking of perfectly beautiful, I think we’re heading into a few close-ups of Eva Mendes that should make the history books… Now look at that. Eat your heart out, Marvel Comics.” Del Prete: [Laughs.]

Filed Under: DVD

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