My Year Of Flops Case File #100 Hulk
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This morning as I perambulated about during my habitual pre-dawn stroll, I happened upon the Depression-era Cockney bootblack who first appeared in my Scenes From A Mall entry. Though I walked briskly in the opposite direction in hopes of eluding his attention, he recognized me all the same. "Mr. Rabin! It's ever so delightful to see you this fine and dewy morning! You must be terribly nervous, good sir, about your hundredth My Year Of Flops entry! There's ever so much pressure on you to make it a good 'un. Why, the eyes of the entire world are upon you! So what are you going to favor us with today, guv'nor, a cheeky reappraisal of Alex In Wonderland? A fevered defense of The Pickle? My, but Moon Over Parador is just begging to be re-discovered! Oh but there are so many wonderful, wonderful Paul Mazursky films to choose from, each more exquisitely floptastic than the next! Then once this project is over, you can devote yourself fulltime to rehabilitating Mazursky's tattered reputation. You will truly be doing the good Lord's work."
I was stressed out enough about the imminent conclusion of My Year Of Flops even before being grilled by an inexplicably Paul Mazursky-obsessed Depression-era Cockney bootblack. So I bid him good day, bribed a nearby bobby into arresting the bootblack for loitering, and journeyed back to My Year of Flops manor to further contemplate the final four entries in My Year Of Flops.
When I couldn't conclusively decide on what film to write about today, I became so angry that my skin turned green, I burst out of my clothes, and I grew to grotesque–some might even say, hulk-like–dimensions. I then ran through Ravenswood smashing cars, leaping over houses,and punching mailboxes when all at once it hit me which film I should write up as the hundredth entry in My Year Of Flops. Why it was all so obvious! Self-evident even! I should write about Gus Van Sant's Psycho! Now there's a world-class boondoggle worthy of my time and energy. But when I couldn't track down a copy in time, I decided to write up Ang Lee's Hulk instead.
Hulk is perhaps the top-grossing film I've written about, having grossed a gaudy $62 million in its opening week. But the film's box-office nose-dived once poisonous word of mouth spread. Hulk represented a staggeringly perverse case of bait-and-switch. The ads, poster, title, and fast food tie-ins promised dumb fun about a big green monster who goes around smashing things. Instead director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus delivered a brooding, cerebral exploration of the plight of an existential nowhere man. Ang Lee screwed up a perfectly good smash-em-up comic book monster movie with his infernal "art" and "ideas."
Hulk is driven by two seemingly antithetical concepts. Lee set out to make a live-action issue of The Incredible Hulk that borrowed heavily from the visual vocabulary of comic books, so he's divided the frame into panel-like segments via split screens and employing all manner of cartoonish transitions. Secondly, Lee set out to elevate the plight of a humble scientist/giant green brute to the level of a Greek tragedy. To the eternal horror and regret of Universal shareholders, he more or less succeeded. He delivered a comic book movie for folks whose idea of comic books involves Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, and maybe some Art Spiegelman thrown in for variety. Lee turned in the rare comic-book movie whose core audience is New Yorker subscribers rather than acne-ridden teenagers.
The film's opening echoes the elliptical storytelling of comic books. It begins in the '60s with the formative trauma of its protagonist's life: being ripped away from his birth family and placed with an adoptive family. The boy, irreparably scarred by his mother's death and his father's unexplained absence, grows up to be Eric Bana, a great actor but nobody's idea of a big box-office attraction.
Bana's love interest is played by Jennifer Connelly, an actress who helped usher me and countless other members of my generation through the raging libidinal storm of adolescence. These days, however, Connelly seems to be preparing for the lead in a live-action remake of Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Clearly drastic measures need to be taken before Connelly loses so much weight that one day she simply disappears into the ether. I am calling on the good people of this great land to wage a covert campaign to bring back Connelly's baby fat by any means necessary. If you're a coffee-server-person and Connelly shows up at your place of employment and orders a soy latte with skim milk, please substitute a triple Chocolate mocha with whole milk and slip in plenty of whipped cream while you're at it. If you're one of Connelly's neighbors, "mysteriously" leave cakes and boxes of donuts at her doorstep. Like bringing attention to the lesser films of Paul Mazursky, you'll be doing God's work.
Or maybe Connelly's simply too depressed to eat. Just look at some of the films she's made in the past decade: Dark City, Waking The Dead, Requiem For A Dream, Pollock, A Beautiful Mind, House Of Sand And Fog, Little Children, and Reservation Road. There's a not a rib-tickler or gut-buster in the bunch. It's as if Connelly is forever doing penance for that pre-starvation Career Opportunities poster. Speaking of which, here's a completely gratuitous shot of Connelly cleavage:
All right, enough pointless digressions. Bana's deeply repressed scientist broods and sulks until enraged, at which point he transforms into a giant green brute with an insatiable appetite for destruction. The CGI Hulk drew numerous unflattering comparisons to Shrek–though unlike Shrek, Lee's Hulk isn't supposed to be funny–but I consider it one of CGI's rare triumphs.
Early CGI atrocities like Jar Jar Binks, Scooby Doo, Garfield, and Gleep Glop The Magical Lost In Space Intergalactic monkey dug CGI into a continent-sized hole, but Lord Of The Rings's Gollum, King Kong, and Lee's Hulk all proved it was possible to imbue a CGI creation with heart and soul. There's an awful lot of pain in the big guy's eyes and the sequence where the Hulk leaps through a wide-open desert attains a level of lyrical beauty seemingly unthinkable in a $137 million comic book movie.
Bana is soon visited by long-lost father Nick Nolte, a maverick mad scientist with a personal style heavily indebted to late-period Unabomber, minus the shades. Bana quickly finds himself waging a three-sided war against his crazy father, a gruff, authoritarian General played by longtime mustache enthusiast Sam Elliott, and his own temper.
Bana described the mood on the Hulk set as "ridiculously serious" to the point of being "morbid in a lot of ways." That somber quality is amply reflected in the finished product. In its first hour, Hulk boasts a hushed intensity that could easily pass for dullness. It's an almost perversely quiet film filled with solemn conversations conducted in near-whispers. The Hulk doesn't appear in all his muscled-up glory until about 40 minutes in. Audiences who missed the opening credits could be forgiven for thinking they'd accidentally stumbled into a punishingly austere art movie.
As a card-carrying pompous boob who never leaves home without wearing a neckerchief, cravat, and ascot, I appreciated the film's subversively intelligent deconstruction of the comic book movie. Yet me also like when Hulk smash stuff. Everyone does. That's why not even this film's failure could kill off the franchise (look for Ed Norton as the Hulk later this year). Lee seems to go out of his way to avoid indulging in anything that might be considered fun. He appears hell bent on denying a blockbuster audience the visceral kicks they angrily demand. Lee's Hulk smashes but mostly he broods, sulks, and aches.
Hulk can be chilly and inert in the early going, but it gains a strange cumulative power as it develops into both a deeply sad family drama about the sins of the father and an elegant metaphor for the War on Terror. The more the government tries to destroy Bana's Hulkism without understanding it or its underlying causes, the stronger and more resilient it becomes.
Lee succeeded in de-funifying one of pop culture's most beloved monsters, transforming a kitschy camp spectacle into an experience more cerebral than visceral. Yet despite its flaws, Hulk stands as a unique attempt to infect a blockbuster with the gravity and pathos of a small-scale drama. I suspect history will be far kinder to it than present, especially when compared to a spate of comic book adaptations that aspire to do nothing more than deliver the cheap thrills Hulk so assiduously avoids.
Lee's art-film/blockbuster mash-up is ultimately a lot like The Hulk himself–ostracized, misunderstood, scorned yet singular and strangely soulful, a strange beast too big and ridiculous for its own good.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success