NEW YORK — The movies may be our main source of escapist entertainment, but I'll be the first to say that sometimes they take a certain amount of intellectual work as well. Questions like: What is the relationship between history and fiction in a film like JFK? Why would anyone possibly have made a movie where Pauly Shore and Adam Baldwin frolic in a bio-dome? And how exactly did Kevin Spacey pull off that Kaiser Sose act in The Usual Suspects? These are big questions, and I understand that most of us would rather hunt around the seats for that last jujube rather than contemplate them.
But there are still bigger questions to be asked, and the creators of two of the summer's (to date) highest grossing hits, "The Matrix: Reloaded" and "Bruce Almighty", don't shy away from asking them. Do we have free will, and what does that cost us? Is there a moral or ethical obligation exercised upon a creator by its creations? And can we get our money back?
Yes, notwithstanding their stratospheric earnings, both movies are pale imitations of their former selves ("Bruce Almighty" being little more than a sequel to "The Mask", with Jim Carrey getting the power of the Divine instead of a Loki trickster mask). Rather than simply dismissing it as sequelitis, which doesn't really explain anything, I think there's something to be said for the using the movies' failures as failures of imagination and of intellect, not of action and of comedy.
"Bruce Almighty"'s problem, it seems, is that it suffers from too little imagination, largely squandering its delightful comic premise. Jim Carrey has the power of God, and the funniest use he can put it to is to provide a traffic-free commute and ensuring that his dog uses the toilet rather than the sofa? Given the prodigious comic talent of Jim Carrey and his director, Tom Shadyac, though, I suspect that taking this low-key approach was an intentional decision: avoiding theological controversy by never testing the boundaries.
Even the casting decisions lack controversy: though much ink has been spilled over the casting of an African-American as the Lord, the more relevant point is that the director and producers cast Morgan Freeman as the Lord - arguably the classiest actor working in the movies today. (If you don't believe me, watch "Nurse Betty" - the man manages to maintain a moral center while playing a contract killer.) Imagine how corrosive, and thought-provoking, the comedy might have been if they had cast, say, Gene Wilder. Or, for that matter, Mickey Rourke.
But if we know exactly what we're going to get when we watch "Bruce Almighty" - a safe, low-key comedy which asks the big questions only to answer them in predictable, uninspiring ways - when it comes to "The Matrix: Reloaded", we don't know what we've gotten.
I have a confession to make: I didn't understand "The Matrix: Reloaded." I understood the action scenes, of course, and a few of the fashion choices, but when it came to the interminably incomprehensible conversations between, say, Neo and the Architect, or Neo and the Oracle, or Neo and almost anyone else, I stumbled. I got the sense that it had something to do with free will and destiny, but any real inkling of what the Wachowski brothers had in mind was buried beneath a flow of fast-paced gobbledygook.
Now, it's possible that this was just me - that every other one of the hundred million Americans who went to see the movie thought that this was pitched at just the right intellectual plane for them. But I don't think so. I overheard this conversation between two boys, who looked around ten, walking out of the theater, referring to the last images of the movie:
BOY: What does "concluded" mean? FRIEND: (shrugs).
So, you see, I feel I'm not alone here. Now, far be it from me to take on the idea of the intelligent action movie: the first "Matrix" was nearly perfect in this regard, taking a complex series of questions about being and existence and framing them in just such a way to leave our hearts and our heads gasping for more, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. Overly intelligent, not overly intellectual. This one, on the other hand, substituted verbiage for acuity, a poor trade.
So I'm off to find a movie this summer that's not too smart and not too dumb, but just right. I'll let you know how it goes.