Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Oct 31, 2009

Amelia (2009)

by Will Ross

One of the best ways for a film to lower my expectations of what's to come is to display its starring actor's name in a producer's credit. Countless awful actors have practically made their careers by paying their way to starring roles in commercially safe films, with very few exceptions. The rationale to these exceptions is the correlation between the performing talents of actor-producers and their films' corresponding quality.

So it's very confusing to see Hilary Swank, whose boldness and intelligence are proven by her zenith appearances, not only appearing in bad movies, but producing them with intent to perform the lead role. Freedom Writers was bad enough, a mess of syrupy clich├ęs that aren't nearly as helpful or insightful as they pretend to be, but producing Amelia was like trying to pilot a plane without any gas or propellers or wings for that matter. Because I'm enjoying that metaphor so much, I'll extend it even further: Watching Amelia is like sitting in that plane for two hours, watching people who clearly don't know much about planes at all scrambling around the runway trying to fix it.

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Yes, Amelia is is an unfocused mess of quickly dropped subplots, unfocused themes, paranoid schizophrenic story and phoned-in acting. But whose fault is that? The actors'? The director's? The editors'? The writers'?

The bio-pic follows the legendary female pilot who broke records when she flew across the Atlantic and inspired generations of fascination after disappearing over the Pacific while attempting to fly around the world. Here, Earhart is portrayed strictly as a hero of free will and feminism. She was both of those things, but the movie absolutely never lets up on the grand hero portrayal, and that only leads to her constant self-searching soundbites wearing thin quickly. Substituting for characterization is an affair with a good-looking flight instructor (Ewan McGregor) who has even less personality than she. The cuckold is her husband, who is perfect - except on one occasion when he uses blackmail to help Earhart win a race (a subplot that is never mentioned again). That is her only flaw. That, and regularly launching into deeply introspective, rambling self-analyses in the middle of casual conversations with acquaintances.

That the dialogue is so stilted and bland lends no verve to its subject matter. It all has the air of a bored Hollywood writer under contract, pumping out romantic exchanges like "Come back to me," "Always," and inspirational advice like "Don't ever let anyone turn you around." This only makes the characters less likable, since they speak like like they have unlocked one of life's secrets every time they make a point, usually in the insufferable tone of someone who believes they are gifting a morsel of higher truth to the spiritually destitute. Swank's voiceover readings of Amelia's poetry are no help, because that writing is no improvement (it turns out Earhart was no better at writing about her life than the duo who wrote this film).

A hallmark of a shoddy romance is when two characters who seem to be only in conflict in spirit, action, and motivation suddenly fall in love without any prior indication. After meeting George Putnam, her publisher and financial backing for flights (Richard Gere), the two seem to have only a couple of wisecracks and a lot of tension between them. Earhart is fundamentally honest, but Putnam is unafraid of using fraud and pushing Earhart into unwanted publicity opportunities and lectures to earn the cash for more flights. So, when Putnam bids her farewell on her second flight by leaning in and kissing her on the mouth, I was fully prepared for a maelstrom. Surely Amelia Earhart, the individualist, feminist, and free spirit would take insult at this man, who ran against her principles and used her, simply leaning in and going for the goods without any real friendly precedent! She would be enraged by the sexual harassment by her employer! But no. Amelia responds by saying "I kinda like it," and the unspoken promise of a marriage scene to come is practically sealed on the spot.

Good grief.

The entire production cast and crew is working at a low standard. The actors have zero chemistry or conviction. The director, Mira Nair, fails to guide the building of romance between the lovers, or to move the camera in intimate ways. The editors, Allyson C. Johnson and Lee Percy, blast the film from one subject to another without a moment's reflection, and overuse jarring, uninformative newsreel transitions, instead of emotional ones. The writers, Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, set down a stump of a love story between two attractive Hollywood stars instead of complex representations of flawed people. Green screen shots are painfully obvious, the score settles on using a few unmoving, simplistic themes, and the oft-used newsreel sequences combine fuzzy, scratchy authentic footage from the 1930s with 2009 black and white film that is so crisp and clear, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

And that happens within the first half hour. By its end, Amelia has made absolutely no emotional or philosophical forward movement, but makes matters even worse by putting the audience through a repetitive, poorly staged climax. When the credits rolled I couldn't single out any names for particularly poor contributions. The cast and crew have universally set a low bar, resulting in a bio-pic that defines all the worst qualities of the genre. Messy, forgettable, and insincere, Amelia's flight is permanently grounded.

I don't even think Ewan McGregor knew what he was doing in this movie.


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