Having the wrong fun

Although I spend much of my working life judging books by their covers, The Manchurian Candidate offers an object lesson in not judging movies by their posters. It presents itself as a kind of gritty, serious, political thriller, and is a remake of a pretty well-known 1960s film, which I haven’t seen. The names associated with the film are impressive: Jonathan Demme directs Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, which leads one to expect exactly the kind of smart, self-aware yarn suggested by the poster. The reality, however, is jaw-droppingly, hilariously different.

The film is not ‘bad’, and it’s not deliberately satirical either, but it strikes a tone which is completely out of step with its sense of its own seriousness. Although I haven’t seen the original movie, I would guess that a number of Demme’s creative decisions paid conscious homage to that work, as it has a distinctly 60s vibe. What it brought to mind was The Ipcress File, with its psychedelic atmosphere and its imagined psychological technologies. The entire narrative is dream-like, and although Streep provides a hard backbone of plausible political dialogue, many of the characters around her declaim their lines like the masked players in a Classical drama, archetypes and symbols arranged in a kaleidoscopic mandala. Liev Schreiber, in particular, does his mind-control schtick exactly the way it was done in the 60s — whenever he struggled for control I found myself muttering under my breath: ‘my name is ‘Arry Palmer’!

Denzel Washington does a good, subtle job of falling apart, his character’s virtue and gravity barely holding him together as the lineaments of his reality become fluid, and the institutions in which his faith is invested are revealed to be corrupt. But his valiant efforts are misplaced, and he seems like the straight man to the movie’s killer clown, acting the way an accountant might if they found themselves transplanted into an episode of The Simpsons. His low-key performance is swamped by the extravagant bizarreness of the film, where Streep, with the nature of her role giving her license to overact, is magnificent, upstaging the rest of the cast, the direction, and especially the script. To deliver a plausible performance in such a ludicrous setting is an impressive feat.

The movie might just have worked if its psychedelic leanings had been contextualised in a plot that held water, but this is a film that imagines itself to be a political thriller, and its fundamental premises are completely implausible. They might fly in something calling itself science-fiction, but here they are a recipe for belly laughs. According to Wikipedia the film is set in a dystopian near future, but there is literally no indication whatsoever that this is the case, at least in the edit currently streaming on Netflix. I watched it with Spouse and Spawn, and none of us could quite believe that it was only fifteen years old. The scene where Washington goes into a library to use the internet jarred sharply, reminding us unexpectedly that it hadn’t been filmed in the early 80s, strewing the Jenga bricks of our barely suspended disbelief into irrecuperable disorder. I had a lot of fun watching this film, but I don’t think it was the fun that Demme wanted me to have.

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