Monday, March 17, 2008

From The Vault: Batman Forever

Director: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, Debi Mazar
Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: 1995

**1/2 (out of ****)

Riddle me this: What big name director almost single-handedly ruined the Batman franchise over a decade ago? If you answered Joel Schumacher, congratulations. It took me almost 13 years to recover from the trauma of actually seeing this in theaters when it opened in 1995 and calm down enough to finally write this review. I figured it might be fun now to revisit a film I hated years ago and see if anything’s changed at all.

First, the good news. It’s not nearly as bad as I remembered it and this time around I did notice a few things the Batman Forever actually did really well that I had overlooked. Now the bad news. The things about it that didn’t work are still very much there, and one aspect in particular looks worse than I ever remembered it. It’s a performance actually. And it comes from an Academy Award winning actor. That this man is not only still working after giving a performance so awful, but was nominated for Best Actor this year as well as appearing in the year’s Best Picture, should be considered a miracle. He deserves credit for that at least. I don’t know many other actors whose reputations could survive giving a performance so mind blowingly terrible.

In a bizarre way, Batman Forever works for what it is: A joke. And I do think it works better now as one than it did 13 years ago. For those who found Burton’s versions too dark and depressing (I didn’t) and are searching for an alternative take on "The Dark Knight" this fits the bill. For Batman purists, however, it can’t be viewed as anything other than an abomination (although I do know a few diehards who love it). But on the bright side, at least it isn’t boring or uninteresting.

It’s worth noting that the DVD I’m reviewing isn’t the 2-disc Collectors Edition that was released in 2005 as part of the entire Batman series box set. Rather this is the crappy, bare bones, double-sided full screen and widescreen single disc edition that came out in 1997. I’m mentioning that because the DVD transfer is absolutely terrible and for a film whose primary assets are visual it made the viewing a more unpleasant experience than it should have been I’m sure. The colors are a little washed out and I could even swear the print was scratched (and this film isn’t THAT old). It looked more like Planet Terror than Batman Forever. For anyone who actually enjoyed the film (show of hands?) and owns this edition, without even viewing the other I can tell you it’s worth the upgrade. I’m disappointed because I was really curious to get Schumacher’s explanation for some of the nonsense he inflicted upon us.

I remember reading a review of this a while back that complained that you shouldn’t be able to tell a director’s sexual preference just by watching their film. That’s very funny…and also very true. All joking aside, it is interesting to analyze the decisions Schumacher made and his possible reasoning behind them. Although Tim Burton handed over the directorial reins to Schumacher he stayed on as a producer, but how much input he actually had in this effort we’ll never know. My guess is very little. In a questionable decision, Schumacher completely did away with Danny Elfman’s score from the Burton movies, but I thought it was the right call. It wouldn’t have fit this material and Elliot Goldenthal’s score here works. There’s no sense picking a fight over that.

The most controversial decision surrounded the casting of a stoic (some would say wooden) Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman because the fantastic Michael Keaton wisely passed on returning for a third outing. When I first saw the film I absolutely hated Kilmer’s performance with a passion but now seeing it again I realize he did the best he could in a thankless situation. He’s okay in the role and appropriately brooding when he needs to be, which is all the time. I’d rank his performance below Keaton’s (which I still believe is the definitive portrayal) and Bale’s but I’d have to see George Clooney’s interpretation again to determine how it ranks against that. Matching it up against Adam West’s seems a little ridiculous since that’s a whole different animal altogether. Kilmer does probably look the best in the actual costume and it’s an interesting factoid that Batman creator Bob Kane has said that of all the actors who have donned the bat suit, Kilmer is actually his favorite.

The plot of Batman Forever concerns Batman’s attempts to rescue a very colorful Gotham City from Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), who was previously known as District Attorney Harvey Dent before half his face was burned and horrifically disfigured by acid (which we see in a 15 second flashback). He’s joined by Edward E. Nigma a.k.a. The Riddler (Jim Carrey) a mad scientist employed by Wayne enterprises who goes off the deep end. Batman is joined in his fight against villainy by the young Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) who has his sights set on Two-Face after he murdered his acrobatic circus performing parents in cold blood. He eventually takes on the moniker of Robin, but his role in this film is considerably less important than you may expect given the ads and the posters. Nicole Kidman is Dr. Chase Meridian, a clinical psychiatrist with a dual interest in Bruce Wayne and Batman, but not necessarily in that order.

Chris O’ Donnell has taken a thrashing for years for his performance as Robin, but really he’s perfect and this character is one of the few things this movie gets completely right. No one would have been a better fit for the part and I’m not sure what else people expected from him that he didn’t give. The scene where Two-Face kills his family (a big change from the comic) is the most effective of the film and he does a good job establishing his role in very little time. Another memorable scene where he steals the Batmobile and goes for a joyride is a clever idea that plays well. The only problem is that because Kilmer’s Batman/Bruce Wayne is fairly young he’s not quite believable as an older mentor to Robin. They seem more like equals both, joined by the murder of their parents at the hands of career criminals. The only remaining links left to Burton’s films are Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon and Michael Gough’s Alfred. Alfred is actually better utilized here than in Burton’s efforts and gets in some good one-liners. Sure, he’s no Michael Caine, but who is?

As big a fan as I am of everything Burton did with the franchise I have to admit Schumacher did one thing better. Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian completely blows Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale out of the water as Batman’s love interest. First of all, my god does Kidman look amazing in this. I’d go as far as to say this probably the hottest female character you’re ever likely to see in a superhero movie. And to think the idiots at Warner Brothers actually resisted Schumacher’s attempts to cast Kidman, claiming she wasn’t sexy enough. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to be trapped in the Batcave with her. But the character herself is interesting as well. She has feelings for both Batman and Bruce Wayne but can’t seem to reconcile either of them. And Bruce doesn’t really know how he should feel about it. Happy? Jealous? That’s how conflicted this guy is. It’s pretty funny to have a love interest whose only real goal in the movie is to screw Batman. You can’t tell me we’ve seen something like that before. Kidman is known for making strange, risk-taking film choices (even more so now) so it’s ironic that in even her most mainstream vehicle she still finds a way to make her role completely insane. She’s the real star of this movie.

The major problems in the film are with the villains and considering they eat up most of the screen time it does create a big issue. Jim Carry was hot off the heels of the success of Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when he was cast in the role of The Riddler and it was, for the most part, a good choice. He’s clearly basing his performance on Frank Gorshin’s from the 1960’s television series and I can’t say that was a wrong way to go. I just wish he turned it down a notch and Oscar winner Akiva Goldsmith’s script didn’t contain so much of that mad scientist garbage at the beginning of the film. Can anyone explain to me what that brain sucking machine The Riddler created is even supposed to do? With those boxes in every home and people glued to their TV sets the entire silly premise brought back bad memories of Halloween III: Season of The Witch.

We know which team Schumacher plays for (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but was it really necessary to deck The Riddler out in eyeliner and mascara? He looked more like a drag queen than a criminal mastermind. Supposedly, Robin Williams was the original choice to play the role and I’m actually glad he didn’t get it. If Carrey was just a notch over-the-top than Williams would have needed a cage to contain his overacting. We dodged a bullet there. It’s a shame that Carrey guy never really went on to do anything else. I’m kidding of course. He went on to have a very respectable career… dressing as an elephant and shilling his movies on American Idol.

Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face is a complete disaster and nearly ruins the entire film. If Carrey was basing his Riddler on Gorshin than Jones was basing his Two-Face on Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Except he was trying to copy it, incorporating only the worst elements of that performance. With his annoying cackle and garish attire every second he’s on screen is nothing short of pure torture. Schumacher also felt it would be a good idea to give him a really pretty, colorful disfigurement because we all know how beautiful it looks when your badly burned face matches your suit. If Oscars were given for the worst achievement in costume and make-up this film would have them locked up. Not surprisingly, the "genius" make-up artist behind this endeavor is Rick Baker who you may recall from his Oscar-nominated work…in Norbit.

Besides rushing through Two-Face’s story arc too quickly and giving us virtually no backstory on him, serious creative liberties were taken as well, all of which hurt the character. In the comic he was known for his signature coin toss, which fatefully controls all of his evil decision-making. Here, like a petulant infant, he tosses the coin incessantly until he gets the desired result. Anton Sigurh this guy most definitely is not. He also has some arm candy to go along with his two personalities in Sugar and Spice (Drew Barrymore and Debi Mazar respectively). Barrymore looks good but barely has a single line of dialogue the entire film. Although he’s supposed to be the lead villain, Jones just ends up playing lackey to Carrey’s substantially more entertaining Riddler for most of the film.

The one saving grace of Two-Face (SPOILER AHEAD!) is that he meets a final, conclusive demise at the end, eliminating any chance of Tommy Lee Jones returning. The alternate ending which saw Two-Face sitting at the kitchen table with his wife complaining about how crime in Gotham city has passed him by as the screen fades to black was apparently rejected. I remember reading an interview with Jones a few months back where he first learned that Aaron Eckhart would be taking over the role of Harvey Dent a.k.a. Two-Face in this summer’s The Dark Knight. When asked if he was ever interested in reprising the role he answered simply: "No." It’s a relief that he has just as little interest playing the role again as I do seeing him in it. I’ve been so traumatized by his work in the film that my heart sank when I heard Two-Face was returning in any incarnation for a sequel, even though Eckhart could probably sleep walk through the role and still fare better than Jones. I just have no interest in seeing that character ever again. The sad part of it is that if The Riddler were just toughened up a little and Two-Face was excised from the movie entirely we could have really had something here.

This is just a guess but it seems Schumacher was going for the campy feel of the 60’s TV show with this movie. If he was he failed because even the worst episode of that terrific show was slightly better than this. He took those campy tendencies to new heights with his sequel, 1997’s Batman and Robin. Compared to that this almost looks restrained. And the title of this film I’ll never understand. BatmanForever? It sounds like a musical. What’s scarier was there was actually another Schumacher helmed sequel planned that would have been called…Batman Triumphant. Who comes up with these titles? With his gigantic set pieces, bat-suits with nipples and rainbow color schemes Schumacher’s primary goal was to sell a lot of toys and make tons of money. Second on the agenda was making a good movie. That he almost accomplished the latter could be chalked up as an accident. I realize now that Schumacher is really guilty of only one crime: Going too far.

Amazingly, this film scored three Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound, the most of any Batman film to date. It kills me to admit it but those nominations weren’t necessarily undeserved, as it’s a great looking and sounding film. Schumacher was trying to stage a full-on assault on our senses and provide an amusement park thrill ride, so to that end this could be considered a success. It’s surprisingly well-paced and ends before you even know it started, never dragging once during its two hour running time. It played much better for me this time, but as tempting as it may be, I still can’t recommend it because, well, it’s just not a very good movie. I will say this is a better film than Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, but that doesn’t mean I’m eager to give Schumacher a third chance to redeem himself.

The biggest revelation to come out of my re-watching of Batman Forever was that I didn’t hate it. Maybe I’ve just softened with age or it could be that because Christopher Nolan has successfully resurrected the franchise I’m able to put my bitterness toward the film behind me and put it in its proper historical context. It can now be viewed as an interesting cinematic curiosity and an alternative interpretation of an iconic character. Tilda Swinton’s hilarious Oscar acceptance speech this year got me thinking about Schumacher’s Batman films again and made me wonder how history will judge them and him. It’s never good when your movies have become the punch line of an Oscar joke. And in case you were wondering, yes, I am eventually planning to review Batman and Robin, with a very special emphasis on George Clooney’s performance.

Schumacher survived this, but that’s not to say his career ever fully recovered. He went on to direct solid features like Tigerland and Phone Booth and not so solid ones like The Number 23 starring his old pal Jim Carrey. Looking at the glass as half-full, we can thank Schumacher for his mistakes because without them we probably wouldn’t be enjoying the emergence of more serious superhero movies like Batman Begins and the upcoming Iron Man and The Dark Knight films. Unfortunately, the negative effects of his work can still be seen on films like The Fantastic Four series. His greatest contribution is that by turning Batman into a joke he unintentionally caused us to appreciate what makes superhero films special to begin with…at least the ones not directed by him.

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