Sunday, April 29, 2012

Atlas Shrugged: Part I

Director: Paul Johansson
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Grant Bowler, Matthew Marsden, Graham Beckel, Jssu Garcia, Edi Gathegi, Michael Lerner, Rebecca Wisocky
Running Time: 102 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman's favorite film of 2011, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is a stiffly performed, poorly written cliffs notes style exercise cold enough to make The Social Network or Margin Call look like Bambi. In this era of Occupy protesting it's no easy task getting audiences to feel sympathy for greedy CEO's (has the timing of a movie's release ever been worse?), but it's a lot more difficult when the characterizations are this boring and one-dimensional. The biggest offense isn't so much that they seem like robotic cult members (which they do), but that the talky script supplies little in the way of drama or excitement. Much more overtly political and on-the-nose than I expected, director Paul Johannson's (yes, THAT Paul Johansson) take on Ayn Rand's sprawling 1957 novel lays all its cards on the table, and not in a good way. It's heavy-handed propaganda, spelling out its right-wing message in large capital letters with cringe-worthy line readings and snooze-inducing meetings that seem cribbed from dry business journals. I'd call it a "train wreck" but given the subject matter that would probably be too easy.

Likely due to budget constraints on this 40 years in the making project that once had Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie attached, Rand's period piece instead takes place in a 2016 dystopian alternaverse where an economic depression and shortage of resources have made railways the primary mode of transportation. Dagny Taggert (Taylor Schilling) is the strong-willed Vice President of Taggert Transcontinental railroad and has entered a deal with Rearden Metal CEO Henry Rearden (Grant Bowler), who's being oppressed by lobbyists and politicians who want to limit his power and halt the the growth of his business. Meanwhile, the country's foremost innovators and industrialists are disappearing one by one after being approached by a mysterious cloaked man named John Galt (Johannson), as the question "Who is John Galt?" buzzes across the nation.      

Setting the story in an alternate near-future actually wasn't a bad idea nor is casting unknowns a deal-breaker, but it's in the execution where things get sloppy. This is a film of extremes and that's a problem, resulting in an effort that's not likely to resonate for anyone unfamiliar with the novel or Rand's belief system If I hadn't known in advance the movie was backed by Tea Party I'd still be able to tell by the results onscreen, which can't be good, regardless of which side of the political fence you fall on. Part of the problem is that the very qualities that make Rand's characters work on the page make for flat, unappealing characters on screen. Instead of acting on capitalistic ideas they talk, talk, talk and then talk some more, giving long-winded speeches about being held down by the government, not helping the poor and praising the virtues of selfishness (sample dialogue: "What's with all these stupid altruistic urges?"). All this takes place in sterile office buildings, on leather couches or in mansions. Perhaps due to the limited budget, there also isn't much done to flesh out the world aside from some impressive shots of vistas and trains. That's a shame because if executed properly this carried some promise as dystopian sc-fi parable with subtle political underpinnings.    

As Dagny, Taylor Schilling is as cold as ice, which is exactly what the script seems to call for. That's not her fault and she definitely has her moments. I'd imagine in a better adaptation she could have really killed it. It's just too bad she's asked to play a character with no emotional entryway at all, which becomes a big issue when it comes to her slow (and I mean slow) burning romance with Grant Bowler's Rearden. Not helping matters is the casting of Bowler who just isn't charismatic enough to be believable as a wealthy, trail blazing industrialist. The insistence on pushing these two as rebels is kind of ridiculous because--let's face it--they're CEO's, not James Dean. In a similar vain, Jsu Garcia isn't any more plausible as a millionaire playboy while Graham Beckel gives it his blustery best as an oil baron forced into business with Taggert railroads. Everything here is black and white to the extreme. The characters are stereotyped one dimensionally as either socialists or right wing fanatics. There's no middle ground here.

The most engaging part of the picture might be the idea of a mysterious, shadowy figure kidnapping the nation's most creative minds to form a kind of free market utopia. That John Galt is played by Johannson, an excellent character actor best known for his TV appearances on One Tree Hill and the original 90210, makes me wonder just how many opportunities were squandered to fully exploit that ability in favor of political posturing.. While he still does seem to be in small screen mode here as a director, should be commended for at least attempting to tackle controversial material no studio has wanted to touch for years. And it''s easy to see why. Whenever a work revolves around specific messages or philosophies it's tricky to find ways of dramatizing that onscreen in a way that not only doesn't preach, but entertains. A moment comes in  the final minutes when a character screams out a Star Wars sized "Noooo!" and I swear it's the first sign of emotion anyone's shown throughout the entire film. Needles to say, it comes too late. And it plays strangely.   
After having to sit through a lot of liberal Hollywood stinkers over the years, it isn't unfair to think that conservative audiences should also be afforded some moviegoing options. The problem is when a film's message overtakes and overshadows the story. Initially proposed as a trilogy, Atlas Shrugged: Part II was somehow given the go ahead for release later this year with a new cast and director despite this film's poor reception This wasn't going to be the easiest sell to begin with and now with a complete overhaul, I'm still wondering why they'd bother. With the opening installment the filmmakers unwisely went out of their way to make sure those who do agree with Rand's philosophies love the movie unconditionally and those who don't hate it. It never asks questions or puts the audience in a position where they can consider any of the issues or have intelligent discussions about what's brought up. No matter what you might think of Rand's novel, at least it provided that.

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