Is it too much to ask of a movie ostensibly about the making of a movie many consider a classic for said production to be more about the creative process?
That, in a nutshell, is my main quibble with Saving Mr. Banks, a new Disney movie about the making of an old Disney movie, as well as one of two awards-bait titles loosely based on true events I’m reviewing this week. And boy, when I say “loosely,” Banks director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo, The Blind Side) takes the word and stretches it like an elastic band to see how far creative license will take him. The funny thing is, I’m totally fine with most of the liberties taken by Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith as they chronicle (their version of) how “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reluctantly flew across the pond to give her stamp of approval to the movie the Mouse House intended to make out of her series of books about the no-nonsense nanny who flew into the a dysfunctional household’s lives and turned them into a bonafide family.
Travers, her fire-engine-red lips perpetually pursed in a severe frown, agrees to meet Walt Disney (a slam dunk for Tom Hanks) to consider whether she’ll sign away the rights to her beloved Mary. (“No no,” she corrects. “Never just Mary.” Fine, Ms. Travers.) The fairy-dust twinkle in Walt’s eyes conceals the venerated studio head’s cunning resolve to make this darn movie by any means necessary, and it this means buttering up Ms. Prickly Sourpuss, so be it. “I promised my daughter,” he beseeches as he takes Travers’ hand. Hanks lays on the squeaky-clean charm, and even though he’s not exactly a dead ringer for Uncle Walt, he nails his mannerisms to an extent that allows us to be seduced by this rose-colored rendering of the Disney studio circa 1961, which comes across here as Tinseltown’s Stepford. (I’m sensing the reality was far less glamorous, much more businesslike, a notion supported by audio of a brainstorming session between Travers, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, and Mary Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi that plays during Banks‘ end credits.)
All of this should be catnip for a film buff – and Disney junkie – like yours truly, but what’s maddening about Saving Mr. Banks is the same thing that sets it apart from less ambitious behind-the-scenes showbiz biopics. Unfolding concurrently with Travers’ fish-out-of-water culture clash are flashbacks that transport us to the author’s childhood in Australia circa 1906, where she was Travers Goff’s (aka Daddy’s) favorite even as her whole family suffered as a result of his love affair with the bottle. On paper, it’s an intriguing narrative flourish, dovetailing Travers’ demons with her stubborn refusal to surrender her literary creation, and Colin Farrell capably steps into the troubled, loving patriarch’s shoes. But the dual storylines do not flow effortlessly into each other, creating a tonal disconnect that distracts from rather than enhances the early 60s scenes. Marcel and Smith insert some delectable head-butting between Travers, Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak), and DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), but we’re constantly taken away from Poppins‘ pre-production battles as the filmmakers fall over themselves to find parallels between Travers’ brainchild and her own baggage. (A cast-against-type Jason Schwartzman plays the more easygoing Sherman sibling, and he’s disarmingly likable in the role.)
Ultimately, Saving Mr. Banks strains for psychological depth, and it’s an unfortunate case of overreach, hagiography reconceived as psychotherapy. It’s a good thing, then, that Hancock’s got Thompson to help anchor this uneven labor of love. The Howards End thespian resists toning down Travers’ abrasive personality, and her performance is stronger because of it. She doesn’t quite prevent Banks from indulging in an unhealthy dose of schmaltz, but she makes this idealized slice of Hollywood lore go down in an occasionally delightful way.
If you want to see a fact-inspired story done right, look no further than American Hustle, the latest from Silver Linings Playbook auteur David O. Russell. It’s been several weeks since I saw this breezy, heavily fictionalized depiction of the late 70s Abscam scandal, in which some very powerful politicians were (metaphorically) caught with their pants down, sticking their hands in a cookie jar that was all an illusion cooked up by two crafty con artists in cahoots with FBI agents. Having seen the movie a few weeks ago, I’m a little hard-pressed to give you more concrete details about the twisty plot, but I can gush about the film’s textured look, the sassy groove Russell sustains throughout, until the cows come home.
Our sleight-of-hand anti-heroes are toupeed grifter Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale, pleasingly plump à la Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta) and partner in crime – and in the bedroom – Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, killing it). The kindred spirits meet at a party and soon begin depriving poor (but hardly innocent) suckers of their cash. The F-B-I gets wind of their operation and swoops in, nabbing Prosser. Not so fast, says Agent Richie DiMaso, who sees in the fetching master of deceit an opportunity to go after bigger fish, and he eventually sets his sights on Camden, N.J. Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner, sporting a gaudy pompadour) as a potential target. Of course, none of this comes easily, what with the clash of egos, a chronic case of too many cooks in the kitchen, and most entertainingly, Rosenfeld’s very jealous wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, channeling Judy Holliday, only with Jersey attitude). Mrs. Rosenfeld’s the loose cannon that can either sink their sting or open heretofore closed doors. Wait, says Russell, who co-wrote the nimble screenplay with Eric Warren Singer. What if she actually does both things?
American Hustle is being compared to Martin Scorsese’s body of work in general and GoodFellas in particular. True, Russell likes to wear his influences on his sleeve, but despite the myriad similarities on display – the swooping camerawork, the wall-to-wall period soundtrack – Hustle is lighter fare, eschewing much of the hard-hitting excess and copious bloodletting the Casino director excels at staging. There’s also plenty of Russell’s trademark shouting matches, the barb-filled arguments fans of his work will immediately recognize as distinctly his own. The end result is a blast, a confidently executed caper that never overstays its welcome. This rollicking tour-de-force is Russell’s boogie wonderland, and it is unmissable.
American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks start Friday, Dec. 20 at area theaters.