On the surface, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man looks so soft and pale that it might as well have been created out of fresh Wonder Bread. The musical tale of a con artist who strolls into a small Iowa town expecting easy pickin’s — and, of course, falls in love with the standoffish librarian he woos as a lark — Man was a Tony-hoarding smash during its 1957 Broadway run, leading naturally to this good old-fashioned big-budget film adaptation. With Robert “I Might Be Fred MacMurray” Preston in the title role and Shirley Jones crooning alongside him, and a town full of freshly washed white people at their backs, The Music Man might as well have been titled Pre-Counterculture Time Capsule. Square, Daddy-O.
Here’s the thing, though: For a movie that seems tailor-made for Boy Scout retreats and wild Amish nights, The Music Man is actually a pretty sharp, mildly subversive satire of the conservative small-town mores with which it’s so closely identified — and in the post-Nixon era, it’s also a brilliant spoof of right-wing culture war politics. No, really — watch “Professor” Harold Hill descend upon the unsuspecting citizens of River City, whipping them into a moralistic frenzy over the negative influence the town’s new pool table will have on their young sons, and try not to think of the many “family values”-espousing flimflam artists who have turned bullshit into outrage over the last 40 years. If it had made its Broadway debut in the last ten years, there isn’t a Fox anchor alive who wouldn’t have taken The Music Man as a personal insult.
But most importantly, it’s really funny — how many movies make room for barbershop quartet and gently ribald Balzac gags? — as well as packed to the rafters with classic songs. Even if you’ve never seen the show or the film, I assure you, you’ve heard more than one of The Music Man‘s songs, and to watch it once is to spend the next few days absent-mindedly humming “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Till There Was You,” or, God help me, “Shipoopi.” Is it corny? You bet, but rarely unintentionally. It’s enough to make you yearn for the days when it wasn’t a big deal for Hollywood to produce live-action entertainment for the whole family once in awhile — and the ending is simply brilliant.
As you might expect given the film’s age, The Music Man looks a mite soft and grainy at 1080p, but on the whole, this is a fine transfer, with vivid colors, deep blacks, and no visible wear and tear. It isn’t as splendid as Warners’ North by Northwest transfer, but that cost the studio a million bucks; Music Man, though clearly a budget upgrade, is worth the two-dollar premium you’ll pay at Amazon. The bonus features are nothing to write home about — only a trailer and a featurette, introduced by Shirley Jones, that came with the 1999 DVD version — but between the visual upgrade and the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack, which actually gives the movie a nifty sonic boost, this Blu-ray is the version to own.
Now here’s a subversive idea: What if we lived in a world where everyone told the truth, all the time? And one day, one guy figured out how to lie — and realized how valuable a skill it could be? And what if he told a lie of kindness that ended up accidentally inventing religion?
That’s the wonderful spark at the heart of Ricky Gervais’ The Invention of Lying — which is why, when the movie makes a lazy turn toward rom-com territory, you can’t help but be a little more disappointed than you would have been if, say, Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey had been on the cover. Gervais, who also directed and co-wrote the script, stars as Mark Bellison, a self-proclaimed loser who begins the film by getting fired from his job, visiting his dying mother at her rest home (truthfully named “A Sad, Depressing Place for Old People”), and going out on a brutally unrewarding date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), who bluntly heads upstairs to masturbate while he’s waiting to take her out and tells him outright that he isn’t attractive enough for her.
Faced with eviction, Mark heads to the bank to empty his checking account, at which point something snaps in his brain and he spontaneously lies to the teller about how much money he has to withdraw. When the teller good-naturedly assumes the computer’s account balance is inaccurate and gives Mark all the money he asks for, he picks up his best friend (a sadly wasted Louis C.K.) and heads to the local casino for some more ill-gotten gains. If Lying were a thoroughly stupid movie, it would have followed this path, and never been about more than a guy screwing the system (and presumably developing a conscience in the final act). But when Mark visits his mother’s deathbed and tries to soothe her fears by telling her that death reunites us with everyone we’ve ever loved — and gives us all magnificent mansions to live in, to boot — the movie threatens to go off in some really interesting directions.
Alas, what The Invention of Lying ends up giving us is ultimately fairly pedestrian and really pretty muddled. As romantic comedies go, it’s fine, if rather flaccid — Gervais is a likable lead, and he infuses his character with more depth than you have any real right to expect; his direction also shows flashes of ingenuity. But goddammit, any movie that brings together the combined talents of Gervais, C.K., Jonah Hill, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, and Rob Lowe should be better than this, especially when it starts with such an intriguing premise.
The Invention of Lying Blu-ray is as crisp and bright as you’d expect from a movie that was just released a few months ago, although nothing about the movie — from the flat, sitcom-level staging to the bland soundtrack — takes advantage of the added room. The good news, though, is if you get to the end of the movie and you still want more, the disc includes plenty of extra content, including a caveman prequel titled The Dawn of Lying (every bit as painful as it sounds), a purposely hokey making-of featurette, a look at the on-set experiences of Gervais’ friend Karl Pilkington, and a series of 10 behind-the-scenes video podcasts, as well as the usual bloopers and deleted scenes.
Speaking of movies that take wonderful ideas and don’t do anything with them, here’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, the soggy mess that director Robert Schwentke and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin made of Audrey Niffenegger’s haunting bestseller. In their defense, trying to make a 107-minute movie out of a 546-page book is difficult even under the best of circumstances — and when said book is a twisty blend of sci-fi thriller and misty-eyed romance novel, with a time-traveling protagonist who co-exists with himself along his own personal timeline, you’re pretty much doomed to failure.
Still, these guys cashed the studio’s checks, so they deserve a big part of the blame for the many ways Time Traveler’s Wife stinks up the screen. Schwentke and Rubin knew they had to boil down the book, but what they didn’t understand — or maybe couldn’t help — is that when you’re dealing with a story that deals with something as ridiculous as a naked time traveler, you can’t just drop the viewer right into it. You have to build so much context that people aren’t distracted by the silly stuff, and it’s just part of the experience — like a soap opera storyline where a convicted murderer becomes governor, or siblings swap spouses, it can only happen after the audience has been drawn in enough to suspend disbelief without realizing it.
The Time Traveler’s Wife never gets there — it starts piling on the melodrama right away and never stops, even when confronted with Eric Bana as titular traveler Henry De Tamble. Bana’s acting is a marvel of indifference; there are scenes where the wigs he’s wearing are more convincing than he is, and the wigs are pretty awful. Rachel McAdams is feisty and adorable as his long-suffering wife, and the girls in the audience will probably still be crying by the end, but that has more to do with the natural wonder of Niffenegger’s story than anything that unfolds on the screen. In fact, there are ways Schwentke and Rubin actively subvert the book; there’s a bittersweet coda to the story that helps leaven its intense, rather devastating ending, and they give it away maybe halfway through the movie. It’s a clear signal that they not only didn’t understand how to make The Time Traveler’s Wife come alive, they wouldn’t have trusted their audience to come along for the ride even if they’d been able to pull it off.
One person who did their job right was cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, who makes sure the movie is at least pleasing to look at — lots of shots are filled with sly touches that run through Traveler’s and would have helped connect its threads, if they had anything to anchor onto; on a purely visual level, the movie is a glowing marvel. In fact, this is one case where a disc’s bonus content (in this case, a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes) is actually more interesting than the main feature — watching The Time Traveler’s Wife: Love Beyond Words, you get to meet all the people who made sure the movie incorporated dozens of small but meaningful elements from the book. It’s just too bad there weren’t enough of them to add up to a worthwhile end result.