Into the Woods & All Wet

January 2, 2015

Hola, amigos. I’m back.

Today’s topic: the new movie Into the Woods.

Seen it? Whaddaya think?

I wanted to like this film. Love Meryl Streep. Like Emily Blunt a lot. Have an old-lady thing for Chris Pine. Stephen Sondheim knows his music. Must be a winner, right?

Not so much. And it took me a while to figure out why it didn’t work. Spoiler alert: I’m half-revealing some endings further along.

Let’s zig-zag here a bit. I’m flashing back to a dinner party many years ago. Most of us were having a fine time exchanging lines from Seinfeld. That sitcom did more to add canny catch phrases to the American vernacular than any show since Laugh-in (Well, the ‘old-lady thing’ about Chris Pine already tipped you to my generation, didn’t it?).

Only one guest was mum until finally someone thoughtfully attempted to include her in the conversation.

“I think they’re all despicable people,” she said emphatically.

Well, duh.

The comedy of Seinfeld hinged on that very despicable-ness. What made it funny was that their neuroses, shallowness, superficiality, self-consciousness and fears so uncomfortably mirrored our own. They put a face on human failings. We laughed because we realized, deep down, that we’re all flawed, in ways we really would prefer that no one else saw. And yes, the fact that Jerry, George, Elaine & Kramer were so much more (comically) flawed than the rest of us made us laugh not just out of identification but …relief.

So. Into the Woods.

Not exactly a children’s look at fairy tales, but then, the Original Grimm’s Fairy Tales were scary, dark and weird.

In this newest version (not entirely new, of course, it originated on Broadway), characters are motivated by fear, greed, escapism, fantasy, illusion, shallowness. Mean for the sake of Mean. Neither Good nor Bad comes off pure.

Although the lyrics are stunningly deft.

Really, they’re all despicable people. But not in a good way.

We know these stories: Jack & the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc. We know Wicked Witches, though Meryl, as always makes hers the New Definitive of Wicked Witches. Take any of these stories individually, it has a clear, if dark, plot. Lessons are either learned (happy endings) or not learned (bad things happen). But mashing so many fairy tales into one, you end up with a cast of familiar characters all running around, bouncing from noble to cravenly, heroic to inept, and frankly, by the end, the only death you care about was the one that served no moral or plot purpose. That death cued up the small band of survivors at the end, none of whom has shown a) initial strength or b) any positive transformation. It’s the bleak conclusion that we’re simply sneaking out of the theater to avoid watching their further mishaps.

We watched Seinfeld to see the gang struggle (and generally fail) as they navigated a wide range of awkward social situations. We saw the consequences coming from a mile off – even when someone astonishingly managed to sidestep getting what they deserved.

In Into the Woods, people do stuff, stuff happens to them, or doesn’t, then does again, Love doesn’t triumph, and I can’t even remember now where that baby came from. And yeah, sometimes people die, it’s always tough in Fairy Tale Land, but there’s generally some cause and effect in play. That’s the purpose of fairy tales.

Not so in this Woods. Even Meryl, bless her heart: She’s Bad. Then she’s kinda good. Then she loses the bad & gets gorgeous. Then, for some reason she gets to throw a last Bad Hissy Fit. Stupendous performance. But someone tell me again…. Why?

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