The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, August 01, 2004
IF SHE'S ROSY, SHE'S ALMOST RED: We've just returned from Jonathan Demme's dumbed-down remake of The Manchurian Candidate. It isn't a bad movie so much as it's an unnecessary one: It doesn't really work as an update, and it's so humorless and simple-minded when compared to the original that at times it made me wince.

Part of the problem is the casting: Denzel Washington is no Frank Sinatra, and Meryl Streep -- believe it or not -- is no Angela Lansbury. (Those of us who grew up thinking of Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, TV sleuth, are invariably surprised when we see the characters she played in movies like Manchurian and The World of Henry Orient.) But the problem runs deeper. Jonathan Demme is no John Frankenheimer, and while that isn't entirely a bad thing -- I can't imagine Demme directing something as unintentionally hilarious as the opening scene of Seven Days in May -- I'll take Frankenheimer's inspired invention over Demme's competent craftsmanship any day. Above all, the new screenwriters, Daniel Doc Hollywood Pyne and Dean Lara Croft 2 Georgaris, are no George Axelrod, let alone Richard Condon. How can you remake The Manchurian Candidate and leave out the humor? It's like remaking Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and leaving out the dancing.

OK, so the new movie isn't completely devoid of laughs: There's a couple of wry lines ("The assassin always dies. It's part of the national healing.") and one or two inspired moments on the soundtrack ("Fortunate Son"). But the social satire, the surreal dialogue, the dark comedy are all gone. The original Manchurian Candidate was, ultimately, a story built around a pun. ("The red queen.") That sensibility is completely missing from the remake.

So, for all intents and purposes, are the undertones of incest. Oh, they're still there in the new film, but they spring in from nowhere at the end of the movie: With the Jocelyn Jordan subplot so radically reconfigured, the family dynamics at the heart of the story have been hollowed out. Also missing -- though in this case it's inevitable -- is the first film's political theme, the suggestion that anticommunism and communism might have a lot in common. In its place we're offered parallels between corporate and terrorist transnational networks, a Fahrenheit 9/11-style fear that the global circuits of capital link the nation's rulers with the nation's enemies. That's a widespread worry, and you could make a terrific thriller out of it. Unfortunately, this script doesn't develop it in a particularly interesting way.

Indeed, at times the movie seems to be throwing in every contemporary anxiety, from implanted microchips to genetically modified food to Gulf War syndrome, in hopes that something will evoke the right mood. The writers don't seem to have spent much time thinking about how these phobias might fit together or even what they are: The "Gulf War syndrome" of this movie, for example, has little in common with the Gulf War syndrome of public controversy.

Fans of the original Candidate who want to see something in the same vein would be best off ignoring the Demme picture and exploring the other films of Frankenheimer and Condon. In Frankenheimer's case, I recommend Seconds, another tale of Phildickian paranoia. For Condon, rent Prizzi's Honor or, better yet, Winter Kills, the best comedy ever inspired by the Kennedy assassination.


posted by Jesse 10:18 PM
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