Dolittle (2019)

Directed by: Stephen Gaghan 

Written by: Gaghan, Dan Gregor and Doug Mand

Dolittle_(2020_film_poster)I keep finding myself going to films that the critics don’t want me to see. First I saw the beloved Cats  and this time I went for Dolittle, with its even lower, 15% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unlike with Cats, I did not go into Dolittle wanting/kind-of-believing the critics would be drastically wrong: I just didn’t want to give up on the idea that Iron Man talking to animals would be a good time. 

While Dr. Dolittle has his origins in a now century-old book series, my knowledge of the character comes solely from Eddie Murphy movies that I watched too long ago to remember. For those in a similar position, this new iteration of Dolittle offers a reasonably different viewing experience. Unlike Eddie Murphy, Robert Downey Jr.’s Dolittle is not a contemporary, American doctor, but an eccentric, Victorian Welshman (and whether you like the performance or not, its clear at least that Downey Jr made a point of not being a Tony Stark-clone). While this may not be an exciting decision for those familiar with the Dolittle novels or Rex Harrison’s 1967 portrayal, the Victorianness of Dolittle undoubtedly provides for a different sensory experience than that of Murphy’s comedy. Dolittle’s story takes him from his charming, yet under-maintained household, to Buckingham palace and then to the high seas. While the story is not a satire in the literal sense of the word (unless I’m missing something), it does brim with parodic energy. 

It is easy to see why critics don’t care for Dolittle. For one, the story is structured around the forced-heart-warmingness of a boy (Harry Collett) discovering Dolittle, and, at ridiculous speed learning, the man’s skill of talking to animals, and inspiring him to come out of retirement. In addition to this thematic genericness, the film also banks on the idea of having comedic characters (Dolittle’s animal gang), that are not well developed, but instead have one-gag personalities that occasionally lend themselves to crudeness. While the celebrity (Emma Thompson, John Cena, Rami Malek, Kumail Nanjiani, Octavia Spencer, Tom Holland, Craig Robinson, Jason Mantzoukas,  Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez and Marion Cotillard) voiced animals are a clear example of Hollywood trying to cut corners to get to humor, there’s nonetheless a visual beauty to the animals’ photorealistic animation, within the context of Dolittle’s historic, seaside world. Just as real-life puppies don’t need comedic talent to be endlessly entertaining, you can enjoy the fun of seeing an ostrich and polar bear manning a ship, even if their personalities don’t quite resonate with you. Furthermore, I for one found the way in which the quasi-evil tiger was presented was reasonably unique.

There’s no denying Dolittle’s creative  imits, but its particularly bad reputation is not justified. That 15% score is a product of a) how critics seem to have a weird obsession with exaggerating their dislike for “stinkers” and b) Rotten Tomatoes’ binary Fresh/Rotten system leading movies of roughly the same quality to have wildly different scores (I could easily see a film, very much like Doolittle, coming out in a few months and getting something in the 60s). Doolittle’s silliness-on-the-seas structure gives it the air, if not the quality, of films like Muppet Treasure Island. This affect is further embellished by the emergence of a celebrity-portrayed anti-hero at the film’s midpoint, and an eccentric, yet fitting twist in the third act (that some spoiler-prone critics don’t seem to understand is meant to be a surprise). One can debate how much imagination went into Dolittle, but for those wishing to have their own imaginations stimulated: those wishing to travel back in time, with colorful animal sidekicks it is undoubtedly a charming romp.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Written and directed by: Jim Jarmusch

The_Dead_Don't_DieWatch the trailer for The Dead Don’t Die, and you may think you’ll be going to see a zombie movie that tries to be subversive via its lightness. But one would be hard-pressed to expect that that is all Jim Jarmusch had up his sleeve, when Shaun of the Dead already exists. One might then rationalize that Only the Dead Don’t Die is qualitatively different than Shaun of the Dead, due to its reliance on offbeat, comically-subtle delivery. But then one might ask, does Jarmusch not know that Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows exists?

Of course movies are never entirely original. Its perfectly plausible a movie could have been made that was indeed derivative of Shaun of the Dead and/or What We Do in the Shadows. But know reader, that that is not what The Dead Don’t Die is. The movie stars a partnership of soft-spoken, small town cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver and sometimes Chloë Sevigny), whose unthreatening, laid-back approach to law enforcement indeed causes them to resembles Taika Waititi characters. What We Do in the Shadows in fact includes a pair of bumbling cops amongst its characters. But these similar characters are the subjects of remarkably different stories. What We Do in the Shadows is a film built more around vignettes than story. Only the Dead Don’t Die is very much a story film, if only by comparison to the former work.

What We Do in the Shadows’ cops act the way they do to entertain viewers. It can also be argued that they are rendered silly to nullify any political analysis of their police work (not that policing-politics would be all that relevant in that particular movie anyways). The Dead Don’t Die’s cops are similarly politically sanitized by their demeanors. Early in the film we are introduced to Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a homeless person regularly accused of theft by town racist Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi). In a traditionally serious movie this confrontation could raise questions about how law enforcement further-marginalizes the poor. By simply including the Hermit Bob character, Jarmusch can still be said to be putting the issue out there, but the non-confrontational approach of his mild-mannered cops, largely nullifies it.

The de-politicization of cops can lead to the creation of politically problematic content. Shows that celebrate trigger-happy, tough on crime officers can turn public consciousness away from critiques of police corruption, brutality and punitive justice. Jarmusch’s depoliticization of cops, however, does not fall into this category. Jarmusch rather, depoliticizes his cops in one way, to politically weaponize them in another.

The Dead Don’t Die quickly gets political. It is centred around an environmentally catastrophic event, distinct from but, clearly inspired by climate change. Through Farmer Miller’s character, the film more generally tries to make jabs at Donald Trump and the Republican party. But while the attitude of Miller is overt, like others in Only the Dead Don’t Die’s cast (including Waits, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry jones and Tilda Swinton) Miller never quite becomes a major character. The true power in the world of the Dead Don’t Die therefore, is not the racist, climate-change denying Miller, but apolitical state authorities. That means the cops.

One of the weirder elements of Only the Dead Don’t Die is a subplot about three kids in a juvenile detention centre (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker and Jahi Winston) who get in trouble for congregating together, simply because one of them is a boy. The three kids discuss the global catastrophe, and no doubt represent the idea that environmental destruction is primarily caused by older generations and happens at the expense of younger ones (they may also be an allusion to teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg in particular). I call this subplot weird only because it does not seem to reach a neat conclusion and it is never tied in to what happens in the town. It does, however, fit into the film’s broader logic.

The film’s politics are essentially pessimism. Therefore, Jarmusch is happy to leave ends untied (the kids) or to simply depict a zombie apocalypse as a slow, inevitable progression. Such anti-climacticism functions as a form of realism. While one could argue that pessimism alone does not constitute political savvy, I’d say Jarmusch’s most salient, if not particularly helpful, observation comes through his cop characters. Hannah Arendt famously argued that evil is carried out not simply by charistmatic, conniving villains, but by banal actors as well. Jarmusch takes Arendt’s logic a step further; he doesn’t condemn banal evil but the evil of inept goodness. His cops are not outright villains (like Farmer Miller), and they aren’t following-orders foot soldiers of evil either. Rather, they try their best to fight evil, its just their best is not particularly impressive. In short, Jarmusch’s message seems to be that climate change is so dangerous, because no one who holds power can conceptualize how to actually build a green society. It’s a bleak message, but at least its softened with a teaspoon of optimism (the presence of the kids).

Jarmusch’s pessimism lead him to produce what can only be called an anti-movie. It sometimes moves slowly, its conclusion is not satisfying, the fourth wall is arbitrarily (though amusingly) broken and character arcs don’t exactly arc. The most memorable of these characters is a new town resident (Tilda Swinton), who (presumably accidentally) is effectively a parody of Avengers: Endgame’s depiction of Captain Marvel. This accidental resemblance is a beautiful coincidence, since Endgame can reasonably be called the most mainstream movie of 2019, and The Dead Don’t Die has a case for being the year’s least mainstream release (at least amongst feature-length, American films). The Dead Don’t Die is too slow to be a comedy, too silly to be a horror film and too meandering to be a story. But it is also clearly the product of a lot of thought: everything that’s bad about it appears intentional. The Dead Don’t Die is not for everybody, but it’s a zombie flick that film buffs shouldn’t miss.